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08/04 - Stage 3 - Vitoria-Gasteiz to Zumarraga - 170.7 km

The route
Today, we should see the first big fight amongst the GC riders. This is a very hilly stage with no less than eight categorized climbs to overcome. It’s also an important day for those who are targeting the KOM jersey. The first three climbs are not very difficult. Most likely, we’ll see the morning break get away on the slopes towards the top of Alto de Azazeta (3 km / 5.57 % avg.). In case the riders in the breakaway are not dangerous for the general classification, we can expect the gap to widen significantly over the following undulating 120 km. 

After 136 km on the bike, the riders take on Alto de Antigua for the first time. This feared climb is only 2.5 km long but has an agonizing average gradient of nearly 10 %. The steepest part is towards the top, where the gradients hit 20 %. When his ascent was on the menu back in 2011, many riders crossed the top on foot. If you get to a standstill, it’s simply impossible to get back on the bike on these gradients.

From the top of Alto de Antigua, there are 30 km to go. Upon crossing the finishing line in Zumárraga, the riders take on a loop including Alto de Atagoiti (2.5 km / 3.4 % avg.) and Alto de Gabiria (4.8 km / 4 % avg.) before it’s time to face Alto de Antigua for the final time.

With just 3 km to go from the top of the climb, even a small gap can prove to be enough to make it all the way. The descent is very fast but the finish is a bit technical. After a big 180° left-hand turn with about 500 meters to go, the riders will have to sprint in order to get into the last corner first. This little left-right S-bend comes with just 125 meters left. You will be very difficult to beat if you get into this chicane first and keep sprinting to the line.

The favorites
Due to the extremely steep gradients towards the top of Alto de Antigua, my number one favorite for this stage is Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. He won this stage in 2011 and he knows exactly how to approach the finish. Few, if any, can match Purito’s kick on the steep gradients. I wouldn’t be surprised if he soloed away over the top. Even if he arrives with a handful of rides, he’s still the favorite in a sprint. He’s fast on the line and knows the importance of getting into the last chicane first. After missing Volta a Catalunya, Purito went on an altitude training camp on Teide. His first goal of this race was to survive the first two stages without losing any time. Mission accomplished. Now, it’s time to start gaining ground on his rivals. On his best days, he will have no problems distancing the peloton on the steep gradients on Alto de Antigua. In Simon Spilak and Dani Moreno, a strong candidate for the win himself, Purito can count on excellent support. I would expect Katusha to start chasing the breakaway early today in order to set up Purito for the win.

Bauke Mollema has had a good start to the season. He hasn’t won yet but he has been close on numerous occasions. He was very strong in Tirreno-Adriatico even though the course didn’t really suit him that well. Mollema is good on the short and steep climbs we’ll find in the Basque Country. He can’t match the kick of guys like Purito, but he won’t be far off. He’s fast on the line and should not be underestimated in a sprint within a reduced group. Trek also has Julian Arredondo for this stage. The pint-sized Colombian has shown great climbing legs the last month. His idol is Purito Rodriguez and the two riders have many similarities. Most importantly, both excel on the very steep percentages. It would be a smart move by Trek to let Arredondo attack first on Alto de Antigua and let the other teams respond. Then, Mollema can try to follow when GC favorites start to move.

Given his incredible talent, it would be a mistake not to mention Michal Kwiatkowski as one of the candidates today. He’s strong uphill and very fast on the line. However, these super steep ascent are not exactly his cup of tea. He can do well on punchy climbs but I have my doubts if he can follow the best riders on the slopes of 20 %. He did surprisingly well in Flèche Wallonne last year but he ran out of energy on the crucial part. Unless he times his effort to perfection today, he might lose too much ground over the top. If, however, Kwiatkowski is on a great day and doesn’t lose too many seconds, he can rejoin the group on the downhill part due to his excellent descending skills. Then, he will be very difficult to beat in a sprint!

The outsiders
My personal outsider for today is yet another Colombian rider who thrives on the steep climbs. Sergio Henao had real annus horribilis in 2014. After his knee injury in Tour de Suisse, he was told he might never return to cycling. The Colombian is now back and he seems to be on great form. He won a steep uphill finish in this race two years ago where he also finished 3rd overall. On stage 1, Henao put in a strong attack on the last ascent, proving his climbing legs are very good at the moment. After Mikel Nieve lost his chances of overall success in Bilbao, Henao is now Team Sky best chance of a good result in general classification. I wouldn’t be surprised if Henao attacked early on Alto de Antigua and got a good gap. Then, time will tell if it’s enough to win the stage.

Arredondo and Henao are not the only Colombians with a good chance today. Nairo Quintana is the top favorite for the general classification. He’s not as punchy on the short and steep climbs like some of his countrymen but he’s definitely not bad either. It would be a surprise not to see Quintana amongst the first riders over the top. He’s the best climber in the race and he’s very eager to repeat his overall win from 2013. Movistar brings an extremely strong team to support Quintana. Beñat Intxuasti did well on Alto de Antigua in 2011. This is a very important race for the Basque rider. I’m sure he’ll be up there again this year.

For other punchy riders who can do well today, look to Tom-Jelte Slagter, Diego Ulissi, Philippe Gilbert and Lotto's duo of Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens. Not to forget Samuel Sanchez who finished second on this stage in 2011. Michael Matthews should not be underestimated either. On his best days, Bling won’t be far off the front. Also, he must be very eager to take revenge after missing out in Vitoria-Gasteiz. The yellow jersey might give him wings today.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv