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Hello and welcome the Cyclingnews live coverage of stage three of the Vuelta a España.
Today’s stage is a testing 157.3km between Marbella and Málaga. The 1st category Puerto del León should break up the race while the uphill finish should guarantee an exiting finale.
As we pick up the action, a seven-man breakaway is up the road. Biel Kadri (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Javier Ramirez (Andalucia-Cajasur), Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Mikael Cherel (FDJ), Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Niki Terpstra (Milram) and Serafin Martinez (Xacobeo Galicia) collected on the front after the race attacked the 3rd category Puerto de Ojén climb as soon as it left Marbella.
The pace was fast from the gun today and there were plenty of willing attackers on that early climb. Dutch champion Niki Terpstra (Milram) led over the summit, after double Vuelta mountains champion David Moncoutie (Cofidis) had sparked the attacking at the foot of the climb.
Meanwhile, at the rear of the peloton overall leader Mark Cavendish was in serious difficulty as soon as the road went uphill. The red jersey lost all of two minutes on the climb, although he eventually caught back up to the peloton after a lenthy chase.
Up ahead, the seven escapees worked very well together and soon built up a huge lead. With 90km to go, it was up to 9 minutes, as the peloton opted to take a relaxed approach given the extreme heat out on the road today. In the last 10km or so, HTC-Columbia and Saxo Bank have come to the front to control things and the gap has begun to come down ever so slightly.
Caisse d'Epargne come to the front of the peloton now as we approach the day's main difficulty, the Puerto del Leon, and the gap is down to 6:40.
At the start line this morning, Caisse d'Epagne manager Eusebio Unzue had this to say about the stage. “There’s no flat in the region of Andalucia. Today it’s harder than yesterday, the Puerto de Leon is long but not very difficult. It will be difficult for the sprinters who won’t have any reason to hang on in the bunch since the uphill finish isn’t for them anyway, and not even for Oscar Freire. The race is shorter than yesterday. There will be breakaways. I don’t think that Cavendish’s team will control. This is where the danger is for the favourites of the Vuelta. So their teams will have to control, but will they do it? At Caisse d’Epargne, we like this stage."
The stage finish in Malaga is on a short sharp climb and Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) will naturally be among the favourites after his victory on a similar finish in Mende at the Tour de France.
“In Malaga, there’s a high probability of the win to be contested by a group reduced to a small number of riders, that means I should have some possibility to be up there”, he explained this morning.
It's another hot day on the Vuelta. With clear blue skies and temperatures touching 35 degrees celsius, it's wonder the peloton was happy to let the escapees build up a lead, but that advantage is starting to come down now. They have 5 minutes over the pack as we approach the climb,
Niki Terpstra is in the virtual overall lead, and has been for most of the stage. He was lying 30 seconds behind Mark Cavendish this morning.
One abandon to report on today's stage so far. John-Lee Augustyn (Sky) was an early faller on the stage and the unfortunate South African was forced to leave the race.
As the breakaway riders the lower slopes of the Puerto del Leon their advantage is being crushed by the peloton behind. It's now around the 4:15 mark.
HTC-Columbia are doing a lot of the pace-setting on the front of the bunch even though this afternoon's uphill finish will clearly not be to Mark Cavendish's liking. However, it's worth remembering that there are six other HTC riders filling out the top seven placings overall behind Cavendish as a result of Saturday's team time trial. They'll clearly be hoping to keep the red jersey in the team if not necessarily on Cavendish's shoulder.
We've had conflicting accounts of John-Lee Augustyn's abandon. It now appears that he pulled out of the race due to illness and not as a result of an accident as previously reported.
Vincente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d'Epargne) has gone to the front on the Puerto del Leon and he is stringing out the peloton. A lot of sprinters are being shelled out the back and the gap to the breakaway is tumbling.
Ben Swift (Sky) has also abandoned the Vuelta. It seems as though the Sky team has been beset by a case of food poisoning. They've lost two riders so far today.
Javier Ramirez is being distanced by the breakaway as Egoi Martinez sets the pace up front.
The gap is down to just three minutes now as Saxo Bank come to the front of the main field in the service of Frank Schleck.
Javier Ramirez is just about staying in contact with his breakaway companions. The Spaniard is in the white jersey of leader of the combined classifaction today.
Liquigas-Doimo are setting the tempo on the front of the peloton now. It's going to be fascinating to see what Vincenzo Nibali does in this year's Vuelta. He was hugely impressive in making the podium at the Giro d'Italia and his form in August has certainly made a lot of people sit up and take notice.
At the start in Marbella, however, Nibali ruled himself out of making any attempt to lay down a marker today. “It’s the beginning of the race and I want to stay the quietest possible," he said. "Everybody is still too fresh, so I don’t need to attack downhill. We’ll see what’s possible in the uphill finale. It sounds difficult but Daniele Bennati is good at that.”
Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) is riding with his jersey unzipped quite a way back in the peloton, but he is nonetheless pedalling quite comfortably. He looks like a man who has come to ride this race withouy any pressure.
The breakaway is beginning to fragment now. Niki Terpstra has been dropped and could well lose out on taking the mountains jersey tonight as a result. Meanwhile, the peloton has closed to just 2:20 behind.
Serafin Martinez accelerates away from the break and immediatley opens a sizable gap over his erstwhile companions. He's looking set to take the mountains points on offer at the top of the climb, but he's also possibly thinking of trying to stay clear alone beyond that. The peloton is making serious inroads into the remainder of the break's advantage.
Andy Schleck has been dropped by the main peloton. Katusha are setting the pace on the front now, working for Joaquin Rodriguez and Filippo Pozzato. Today's finish seems custom-made for either one of the Katusha leaders.
Serafin Martinez is riding strongly off the front, although there's still some distance to the top of the climb.
David Moncoutie (Cofidis) attacks from the main peloton. He's won the King of the Mountains in the last two Vueltas and he's looking for a third title in a row. He's opened a decent gap but with fewer than 3 kilometres to the summit he's unlikely to catch the leaders before the top.
The breakaway is beginning to fragment near the top of the climb as Moncoutie catches the stragglers. He'll be hard-pressed to make it up to Serafin Martinez before the summit mind, the Spaniard is still pedalling with considerable agility.
Finally there's a bit of a crowd on the roadside as Martinez presses on towards the summit. In their defence, the heat is extreme and it's really not an afternoon for standing on an exposed moutainside.
Martinez leads over the top of the climb. David Moncoutie crosses in second place, 35 seconds behind.
1:52 the gap back to the Liquigas-led peloton at the top of the Puerto del Leon.
On the way up the Puerto del Leon, the peloton had a smooth, wide and relatively straight road to climb. The descent is decidedly narrower and more rugged and technical. It could well cause problems, especially if there's some melted tar on the corners.
Moncoutie, Egoi Martinez and Cherel are chasing Serafin Martinez around a minute behind, with the peloton closing in on them behind.
Serafin Martinez has a minute over his erstwhile companions and 1:43 over a peloton being led by two teams in black, Caisse d'Epargne and Cervelo.
Serafin Martinez was 38 seconds down overall this morning. He'll find it hard to hold his 1:36 advantage over the peloton to the line, but he's certainly riding very strongly. He's just dealt very well with a nasty section of false flat on the descent.
Caisse d'Epargne are setting the pace on the front of the peloton on the descent, the management must feel Luis Leon Sanchez can be competitive on the climb to the finish. The main peloton seems to contain around 50 riders. As yet we have no confirmation of the status of Andy Schleck or of the red jersey Cavendish.
Serafin Martinez is taking a few risks on the descent, but even if he doesn't manage to stay clear to the line he can console himself with the mountains jersey in Malaga this evening.
Martinez is on to wider and more exposed roads now and with the gap hovering around 1:10, it's unlikely that he'll stay clear to the line.
Let's not forget that Moncoutie, Cherel and Egoi Martinez are still caught in the no-man's land between the bunch and the head of the race, but they should be swept up on the run-in to Malaga.
Liquigas and Katusha are setting the pace at the front of the peloton now, as they look to bring the race back together before the uphill push to the line.
Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) is up with the main peloton. With the final climb in Malaga widely touted to be similar to the Cauberg, a lot of people have been tipping the Amstel Gold Race winner for glory on today's stage.
Martinez is still riding strongly on the front. Meanwhile, back in the peloton, Luxembourg champion Frank Schleck is looking comfortable sitting in the wheels.
Martinez is still holding his gap. He has 43 seconds over the chaser and 1:17 over the peloton. It's as though the main field has eased off a little since the base of the descent and he has a chance of staying clear to the line, provided he can survive the climb to the finish in Malaga.
The chase from the main bunch has been a little disjointed. No one team has committed to bringing down the gap.
Six kilometres to the line for the Xacobeo Galicia man Martinez. If he stays clear, he will take a remarkable treble of stage win, leaders jersey and mountains jersey.
The race bowls through the outskirts of Malaga now, past the high rise blocks on the periphery of town. Martinez's shoulders are beginning to rock a little, but his advantage is still intact.
The peloton picks up the pace now as it sweeps past the bullring near the centre of town. The gap to Martinez is down to just a little over 30 seconds as Astana come to the front.
Martinez starts the climb to the line and the peloton is eating up the road behind him now.
Perfectly timed chase from the peloton. A little over one kilometre to the line and the peloton is about to sweep him up.
Martinez is caught under the red kite as Nibali goes to the front with Gilbert on his wheel.
Gilbert accelerates with Nibali trying to close the gap.
Gilbert's got the gap, a magnificent acceleration from the Belgian.
Joaquin Rodriguez is chasing him down, this could be tight...
Gilbert takes the win and marks himelf out as a favourite for the Worlds in Melbourne. Rodriguez states his credentials for overall victory at this Vuelta with a fine second place, 3 seconds behind the Belgian.
Gilbert was pedalling with a beautiful facility in the final kilometre on the climb, that was a victory that simply oozed class. He's going to be a marked man in Geelong...
Joaquin Rodriguez was a battling second on the stage. It was a finish not unlike the finale in Mende and Rodriguez showed his mettle once again.
Gilbert might well have done enough to take over the red jersey once the time bonuses are factored in.
Provisional stage result:
1 Philippe Gilbert (OLO)
2 Joaquin Rodriguez (KAT)
3 Igor Anton (EUS)
4 Vincenzo Nibali (LIQ)
1 Philippe Gilbert (OLO)
Overall, Gilbert is 14 seconds clear of Joaquin Rodriguez.
Thanks for joining us for our live coverage of today's stage. Full results and reports will be online soon and stay tuned to Cyclingnews for extensive Vuelta coverage. We'll be back tomorrow with live coverage of stage 4 over some rugged terrain to Valdepenas de Jaen.