Yesterday provided plenty of excitement with seven attacks from Alberto Contador during the short final climb and sprint for the line.
Stage 4 brings a ski station summit finish but it’s a more gradual affair, a road wide enough to ensure visitors can reach the estación de esquí with ease. By contrast it won’t be easy for the riders but that’s because the pace will be high.
The Route: the race heads south, away from the Basque region and back to the Rioja area. The Puerto de Orduna is a major climb, 7.7km long and averaging 7.8%. Then it’s a gradual approach via an intermediate sprint and on to Ezcaray, after which the race finishes up on the ski station above the town. An important element to note is the distance, it’s just 160km and therefore we should fast racing with fireworks, as opposed to the energy sap and attrition of a 200km mountain stage.
The Finish: it’s 13km at 5.2%. The steepest part comes at the start with a 9% gradient and the first part is the hardest. We should see a selection here but anyone who makes the grade has a chance to hang on later on as the gradient eases. The pace might pick up but a weaker rider can try to cling on to the back, benefiting from the draft. Note how much it flattens out towards the top with the last kilometre being just 2% and easing to 1% on the line.
The Scenario: a breakaway might go and Movistar should chase to protect Alejandro Valverde’s red jersey although only 45 riders lie within three minutes of Valverde on the overall. So there’s a chance that some riders are allowed to stay away whilst the overall contenders mark each other. But there are no gifts and I think today’s stage suits riders like Dani Moreno, Joaquim Rodriguez, Valverde and others who can sprint fast after a climb so we could see several squads trying to set up their riders for the win.
Still we have a clear indication of the top riders already as Valverde was joined by Joaquim Rodriguez, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. Contador rode up yesterday’s finish as if there was a cactus on his saddle, no sooner would he sit down then he’d stand up again, grimacing as he accelerated. It underlines how exciting he is to watch but for all the effort, he finished fourth yesterday and so actually lost time to the other three.
History: the race has visited the ski station four times before and the first winner was Irishman Sean Kelly. A classics specialist, he nevertheless won the Vuelta in 1988 but it gives us a clue about the finish, it is not exclusively for the mountain goats.
Weather: sunny and hot with temperatures reaching 33°C (90°F). A light breeze of 20km/h will offer a crosswind during much of the stage.
Local rider: I can’t find the local pro but the town of Ezcaray has San Lorenzo as its patron saint so who better than Rabobank’s Laurens Ten Dam to enjoy the day?