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Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) won stage 3 of Vuelta al Pais Vasco ahead of Sergio Henao (Sky) and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana on Wednesday.
The three riders — all GC favorites — jumped clear of the peloton on the day’s final categorized climb and sped down a treacherous descent in the final few kilometers to Zumarraga, Spain.
Despite botching the final corner before the finish straight, Rodriguez kept it together and delivered a strong sprint to claim his first victory of 2015.
“I had been on a bad run with a lot of incidents and a long time without winning,” said Rodriguez, whose Katusha team enjoyed a double success as Alexander Kristoff won the Scheldeprijs semi-classic in Belgium. “I hope this can be the start of what I would call a normal run rather than a good one.”
On another undulating stage that contained eight categorized climbs in all, it was two climbs up the Alto de la Antigua in the final 40km that proved decisive.
On the first time round, a number of riders had to dismount and push their bikes to the top of the hill having lost momentum due to the huge crowds on the side of the road.
Heading into the final climb, Lieuwe Westra (Astana) was solo, off the front, after riding earlier in the 170.7km day with Omar Fraile (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Sander Armée (Lotto-Soudal), and Hugh Carthy (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA).
Westra had a 23-second lead with 10 kilometers left, but it was not meant to last.
He was caught inside of five kilometers to go, and then it was time for the GC riders to take over.
Henao attacked just before the crest of the category-two Alto de La Antigua. He was soon joined by Rodriguez and Quintana. Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) led the nearest chase group, not far behind.
Henao was on the front as the trio descended to the final kilometer of racing.
Rodriguez moved to the front to drive the pace. Henao then jumped off of the Katusha rider’s wheel after a sharp left-hand corner.
In the final 150 meters, Rodriguez was right on Henao’s wheel and went again, taking the win, his first of the season.
“It was a difficult stage with the wind all day, a lot of short climbs and in the end an explosive finish,” said Quintana. “In the end I just wanted to save the most important thing [the general classification]. The others were stronger and they won.”
Henao now leads the overall at Pais Vasco. Rodgriguez sits second, and Quintana is third place. The trio are all on the same overall time heading into Thursday’s stage 4, a 162km ride from Zumarraga to Arrate, which includes seven categorized climbs and a category-one summit finish.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.