Stage three is an entirely Belgian affair and takes the riders 159.5 kilometres from Anvers in the north towards Huy for a finish that replicates the Flèche-Wallonne Classic – so often decided on the fearsome gradients of the 1.3km Mur.
There are four categorised climbs in the last 50km of the race with the Côte d'Ereffe (2.1km at an average gradient of 5%) and the Côte de Cherave (1.3km at 8.1%) coming in the final 20km. After the Cherave is a descent into the Meuse valley ahead of the Mur, where the fireworks are expected to go off and attacks launched. The Mur de Huy starts out in gentle fashion at five per cent under the flamme rouge but then comes the famous S-bends with gradients of 19% or even steeper via the inside line. The gradient eases off near the top and by that stage it’s just about holding on or making a charge to the finish line. Timing is vital for whoever wants to win the stage and try to grab the time bonuses and perhaps the yellow jersey.
Of course, this won’t just be a Flèche-Wallonne take two; things will play out differently in the context of a Grand Tour rather than a one-day race. There are more aims and considerations at play than simply crossing the line first, not to mention the fact that the stage is 46km shorter than the Ardennes Classic.
Martin hoping to bounce back
However those differences will not diminish Alejandro Valverde’s status as favourite for victory. The Spaniard has won Flèche-Wallonne two years running and knows exactly how to position himself and time his effort on the Mur. The other big favourite has to be Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin). He was fourth in Flèche-Wallonne in 2013 and second last year. The finish suits him down to the ground and after the disappointment of crashing out of this year’s Classic, he has made no secret of his desire to make amends today. Other riders to watch for today are Simon Gerrans and his Orica-GreenEdge teammate Michael Albasini. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) is a threat too but hurt his knee in a crash during stage two.
Whoever wins, it seems pretty likely that the yellow jersey will change hands once again, with currently third-placed Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) in pole position to take advantage and make up for missing yellow in the opening time trial. He can climb better than Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin and should make up the six seconds and three seconds needed to overhaul each respectively. He would become the first Dutchman to wear the yellow jersey since Erik Breukink 26 years ago.
As for those hoping to be contesting the GC throughout the race, there isn’t a great deal of scope to open up big gaps but the bunch will be strung out on the Mur and anyone who finds themselves towards the back will have trouble moving up and could get stuck behind gaps and so lose time. It should be a less selective affair than Flèche, which will make for an even more hectic fight for position inside the final 10km, intensified yet more by the anxiousness of those who lost time yesterday.
It is crucial that those riders, including Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), are up near the front and they may even look to take back a few seconds of their own, with eyes on the 10 bonus seconds for the winner on the line, six for second and four for third.