Sam Bennett looks a class apart from the other sprinters
The hot favourite going into the stage, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Sam Bennett won the first sprint of the 2019 Vuelta a España at a canter
The Irishman was well-positioned in the run-in to the line, and left everyone in his wake when he started his sprint, ultimately winning by over a bike-length ahead of Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) in second and Luka Mezgec (Mitchelton-Scott) in third.
It’s been a long wait for Bennett, who has not been selected for any of the last four Grand Tours, but he picked up exactly where he left off, having won the final stage of the 2018 Giro d’Italia, the last Grand Tour he competed in.
On this showing, he looks capable of equalling or even perhaps bettering his haul of three stage wins from that race. Watch this space.
Irish eyes are smiling
It was a terrific day for Irish cycling. Not only did Sam Bennett win the stage – the nation’s first at the Vuelta since 2015 – they also laid claim to the overall lead courtesy of Nicolas Roche (Sunweb).
With none of the surprises that animated stage two, Roche had a fairly straightforward time defending the red jersey he inherited yesterday. Jumbo-Visma did mass at the front of the peloton on some occasions, but these manoeuvres were of a defensive kind, and there were no attacks from any of the GC candidates.
He may not be able to hold on for it long beyond stage four’s flat stage, with a tough uphill finish awaiting the peloton on stage five, and the Colombian duo of Nairo Quitana (Movistar) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First) breathing down his neck at just 2 and 8 seconds respectively on GC.
But the 35-year old is clearly on top form and has a great past record in this race, so don’t rule him out causing a few more surprises. With Bennett eyeing up plenty more bunch finishes, this could become the best Vuelta a España for the Irish since the days of Sean Kelly.
Fernando Gaviria dropped
One of the few riders capable of challenging Sam Bennett in a bunch sprint, Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), was ruled out of contention early on when he was dropped on the category three Puerto de Tibi, around 40km from the finish.
Despite the best efforts of a couple of teammates, the Colombian was unable to make up the one minute deficit on the subsequent descent to the finish, and rolled in well adrift at the finish.
Given that this was among the most straightforward sprint stages of the race, and that Gaviria is usually a capable rider over modest climbs, these are worrying signs with regards to his chances of success throughout the rest of the race.
It seems likely that he is still struggling with injury – possibly those sustained in the crash during the opening team time trial stage, or perhaps still the knee complaint that forced him to abandon the Giro d’Italia and miss the Tour de France.
If Gaviria can make it to the finish in the peloton, he’s still likely to be a threat in a sprint finish – as he was at the Tour of Poland earlier this month, where he picked up a couple of second place finishes.
With just one climb all day tomorrow, and an attractively flat run-in to the finish, he has an immediate chance to bounce back from today’s disappointment. We’ll soon find out if he has the form to do so.
Who can challenge Bennett in future sprints?
After such a categorical stage win, it seems possible than Sam Bennett could win multiple stages at this year’s Vuelta, but there were signs that some other sprinters might be able to challenge him in future finishes.
Luka Mezgec might have finished fairly far adrift in third, but had to start his sprint from very far back, and showed the same form that saw him recently claim two stage wins at the Tour of Poland to finish with a rapid acceleration.
Similarly, Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Merida) managed to finish fifth despite having to start his sprint from even further back. If these riders can start their sprints from better positions, they could prove worthy competitors to the Irishman.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), despite his underwhelming sprint today. The talented 22-year old could only manage seventh place, behind lead-out man Max Richeze in fifth, but that result sounds a whole lot better when you consider that he had to fight his way back to the peloton having been dropped on the final climb of the day.
If he can arrive at the finish of stage four more fresh, he too will be one to watch.
Indefatigable Thomas De Gendt is on the offensive already
Thomas de Gendt making an attack should hardly come as a surprise to anyone – in fact it’s one of the most predictable happenings in professional cycling. But the context of the Belgian’s acceleration on stage three some 44km from the finish makes his commitment to attacking racing all the more impressive.
This is the Belgian’s third Grand Tour of the season, following lively appearances at both the Giro and the Tour, the latter of which featured a spectacular solo victory in the first week.
Simply surviving all three would be enough for most, but De Gendt is no ordinary rider, and his enthusiasm and energy for shooting off the front of the peloton remains undiminished.
His move ultimately came to nothing, as he was unable to close down the gap of 20-or-so seconds to the day’s break, and was soon swept up by the peloton. But it still felt like a statement of intent, and a sign of things to come later in this Vuelta.