Alexandre Geniez has won stage 3 of the Vuelta a Espana. Geniez was the last man standing out of the day’s breakaway, and he courageously held on through the final brutal climb of the race to claim the win, while the red jersey changed hands to Spain’s Ruben Fernandez of Movistar.
The climb is . . . how steep?!
Marín to Dumbría. Mirador de Iszaro comprised stage 3 of the Vuelta a Espana. The 176.4km stage was not expected to end in a sprint finish, with a category 3 and category 2 climb giving way to one final category 3 drag to the finish line. The opening 100+km however would be almost entirely flat, but for a couple of mounds to ride over. The most significant matter however, the final climb, was one that the GC contenders had to sit up and take note of. Averaging 13.8%, the climb would reach 30% in places – phenomenally steep – and potentially provide the platform for some serious time gaps to unfold.
A group of seven riders eventually established themselves at the front of the race. Alexandre Geniez of FDJ, David Arroyo of Caja Rural-Seguros RGA, Pieter Serry of Etixx-Quick Step, Jérôme Cousin of Cofidis, Rudiger Selig of Bora-Argon18, Simon Pellaud and IAM Cycling and Gatis Smukulis of Astana formed the break. After 33km of racing – and with Team Sky leading the pack once again – the break had 2.20mins in hand on the peloton.
Despite the potential for the stage to be one for the GC contenders, Chris Froome’s Sky team had no problem in allowing the break to extend their lead to 5 minutes approaching the halfway point. Up ahead Simon Pellaud had no problem in attacking his breakaway companions, first to grab maximum KOM points on the Alto de Lestaio, and then, once he’d seen that there was no hurry from his companions to get back to him; he continued his attack to go solo from about the 60km point.
Bennett comes to the fore
With 45km left to race, and after a brief fracture among the six chasers, they were back together and chasing Pellaud. However, the IAM Cycling rider had 1.20mins in hand on his former co-collaborators, and now over 7 minutes in hand over the chasing peloton; a peloton that appeared far more concerned with conserving their energy for the final climb. Team Sky were still the dominant force in the pack, but they were closely followed by Tinkoff and Movistar, while George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo was not too far away and in the company of his team working for Steven Kruijswijk.
The chase began to lift in tempo with 35km left to race. The gap was coming down, but not quickly, with Pellaud still leading by 6.30mins. That gap was expected to be reduced dramatically as the GC teams began to prepare themselves for the finishing climb, lining up for what would be a very intense final ascent to the line. But with 29km left the gap was still at a very healthy 6 minutes as Simon Pellaud hit the lower slopes of the next climb on the road.
With 28km left to race LottoNL-Jumbo began to make a big move to join Team Sky on the front. The impetus in the peloton was lifting and in turn that was seeing Pellaud’s lead reduce to 5.20mins with 26.6km to go. The Alto Das Paxareiras was a nasty uphill gradient of just over 9km in length and while Pellaud looked to be suffering a little on his own, the teams of the GC contenders were raring to go.
Pellaud yo-yos around the front
Pellaud was indeed suffering, with the effort of nearly 40km on his own now beginning to really take its toll. He was eventually caught by Pieter Serry and Alexandre Geniez, and the three of them continued to work towards the summit of the climb; with the big question being whether Pellaud would be able to keep up. The answer was no as with 22.5km remaining he was dropped.
Meanwhile back in the peloton, George Bennett was playing the domestique role for teammate Kruijswijk. Team Sky were still in the lead but Bennett was just a handful of wheels back, keeping his team leader out of trouble and close to the front; well positioned to strike on the final climb of the day. By this point the gap was falling a little more rapidly, with the 4 minute barrier being hit with 22.3km left to race.
That gap continued to tumble to 3.42mins at the summit of Alto Das Paxareiras, but amazingly Simon Pellaud was not done yet. Despite finding the going very tough on the penultimate climb of the day, Pellaud dug deep and regained contact with Serry and Geniez. The trio had 3.34mins in hand with 12km of racing left to race.
8km from the finish the gap had closed to 3.15mins, Ian Boswell was on the front for Team Sky. It was interesting that the boys in black had really not been able to have any let up over the last two days of racing; whether that would prove costly later on in the race was yet to be known. Behind them LottoNL-Jumbo, Movistar and Tinkoff were close, with Orica-BikeExchange also doing a good job of positioning Esteban Chaves close to the front of the action.
Crash for Lopez and Bennett makes his move
At the back of the pack Miguel Angel Lopez and Michele Scarponi of Astana hit the deck, with Lopez coming off worst. Warren Barguil of GIANT-Alpecin had already abandoned the race today, but Lopez – having looked really rather rattled – eventually remounted and continued on. George Bennett was still at the front of the race with Stephen Kruijswijk, right on the shoulder of Bennett was Nairo Quintana of Movistar, and right of Quintana’s shoulder was Alberto Contador.
Through 4km to go the gap was 2.51mins. It would be touch and go as to whether the trio would have anything left with which to fend off the climbers in the peloton. It would certainly be close though. Finally Movistar took over from Team Sky at the front, seizing the opportunity to position Quintana and Valverde in as good a position as possible. With 2.3km to go Movistar had a deficit of 2.24 mins to the three remaining leaders.
Orica-BikeExchange were also at the front, and so too was George Bennett, who made a big charge up the left hand side of the road to get to the front of the pack. With 1.6km to go the climb began in earnest for the leaders and Pellaud quickly lost contact. By now the gap was falling at a canter, and while it was possible that the break could make it, the peloton were in full flight with the red leader’s jersey of Michal Kwiatkowski now leading the way under 2km to go.
Up ahead Pieter Serry led the way with 1.3km to go. The gap had come down 1.40mins, with Pellaud slowly disappearing out of sight. With 1.1km left Geniez took over on the front, dropping Serry, as Movistar really began to assert themselves at the front of the peloton. Under the kite Geniez’s advantage was 1.12mins and it was beginning to look promising for him. The road got its steepest with 1km to go and from there it was a case of gritting his teeth.
Froome master of his own pace in finale
Behind them Esteban Chaves and Nairo Quintana were strongest as they distanced Chris Froome who began to suffer. Alberto Contador was able to hold on to the fragmenting chase group, but eventually he too cracked and fell back towards Chris Froome who was beginning to move up. Geniez had 50 seconds in hand with 500m to go, but Pieter Serry was finally caught.
Quintana and Chaves were the last men standing in the chase effort, with their domestiques spent. The two Colombians were side by side as they headed up the final kilometre. With 200m to go they were still 40 seconds back on Geniez and it finally became clear that he would not be caught. Behind them Ruben Fernandez surprised the rest by launching an attack himself. The Spaniard sprinted away from his teammate, but incredibly behind him Chris Froome had fought his way back to Chaves and Valverde, while Nairo Quintana lost 6 seconds to his British rival in the end. Meanwhile Alberto Contador had lost a good deal more time and finished the stage 54 seconds down on Geniez, and 28 seconds down on Froome and Valverde.
Overall the result means that Fernandez, by virtue of his late attack, now takes the overall lead ahead of teammate Alejandro Valverde. They are 7 seconds apart, with Chris Froome a further four seconds back. Esteban Chaves now sits 4th overall at 17 seconds; with the same time as Nairo Quintana in fifth.