If stage one’s team time trial of the Vuelta España offered a chance to assess each team’s collective strength, then stage three’s finale of the Vuelta a España on Monday at Arcos de la Frontera will do the same for the favourites - and it will be as much about bike handling skills as pure strength.
The last three kilometres of the stage into Arcos de la Frontera are very technical, and conclude with a 1.5 kilometre ascent to the finish. Nothing too steep - just six percent average gradient - but on narrow, winding streets in the southern Andalusian town positioning for the favourites will be crucial in order not to ensure they do not lose time.
The biggest worry for most of the favourites, though, will be avoiding crashes. Up until three kilometres to go, the stage’s main challenge is perhaps the heat and the four third category climbs in the Sierra de Grazalema on some poorly surfaced roads. But then the finish is almost within sight when, 2.6 kilometres from the line, the ‘fun’ starts with a fast descent to a narrow bridge and sharp right hand-turn across the River Guadalete.
Two more sharp corners leftwards and a fast downhill back across the river just a few hundred metres further on could see more crashes, and then once past the two kiloemtres to go sign the climbing starts just after the route, broadening out slightly, crosses the river for a third and final time.
The ascent to the finish from heron is then steady, but the road shrinks to a fairly narrow street again and by this point the stage contenders and gc leaders will be fighting to get past sprinters who have found they have run out of gas and who are falling back.
The finish comes after a sharpish lefthand turn around 100 metres to, by which time the peloton will have climbed around some 70 metres in altitude in 1,500 metres.
That’s hardly a challenge in itself: but combined with the technical difficulties, the heat (now in the mid-thirties and still rising) and the pressure not to lose time so early in the race, stage three could be have some serious long-term consequences. Small wonder that several of the teams, amongst them Sky, have sent their riders on training rides that included the stage three finish prior to the race starting on Saturday.