This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won stage 3 of the Vuelta a España after a captivating 155km of racing from Faustino V to Eibar’s Alto de Arrate. The win was enough to put the 2009 winner into the overall lead after overnight leader and teammate Jonathan Castroviejo cracked on the lower slopes of the Arrate. But while Valverde came away with the day’s honours and the 20-second time bonus, it was Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) who shone brightest with a series of attacks on the final climb. Only Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Christopher Froome (Team Sky) could handle the Spaniard’s constant accelerations with rest of the GC hopefuls finishing six seconds down.
After three stages Valverde leads with teammate Benat Intxausti 18 seconds adrift. Rodriguez sits a further second back, with Froome at 20 seconds and Contador a further four behind.
Although the fireworks were saved for the finale, in truth the stage was always destined to be aggressive throughout. At just 155 kilometres, and with a hill top finish so early in the grand tour, legs were fresh, egos robust and strategies above optimistic.
And as expected the attacks came early. Philippe Gilbert was part of the early break, aligning with Andrey Zeits (Astana), Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil-DCM), Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Dominique Rollin (FDJ-BigMat), Sergio Carrasco (Andalucia), Nico Sijmens (Cofidis) and Markel Irizar (RadioShack-Nissan).
Apart from the absence of a representative from Euskaltel-Euskadi, who were racing on their home roads, the stage was running according to the expected script. The eight riders collaborated evenly enough, building up a healthy buffer as Movistar rode tempo on the front. With Gilbert just 10 seconds from the overall lead as the stage began and with so much still at stake in the race, however, there was little chance of success.
The Vuelta passes through La Guardia
Castroviejo’s overall defence looked destined to end when he joined the majority of his teammates on the front of the peloton in the finale, and with 45 kilometres the gap to the break had been reduced to 2:40. Lotto Belisol, Rabobank, Sky and Omega Pharma-QuickStep all made their intentions clear as the final climb approached, positioning their leaders close to the front as the break’s advantage slipped below a minute, and by the foot of the climb to Arrate, the peloton was together again.
All eyes may have shifted to Contador, his rivals eager to see how his climbing legs would perform after his suspension but it was Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) who initiated the first round of attacks. The Dutch national road champion wasn’t able to forge more than a handful of seconds clear with Contador sending his most trusted lieutenant, Daniel Navarro to the front.
Just like Alpe d’Huez in 2011, Navarro set about his pace duties, his jersey unzipped and flapping in unison with the Basque flags. However, it wasn’t nearly as impressive or successful as Contador would have liked and Navarro swung over with only the slightest damage inflicted on Contador’s rivals.
Contador was again mobbed by fans on stage 3
Realising that he was on the front with more than 7 kilometres to race Contador slowed his cadence, inviting his opposition into making a mistake. No one buckled and Navarro was given enough time to recover and regain his position on the front. Laurens ten Dam was ushered to the front once Navarro finally threw in the towel and while Froome glued himself to Contador’s wheel, Valverde seized an opportunity and attacked.
Defending champion Juan José Cobo (Movistar) was instantly put into difficulty as Contador led the chase.
It appeared the pace would slow once Valverde had been reeled in but Contador had other ideas, using the catch as a launch pad for his first attack.
Only Valverde, Rodriguez and Froome could answer, but with 4 kilometres to go, Contador attacked again. The same three gave chase, with Contador attacking 6 times in all. After each acceleration, his three shadows would slowly reel him in and with the gradient easing and Contador content to mark Froome in the sprint, it was left to Valverde and Rodriguez to dispute the stage.
Valverde took the stage and the overall lead