The queen stage of Valenciana did not disappoint. The extremely steep and tough Maigmo Tibi climb that included a rough gravel section was a difficult test for everyone, but some more than others. Favourite of the day Remco Evenepoel could not replicate his dominant climbing performance on Stage 1 on these steeper slopes, suffering badly in the last kilometre of the stage and losing his hold on the leader’s jersey to the victorious Aleksandr Vlasov.
Stage 3 of Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana included the first serious mountain top finish of the 2022 season, promising a spectacular fight between the high class climbers lining up for this early February race. The 155 kilometre long stage ended with the new climb to Maigmo Tibi of 9.8 km at 7.5 %.
The most challenging part of the climb was a 1.7 km gravel section that was very rough indeed, something typically tackled on a mountain bike rather than a road bike.
Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl would likely be in charge of controlling any breakaway that formed, and their job was slightly harder than expected as a large group of 11 riders got away including Jan Tratnik, Attila Valter, Jan Polanc. With Valter relatively close on the general classification, Quickstep did not allow the breakaway to gain too much of an advantage at any point whilst Evenepoel sat in the yellow jersey in the group.
The Wolfpack had won the first two stages of Valenciana with Remco Evenepoel and Fabio Jakobsen and seemed eager for another victory, pacing harder than would have been strictly required to protect Evenepoel’s GC lead. The last survivor of the breakaway was Jan Tratnik, the Slovenian dropping Attila Valter from his wheel on the 3.9 kilometer long Tibi climb that was the last climb before the mountain top finish.
Tratnik gained a two minute lead over the peloton before Maigmo Tibi and despite his bulky appearance, has been very powerful on 2-4km climbs in the last few years, including in his breakout Giro stage win against O’Connor in 2020.
Movistar also appeared to be interested in the stage victory and sent their men to help Quick-Step chase Tratnik, who was looking strong. As they reached the steep section of the final climb (5km at 10%), Movistar attacked early with 41-year-old Alejandro Valverde, in a similar way to his move last year in the first mountain stage of Catalunya. Movistar had Enric Mas as their other GC option sitting in the group, who also slid in front to block Evenepoel and Rodriguez from being able to instantly react to Valverde. A few moments later, Valverde was caught by compatriots Juan Ayuso and Pello Bilbao, while Evenepoel and Vlasov continued to draft in the wheels of INEOS who had Sivakov to pace.
After Valverde’s attack, the peloton was reduced to 10-15 riders, however Mas did not counter attack and the group containing Vlasov, Evenepoel Fuglsang, Tolhoek and Rodriguez entered the gravel section together. The gap to Tratnik was melting fast and disappeared once Fuglsang accelerated at the start of the gravel, perhaps hoping to lean on his Strade Bianche experience and handling compared to the other GC contenders. In fact, in 2007 the Dane won the U23 World Champs at in cross-country mountain bike, so is more than at home off-road.
Vlasov countered Fuglsang’s move once, with Evenepoel sitting in his wheel looking relatively comfortable, with Valverde, Mas and Rodriguez being put on a gap initially. The Belgian even went to the front of the group for a brief moment after Vlasov’s first attack. Perhaps sensing this as a bluff show of strength from Evenepoel, Vlasov attacked again a second time. He looked back multiple times to see where his competition was, saw no reaction and then put the hammer down in the saddle.
On rough gravel sections like this, it is almost impossible to get out of the saddle due to less grip, and the Russian seemed comfortable attacking seated. Vlasov rode with a very high cadence on the steep gravel, and he quickly gained a big gap.
Behind him Evenepoel was struggling, and with 1 km to go, as they turned off the gravel onto the final paved section, his legs completely exploded. He had tried to close Vlasov rather than ride to his own limit and paid the price. His cadence dropped to a slow grind and his form on the bike suffered. His last teammate left to help, Mikkel Honoré, was long gone, with Quickstep bringing a more sprinter based team to this race.
Spaniards Carlos Rodriguez, Enric Mas, Alejandro Valverde (riding with a fully punctured rear wheel) and Pello Bilbao caught the Belgian and quickly dropped him, leaving him to grind away to the finish with Fuglsang.
Meanwhile Vlasov took an incredible win and perhaps his best victory to date given the level of competition here. In his first few races with Bora-Hansgrohe he has already shown a lot of promise, particularly in respect of his punchy climbing, which is more akin to his late 2020 climbing which likely landed him this contract.
In 2021 Russian massively improved his time-trial ability whilst on Astana, so if he maintains that with Bora-Hansgrohe and brings his 2020 climbing, he will have definitely increased his chances for a tilt at the podium of the Tour de France, which he is aiming for this season.
Rodriguez finished second beating Mas, Bilbao and Valverde. If the young Spaniard continues to progress there is a chance the INEOS Grenadiers might even send him to Tour de France knowing their complex situation with Egan Bernal, who crashed hard in training in Colombia, and Richard Carapaz who was previously aiming for the Giro d’Italia and also crashed hard today in Etoile des Besseges.
After a great performance on stage 1 this was a disappointing day for Evenepoel, but it’s only the start of the season. After the stage he expressed some disappointment with the inclusion of such a gravel section. In the 2021 Giro d’Italia Montalcino Stage he also struggled, but today there were not gravel descents but rather a steep gravel climb with an even rougher surface. Vlasov takes the lead in GC ahead of two remaining stages that are made for sprinters, with only bad luck or crosswinds might influence the situation in GC.
Make sure to check out LR’s recap of Valenciana and all the other races around the world in the video below.