Once again in keeping with the moderate distances of the Vuelta a España’s opening week, Stage 3 takes the peloton on an 158.4km ride from Mijas to the port city of Málaga. The day itself should offer up a good opportunity for the sprinters to open their accounts at this race, but with two categorised climbs and a noteworthy bump not far from home, the outcome here is not clearcut.
After only 8km have passed the pack will begin tilting skywards as they climb the first ascent of the day, the Category 3 Alto de Mijas. At 6km long and averaging 7.1% for the most part, this is certainly a testing climb at such an early point in the race on Stage 3. Once successfully tackled, the bunch will regroup on the subsequent steady descent which leads onto an extended period of flat(ish) terrain and into the finishing city of Málaga. Excitement of nearing the finish for the first time will be extremely limited as the peloton are immediately pointed into the neighbouring mountains and tasked with ascending the Category 1 Purto del Leon, a climb which places its summit almost perfectly in the middle of today’s stage. Stretching on for 16km with an average gradient of 5.2%, it will truly test the sprinters’ ability to stay in contention with the more gifted climbers and not dig too deep if they wish to contest the finale competitively back in Málaga. Possessing slopes which fluctuate to a minimum of 2% for the most part should aid the sprinters and their supporting riders in maintaing a steady tempo from bottom to top; though a couple of short lived sections do reach 15%.
Around 82km will remain once they reach the top of the Purto del Leon, though this almost acts as a false summit when considering the true descent does not even begin for another 10km – 15km. Once it does however, the pace will be high as those distanced on the ascent look to bridge back to the front of the race, taking advantage of the almost entirely flat 50km which separates them from the finish. One challenge will remain for those with their hearts set on victory here though, as with 10km or so remaining, an unrecognised 3km hill requires beating. It beings moderately enough with an average around 3% – 5%, but like the Purto del Leon, its deceptive false summit leads into a further 1.5km of climbing at a much more testing 7%, building to 15% in places. The dictated pace here will have big implications on the selection which occurs late on, likely to attract puncheur styled riders who will want to attack over the top and exploit the extremely fast descent back to level terrain.
The limited technical demands of the finale itself means a simplistic sprint should await those who have emerged from the day’s rigours in good enough condition to fight for the glory in Málaga. Set upon a kilometre long finishing straight, we expect the likely sprint finish to be fast and possibly ignited earlier than expected today.
John Degenkolb has previously performed well at the Vuelta a España on the back of a Tour de France showing and is one of the obvious frontrunners to dominate the fight for the points jersey. His support team here is very strong and should guarantee him strong placement and a rapid lead-out throughout this grand tour appearance. The finish itself suits him particularly well, the German having a strong reputation for success when battling it out on these long power based sprint finishes. As with all the quick men eyeing up today, the biggest question will be whether or not he survives the day’s climbing (particularly the final unrecognised hill) without expending a race damaging amount of energy.
Caleb Ewan has never seen his talents doubted, but he is still developing more rapidly than many would have expected. This year he has been going up against some of the biggest names in sprinting and emerging regularly with having pushed them to their limits in order to beat him. The young Australian is possibly the fastest rider here after Nacer Bouhanni, but it is his climbing prowess which is sure to swing the odds in his favour today more than any other attribute. Not only this, but his team is well balanced to help him over the climbs, place him well in the final 5km and ultimately lead him out into a great position. Should all of these align perfectly, we might just see his first ever grand tour victory by the end of today.
Nacer Bouhanni was the second protagonist alongside John Degenkolb in last year’s battle for the points jersey and will certainly be eager to reignite this competition at the first time of asking at 2015’s edition. His Tour de France appearance this year was disappointing due to crashing out, but he has recovered well and arrives here on the back of Tour de l’Ain success. Like the previous two candidates mentioned here, Bouhanni also has a great team at his disposal and should be confident of featuring regularly in the available sprints as a result. Bouhanni has demonstrated on several occasion that he is considerably faster than his rival Degenkolb and is sure to get the better of him, but that might not be possible here due to two clear negatives. Of the clear favourites for today’s win, Bouhanni is the least gifted in regards to climbing and could struggle if he becomes exposed on the final climb with 10km remaing. Most of all however is the style of this finish, he is not the best when it comes to long power based sprints and would certainly have preferred a conclusion with more technical demands which would allow him to attack later and utilise his ruthless burst of acceleration.
Danny van Poppel is a strong outsider for the win on Stage 3, though not blessed with the same pure speed as Bouhanni for example, the Dutchman is still developing well and has one of the best support networks at this race. On a day were many are likely to tire if the combination of gradients and pace becomes too much, Poppel will come into greater contention for the win. However, Fabian Cancellara took to the start today with flu and will be sorely missed if he is unable to help his man late on in the stage.
Tom Van Asbroeck and Kris Boeckmans have the potential to feature in the final top five placings and both come here on the back of increasingly strong performances this year. The latter would have liked a simpler day in the saddle and it is unclear if his high-end speed will be reduced due to the day’s demands, but teammates Adam Hansen and Tosh van der Sande offer a great deal to his ambitions on Stage 3. Asbroeck is also likely to stake a claim to a stage win or two at this year’s Vuelta a España and arrives here with considerable backing from his LottoNL-Jumbo team, though he may wish to keep his powder dry for a more fitting opportunity.
Peter Sagan is perhaps the biggest threat to the ambitions of favourites Nacer Bouhanni and John Degenkolb. This year may not have reaped the biggest of rewards for the Slovak champion, but his performances appear to be the most impressive and consistent of his career thus far. Today’s stage could see the pace driven extremely hard late on and possibly convince Sagan to utilise the final hill with 10km remaining in order slip off the front and attack either solo or part of a breakaway. If he stays in the pack and chooses to contest the sprint alongside Degenkolb and Bouhanni, his speed is not as impressive, but his strength to overcome the challenges and an immense talent for position compensates for any disadvantages in order to makes a podium placing plausible in Málaga.
1st John Degenkolb 2nd Caleb Ewan 3rd Nacer Bouhanni