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The riders arrive in Spain for a punchy day out with a summit finish
Words: Katy Madgwick
Vuelta a España 2022, stage four
Distance: 152.5 kilometres
Start location: Vitoria-Gasteiz
Finish location: Laguardia
Start time: 13.40 BST
Finish time (approx): 16.30 BST
Following a transfer day from the Netherlands to mainland Spain, the race begins again, with the first of three stages in the Basque Country. 
The capital of the Basque territory, Vitoria, plays host to the stage start. It’s a town steeped in culture and historical significance, and featured as a start town in both the men’s and women’s Itzulia Tours earlier in the year, along with the Vuelta of 2020. 
From here, the race travels north for a short distance before turning east and heading through some of the stunning Euskadi national parks of the Álava region, before travelling south once more towards the first climb of the day, the Puerto du Opakua.
After three days on almost entirely flat roads, the first significant climbs of the race will be tackled on stage four, which is classified as a medium mountain stage – this is catnip to the breakaway specialists and there are likely to be a number of riders hopeful of getting away early. 
Regardless of how the fight for the breakaway plays out though, it’s likely that we will see the first significant splits in the peloton on the Puerto du Opakua. The climb, which comes after just under 60km of racing, is relatively short at 5km, but classified as second category, it makes up for its brevity in steep, punchy ramps, averaging out at 6.9%. 
Expect some explosive attacks here as the hopefuls for the stage win look to eke out an advantage, while the GC teams try to remain together and avoid any early upsets.
Following the climb, the race heads further south towards the finish town of Laguardia, traversing the typically bumpy but verdant terrain of the Basque country, with a number of uncategorised climbs along the way to test the legs and give the riders a taste of the true Vuelta. 
An intermediate sprint at Lagrán will build the tension in the bunch ahead of the second categorised climb of the day, the Puerto de Herrera. A category 3 test of 7.3km in length and with an average gradient of 4.8%, the climb will likely see decisive action, whether from a late breakaway group, GC teams taking control, or even the teams of punchier sprinters looking to make an opportunistic late attack. The bonus seconds available in the King of the Mountains competition will also add motivation for those hunting polka dots. 
Just under 15km remains after the final climb, and the majority of this is a long descent which could stretch out the peloton even more heading into the final, where once again, the riders face a climb, this time to the finish line. The final 800m kicks up at 10% and favours the puncheurs, who will fight for both the stage win and a few precious seconds on GC.
This is the kind of finish that Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) has excelled on, and of course, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) also fares well on punchy finishes. Riding in his final home grand tour, the veteran rider for Movistar may have this one circled on his roadbook as target. Ethan Hayter of Ineos Grenadiers is also one to watch, as is world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl) and his teammate Remco Evenepoel. Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) could be an outside bet, as could Daryl Impey (Israel Premier Tech) and João Almeida of UAE Team Emirates. Bora-Hansgrohe’s puncheur Sergio Higuita is also well-suited to this finish, as is Rudy Molard of Groupama-FDJ.
Prediction: We’re betting on Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde to take victory in stage four. Watching him sprint to second place in La Flèche Wallonne earlier this year proves he still has the explosivity required for a punchy finish, his years of experience will ensure he positions himself well and times his effort perfectly.
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