25/08 - Stage 3 - Cádiz to Arcos de la Frontera - 197.8 km

After a team time trial and a classic bunch sprint, it’s now time for a bit more undulating terrain. Today’s stage could easily produce a surprise winner. However, we still have a couple of clear favorites.

The route
Looking into the road book, you might be surprised to see that the riders don’t start today’s stage on land. Instead, the Vuelta organizers have decided to put the neutral start on the Spanish navy ship "Juan Carlos I". From here, the riders take on 11.5 km on the mainland before it’s time for the official start. The first couple of kilometers from Cadiz through San Fernando are the same as the finish of stage 2. The following 80 km are flat and we can expect a breakaway to gain a solid gap on the peloton before they start on the hilly part of the stage.

With 113 km to go, the riders take on the first categorized climb of the day. Like the remaining ascents, Puerto de Gális (7.1 km / avg. 5.3 %) is a category 3 climb, offering 3 points to the first rider over its top. From here, it’s pretty much up and down for the following 60 km including three categorized climbs.

Alto Alcornocales (9 km / avg. 2.9 %)
Alto del Camino (13.3 km / avg. 3.6 %)
Puerto del Boyar (6.6 km / avg. 5.6 %)

From the top of Puerto del Boyar, there are just under 50 km to go. Due to a long descent, dropped riders will be able to regain contact with the peloton before the final.

The finish
With about 2.5 km to go, the peloton turns right in a sharp 90° corners onto a very narrow bridge taking the riders over Río Guadalete. It’s very important to be well-positioned at this point as it will be extremely difficult to move up in the peloton on the narrow roads. After crossing the river once again (yes, they could just have continued straight-out and avoided the potential crashes), it won’t take long before the riders start climbing up towards the finishing line in Arcos de la Frontera. The final 1.4 km are uphill with the steepest part at the beginning of the ascent. The gradients drop a bit as the peloton passes under la flamme rouge before the road starts to kick up again. There is another semi-steep part with about 400 meters to go before the final 100 meters are flat towards the line.

The favorites
Even though this stage finishes with an uphill section, I doubt we will see the GC riders fighting for the win. The 10 bonus seconds on the lines speak against this, but even Alejandro Valverde or Dani Moreno will have problems beating the following riders.

My personal favorite today is Michael Matthews. Last winter, he was working hard to improve his climbing skills. Something he has proven numerous times during the season. He’s still very fast on the line and an uphill sprint like this is right up his alley. After missing the Tour de France due to a crash just a few days before the start, Matthews is now very eager to take revenge. GreenEdge came close to winning the opening team time trial putting Matthews in the red leader’s jersey. Today he has another chance to make this happen. Due to the bonus seconds, a win today, will be enough for the young Australien to take over the lead of the race. I’m sure GreenEdge will do whatever they can do set up Michael Matthews to win in Arcos de la Frontera this afternoon.

Because of Matthews’ crash before the Tour, we never had the duel between him and Peter Sagan. The strong Slovakian easily won the green jersey. Somehow, I think it would have been a different story had Matthews been in the race. Now, however, we finally get to see the two riders going head-to-head. Sagan has proven that he’s one of the best riders in the world on a finish like this countless times. Like GreenEdge, Cannondale, too, was very close to winning Saturday’s TTT. This means Sagan is still within striking distance of the red jersey. With only one race start after the Tour, Cannondale decided to let Oscar Gatto have a go on stage 1 instead of Peter Sagan. The main goal for Sagan is to prepare for the World Championships. Today’s stage is good day to test the legs and sprint for glory. The finish suits him perfectly and unless a late attack takes the peloton by surprise, I think the fight for the win will be between Michael Matthews and Peter Sagan. Of course, if Sagan still doesn’t feel ready, Oscar Gatto will be given the chance once again.

The outsiders
On paper, this finish is also perfect for Philippe Gilbert. He’s arriving at the Vuelta in great shape, much stronger than last year, and this has to be one of the stages marked in his road book. In tip-top condition, few can match Gilbert on these kinds of finishes. Today’s finish reminds a bit of the one in Brabantse Pijl, also with a late left-hand corner. This year, Gilbert outsprinted Michael Matthews to win the race. He will be eager to repeat that performance today. However, I doubt Philippe Gilbert has the power to match the speed of Matthews or Sagan. Instead, Gilbert might try to attack early on the final ascent, leaving the rest of the favorites looking at each other.

Another very strong contender today is John Degenkolb. Finishing second on stage 2, the strong German is obviously in very good shape right now, despite not having raced since the Tour. He doesn’t have a punchy kick like Matthews, Sagan or Gilbert on these kinds of uphill finishes but he’s still extremely strong. He started his sprint a bit too late on stage 2, never able to catch up with a brilliant Nacer Bouhanni. Today, John Degenkolb has another chance of finally breaking the spell and crossing the line first.

For other strong outsiders look to riders like: Jasper Stuyven, Vicente Reynes, Lloyd Mondory, Alexey Lutsenko and Filippo Pozzato. Not to forget Nathan Haas. The Australian will be wearing the blue dotted KOM jersey today, making him easily recognizable. Garmin doesn’t have a real sprinter in the race and I doubt the finish is steep enough for Dan Martin to excel. Haas is clearly in good shape. Unless he joins the morning breakaway in order to try keeping his mountain jersey, he should have a solid chance of a good result today.

I named Alejandro Valverde earlier. I don’t think he can outsprint guys like Matthews and Sagan but he might have other intentions today. After winning the Giro d’Italia, Nairo Quintana is naturally seen as the team leader of Movistar, especially since Valverde didn’t manage to secure the overall podium in the Tour. However, I’m sure Valverde still sees himself as leader and a strong candidate for the overall win. He won’t be able to follow Quintana on the steep climbs but he might be able to gain a few bonus seconds today to keep and extend his overall lead. It will be interesting to see what he decides to do.

To spice up the previews, once again, I’ve asked Eurosport’s on-site Vuelta reporter, Laura Meseguer, to pick a stage winner for each stage of the race. Laura is interviewing the riders before and after the stages and she knows what’s going on inside the peloton.

Today, Laura picks BMC's Philippe Gilbert to win.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv.