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Vuelta Stage 3: We got any sprinters?

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Mijas - Alhaurin de la Toree (183km)

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On Stage Three

The third stage of the Vuelta, and we’re into the “let’s spend another day on the coast near Malaga” portion of the first week. I mean… this is fine, right? Warm up along the coast, head inland for a couple of climbs, and then back to the coast for a finish where the tourists are.

The first of those climbs is also our first category one climb. Which is exciting, in a vacuum. Two minor issues. First is that there’s 132km from the summit to the finish line, so the field will come back together, and second is that it is a long climb not a sharp one – 20km at 5%, or thereabouts, with only a very small portion going into double digits.

Nope, this looks like a sprint stage. The finish is flat enough, though there are a couple of bumps, and it is as straight as they come. Sprinters in Spain don’t have much to get excited about and they deserve a chance. I imagine we’ll see the field back together and riding hard into the finish, and the question is whether any of these teams can impose order on the often chaotic sprints that the Vuelta produces.

If there is a team with the engines and the motivation to bring a proper sprint train, it’ll be Quick-step. They picked up four stages last year supporting Trentin, and they are backing a faster Italian in Elia Viviani this time around. He’ll be favourite, with Matteo Trentin opposing, alongside a seemingly underpowered (but watch out anyway) Peter Sagan, Max Walsheid and, I guess, Giacomo Nizzolo and Nacer Bouhanni. Not exactly a murderer’s row.

I think Viviani picks up a win to continue what’s been a great first season since he joined Quick-Step. As always with a grand tour, the first sprint will set the pecking order, but I think we’d all be surprised if he wasn’t at the top of it.

A ludicrous aside

With Chris, you get arcane knowledge and history. With Pablo, massive local interest and passion. With me? Stupid stories about immature and monoglot Englishman. Still, this is one of my favourite family stories, and it is germane, given the start town.

My great uncle and his wife were once invited around to see some holiday slides from Andalusia. Back in the days when going to Spain from the English midlands was a novelty. Also, in the days when you took photos, developed them as slides, and put on a performance for your neighbours. Anyway, that was the era and that was the occasion.

Uncle Cyril was bored but behaving himself. Until a panoramic vista was put up on the projector, with the wife of the couple leaning on a rail, back to the camera, soaking in the timeless view. “In this one,” she said, narrating the slides, “you can see the whole of Mijas.” I was too young to be told what Cyril said in response, but apparently they left hurriedly.

On the first weekend

Life has once again got in the way of keeping up with the Vuelta, as it will insist on starting when the world’s biggest arts festival is still going on all around me. I’ll get more involved soon, I promise. The results of the first weekend are more than a little interesting, though. A few quick winners/losers from my perspective, and I’d welcome thoughts from those with greater knowledge or who’ve watched more.

Winners – anyone who hasn’t had a tumble. The more more I learn about cycling, the more I realise that the “innocuous crash” may be anything but. In reading back through the comments, I see far too many guys with GC hopes hitting the deck. At best, they’ve had a scare and burnt a couple of extra matches. At worst, it is going to make sleep, recovery and significant effort harder for a few days. Not good.

Losers – anyone who wasn’t quite ready for stage two. The road book was out, guys, and you’ve only yourself to blame if you weren’t prepped for this. It was always going to be a tough old finish and it came early enough in the race that riding into form wasn’t an option. There are now six riders within 30 seconds of the lead and 36 within 90. This race is already fanning out and the likes of Zakarin, Martin, and Lopez are playing catch-up. For Zakarin and Lopez, at least, it was never a stage to suit their skills, but that and a TT early means the large passes can’t come soon enough.

Winner – Michal Kwiatkowski. Well, duh. He’s in red, and he’s done it with a short chrono and a sharp effort on a finishing climb. If he struggles in the mountains, he’s had his prep and done his bit for Sky, and no harm done. If he climbs well, though, he starts with a meaningful advantage.

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Losers – anyone who really wasn’t ready for stage two. Poor old Richie Porte. I wanted to make him favourite, but couldn’t do it, though a GI bug before the start seems cruel. Meanwhile Adam “no, he’s the right” Yates doesn’t seem to have got the Tour out of his legs and Vincenzo Nibali wasn’t sandbagging when he said he hasn’t fully recovered from breaking his back in July. When I type that, it is sort of hard to believe we ever thought he might be. All three of them, among others, can be struck from the list of possible winners already. At least Mitchelton and Bah-Meh have others to ride for. BMC could be looking at another long three weeks.

Winners – the fans. It’s us, guys. We’re the real winners! This first weekend did exactly what I wanted it to. It gave us a pecking order, put in gaps that will need to be closed, started up the narrative, but didn’t eliminate too many guys from contention. Stage four grants us the first proper mountaintop finish. Bring it.