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Vuelta a Espana

Expect separation in Vuelta’s first summit finish

Stage 4 of the Vuelta a España could shake up the GC picture.

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MÁLAGA, Spain (VN) — We’re three days of racing into the 73rd Vuelta a España, which means we’re long overdue for a mountaintop finish.

In a Vuelta back-loaded with much of the good stuff packed into the final week, Tuesday’s first uphill finale at this year’s Vuelta could prove more decisive than expected.

Why? Because it should provide the first real clues on who has the legs to win.

“This is the first test to confirm the strength of everyone,” said 2016 Vuelta winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar). “It will be a good test of all the GC favorites.”

In what has been hailed as the “climber’s grand tour,” organizers deliver the goods with a climb that could see the legitimate GC contenders establish themselves.

Tuesday’s 161.4-kilometer fourth stage becomes quite lumpy after it leaves the coastal opulence of Málaga behind and climbs into Granada’s more austere territory. The final climb isn’t a race-breaker, with an average grade of 5.4 percent over 12.4km, but there are biting ramps at 11 percent. One salient observer called the Cat. 1 finale to Puerto de Alfacar little more than a “paved-over goat path.”

As the saying goes, these early grand-tour climbs won’t crown the winner, but they certainly reveal who is up for a serious challenge for red in Madrid.

“Tomorrow is the first checkpoint in the climbs,” said overnight leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky). “I don’t know how I will compare to Quintana and the rest of the bunch.”

All eyes will be on Kwiatkowski, who safely defended the red leader’s jersey in Monday’s sprint stage that still featured a first-category climb (remember, this is the Vuelta). When asked if he knows anything about Tuesday’s finale, he tersely replied “no” as he dug into a plate of post-stage recovery food.

“Like any race, you try to keep it as long as possible,” he continued. “This is not a game. It’s not something you just give away. I will try to keep it as long as possible. But I have no idea how long that can be.”

Somewhat surprisingly, more than a few of the pre-race favorites have already faded out of contention even before the first real climb of the race. Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) both bled minutes in Sunday’s undulating and hot stage.

Others have given up some important time losses in a race that’s often decided by seconds. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Fabio Aru (UAE-Emirates) and Rigoberto Urán (EF-Drapac) are already awkardly a bit off the pace.

LottoNL-Jumbo’s George Bennett, cooling down on the rollers after Monday’s stage, said a few riders stand out. Without discounting his own chances — he’s targeting a top five overall in this Vuelta — he’s already noticed some legs looking strong in the bunch.

“Yates, Kelderman and Lopéz,” he said. “Tomorrow’s the first real climb. It will show everyone who has the legs to win.”