Vincenzo Nibali took advantage of his superior descending skills to catch Chris Froome and Esteban Chaves, and then attack to win stage 3 of the Vuelta a Espana. David de la Cruz took second place ahead of new overall leader Chris Froome.
Stage 3 of the Vuelta a Espana took the field into the mountains for the first time on a tough 158.5km from Prades Conflent Canigó to Andorra La Vella. The stage took in three categorised climbs, with the first two of them being category 1 ascents. And unlike yesterday, that was virtually impossible for a break to enjoy any success, today was primed for a breakaway.
De Gendt – who else – makes the break
In a day where a breakaway is expected to thrive there are a couple of names who leap to mind pretty quickly and Thomas De Gendt is one of them. The Lotto Soudal rider got into the day’s break that was initiated by Fabricio Ferrari of Caja Rural-Seguros RGA. Also in the move after two groups became one at the front of the race were Anthony Turgis of Coidis, Davide Villella of Cannondale-Drapac, Fernando Orjuela of Manzana Postobon, Alexandre Geniez of AG2R La Mondiale and teammate Axel Domont.
By the time the field had crested the summit of the opening category 1 climb, led by Quick-Step Floors, the gap to the break was sitting at 3.50mins. The break’s lead didn’t go much higher during the course of the day, touching around the 4.30min mark. But it would be the second category 1 climb of the day up the Coll de la Rabassa, that really began to shape how the stage would be won.
Team Sky blow peloton apart
After being the dominant team on the front Quick-Step Floors found themselves progressively in more and more trouble as Team Sky took over and drilled the peloton which ate into the advantage of the break. Julian Alaphilippe and Bob Jungles both showed signs of struggle while the break itself was fragmenting up ahead of them too. De Gendt – after taking maximum points on the first climb – was heading backwards on the second, so too were the rest, with only Alexandre Geniez and Davide Villella the remaining riders out in front of the rampant peloton.
An attack from the remnants of the peloton went clear from UAE Team Emirates duo Darwin Atapuma and Rui Costa, but rather than threaten the peloton that only appeared to fuel the fire of the chase effort from Team Sky who mopped up the already rapidly closing gap and in the process seemed to allow Atapuma and Costa to simply burn their matches out in front.
Geniez and Villella crested the summit of the climb with the lead, with Geniez taking maximum points; but the 15 seconds that the break had was quickly swept up afterwards as the peloton of some 30-40 riders continued on to the final category 2 climb of the day and the rapid descent to the line.
Contador loses ground as Sky take control
Despite having been caught by Team Sky, Atapuma and Costa decided to remain on the front of the race and drive the pace. One had to question the wisdom of the move which allowed the much more numerous Team Sky to simply sit on their wheels and conserve their energy. With 12.5km remaining the intermediate sprint presented a number of riders with the ability to take a few bonus seconds; which at this stage appear to be crucial. That said though it was only Chris Froome who was prepared to take them, which he duly did before the road went up one more time.
The category 2 climb of Alto de la Comella saw Team Sky return to the front of the race and drill the bunch once again. Esteban Chaves and Fabio Are were looking the best of the GC contenders trying to keep up with the pace set by Gianni Moscon. Moscon was setting a blistering pace and it appeared as though it might be too much even for Froome, who laboured to keep his teammate’s wheel. While Costa, Nibali and more were able to get across there was less joy for Alberto Contador of Trek-Segafredo who found himself dropped and conceding 30 seconds with just under 10km left.
Moscon’s pace was impressive, but for now a good number of riders were still present, although for now it didn’t look like George Bennett was in the move. In fact there were no LottoNL-Jumbo riders in the GC group. Eventually Mikel Nieve joined Rosa at the front of the field and the pace continued to be thrown down on the climb. Chris Froome sat second wheel, knowing that unless attacked he was definitely one of the most accomplished descenders in the group; with maybe only Vincenzo Nibali able to match or better him.
Froome goes on attack, Chaves matches rival
Warren Barguil was one of the next big names to be dropped with Rui Costa also dropping back. Then with just under 8km to go Chris Froome made his move. The Team Sky rider took off and left the other floundering behind him, with only Esteban Chaves able to keep up with the Brit. As for the rest though, the pace set by Froome was just too strong and quickly the gap opened up as Domenico Pozzovivo of AG2R La Mondiale tried to limit the gap for teammate Romain Bardet.
With 7km to go Froome and Chaves had 13 seconds in hand over the group that now found itself fragmenting. To the surprise of many Vincenzo Nibali now fell back with just Fabio Aru and Romain Bardet left to try and chase Froome and Chaves. Having crested the climb Aru flew down the descent in pursuit of the leaders and it appeared that the gap was reducing. However, for Contador his GC challenge was already appearing lost as he pedalled squares on the climb, conceding upwards of 2 minutes.
Electric finish as ‘Shark of Messina’ secures win
6 seconds behind the leaders Davide de la Cruz was chasing alone while the Nibali group contained the likes of Tejay van Garderen; and they found themselves 16 seconds adrift with 3km to go. Aru and Bardet had managed to catch Froome and Chaves, and it looked like they were all happy to work together and try to consolidate their lead. But the case group were eating into the advantage themselves, closing to within 7 seconds at 1.5km to go. Maybe it was the closing time gap that triggered Chris Froome to return to the front of the group.
After a final kilometre attack by Froome contact was made by the chase group, with the advantage nullified. The group now had the tactical game to play with Nicolas Roche, Vincenzo Nibali, Tejay van Garderen and Davide de la Cruz all suddenly finding themselves in contention for stage honours. As the metres closed it was Nibali who was able to take full advantage of the finish, attacking late and enjoying just enough of a lull in pace from Fabio Aru who was on the front. Nibali secured the stage ahead of De La Cruz, with Froome taking third place, and with it the overall lead of the Vuelta. Romain Bardet took fourth place and Chaves claimed fifth.
Froome’s third place on the stage saw him climb into the overall race lead with David de la Cruz now second overall and Nicolas Roche third.
George Bennett conceded nearly 15 minutes on the stage, but in many was that will help his campaign for stage success. Bennett will now no longer be the marked GC man that he was in the Tour, he will enjoy a great deal more freedom to attack and potentially choose where he goes rather than have his rivals dictate his freedom to attack.