Wow, what a stage. As we predicted, it was the general classification riders who surged forth on the final climb of stage 3, though they were beaten to the line by FDJ’s Alexandre Geniez, who, in a sensational set of digs, had dropped his breakaway companions — including the hardworking Simon Pellaud of IAM — and held around two minutes on the peloton at the foot of the climb. This ended up being little over 20 seconds by the top, but a win is a win, and it was a deserved one. It was sad to see Pellaud and Pieter Serry get swamped on the last climb — they’d both worked well all day, and Pellaud in particular had been off the front and on his own for a good chunk of the stage, in an aggressive and attacking display. Eurosport commentary was quick to remind us, as commentators often do, that IAM are dissolving at the end of the season and that Pellaud was riding for a new contract as much as a stage win. There might be some truth in this, but it’s a tiresome line — especially as the entirety of professional cycling could be summed up, in effect, by the concept of individuals riding for contracts. Regardless, a Movistar-led peloton swept by the duo on the final climb, just as the tarmac road ended and a rough concrete surface greeted the riders, as the road ramped up to over 20%. Movistar’s dominance continued as the race split up, and it was Rubén Férnandez who was allowed to ride off in pursuit of Geniez, and into the red jersey. His leader Valverde never lost the pace, and came third. Chris Froome momentarily had lost the pace, but managed to bridge into the leading group for a phenomenal fourth place, just ahead of Orica’s Esteban Chaves. Quintana was next, but, crucially, Contador was thirty seconds back, and he finished in 9th, now over 90 seconds down on Férnandez in the G.C. Steven Kruijswijk lost a bucket of time, finishing 2 minutes down. But the big loss of the day belonged to Miguel López. The Astana rider, fresh from a dropped chain in the team time trial, came down in a late crash not long before that hideous last climb. He appeared to hit his face and was bleeding from the mouth as he sat roadside, before he was paced to the finish by his teammates. He finished 12 and a half minutes down on the leaders, and now sits in an impossible position on the G.C: 13:16 in arrears heading into stage 4.
As is now tradition, the race organisers aren’t easing the riders into this year’s Vuelta. Straight after yesterday’s cat 3 summit finish, they face a cat 2 finale for the final day in Galicia. It’s another short day, with more climbs than stage 3 but not with the same punishing 20% gradients. We start in Betanzos and head up along the coast for the first 20km — so early crosswinds could be a factor. The riders then turn right to head inland and on to the approach to the first of the three climbs on the menu, the cat 3 Alto da Serra Capela (6.5km, 4.6%). As soon as they crest this they will continue along undulating roads and on to the ascent to the second climb, the cat 3 Alto Monte Caxado (7.3km, 4.5%,) before they take a long descent back to the coast. These early morning climbs will be tempting to any breakaway hopefuls wanting to pull on the blue polkadots, so look for Pellaud (IAM) and Geniez (FDJ) to be out in the break again if they’re not too tired.
After this they head downhill towards the north coast and then double back on themselves to take on lumpy but uncategorised terrain. The road here is flat for 17km, which ends with the intermediate sprint in Cedeira with 14.5km to go. After this it’s uphill until the finish, as the riders continue north along the cat 2 climb, Mirado Vixia de Herbeira (11.2km, 4.8%). It’s not as sharp as yesterday’s finish, with the final 4km being the toughest at an average of 7%, but it’s a fair bit longer so the pace can be driven hard. Expect small time gaps amongst the favourites, but anyone not feeling good will be found out here after a tough two days. As we saw on stage 3, the breakaway just managed to steal the day, and, with it being so early in the race, a strong group or lone escapee could snatch a big win here, too.
Given yesterday’s displays of form (and, in some cases, a dearth of it), we have to look at riders like Alejandro Valverde, Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, and Esteban Chaves. Movistar have a very powerful squad for the mountains, and, though Férnandez was allowed to take the red jersey on stage 3, it seems unlikely he’ll be defending it now. Rather, the full force of the team will work for Movistar and will attempt to keep the break at a safe distance, with Quintana kept as a second option if Valverde falters. Froome was right there in the finish, and there hasn’t been a rider who could out climb him this year, so a podium place looks likely here. Chaves might be our favourite, given his obvious form and the good fit between his talents and this climb. Expect him to attack, find a decent rhythm, and keep it till the end.
It’s already getting hard for Alberto Contador, but it’s not yet insurmountable for him, and he’s not necessarily ruled himself out of a podium position. However, he’s in deficit, and will need to start not just holding the pace, but gaining time. A good showing here would do much to improve team morale, and would send a warning to his rivals. If he has anything in the way of good form, we think he will have to get a good attack in here to save his Vuelta.
Gianluca Brambilla has performed well so far, and sits in tenth overall. We’d expect a G.C. reshuffle here, given the amount of lieutenants in the top ten (Férnandez, Moreno, Kennaugh, König). We think Brambilla will capitalise on this, and could get into the top five with a good ride. Expect an attack if he can possibly manage it.
…Of course, Movistar might well want to send a rider like Daniel Moreno up the road so that they don’t have to take too much control of the pace, so don’t rule him out too quickly. Equally, Orica might forego a win for Chaves in favour of a dig by Simon Yates. And BMC have got Samuel Sánchez in a decent place so far, so they’ll rally around him on this climb in place of the flagging Tejay Van Garderen.
Like we said, there’s a fairly good chance for a winning breakaway here, especially if Movistar fail to commit to the chase. Thomas de Gendt is in the race, and he’s ridden well in breaks all year — perhaps he’ll open his polkadots jersey account here. You could also take a punt on Luís Mas for Caja-Rural, who always likes to give it a go in the break, especially in his home nation.
We’re going with Esteban Chaves here. For an outsider, we’d like to see Gianluca Brambilla make the podium.