Start location: Súria
Finish location: Arinsal. Andorra
Start time: 13:27 CEST
Finish time (approx): 17:30 CEST
Intuitively, it would seem to make more sense for the Vuelta a España organisers to send the riders in a southerly direction upon leaving Barcelona after the opening weekend’s Gran Salida. After all, stage four ends in Tarragona, 100 kilometres further down from Barcelona along the Mediterranean coast, and from there the race will continue heading southwards before looping back up via a rest day transfer to the Pyrenees toward the end of the second week. But instead, upon leaving today’s Catalonian start town of Súria, and the surrounding salt mines from which it esports potassium salt across the continent, the riders will venture northwards and into the high peaks of Andorra, for the first mountain stage of the race.
It certainly reads as a statement of intent from the organisers, signifying two things in particular. Firstly, that they simply cannot wait to revisit the Pyrenees having not stepped foot there since the 2020 edition. The mountain range might be the nation’s most famous, and feature every year without fail at the Tour de France, but was avoided altogether in both the last two editions, with the organisers finding enough high mountains across the rest of the country. Secondly, it also makes clear that this is a Vuelta a España for the climbers, setting the tone for a race that features no less than nine summit finishes.
Stage three profile sourced via the Vuelta website
This finish at Arinsal ski resort is the first of those nine, and genuinely tough one — tough enough to be deemed a category one mountain. As a never before used climb at the Vuelta, we can’t know exactly what to expect, but its vital statistics of 6.9km at 8.2% certainly paint a picture of one that, while not especially long, is steep enough to be selective. What stands out a lot is how unrelenting it is, too, with the gradient never really dipping below 7%, while a maximum slope of 13% about two-thirds of the way up in particular looks like an inviting springboard for attacks from GC contenders.
The final climb is not the only obstacle to be overcome, either, as the similarly hard (albeit not as steep) Coll d'Ordino immediately precedes it, with only a short 13km descent separating them, making this the only stage during the first week to feature back-to-back category one climbs. This is therefore a proper mountain stage, one that will see the first real blows exchanged between the GC favourites, and likely a stage win too — no stage-hunting rider strong enough on the climbs to win from a break will be allowed much leeway to escape up the road this early into the Grand Tour, having not yet had the opportunity to lose enough time on GC. The favourites might have trained to peak for the final week, but they can’t afford to be off the pace on a day in which the first hierarchy between them will be established.
It seems unlikely at this stage that a large breakaway of climbers will be allowed to escape unchallenged up the road and amass an insurmountable time gap that will guarantee the stage win to one of them.
After the team time trial and the neutralised final 10km of stage two, there is very little between a whole swathe of riders in the peloton, meaning it will be extremely tricky for the GC teams to keep tabs on who has slipped into the break.
So the stage win to the Vuelta's first summit finish could be fought out between the GC contenders, or at least a rider who can stick with them and slip away unnoticed.
Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) will enjoy a shorter summit finish like this, and generally appears much better in the first week of Grand Tours compared to week three and could win a sprint amongst a reduced GC group. He also has the benefit of his team's two-pronged attack with Jonas Vingegaard. This stage will be our first glimpse of Vingegaard's form since his Tour de France victory, having shown there he can blow away the competition on a day like this if his form is right.
Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quick-Step) will, like Roglič, benefit from a shorter steeper final climb rather than the more attritional long ascents the peloton will find in the coming days and weeks, and also has a final punch capable of winning from a reduced group.
The youngest overall contender, Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) certainly has the quality for victory on this type of finish and may want to get his Grand Tour stage win tally off the mark here.
Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), in his first Vuelta a GC contender, is an exceptional climber and promised to be more attacking given the opportunity at this race. Whether that will materialise so early in the race is unclear, but the Welshman would perhaps enjoy a longer test to put the odds in his favour.
Enric Mas (Movistar) and Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) are two other GC hopefuls that could go well on this finish.
Away from the overall favourites, there's too many climbers to mention that could spring a surprise. Romain Bardet (DSM-Firmenich) is on the stage hunt, and has the pedigree to contest the finish with GC riders. The Frenchman also has the added incentive of possibly moving into the overall lead with a victory.
Bardet's compatriot Lenny Martinez (Groupama-FDJ) is a strong, pure climber who looks destined to win Grand Tour mountain top finishes at some point, while Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe), Jesús Herrada (Cofidis), Santiago Buitrago (Bahrain-Victorious), and Juan Pedro López (Trek-Segafredo) are other possibilities.
We think it will be fought out by the GC contenders and Remco Evenepoel will win the first summit finish.