The sprinters have the best prospects ahead of stage 4 of the Vuelta a España. However, the finish in Molina de Aragón isn't straightforward, with an action-packed final couple of kilometres. The winner must be positioned well to cope with a sweeping descent, before powering to the finish line on a challenging uphill finish.
Stage 4 profile
After departing from Burgo de Osma, the Vuelta heads east towards the Balearic Sea. The breakaway will form early, and with little chance of holding off the peloton, the Spanish ProTeams such as Caja Rural, Burgos-BH and Euskaltel-Euskadi will likely make up the group.
With no classified climbs throughout the stage, there will be no changes in the KOM competition. However, an intermediate sprint occurs at kilometre 101 in Alcolea del Pinar. This takes place on an uphill ramp, suiting the likes of Michael Matthews more than the pure sprinters. There are also bonus seconds available to the first three riders, though these could be swept up by the breakaway.
The final 5km will be enthralling. As the riders enter the final 5,000 metres, the road will drag uphill at false flat percentages for around 3km. There will be a major race for position here, as the road then dives downhill around the east side of Molina de Aragón. The descent will be fast with long, sweeping corners.
As the riders come under the flamme rouge, the road flicks right into Molina de Aragón where the terrain changes — the road flattens as the riders pass through the city centre. With 400 metres left, the road quickly punches uphill to the finish line. Percentages here range between 3% and 7%.
The rider that can hold a strong position in the final 5km and resist the difficult final 400 metres have the best chance of victory.
Alex Aranburu (Image credit: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
The stage design makes the sprinters the primary contenders, though some of the more explosive punchers may also see this as a genuine opportunity.
Michael Matthews combines the two disciplines excellently. The Australian is more than capable in mass sprints on flat terrain — he was third on stage 2 which was won by Jasper Philipsen. However, Matthews is also very able on hilly terrain — his previous two victories came at the Bretagne Classic and Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, two races that feature plenty of uphill ramps. However, Matthews hasn’t won since returning to Team BikeExchange at the beginning of the 2021 season. Nonetheless, his third place finish on stage 2 suggests he is in good form and is ready to win.
Alpecin-Fenix won stage 2 with Jasper Philipsen, meaning they’ve won stage 2 at all three Grand Tours in 2021. Although Philipsen is strongest on flat terrain, he can resist a strong tempo on hilly terrain too — a skill that was necessary to win stage 15 of La Vuelta last season. The Belgian defeated Pascal Ackermann and Jannik Steimle on the stage which featured a distinctly similar kicker in the final 500m. That result, combined with Philipsen’s recent form, places him among the stage favourites.
The other pure sprinters will also fancy this one. Arnaud Démare was only 14th on stage 2 — not the way he wanted to start his first Vuelta. He can make amends here. Fabio Jakobsen demonstrated good form recently when he won two stages of the Tour de Wallonie. He was also a close second on stage 2. Jon Aberasturi, Piet Allegaert and Juan Sebastián Molano are three more sprinters to look out for.
Astana - Premier Tech almost provided the first major surprise of the 2021 Vuelta when Alex Aranburu stormed to first place in the time trial, only to be beaten by the last rider to cross the line: Primož Roglič. Aranburu is rapidly becoming one of the most well rounded riders in the peloton — the Spaniard also sprinted to fifth place on stage 2. He's also a great descender, so may even decide to attack in the final kilometres. He may have preferred a slightly more difficult finish, but Aranburu has a great shot here.
Some of the classics specialists may see this as a great opportunity. If Fabio Jakobsen isn’t feeling confident, Deceuninck-Quick Step may ride for Florian Sénéchal or Zdeněk Štybar. Štybar is a fine descender, so he may be their best option if they want to attack before the line. Alternatively, Sénéchal is a quick finisher, so he might wait for the uphill sprint. Matteo Trentin is another rider to watch — half of the Italian’s Grand Tour victories have come at La Vuelta.
We must also consider the puncher’s chances. Max Schachmann and Tom Pidcock wouldn’t have a great chance in a flat sprint, but the final kicker gives both an increased opportunity. Schachmann crashed on stage 2, however, so there are question marks regarding his condition.
Additionally, after finishing his stage 1 time trial, Pidcock said, “I’ve had three weeks of holidays. On the flat I was just cruising home. I couldn’t push or go deep really.” Pidcock won gold in the men’s mountain biking at Tokyo 2020. The Brit, who is making his Grand Tour debut, went on to say, “I’m glad I’m here. Hopefully, once we get into the racing a bit, I won’t be in too bad shape.” At his best, Pidcock and Schachmann could both contend for this stage.
Could Primož Roglič really have a chance? Well, he’s one of the fastest of the GC riders, and is one of the best punchers in the world. The final climb isn’t long enough to make Roglič a top favourite, but you can never completely count out the Slovenian.
Other riders to keep an eye on include Quinn Simmons, Felix Großschartner, Omar Fraile and Magus Cort.
Jasper Philipsen will have long forgotten his near misses at the Tour de France after he sprinted to victory in Burgos. The Belgian has proven that he can win on uphill finishes, and although some of the pure punchers may fancy it, Jasper Philipsen is our pick to win stage 4 of La Vuelta a España.
Cover image: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images