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  5. 2017 Vuelta a Espana, stage 3

2017 Vuelta a España

STAGE 3: Prades Conflent Canigó to Andorra la Vella

The peloton will ride comfortably up until Andorra, where a first natural selection process will take place. The climb to La Comella, short yet explosive, will take care of the rest. It will be complicated to organize a breakaway, but we do not write off the possibility of attacks in the very last kilometer. If one of the strong riders shows any signs of weakness, this could complicate his Vuelta.

Nibali's late surge wins Vuelta stage 3

Nibali took the stage win after chasing back on. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

ANDORRA LA VELLA, Andorra (AFP) — Vincenzo Nibali raised his hand to his helmet to imitate a shark’s fin as he sped across the finish line to win the third stage of the Vuelta a España after attacking in the final meters for the victory. The shark-themed victory salute came after Nibali — whose nickname is the “Shark of Messina” — had to chase back onto an elite group in the waning kilometers of the 158.5km stage.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to win some time and very happy to win the stage,” Nibali said.

Behind Nibali, Brit Chris Froome finished third on the day and climbed into the red race leader’s jersey. Froome now leads the race ahead of David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) and BMC teammates Nicolas Roche and Tejay van Garderen (both BMC), who are all two seconds in arrears.

“It’s been a long time since I had the red jersey, it feels amazing to put it back on,” Froome said. “To be in this position is something I’ve thought about for a long time and I worked really hard after the Tour.”

Froome and his Sky teammates were the big winners on the day, which saw the peloton tackle three categorized climbs across the Pyrenees. On the day’s final climb —the cat 2 Alto de la Camilia—Froome had teammates Mikel Nieve and Wout Poels tap out a punishing tempo on the front of the peloton. The pace was too much for fan-favorite Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), who lost touch with the group midway up the climb. .

Froome attacked inside of a kilometer from the summit of the climb, and only Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) was able to follow the acceleration. The two crested the hill together, and were eventually joined by Romain Bardet (AG2R) and Fabio Aru (Astana) on the descent. Behind, a group containing Nibali, van Garderen, Roche, Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R) and De la Cruz crested together and began the winding descent to the finish.

The Froome group appeared to be destined to hold their gap until the line, however the chase caught back on just before the final kilometer. A last-ditch attack by Froome failed to shed any of the contenders, and the group appeared to be destined for a bunch kick with half a kilometer to go.

Nibali put in a small dig inside 250 meters to go, and the held the gap to the line.

Froome is aiming to become just the third man in history to win the Tour de France and Vuelta in the same year after Frenchman Jacques Anquetil (1963) and Bernard Hinault (1978). And despite three second-placed finishes at the Vuelta, it is the first time he has led the race since his breakout Grand Tour in 2011, when he played a supporting role for Bradley Wiggins.

With nine summit finishes to come over three grueling weeks in searing Spanish summer heat, Froome believes it will be difficult to stay in front all the way to Madrid on September 10.

“It’s going to be really hard to keep it until the end, especially with the time bonuses out there,” Froome said. “It’s only two seconds to the next group of riders. It’s still really close.  I don’t expect to keep it [until] the end but I’m certainly gonna fight for it.”

The stage also narrowed down the group of contenders who can challenge Froome across the course. Chaves was the only man to match Froome’s acceleration on the climb, and looks to have the legs to challenge the Brit across the race’s mountainous parcours. Bardet and Aru were only a few seconds behind Froome on the summit, and could also challenge in the mountains. Stage winner Nibali was dropped, however he is one of the few contenders who missed the Tour de France and looked to have the fresher legs as he headed a nine-man group to the line.

Orica-Scott’s Adam and Simon Yates lost time on the climb, finishing 25 and 29 seconds in arrears, respectively. Louis Meintjes (UAE Emirates) and Illnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) both lost 54 seconds.

Contador, 34, was the biggest loser on the day. The three-time Vuelta winner did not have the legs to follow the contenders, and he finished more than two minutes down on the group of contenders. Contador in his final race before retirement, and he now trails Froome by 3mins 10secs overall.

“I don’t know what happened to me, I don’t know what it is down to, but I felt really flat,” said Contador.