The Vuelta a Pais Vasco is a race that has progressively gotten harder with each stage. After two days of large bunch finishes, stage three offered more climbing and the first separation of climbers from the rest.
Alberto Contador navigated the six categorized climbs with little difficulty and arrived at the finish in a peloton numbering 40 riders. He crossed the line safely in the small group to check off another successful day of avoiding incidents that could hamper his goal of winning the overall classification for a second straight year.
One minute later, Haimar Zubeldia arrived with the second group that contained overall leader Michael Matthews (Sunweb), who yielded the yellow jersey to the stage winner David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors).
Zubeldia, racing on home training grounds, knows the roads and climbs well, and gave his analysis of today:
"It was a high price to make the breakaway, and in the end, it contained four important riders. Movistar and Sky controlled, and then Lotto Soudal put a hard rhythm that has made the final selection on the last climb.
"We have been lucky with the weather - no rain - and we have finished without mishaps. Tomorrow will be a very similar stage, perhaps with a somewhat easier route, although the riders always control how hard the race will be.
"Everyone knows this finish in Bilbao, and it will be an arrival similar as today. The team has tried to be with Alberto, taking care of him until the critical stages, that of Friday and Saturday."
Tomorrow's stage four has fewer climbs, but with a category two uphill situated near the end, could prove to shake up the general classification further; it will be another day to be on high alert.
The GC will be decided in the final two days, the queen stage on Friday followed by a lengthy 27-kilometer time trial Saturday. The team goal is straightforward: bring Contador to the last two stages in the best condition possible to fight for a record fifth victory.
So far, so good.