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Live coverage of stage 3 of the Vuelta a España, 155.3km into the Basque Country from the Faustino V wine cellars to the climb of Arrate at Eibar.
As we pick up the action after just over an hour of racing, an eight-man break has a lead of 3:10 over the peloton. Andrey Zeits (Astana), Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil-DCM), Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Dominique Rollin (FDJ-BigMat), Sergio Carrasco (Andalucia), Nico Sijmens (Cofidis) and Markel Irizar (RadioShack-Nissan) went clear inside the opening kilometres and for now, the Movistar-controlled peloton is content to keep them on a loose rein.
The attacking began almost as soon as the flag was dropped this afternoon. Carrasco and Rollin jumped off the front of the peloton inside the opening kilometre of racing, and they were quickly joined by their six companions.
The octet covered 37.1km in the first hour of racing, including the 11km-long second category climb of the Alto La Aldea. Ligthart was the first to the summit of the climb, ahead of Philippe Gilbert and Andrey Zeits.
Although its average gradient is a very manageable 3.8%, the speed on the Aldea saw the peloton split briefly but there has since been a general regrouping behind.
Movistar have ridden en masse at the front of the bunch in these early stages, defending the interests of overall leader Jonathan Castroviejo. Indeed, thanks to their victory in Saturday's team time trial in Pamplona, Movistar occupy the top six positions on general classification:
1 Jonathan Castroviejo Nicolas (Spa) Movistar Team 4:57:31
2 Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas (Col) Movistar Team 0:00:01
3 Javier Moreno Bazan (Spa) Movistar Team
4 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team
5 Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (Spa) Movistar Team
6 Juan Jose Cobo Acebo (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:04
7 Dennis Van Winden (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:00:10
8 Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma-Quickstep
9 Kevin De Weert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Quickstep
10 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) BMC Racing Team
Castroviejo insists that he expects to lose his red jersey on the final climb of the Alto de Arrate this afternoon, but Movistar will be disappointed if the jersey doesn't stay within the team. The exciting Nairo Quintana lies second overall, while Alejandro Valverde and defending champion Juan Jose Cobo also ought to be involved at the business end of the action today.
The Arrate is a climb with a rich history, but one that has been absent from the Vuelta for the past 38 years. Thankfully, last year saw the Vuelta make a hugely successful return to the Basque Country after a 33-year absence, and this time around, the race visits one of the region's most enduring climbs. Alasdair Fotheringham traces the history of the climb at the Vuelta, Tour of the Basque Country and the Euskal Bizikleta here.
Today's stage is to all intents and purposes a summit finish, but after the top of the Arrate (5.5km at 7.8%), there are still two kilometres of false flat before the line, not unlike the climb to Lago Laceno at this year's Giro.
Before that, the peloton will tackle the 3rd category climbs of the Puerto de Vitoria (66km) and the Puerto de Campazar (120km), but expect the overall contenders to keep their powder dry for the day's final climb. As Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) pointed out to lavuelta.com, "There will be no great differences today, but we will see who will not win the Vuelta."
The eight escapees are now on the early slopes of the day's second climb, the Puerto de Vitoria (6.7km at 3.2%).
In spite of the searing temperatures, the break is setting a resolute tempo on the Puerto de Vitoria and stretching out its advantage over the peloton. Their lead is now 4:20.
Pim Ligthart clearly has his heart set on a stint in the mountains jersey. The Dutchman takes maximum points atop the Puerto de Vitoria ahead of Gilbert and Zeits.
The peloton reaches the top of the day's second climb 4:09 behind the eight leaders.
As the race enters his native Basque Country, Igor Anton will be among the riders aiming to impress. Twelve months ago, the Euskaltel-Euskadi man took a stirring stage victory in front of enormous and passionate crowds in Bilbao. This time around, he has thegeneral classification in mind
While the temperatures out on the course are touching a balmy 38 degrees, we're informed that it's mercifully cooler at the finish at Arrate. It's worth noting that in the years since its switch to the its Autumnal slot on the calendar in 1995, the Vuelta start has nudged further and further into August. Back in 1995, some wondered if the weather was impacting too much on the action when Laurent Jalabert, Abraham Olano et al had to battle some decidely wintry conditions in the gloom of the Pyrenees in the third week, but in recent seasons, the soaring temperatures of the opening half of the race have exacted a similar toll on the peloton's resources.
As the race approaches the province of Gipuzkoa, the peloton has shaved 20 seconds or so off the break's lead. The gap is currently 3:47
The eight escapees are currently pedalling through some typically verdant Basque terrain en route to the day's third climb, the Puerto de Campazar, while Movistar continue to peg back the gap steadily, and the peloton is now 3:20 behind.
Jonathan Castroviejo puts in a stint on the front as the peloton sweeps down a short descent. The red jersey has no illusions about his place in the hierarchy at Movistar on a stage like this.
All eyes will, of course, be on Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) this afternoon. Back in action after the expiry of his backdated suspension for his positive test for clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France, Contador set out his stall yesterday by snapping up a two-second bonus in an intermediate sprint. The Spaniard reckons thatevery second will count
in this Vuelta, and it would be no surprise to see him on the offensive on the final climb here.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC) is the best-placed rider overall in the break but rather than dreaming of wearing the red jersey this evening, the Belgian is hoping to resurrect his form ahead of the world championships in Valkenburg next month. Remarkably after his all-conquering 2011, Gilbert is still without a win this season.
Pablo Lastras leads a long string of Movistar riders at the head of the peloton, and their efforts have sliced the break's lead back to 2:35.
The break is now on the approach to the day's penultimate climb, the Puerto de Campazar (5.7km at 4.8%).
Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde, Juan Jose Cobo and Alberto Contador are all placed towards the front end of the peloton on this climb. The real blows won't be dealt until the final haul up the Arrate but the contenders are beginning the survey the battlefield nonetheless.
Zeits has done the lion's share of the pace-setting in the leading group on this climb but the Kazakh is maintaining a steady tempo and the eight original members of the break are still together with a 3-minute lead over the peloton.
Movistar continue to set the pace at the front end of the peloton, but there is a phalanx of Katusha riders on the right-hand side of the road shepherding Joaquim Rodriguez. The Catalan has some very solid support at this Vuelta in the shape of Dani Moreno and Denis Menchov.
No surprises at the top of the Campazar, as Lightart again picks up maximum points ahead of Sijmen and Gilbert. The peloton crosses the summit 2:40 down on the escapees.
With a lead of almost 2:30, the escapees might just about hold on until the foot of the final climb, but it would be a surprise if one of their number were to take stage victory, particularly with Movistar beginning to up the ante in earnest behind.
The Basque Markel Irizar isn't short on motivation on today's stage and the RadioShack-Nissan man looks keen to inject some urgency into the break's efforts as Movistar continue to chip away at their lead.
The lime green helmets of Movistar are the arrowhead at the front of the peloton, but there is plenty of jostling for positions in their slipstream on the run-in towards the day's final climb.
Entering the final 20 kilometres, the break's lead has been cut to two minutes.
Dominique Rollin (FDJ-BigMat) jumps away from his companions to pick up the bonus seconds at Zaldibar, but he doesn't continue in his effort afterwards, and the eight leaders continue to work together.
The pace has gone up a notch or three in the main peloton. As they swept through the sprint at Zaldibar, their deficit had been reduced to 1:36.
Team Sky look to be attempting to replicate the tactics that have served them throughout the campaign - a mass of black jerseys hit the front of the peloton setting the tempo for Chris Froome.
No sooner do Sky marshal Froome to the front than a Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank delegation muscles its way into position at the head of the bunch in support of Alberto Contador. The shadow boxing commences in earnest.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep are also looking to set up their man Dario Cataldo near the front of the peloton. Meanwhile, Pim Ligthart was jettisoned out the back of the leading group and he is about to be swallowed up by the main peloton.
Nico Sijmens is also beginning to lose contact with the break under the impetus of Philippe Gilbert, but the leaders' advantage now stands at just 50 seconds with 14km to go.
As Tony Martin puts in a monstruous turn on the front of the bunch, the break's lead falls below 30 seconds.
Dominique Rollin has been swept up by the main peloton as Ian Stannard (Sky) sets the pace.
The gap is down to just 18 seconds as the race enters Eibar on the sinuous approach to the climb of Arrate. Positioning will be crucial on the narrow run-in to the final climb.
Irizar takes up the baton from Gilbert at the head of the break, but the six survivors know that they are holding a beaten docket at this point.
Right on cue, the Sky-led peloton catches the remains of the break, 1,500 metres from the foot of the final climb.
The narrow roads on this approach are hardly made any easier by the cars parked along the kerbside.
The race hits the opening slopes of the Arrate, and Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) is the first man to attack. The Dutchman presses clear with smooth, confident pedal strokes, but Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank quickly snuff out his move.
Alberto Contador is sitting in second wheel now as the peloton is strung out in one long line. Froome is on his wheel, with Dani Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez lined up behind him.
As Daniel Navarro swings over, Contador hits the front, but the Spaniard feels that it is too soon to strike and he slows the pace.
Jonathan Castroviejo has been dropped by the leaders, and the front end of the peloton has been whittled down to just 20 or so riders, although the pace has steadied slightly.
Contador has dropped back into the relative sanctuary of the leading group. Sergio Henao leads Chris Froome.
Juan Jose Cobo's Vuelta defence is being dealt a blow here. The Spaniard is unable to follow the pace, currently being set by a determined Laurens den Tam. Alejandro Valverde sits on the Dutchman's wheel...
Valverde attacks and the repsonse comes immediately from Alberto Contador...
Froome and Rodriguez are both able to follow and it looks as though we might have a rather elite front group of four fighting for the honours.
The pace peters out when Froome hits the front and Igor Anton attempts to drag himself back on terms.
A vicious attack from Contador temporarily puts Froome on the ropes, as only Rodriguez and Valverde can follow initially, but the Briton eventually makes his way back across.
The stop-go accelerations were hurting Froome, but a lull in the tempo sees a larger group of 15 riders or so form at the front. Rigoberto Uran sets a steady rhythm at the front for Froome.
Contador rips away once again, dancing on the pedals. Again, Rodriguez is the first man across, then Valverde, while Froome is slower to respond each time.
Contador's move fizzles out, although he has shed more riders from the rear of the leading group. Nicolas Roche and then Igor Anton are the next take over at the front of the race.
After a quick breather, Contador puts in another fearsome blow, and again it's Rodriguez and Valverde who follow first, then a more leaden Froome. The rest of the leading group looks set to be distanced definitively this time.
On the final steep ramp, Contador puts in yet another dig, but he can't rid himself of his three companions. Valverde, Rodriguez and Froome are all present and correct. Indeed, Froome saved his prompest response for Contador's latest acceleration.
Valverde sets the pace for the four leaders on the false flat over the top towards the finish line, but once again Contador is sizing up an acceleration.
Inside the final kilometre, Contador launches yet another attack, but Valverde pegs him back.
With 400 metres to go, Rodriguez shoots off the front of the leading group in what looks to be the winning move. Only Valverde can follow, while Contador and Froome have been caught on the back foot...
Valverde pips Rodriguez at the finish line to take the stage win by the tightest of margins. The Spaniard will also move into the red jersey of overall leader.
That sprint was incredibly close and we're awaiting confirmation that it was indeed Valverde who took the win ahead of Rodriguez. Just behind them, Froome took the sprint for third ahead of Contador.
Confirmation: Valverde has won the stage, just ahead of Rodriguez. Froome and Contador crossed the line together in 3rd and 4th, while Daniel Moreno (Katusha) came home in 5th place, 6 seconds down, just ahead of Bauke Mollema (Rabobank), Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale), Benat Intxausti (Movistar), Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank).
Froome's third-place finish sees him pick up four seconds' worth of time bonuses on Alberto Contador.
1 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 3:49:37
2 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team
3 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling
4 Alberto Contador (Esp) Team Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank
5 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:00:06
6 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team
7 Eros Capecchi (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale
8 Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (Spa) Movistar Team
9 Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin - Sharp
10 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team
Valverde's 12-second bonus for winning the stage means that he will carry an 18-second lead over teammate Benat Inxausti into tomorrow's stage.
1 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 8:46:56
2 Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:18
3 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 0:00:19
4 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:00:20
5 Alberto Contador (Esp) Team Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank 0:00:24
6 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:00:28
7 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:00
8 Rigoberto Uran Uran (Col) Sky Procycling 0:00:30
9 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:00:33
10 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi 0:00:46
Nicolas Roche, Rigoberto Uran and Igor Anton were also in that group that finished 6 seconds down on Valverde, Rodriguez, Contador and Froome. Juan Jose Cobo's Vuelta defence is in difficulty, however, as he couged up 50 seconds on the final climb, along with Maxime Monfort (RadioShack-Nissan). Damiano Cunego lost 1:28, Denis Menchov 1:52 and Thomas De Gendt 2:07. Other men to record surprisingly large losses include Nairo Quintana (2:57) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (3:23). The Vuelta hasn't been won on the Subida a Arrate, but for some, it has been all but lost.
Thanks for joining us for our live coverage of today's stage. A full report, results and pictures will be on Cyclingnews here, as well as all the news from a fascinating day's racing in the Basque Country. We'll be back with more from stage 4, which features a summit finish at the Estación de Valdezcaray.