Gap closes but Rodriguez holds Vuelta lead

Astana Pro Team rider Fredrik Kessiakoff of Sweden cycles during 11th stage of the Tour of Spain “La Vuelta” cycling race, a 39.4-km individual time trial between Cambados and Pontevedra, August 29, 2012. (REUTERS/Miguel Vidal)

By Alasdair Fotheringham

PONTEVEDRA, Spain, Aug 29 (Reuters) – Race leader Joaquim Rodriguez had compatriot Alberto Contador breathing down his neck after Wednesday’s time trial in the Tour of Spain congested the leaders but failed to deliver the favorites to the front.

Rodriguez defied his own predictions of losing up to three minutes on his weakest suit, crossing the line seventh, only 77 seconds behind stage winner Swede Fredrik Kessiakoff.

Contador finished second on the hilly 39.5k course, 17 seconds off the pace, to move up to second in the overall classification.

He is now just a second behind Rodriguez.

Briton Chris Froome failed to make the impact many expected as he finished third, 39 seconds further back.

With ten stages of the 21 to ride, Froome is now third overall, 16 seconds behind Rodriguez, with Alejandro Valverde fourth, 59 seconds off the pace.

“Having Contador at one second is like having the devil in your ear, but I’m just happy to be in the lead still,” a beaming Rodriguez told reporters.

“It’s a huge leap forward for my overall aspirations for me still to be in the lead at this stage in the game.

“I wanted to go faster at first in the time trial but the team trainer wouldn’t let me, they told me I had to stay calm and they were right.”

Rodriguez took a conservative approach to the early parts of the technical, undulating course that took in vineyards and maize fields near the verdant Galician coastline. The Spaniard limited his losses on Kessiakoff to 39 seconds before tackling the ten kilometer climb of Monte Castove.

An expert descender, he then sped home down the twisting, narrow drop to the fishing port and tourist resort of Pontevedra.

“We’ve all got everything to play for still … Frome is up there, so is Valverde,” Rodriguez said.

“This is a great moment for me, but the only classification that really counts is the one in Madrid.”

With the lead now well within his sights, Contador is now in a position to strike.

“I’ve finished ahead of Froome and that’s very important,” the Spaniard said.

“Now we’re going into the mountains, my terrain, and I’m feeling stronger every day.”

Froome, the favorite to win the time trial, cut the overall gap to Rodriguez but was left pondering what might have been.

“(I’m) disappointed not to do better, I didn’t feel at my best on the climb.

“But this isn’t over by any means, it’s still very close. Just 16 seconds between the top three, that’s very little time at all.”

Kessiakoff was forced to wait nearly two hours for the leading riders to complete the course before being confirmed as the stage winner.

“It was very hard on the nerves to be sitting there for all that time, but finally I got the result I wanted,” he said.

Thursday’s stage, the fifth of ten summit finishes at the painfully steep two kilometer Mirador de Ézaro climb, should provide a further shakeup of the overall classification.

The Tour finishes on Sept. 9 in Madrid.

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