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Live coverage of stage 3 of the Ruta del Sol, 183.8 kilometres from Sanlúcor La Mayor to Seville.
It's been very much the Alejandro Valverde show thus far at the Ruta del Sol, as the 33-year-old Movistar man has claimed three stage victories in as many days. The Spaniard has made a habit of claiming early wins since his return from his belated Operacion Puerto suspension at the beginning of the 2012 season. His rich vein of form at the start of the current campaign recalls his startling El Imbatido phase of a decade ago, when every Spanish race in the spring of 2004 seemed to end with Valverde on the podium.
Coming into today's stage, Valverde holds a commanding overall lead, and he will expect to defend his jersey on the flat run-in to Seville.
General classification after stage 2:
1 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 10:20:12
2 Richie Porte (Aus) Team Sky 0:00:20
3 Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (Spa) Caja Rural - Seguros RGA 0:00:22
4 Jon Izaguirre Insausti (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:33
5 Tanel Kangert (Est) Astana Pro Team 0:00:43
6 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Belkin-Pro Cycling Team 0:00:44
7 Thomas Degand (Bel) Wanty - Groupe Gobert 0:00:51
8 Daniel Navarro Garcia (Spa) Cofidis, Solutions Credits 0:00:55
9 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Astana Pro Team 0:01:02
10 Luis Angel Mate Mardones (Spa) Cofidis, Solutions Credits 0:01:24
The day's early break features Fabio Silvestre (Trek), Edward Theuns (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Martijn Tusveld (Rabobank Development Team) and Haritz Orbe (Euskadi). Theuns kicked off the attacking inside the opening kilometres and quickly found reinforcements. The peloton was happy to let them to it, and the quartet built up a lead of 2:48 by the 97km mark.
By that point, Team Sky had begun to take up the chase in the main peloton, with Bradley Wiggins particularly to the fore at the head of the field. Incidentally, the Englishman will be spending more time in Spain this spring than previously planned. Wiggins revealed to Cyclingnews during the week that he has altered his racing programme, and will ride the Volta a Catalunya instead of Dwars dor Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem. "I felt like I needed a bit more stage racing to get up to full speed for Paris-Roubaix," Wiggins said.
The break's lead is now down to 1:35 and with a largely flat run-in to Seville, the stage seems set for a bunch finish on the Calle Secoya.
As we finally pick up live television pictures, there are 41 kilometres remaining and the break is down to three riders. Silvestre has been dropped, but Theuns, Tusveld and Orbe have a lead of 1:50 over the bunch.
The long, wide and straight roads leading towards Seville mean that this is going to be a very tall order indeed for the three escapees to stay clear. In the wake of Marcel Kittel's withdrawal through illness on Thursday, there is no outstanding favourite in the event of a bunch finish, and so a spread of teams should be interested in contributing to the chase.
Giant-Shimano have also lost Luka Mezgec through illness, although Tom Veelers and Nikias Arndt should still be to the fore in the finale in Seville.
Up front, the three escapees are continuing to collaborate smoothly but there's no real sense of urgency in the peloton as yet. Valverde's Movistar guard are grouped near the front but are happy to clip along at a steady tempo for now.
A slight ripple in the peloton as the pace begins to lift ever so slightly. Cofidis are also contributing to the pursuit of the three escapees, and the gap has dropped to 1:17.
The black jerseys of Sky are also beginning to drift towards the head of the peloton. Pete Kennaugh and, particularly, Geraint Thomas put in sterling work in support of Richie Porte and stages 1 and 2, but Sky's efforts ultimately turned into lengthy lead-outs for Valverde. Today, the team is working for Edvald Boasson Hagen, who might well fancy his chances in a sprint in the absence of Kittel.
The break is on a long, shallow descent and consequently the speed is very high indeed. Once the road flattens out in the final 20 kilometres, however, the peloton should start to make more significant inroads into their advantage, which remains at 1:15.
Theuns puts in a long, long turn on the front of the break in a bit to breathe further life into their efforts, but the catch seems all but inevitable on this kind of finale.
As the break enters the final 20 kilometres of racing, their gap drops inside the one-minute mark. As if in reaction to the chalkboard, Orbe surges to the front and the break appears more ragged now than it was ten kilometres ago.
The bunch is in no mood to reel in the leading trio just yet, and they seem happy to allow them a lead of around a minute or so for now. Meanwhile, Alejandro Valverde is marshalled up towards the safety of the front of the bunch by a phalanx of Movistar teammates. The Spaniard has placed a significant downpayment on overall victory in the opening three days and he won't want to pilfer that away needlessly on the run-in today.
Xabier Zandio rides on the front for Team Sky, while Wiggins pedals comfortably a three wheels further back in the main peloton.
Theuns, Tusveld and Orbe are now zipping through La Algaba, on the outskirts of Seville. Their lead is down to 34 seconds.
The three escapees are back in open countryside after crossing the Guadalquivir, but there is precious little wind to affect their progress on a clear afternoon in Andalucia.
Valverde is keeping a close watching brief on affairs at the front end of the peloton as the gap drops to 21 seconds.
The unity of the break fractures. Tusveld attacks and Theuns follows, while Orbe is left glued to the road. The bunch is just 17 seconds back, however.
Theuns and Tusveld are battling gamely to stay clear, but they're raging against the dying o f the light here as the pace continues to ratchet upwards in the main peloton on this long, exposed road that leads into Seville.
The bunch splits in two as it negotiates a tricky roundabout followed by a long, narrow traffic island, but they will soon reunite and continue the ineluctable reeling in of the two surviving escapees.
Movistar sit at the head of the prong when the bunch merges once again. Up ahead, Theuns attacks again and is now alone in front.
Tusveld sits up and Edward Theuns (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) is alone against the peloton. The Belgian's surge has briefly extended his lead to 13 seconds, but he, too, will soon be brought to heel.
The Movistar delegation continues to dictate terms at the head of the bunch, but Belkin are also moving up.
Bradley Wiggins is now sitting in second wheel and looking very comfortable indeed as he leads an advance party from Team Sky in support of Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Lars Petter Nordhaug (Belkin) is also up there in support of Moreno Hofland.
Theuns is caught and the stage is set for a sprint royale in Seville. There's been no sign of MTN-Qhubeka at the front, but the South African squad has the dangerous Gerald Ciolek in its ranks and it would be a surprise if he doesn't feature in the finale.
The combined Belkin and Sky effort up front is stringing out the peloton and making it nigh on impossible for any would-be attackers to hurl themselves off the front.
Wiggins takes up the reins at the head of the peloton with three Sky riders lined up on his wheel. The Englishman is pedalling with typical fluidity here, with Vasil Kiryienka and Geraint Thomas just behind him.
Wiggins swings off and now Kiryienka takes over on the front for Team Sky.
At the back, meanwhile, a small group containing Andrey Zeits (Astana) has lost contact with the peloton.
Kiryienka continues to set the pace in front, but the peloton is bunching behind him and no longer strung out in single file.
And, inevitably, just as riders begin to bunch up, there is a crash at the heart of the peloton and a number of riders are on the ground and more again have been held up, including Laurens ten Dam (Belkin).
The pace remains high up front, of course, as Pete Kennaugh takes over for Sky, with Geraint Thomas next in line behind him. A delegation from MTN-Qhubeka is now also moving up in support of Ciolek.
That crash has reduced the peloton to just 40 or so riders, but it appears that Valverde and the sprinters are all still in there.
Belkin take over the pace-making underneath the red kite, but Geraint Thomas tries to bring the Sky train back on level terms.
It looks set to be a chaotic sprint finish, with Nikias Arndt (Giant-Shimano) opening his effort from distance.
Gerald Ciolek and Roy Jans (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) flash across the line together and the commissaires will have to take a close look at the photo finish to separate them...
Roy Jans raises a fist. He thinks he's got the verdict, but Ciolek was very close indeed...
It looked as though Ciolek - just - got there ahead of Jans, but the reaction of each rider on crossing the line suggested the opposite. We're still waiting for official confirmation.
"They say that Ciolek won but I don't think so," Jans says by the podium. "If Ciolek thought he won, he would be here..." Er, that's not quite how it works, Roy...
"I think that I won but let's wait for the confirmation," Jans says. We're waiting for the white smoke from Seville, but the early whispers suggest Ciolek has been given the decision.
Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) has been awarded the victory on stage 3 of the Ruta del Sol.
"I just got the news when we were sitting on the bus and they came up to be and said that I had won. It was really close at the finish," Ciolek said. "The rider of Wanty was on the left side and I couldn't see him properly."
Four riders dived for the line at the same time - Ciolek, Jans, Moreno Hofland and Nikias Arndt - but it was Ciolek who timed his effort just right.
1 Gerald Ciolek (Ger) MTN-Qhubeka
2 Roy Jans (Bel) Wanty Groupe Gobert
3 Moreno Hofland (Ned) Belkin Pro Cycling Team
4 Nikias Arndt (Ger) Team Giant-Shimano
5 Tom Van Asbroeck (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise
6 Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto Belisol
7 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Team Sky
8 Fabio Silvestre (Por) Trek Factory Racing
9 Kenneth Van Bilsen (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise
10 Davide Vigano (Spa) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) retains the overall lead, although some riders near the top of the standings were caught up in the crash in the finale. It appears that the incident took place inside the final 3 kilometres, however, so the overall standings listed below could yet be corrected once the commissaires have reviewed it.
General classification after stage 3:
1 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team
2 Richie Porte (Aus) Team Sky00:00:20
3 Luis León Sánchez (Spa) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA00:00:22
4 Jon Izagirre (Spa) Movistar00:00:33
5 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Astana Pro Team
Thanks for joining us on Cyclingnews for today's live coverage from the Ruta del Sol. A full report, results and pictures will follow here.