The first road stage, and also the first and only real sprinter’s stage of this year’s Vuelta, is past. Laurent Pichon (FDJ) Cesare Benedetti (Bora Argon) and Bryan Nauleau (Direct Engergie) were the breakaway men and were only ever given around 2 minutes by the peloton. Nauleau bluffed some heavy legs on the cat 3 climb, the Alto de Fontefria after 80km, and launched an ambitious attack to sneak the points with a few kilometres to go. He was easily pulled back, and it was his countryman Pichon who took the points and will now wear the KOM jersey. However, it is very much on loan given tomorrow’s profile. With under 40km to go, Philippe Gilbert (BMC), resplendent in his new Belgium national champ kit, awoke the stage from the siesta that it was indulging in on one of the uncategorized climbs. He bridged to the three escapees in no time, and the new group of four found a second wind (thanks to the presence of the Belgian). They quickly had a gap of around 20 seconds at 20km to go, as they advanced onto the only intermediate sprint of the day. It was Gilbert who took the points and bonus seconds on offer. After that the gap steadily shrunk until they were finally put out of their misery with 16km to go.
Tiago Machado (Katusha), about as close to his native Portugal as he is likely to get on this year’s race, used the final uncategorized climbs to launch a gutsy attack with 12.5km to go. He grew the gap to 16 seconds, and then Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) burst out of the pack and aimed to join him, and other riders followed from Ettix, IAM, AG2R, and BMC with 10km to go. All this late excitement was short-lived, as they were all swept up with 8.5km to go. The sprint trains began to appear with BMC, Movistar, Bora Argon, Dimension Data, Katusha, and Lotto Soudal all being visible at the front. All was looking good until at 2.4km to go Sergey Lagutin (Katusha) skidded out from behind Dimension Data’s train and in front of Trek Segafredos’s, seemingly of his own doing. However, a closer look at the replay showed that he had gone in with a shoulder to try to move up on one of the Trek riders, who had met it with one of his own. The trains of BMC and Direct Energie did brillantly to avoid the sliding Russian, but in doing so they lost contact with the teams at the front. Bora Argon, Lotto Soudal, Dimension Data, and Trek Segafredo looked to take advantage of the disruption, and it was riders from those teams that sped under the 2km to go banner. Etixx Quickstep then joined them at the front with Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) skulking around at the back. The rest of the run-in was unmarred, apart from a largely innocuous fall from Tony Hurel of Direct Energie metres from the line. Etixx played it cool and took advantage of the work being done by the other teams, and Gianni Meersman was the only rider left with men in front of him as they reached a few hundred metres to go. It was no surprise that he took the win. Our picks Nelson and Bonifazio came in 3rd and 7th respectively, with Kwiatkowski in 4th, meaning he wears red tomorrow.
Stage 3 should be a jolly jaunt along the west coast of Spain, as the riders journey north away from the Portuguese border. There’s going to be risks of strong winds whipping in from the atlantic here, but the course is more remarkable because of how it’s rear-loaded with climbs. After a fairly inconspicuous opening 110km, the riders will take on the cat 3 Alto de Lestaio, a 5.3% average gradient that runs a little over 8km. If a break has taken a decent advantage, then they will want to use this early climb to eke out a little more time on the peloton. After the official climb finishes, there’s a brief plateau and then an uncategorized section of climbing remains up what will be the cat 2 climb of the day, the Alto de Paxareidas; after a rapid descent, the riders will take on a 15km loop before returning to the Paxareidas for the full climb. It’s 9.3km in length, with a 5.4% average, and it represents a real opportunity to shake up the racing early on. Expect weaker riders to go out the back if the pace is high, which is should be.
It is then a very fast descent down to the intermediate sprint of the day, and there’s another 15km of flat before the last razor-sharp climb of the day. The climb up to Mirador de Ézaro is, like the Lestaio, a cat 3. However, compare the lengths: the early climb was 8.3km, this one is 1.8km. It gains its categorisation not from length, but from the +13% average, taking the riders up over 100m of ascent in the final kilometre alone. It’s going to be a brutal final.
The question, for a finish like this so early in a grand tour, will be whether it’s the punchy finishers or the G.C. men who lead the way across the line. In theory, it should be a mix of both. Last year we saw the first summit finish, Stage 2, end on a similar looking Cat 3. We saw Tom Dumoulin and Esteban Chaves fight it out in the closing metres, with the Colombian take his first of two stage wins. Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Fabio Aru where all also active in the final kilometres, so we’d expect this to be very much an early showing of the G.C. contenders, with a smattering of punchy climbers also mixing it to compete for the win. The likes of Gianluca Brambilla (who finished 54 seconds down on Chaves on Stage 2 last year) and Michal Kwiatkowski will be also be eyeing this up; the latter is currently in the leader’s jersey but will also have to keep an eye on his team leader Froome. Brambilla went fantastically well at the Giro and has followed that up with some great performances at the Italian National Championships, San Sebastian and Vuelta a Burgos – he will be one of the favourites for this. Similar to Kwiatkowski, Simon Yates would also fancy this but he also has a role to play for his team leader. This means that the road under the flamme rouge could be cluttered! The big questions is: does Alberto Contador start to try and claw back his 52 second deficit on Froome, Valverde and Chaves? We think we will see him attempt to animate the closing kilometres, as he can’t leave anything to chance in this race. But he isn’t the Bertie of old with an unlimited supply of stage winning attacks in his ageing tank, so this one might be beyond him.
So, to our picks for tomorrow. The G.C. men will definitely be contesting the finish, but could be caught man-marking each other on the final climb and this leaves the door wide open for an attack from Gianluca Brambilla. Philippe Gilbert has also looked feisty and will be keen to get a win in his new jersey, so he would be our (highly ranked) outsider for tomorrow.