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Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta: Grace Brown wins stage 3 from late move

Australian beats Elise Chabbey in two-up sprint in Aguilar de Campoo.

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Grace Brown (FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope) sprinted to victory on stage 3 of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, beating Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM) to the line after attacking in the final 10km.

World champion Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) took third from the reduced group that finished eight seconds behind the winner.

Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) remains in the red jersey after finishing in the second group.

After repeated attempts to get away, Brown and Chabbey finally got a gap in the last 8km of the stage, and held off the slightly disorganized chase group to contest the finish.

The long, steady climb in the middle of the 96km stage saw the peloton whittled down significantly, but the gradients proved too low for the climbers to dominate the day with the race decided on the flat.

“I thought maybe this was a stage that could suit me, and it was aggressive all day which is the type of racing that I really enjoy,” Brown said at the finish. “I followed Elise Chabbey in the last 10km and we worked together really well and I was able to outsprint her in the final, so I’m happy.”

“I had the plan that I would look for opportunities to attack and make a breakaway. I was up the road a few times actually today, but it was the final one that worked. On this sort of course, it’s hard to know when ‘the’ moment is, you have to feel the race.”

“I think it’s a good stage tomorrow as well, it’s up and down all day, it’s long, it’ll be hard. It could be a breakaway day, or I think there’s also some riders in the peloton that will like the finish, so it depends if teams want to keep it together for that.”

How it happened

After the back-to-back climbs of stage 2, stage 3 of the Ceratizit Challenge was a different type of hilly day, featuring one small climb at the start before a long, gradual rise to Hoces de Bárcena. The official categorized climb came in at 16km long, but the road gradually rose for some 30km before the top, and the riders had another 30km of plateau after the peak to get to the finish line. The stage finished in Aguilar de Campoo, a finish town already seen in the Women’s WorldTour this year on stage 2 of the Vuelta a Burgos Feminas, but where that stage started in the hills and took a gently undulating route to the finish, Friday saw the peloton start at sea-level and climb up to the 903m altitude finish.

With the stage possibly suiting a breakaway, and being only 96km long, it was an aggressive start to the day with several riders and teams trying hard to get away. Continental teams Bizkaia Durango and Laboral Kutxa Fundación Euskadi were particularly active, keen to show themselves in one of the biggest races on the Spanish calendar. On the first climb of the day, the 3.8km Alto de Hijas, the WorldTour teams took control of the peloton, and the pace set saw a handful of riders already struggling at the back after only 20km completed.

At the top of the climb, polka dot jersey Lucinda Brand (Trek-Segafredo) attacked unchallenged to take maximum points and add to her tally. On the flat, a three-rider breakaway briefly got away — Caroline Andersson (Coop-Hitec Products), Sandra Alonso (Ceratizit-WNT) and Aude Biannic (Movistar) — but with the long climb looming, they were caught after just 5km in the lead.

Hitting the lower slopes of the climb, the race began to split, but nothing decisive stuck at first. Movistar were again pulling in the peloton, as they had on the climbs on stage 2. Brand attacked again around a third of the way up the climb, but was brought back as the relatively low gradient of 3.2% proved difficult to really get away on. Despite no one getting a solid gap in the first half of the climb, the efforts saw the peloton dramatically whittled down, with only around 25 riders left in the front group with 40km to go.

With 4km left of the climb, Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ) put in a big attack from the back of the group to pull out a small but hard to close gap of 15 seconds. FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope tried to bring the Spanish rider back, but towards the top of the climb it was Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and red jersey Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) who were leading the way, and they overtook García 500m from the top. Heading into the flatter final 30km, the group was all together again, with the likes of Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) and world champion Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) posing a threat should the race stay together to the line.

At the 27km-to-go mark, Grace Brown (FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope) attacked on the flat to get away from the leaders, using her time trial ability to build a gap of 30 seconds. Amber Kraak (Jumbo-Visma) bridged to the Australian, joining her in the last 22km, while SD Worx assembled their four riders on the front of the main group to try to chase the pair down. Kraak and Brown looked to be racing well, but the aggressive day took its toll and the Vollering-led group brought them back with 19km to go. Vollering’s efforts dropped teammate Kopecky and Balsamo, and shrank the lead group to less than 15 riders.

With the race strung out, Van Vleuten took the opportunity to hit the front and attempt to keep the pace high and keep the dropped sprinters at a distance. On one of the final steep sections of road, 12km from the finish, another attack from García disrupted the organization of the lead group and riders took a moment to look at each other and soon the attacks began. Going into the last 8km, it was Grace Brown who again launched off the front, this time taking Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM) with her. Behind, the group slowed down significantly, allowing the second group to rejoin them, putting Kopecky and Balsamo back in convention, though they were now 30 seconds down on the break.

Rather than a concerted chase, the second group were attacking each other going into the last 5km, which played into the leaders’ advantage. Going into the last two kilometers, the peloton were making up time on Brown and Chabbey, but it proved too late and the pair sprinted it out between them for the win. The two were closely matched, but Brown just got ahead of Chabbey to take victory. Balsamo outsprinted the chasers to round out the podium. The winners finished eight seconds ahead of the red jersey, but made no dent in Van Vleuten’s advantage, who continues to lead the race by a minute and 55 seconds over Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo).

Tomorrow’s stage from Palencia to Segovia is a flatter day, though there are several short but steep ramps throughout the stage before a punchy finish. As the final stage before the circuits in Madrid, it will be a day for riders to try and take opportunities to make the race aggressive, and red jersey Van Vleuten will have to stay alert to any dangerous moves.

Results will be available once stage has completed.

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