Sergio Henao (Sky) won stage 3 at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) on Wednesday.
The 168-kilometer course from Vitoria-Gasteiz to Trapagaran culminated with 14km of climbing at the finish, with a steep Category 2 at the summit — which peaked at a 21 percent gradient in the final 500 meters.
Henao finished a sliver of a wheel ahead of Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale). Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) was third.
Henao’s effort put him in the overall race lead, with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) eight seconds behind. Ten seconds back in third is Richie Porte (Sky), while Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) is fourth with the same time. Caruso is fifth, also 10 seconds behind.
Contador finished seventh despite puncturing with 20km left in the stage.
“Today, the Vuelta started for real. It was a fast stage,” Contador said. “Henao was very strong and Porte was also good today, so Sky must now be taking control of the race. The race is still very open, not only because there are three hard stages to go, but the differences are still very small.”
The peloton fractured as riders began to break when the road got steeper, and a dance of sitting in the saddle and then standing up to give the legs a rest ensued. A motorcycle in the middle of the pack had to veer off the course because it was going so slow due to the steep grade.
The road briefly leveled out before the final kilometer. In the final 500m, Henao attacked and was able to hold off his chargers. Betancur seemed to think Henao impeded him near the finish line and raised his arms in protest, but replays appeared to show the opposite.
Porte, who crossed the line in sixth place, was relaxed after the stage and took confidence from his ride.
“That wasn’t as hard as everyone said it was,” said Porte. “We’ll see about tomorrow. I had no problems going with the accelerations. Now we have the jersey to protect, but we have a strong team for that.”
Americans in contention
Peter Stetina led Garmin-Sharp with an 11th-place result. His teammate Andrew Talansky couldn’t match the sharp accelerations on the steepest wall and was the 32nd rider to finish. Stetina is 16th in the GC standings.
Stetina said the team will be riding to support Talansky, whose strong time trialing skills will give him a shot for the top-5 in Saturday’s 24km race against the clock to close out the race.
“Andrew still has that ace in the hole,” Stetina said, referring to the time trial. “We’ll ride to protect him tomorrow. We had all four of us in the front group at the bottom of the climb (also Tom Danielson and Ryder Hesjedal). It was just crazy in the final wall. I got in good position and decided to try to make something of it.”
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) finished 23rd and slotted into 19th overall to keep alive his podium hopes going into the decisive three closing stages.
For the third straight day, Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) spent much of his saddle time in a break. He was joined by three others — Mikel Landa (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), and Daniel Navarro (Cofidis). The foursome rode together for 116km before the peloton swallowed them up with 10km remaining.
After the catch, a few different teams took turns at the front of the peloton before Saxo assumed the lead position with about 6km left. Contador, who won the race in 2008 and 2009, was tucked safely behind a few of his teammates.
The six-day race resumes Thursday with a 152km stage that will feature six rated climbs — including a demanding Cat. 1 at the finish.