Sam Bennett continued the Irish party in Spain, taking his first Vuelta a Espana stage victory comfortably ahead of Edward Theuns of Trek-Segafredo and Luka Mezgec of Mitchelton-SCOTT.
The Irishman went into the Vuelta as the stand out sprinter to watch, and he more than lived up to his billing as the favourite for the fast finishes, taking his first opportunity in his first grand tour of the season; and in his first career edition of the Vuelta a Espana.
After a team time trial on day one, and a day that was dominated by the climbers in stage 2, stage 3 finally presented the sprinters with an opportunity to shine. As expected, an early breakaway took off up the road, with three riders forming the move that would dominate most of the day. Euskadi-Murias’ Héctor Sáez, Burgos-BH’s Óscar Cabedo and his teammate Ángel Madrazo broke clear and formed a partnership that lasted most of the day.
Their lead hit a lead went out to 6 minutes with Team Sunweb on the front looking after Nicolas Roche in the red leader’s jersey. But with the sprinters all too eager to take their opportunity it wasn’t too long before the sprinters’ teams brought themselves to the front.
At 60km to go the gap sat at 2 minutes for the leaders with the peloton stretched out in a long line as they went in pursuit of the break. The work was being shared at the front by UAE Team Emirates, BORA-Hansgrohe and Deceuninck-QuickStep with Movistar notably present. The big obstacle that could possibly alter the destiny of the finish came with the category 3 climb of Puerto de Tibi. The climb was 4.6km in length and averaged 5.8% and the foot of the climb saw Jumbo-Visma leading the way and cutting the break’s lead down to 40 seconds.
The early slopes of the climb saw Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal put in a stinging attack in a bid to get across to the leaders. Jumbo-Visma initially seemed unfazed as the gap began to open up, but Neilson Powless and Sepp Kuss moved across to him along with Movistar’s Marc Soler and Damien Howson of Mitchelton-SCOTT. This spelled a bit more of a reaction from the peloton and also the end of the break’s stay out in front with still upwards of 40km to race. The white and blue polka dot jersey of Madrazo valiantly tried to hold off the pack but the pace was too hot from the peloton.
A late attack from Katusha-Alpecin’s Ruben Guerreiro saw the Portuguese rider bridge across to Madrazo who was forced to keep pressing on, expending all the energy in pursuit of maximum points. The Spaniard dug deep though and managed to take his just desserts; holding off the late attacker to secure at least another day or two in the polka dot jersey. Guerreiro, having taken second place, continued his attack after the summit but was caught pretty quickly by the peloton.
With 38km to go then the race was all together and there were no initial signs of another attack although there was plenty of time should anyone be keen to make a move. BORA-Hansgrohe and Movistar kept the pace high, however, with the previous climb having shaken off a couple of notable names – including Fernando Gaviria of UAE Team Emirates – there was certainly motivation from the sprinters left in the main field to keep up the tempo.
27km from the finish the gap to Gaviria was sitting at 47 seconds, and one of the key danger men in the finale was looking at being ruled out of contention completely before the sprint had even kicked off. With 20km to go the gap hadn’t shrunk as the peloton flew towards the intermediate sprint. It was interesting to note a few new names mixing it at the front; with Sergio Higuita of EF Education First taking first place ahead of Team Sunweb’s Martijn Tusveld and Jumbo-Visma’s Primož Roglič.
Jumbo-Visma continued their intensity at the front of the peloton, with Movistar and Team Ineos showing their interest as the gap to Gaviria continued to open up. Sensing a potential opportunity to take advantage of the crosswinds, Tony Martin put the hammer down with his teammates in tow. The pace at the front was an electric 70+kph and George Bennett was right in the mix this time on the wheel of leader Roglič.
Also present in the fast-moving peloton was the tall figure of Sam Bewley looking after the interests of his Mitchelton-SCOTT team. But it was Jumbo-Visma who kept the pace up through 10km to go and onwards with Movistar right next to them. The big sprint teams kept their powder dry, with BORA-Hansgrohe eventually showing themselves at the front with a little over 4km to go. Ineos and Sunweb were also there or thereabouts along with Astana fighting for position as well. At 3km to go a sharp acceleration saw Deceuninck-QuickStep surge forward with Philippe Gilbert and put everyone under pressure to keep pace and position.
Sunweb took over with 1.5km to go but BORA-Hansgrohe with Shane Archbold were perfectly positioned to strike. Archbold had teammate Sam Bennett on his wheel, but in a chaotic run in Bennett ended up taking the wheel of Trek-Segafredo’s train and then launching from there to take the win emphatically by over two bike lengths from Theuns, with Mezgec third, Caja Rural-Seguros RGA’s Jon Aberasturi fourth and Bahrain Merida’s Phil Bauhaus completing the top five ahead of Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Max Richeze and Fabio Jakobsen.
Shane Archbold crossed the line first of the Kiwis in 35th, with Patrick Bevin of CCC Team 39th and George Bennett 94th; all in the peloton. Sam Bewley finished just a few seconds behind and Dion Smith a few minutes later having supported Mezgec to a podium finish.
Overall Nicolas Roche continues to lead the Vuelta a Espana by 2 seconds from Nairo Quintana and 8 seconds clear of Rigoberto Uran.