First and second on the La Molina climb last year as rivals, Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte were third and fourth respectively for BMC on the corresponding stage in the 2016 edition of the Volta a Catalunya with Dan Martin repeating his 2013 triumph on the climb.
The stage win also saw Martin climb into the overall race lead as Nacer Bouhanni abandoned with illness, although the sprinter was unlikely to challenge for a third straight victory.
After the first of two challenging days in the Pyrenees, van Garderen is 12 seconds down on the Etixx-Quick Step rider with Porte at 19 seconds. While the Team Sky duo of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas struggled on the climb, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) all found their climbing legs.
“I wish I had a bit more response in my legs to get directly of Martin’s wheel when he went, but instead I had to slowly claw back and it cost a bit of energy. It was a good finish and both Richie and I were up there,” van Garderen said of the stage.
With two riders in the top five, Porte added he and van Garderen are well placed as their rivals look to make up time on the Port Ainé summit finish.
“It was good effort from Tejay and I think. Its not up to us to make the race so we are in a good position now I think," Porte said.
Richie Porte (BMC) climbs away from his rivals on La Molina (Bettini)
Good sensations for Quintana on La Molina
Nairo Quintana's first first summit finish test of the European season proved to be satisfactory, although leaves the Movistar rider wanting a little more as he finished in sixth place, at nine seconds to the La Molina stage winner Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep). Quintana was third on the 2014 ascent of the climb, having earlier won the Tour de San Luis and finished second at Tirreno-Adriatico, but has only the Argentinean stage race and the Colombian road race championships in his legs by way of comparison in 2016.
"We felt pretty well, yet we missed some bit of speed at the end. It was a nervous stage, quite a cold one on the summits," Quintana reflected on the stage. "We were lucky it didn’t rain; also, the work by Endura this season with the foul weather kits has been fantastic. I’m going back to the hotel satisfied, as I did at least give it a try - let’s hope for a better day tomorrow."
Sports director José Luis Arrieta added it was a good day's outing for the team considering the circumstances of the weather and it being Quintana's first European summit finish of the season.
"Team-wise, we worked well. We stayed the whole day at the front, we cooperated with Sky when the break got 12 minutes, so we could fight for the stage… but still, in such an explosive finish, it’s sort of a lottery. Maybe Nairo jumped a bit too far, too early, yet this is his first European race of the season, his first contact with the mountains here… we must remain satisfied.
Quintana, 25, added that he will try again on the stage four finish to Port Ainé. Quintana's first WorldTour win came at the 2013 Volta a Catalunya at Vallter 2000 and was third the following day on Port Ainé, the last time the climb featured in the race.
"The team reacted quite well all day, keeping us at the front and covering any need I had. Let’s hope both weather and team-mates remain as good as today, so we can improve this fifth spot," Quintana added.
Aru struggles on La Molina
After several weeks of training at altitude, Fabio Aru explained the constant change in pace throughout the third stage of the Volta a Catalunya up the final climb to La Molina was a slight shock to the system.
"I’ve paid a little for the change of rhythm in the final but the sensations were good today throughout the stage," Aru said. "Today was a difficult stage in the mountains all around La Molina. Probably as a consequence of my past month of training without racing, I was not perfectly brilliant when there was the change of rhythm for the final sprint."
Aru started his season in February at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, finishing sixth, before heading to Portugal for the Volta ao Algavre where he was ninth two weeks later but had not raced since February 21 before the Spanish WorldTour event.
Despite sitting in 21st place, 32 second down on race leader Dan Martin (Etixx-Quick Step), Aru said that he is still taking confidence from his performance and keeping perspective on his major goal of the season, leading Astana at the Tour de France.
Bardet eyeing Catalunya stage win, Pozzovivo loses time
AG2R-La Mondiale started the Volta a Catalunya with Romain Bardet and Domenico Pozzovivo as two options for the GC but after the first summit finish of the race, it was the Frenchman emerging as the team leader. Bardet surged up the La Molina finale but was unable to match the speeds of Alberto Contador and stage winner Dan Martin, crossing the line in third place. Pozzovivo meanwhile struggled on the steep slope and came home 28 seconds down on Martin in 30th place.
"I am very satisfied. I was a hard stage with 3200m positive altitude," said Bardet, who currently sits third on GC. "So, the leaders were cautious. I am happy with my ranking and my form. Last year, I quit the race before that stage and it was frustrating."
The Spanish race is Bardet's third of the 2016 season having finished second at the Tour of Oman and ninth at Paris-Nice with another top-ten result firmly in the 25-year-old's sights.
"Tomorrow, the stage is harder. I am very motivated, with a strong AG2R La Mondiale [we will] to try to defend my position and win the stage," he added.
With Pozzovivo falling down the standings, Bardet can call upon the Italian for support on the climb to Port Ainé who is looking to immediately bounce back.
"I was not on a good day," Pozzovivo told Velopro.net. "I tried to survive on the final climb, but it was hard. I tried to limit the damage, but it was tough. Definitely I expected more, but unfortunately the legs were bad. Now we'll see if the shape is better tomorrow. In the team we have Romain (Bardet) who is in great shape and should find solid terrain for him tomorrow."
Romain Bardet crosses the line in third place (TDW Sports)
Kévin Van Melsen last man standings in Dwars door Vlaanderen breakway
Wanty-Groupe Gobert's Kevin Van Melsen proved to be the most persistent and aggressive rider in the Dwars door Vlaanderen breakaway as the 28-year-old was the last man standing. Van Melsen had been joined by Alexis Gougeard (AG2R La Mondiale), Jesper Asselman (Roompot - Oranje Peloton), Alex Kirsch (Stölting Service Group), Phil Bauhaus (Bora-Argon 18) and Igor Boev (Gazprom-Rusvelo) in the break that toiled to get clear but then quickly built an eight-minute lead over the peloton.
"After several attempts I managed to get away at the right moment with six other rides. We got a nice gap immediately," Van Melsen said.
As the race entered the second half with regular sectors of pave and climbs punctuating the parcours, the break started to wilt. When the break hit the Oude Kwaremont, Van Melsen upped the pace to ride away from his companions.
"I felt really good today and thought: why not have some fun? It's good publicity for me and for the team as well," Van Melsen said of his move.
It was a short lived stint at the head of the race though with the 28-year-old caught with 20km to race who rolled over the line in 93rd place, blaming a lack of cohesion in the chase group.
"That is my only regret today. We had a nice gap on the bunch which meant we could have gone all the way and I would have been able to get a top ten," he added.
Explaining his disappointment with 58th at Cholet-Pays De Loire and a DNF at Classic Loire Atlantique last week, Van Melsen added he was pleased to show himself and be an animator of the race.
"I wasn't happy with how I did this weekend in France but today I felt reassured with my form for the upcoming races," he said.