06/07 - Stage 3 - Anvers - Huy - 159.5 km

The route
After two days in Holland, the Tour de France circus now enters Belgium. Starting out in Anvers, the peloton heads southeast towards the Ardennes. The first 100 km won’t trouble the riders much. The sunny weather forecast is much more gentle compared to yesterday’s wet and windy conditions.

In recent years, the fight for making the early breakaways on the flat stages has been relatively easy. Everybody knows that a morning break will have very bad chances of making it all the way. It won’t keep the smaller teams from attacking right from the gun though. It will be a surprise not to see wild card teams like Bora - Argon 18,  MTN - Qhubeka and Bretagne - Séché Environnement getting involved in the action.

The first categorized climb of this year’s Tour de France comes after 109 km on the bike. Côte de Bohissau is 2.4 km long and has an average gradient of 5.5 %. This category 4 climb offers 1 KOM point the first rider over its top. 20 km later, the peloton reaches today’s intermediate sprint, which is located in Havelange. The riders targeting the green jersey will have a chance to fight for important points before they’ll let the more punchy riders take over.

After Côte de Ereffe (2.1 km / 5 % avg), the riders enter Huy with just under 10 km to go. Those riders who took part in Flèche Wallonne this year will know the final part of the stage very well. It’s exactly the same route with the inclusion of Côte de Cherave. This ascent starts with 6.8 km to go as the peloton crosses the railroad tracks. The 1.3 km towards the top have an average gradient of 8.1 % with parts of 13 %. The riders who know they can’t challenge the top favorites at the finish, have a golden opportunity to get a gap before starting on Mur de Huy.

After a fast descent, the following 2 km take place alongside La Meuse. Soon after passing the 2-km-to-go-banner, the riders turn right in the roundabout. A few hundred meters later, they turn left in another roundabout. This is where Mur de Huy begins. It’s crucial to be well-positioned at this point. If you’re not amongst the first 5-8 riders when the road narrows on the final kilometer, it will be extremely difficult to move up in the peloton. Just ask Daniel Martin. In 2013, the Irishman was, by far, the fastest rider on the last 200 meters. However, he was too far back to finish better than 4th after Dani Moreno. The last 100 meters only kick up with 6 %, giving fast riders a last chance to fight for podium.

Naturally, the fight for positions will be extremely hard coming into the final 10 km. All the GC riders want to be at the front, which could easily end up causing crashes as we saw happening in Flèche Wallonne a few months ago.

The favorites
Even though Côte de Cherave invites to attack, the most likely scenario is that it all comes down to Mur de Huy. Therefore, we should look to the best puncheurs in the peloton to fight for the win on the steep gradients.

This year, Alejandro Valverde won Flèche Wallonne for the third time in his career and the second year in a row. Mur de Huy suits him perfectly and you can be sure Valverde will be very eager to repeat his performance from April. Nairo Quintana is the designated team leader on Movistar. Valverde knows this and therefore, he has to take advantage of any given opportunity to chase his own success in this Tour de France. 2015 has been yet another incredible season for the Spaniard. He has won races since January and last week, he won the Spanish championship. He’s clearly in great shape. If Valverde can avoid any bad luck, he will be very difficult to beat today. Movistar took a beating in the crosswind on stage 2. Today, they have a good chance to bring joy back to the team.

The biggest threat to Valverde is his fellow countryman Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. He too has won Flèche Wallonne on Mur de Huy in the past. On his best days, few - if any - can follow Purito on the short and steep ascents. Knowing how mountainous the second part of the Tour is, Purito is planning to hit peak condition later in the race. However, this is a unique chance for the pint-sized Katusha captain to grab a stage win and take back 10 important seconds on his rivals. Unfortunately, Purito crashed on stage 2. Afterwards, he complained about pain in his elbow, hip and especially in his knee. This might hold him back but if he’s okay and he manages to put himself in a perfect position starting on Mur de Huy, he will be difficult to handle on the steep gradients. If everything goes as planned, he’ll most likely attack with 250-300 meters to go.

As mentioned earlier, Dan Martin was extremely strong on the final meters in 2013. He’s always amongst the best riders on Mur de Huy. Last year, the Irishman finished 2nd in Flèche Wallonne. He was one of the top favorites this year but unfortunately, he crashed out of the race before getting a chance to prove his worth. Martin is now extremely eager to get it right this time. This stage is one of his biggest goals in this Tour de France. He proved to be in good condition in Dauphiné where he finished 7th overall. Now, it’s time for Martin to take the first win of the season.

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The outsiders
Personally, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Julian Arredondo can do today. The Colombian climber has a very powerful kick on the steep gradients. Mur de Huy suits him very well. Arredondo’s idol is Purito and the two riders’ characteristics are very much alike. There are a couple of stages well-suited for Arredondo within the first 8 days. His goal is to do well on these and then target a stage win in the high mountains, hoping to take the KOM jersey as well. Arredondo was very good in the first part of Tour de Suisse last month. He faded a bit towards the end of the race but it seems like he’s ready to take on the elite once again now. Trek may not keep the yellow jersey at the end of the day but they could end up with a stage win.

Fabian Cancellara will work as hard as possible to keep his overall lead but don’t forget that Tom Dumoulin is just six seconds behind. The strong Dutchman is good on the hills. Mur de Huy is probably too steep for him to fight for the win but I wouldn’t be surprised if he managed to distance Cancellara enough to take the jersey.

Orica - GreenEdge has multiple candidates to win this stage. The Swiss veteran Michael Albasini usually performs well here. He finished 3rd in Flèche Wallonne this year and showed great condition in Tour de Suisse. It will be difficult for him to get a jump on the light puncheurs but due to his fast finish, he may be able to move up on the final 100 meters where it only kicks up with 6 %. In case Albasini isn’t up for it, the Australian team also has Simon Gerrans, Michael Matthews and Simon Yates for this stage.

One of the most motivated riders today is Tim Wellens. He comes from this area and will have plenty of supporters alongside the road. In Flèche Wallone this year, Wellens attacked over the top of Côte de Cherave. Nobody could follow him on the fast descent but unfortunately for the home favorite, he got caught on Mur de Huy just as his name started to appear on the asphalt. The moral is sky high on Lotto-Soudal after Andre Greipel’s win on stage 2. Together with the joy of riding on his home roads, Wellens will do whatever he can to take the big favorites by surprise. It will be more than difficult, but if anyone is to win from a late break on this course, it’s probably Wellens.

For other strong outsiders, look to Tony Gallopin, Bauke Mollema, Robert Gesink, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Alexis Vuillermoz. Not to forget Michal Kwiatkowski who did an enormous amount of work for his teammates on stage 2. If he’s not too drained, he may be able to replicate his podium performance from Flèche Wallonne last year.

Amongst the top GC favorites, Alberto Contador has previously proven to be strong on Mur de Huy. In 2010, Contador finished 3rd in Flèche Wallone behind Cadel Evans and Purito. On his best days, he should be able to stay within contention today. Chris Froome has also done well on steep finishes in the past. He’s not as explosive as his main rivals but if Wout Poels delivers him in a good position, I don’t think he’ll lose time. Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana lost nearly one and a half minutes on stage 2. Both should be able to do well today but I can’t see them take back any time on Contador and Froome.

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

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