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09/04 - Stage 4 - Zumarraga to Arrate (Eibar) - 162 km

The route
This is classic stage in Vuelta al Pais Vasco. It’s almost always on the program and most of the riders know exactly what to expect today. The stage is hillier than last year but most likely it won’t matter much, as it usually comes down to the last ascent up Alto de Usartza in Eibar.

Before we get this far, six categorized climbs await the riders. None of the climbs is very long but they all have a few steep parts. Like all the climbs in this region have. The most difficult struggle before the final one, is Alto de Ixua, which comes after 94 km on the bike. The 3.8 km towards the top have an average gradient of 10.39 %. On the profile, Alto de Gontzagaigana is set to have an average gradient over 15 %. This is not the case.

After crowning Alto de Sant Eufemia (3.6 km / 6.92 % avg.) and Alto de San Miguel (4.6 km / 5.54 % avg.), the riders will start on the final climb of the day. Alto de Usartza is only 3.9 km long but its average gradient of 10.77 % will make a selection. Remember, you can mouse over the climb on the profile to see detailed information.

Even though it’s a steep ascent, we usually don’t get to see big time gaps on this climb. The top comes with one kilometer to go. From here, the it’s downhill all the way towards the line. The last right-hand turn is extremely important. With only 100 meters to go, the first rider into this corner wins the stage. Unless, of course, you do it like Purito Rodriguez in the Vuelta in 2012 when he started to celebrate a little too early and was overtaken by Alejandro Valverde on the final meter. “Lo siento, Purito!”

The favorites
Last year, Wout Poels took advantage of the top favorites looking at each other and soloed away to win. Without bonus seconds, the stage win is not crucial for the GC riders. However, naturally, they all want to win this Queen Stage of the race.

Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez has never won on this climb before but he knows it very well. He’s condition is obviously good right now and he will be very difficult to drop before the top. Katusha has a strong team to support Purito. As long as they can deliver him in a good position at the bottom of the final climb, he should be okay. Winning stage 3 was a huge confidence boost for him. He gained time on some of the top GC riders who are expected to do well in the final time trial. If he can do that again today, he’ll be taking a big step towards finishing Vuelta al Pais Vasco on the overall podium. Purito knows how important it is to be first into the final corner. If he’s at the front, I’m sure, he’ll time it as well as he did on Wednesday.

Nairo Quintana proved to be in great shape on the steep finish in Zumarraga. He has won this stage before, in 2013, and thereby he knows about the last tricky corner. Quintana wants to win this race overall and today is an excellent chance to gain time on his rivals. The Colombian is probably the best climber in this year’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Alto de Usartza suits him perfectly and I’m sure Movistar will do everything they can to set up Quintana for the win. Usually a group of 5-10 riders reach the top together, but if you are on a really good day, it’s possible to leave your rivals behind. It would be a surprised not to see Quintana put in a couple of strong attacks on the steep percentages.

As expected, Michal Kwiatkowski struggled on the very steep final climb on stage 3. The gradients on Alto de Usartza are not nearly as bad. The strong Pole should be able to stay within contention today. Of the GC riders, he’s definitely the fastest rider on the line. Etixx hasn’t exactly been making smart tactical decisions lately but let’s hope they tell Kwiatkowski about the importance of the getting first into the last corner. Kwiatkowski may actually, be the only rider who’s fast enough to win this stage as second rider through the corner.

The outsiders
Personally, I was very happy to see Sergio Henao rise on stage 3. As mentioned in yesterday’s stage preview, Henao was told he might not ever return to cycling after his horrible accident last year. Now, the Colombian is back and he’s leading Vuelta al Pais Vasco overall. In every way, his morale must be sky high right now. Henao has proven to be in great shape and given his recent performances, he’ll be very difficult to drop on the final climb. In 2013, Henao was leading the race until the final time trial. Don’t be surprised if this will be the case again this year.

Like Kwiatkowski, Bauke Mollema suffered too much on the steep parts of Alto de Antigua to fight for the win in Zumarraga. Today’s final climb suits him much better. The Dutchman is on good form and, thanks to his fast finish, he’s definitely one to watch today.

The time differences between the best riders are still so small that none of them will be given a free pass if they attack. However, those teams with more than one rider in top20 should be able to take advantage of this. Unless Movistar and Katusha set such a furious pace that nobody can create a solid gap, teams like Astana (Landa, Scarponi and Taaramae), GreenEdge (Chaves and Yates) and BMC (Van Garderen and Sanchez) should try to blitz as much and they can. One rider who’s especially eager to do well here is Samuel Sanchez. The Spanish veteran has won on Arrate three times in past. Last year he finished 3rd. Sanchez did very well on the steep climb on stage 3, proving that he has, once again, timed his shape perfectly ahead of Vuelta al Pais Vasco. It will definitely not be a surprise if he comes flying first into that final corner.

For other strong climbers with solid chance of a good result, look to Rafal Majka, Alexis Vuillermoz, Thibaut Pinot, Julian Arredondo and the strong Cannondale-Garmin quartet of Tom Danielson, Janier Acevedo, Tom Danielson and youngster Davide Formolo.

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