Chris Froome finally has his first stage win of the 2017 season. The Team Sky rider who hadn’t crossed the line first once in any race in 2017, produced a brilliant display to take the stage win and put distance into his GC rivals heading into the first rest day of the Vuelta a Espana. Esteban Chaves took second place and Michael Woods third.
It was the final showdown before the first rest day, with the battleground taking in coastal roads for the most part on the run in to the final category 1 climb of the day, the 4.1km climb of Alto de Puig Llorença. A breakaway inevitably went up the road in the early stages of the race, although with Cannondale-Drapac on the front of the race and playing a very animated role in the race, it was difficult for the early moves to establish themselves.
Eventually a group did manage to go clear, with Markel Irizar of Trek-Segafredo, Marc Soler of Movistar, Ricardo Vilela of Manzana Postobon, Conor Dunne of Aqua Blue Sport, Marco Haller of Katusha-Alpecin, the Caja Rural duo of Diego Rubio and Lluis Mas, Bert-Jan Lindeman of LottoNL-Jumbo, Anthony Turgis of Cofidis and Tobias Ludvigsson of FDJ. The group built an early lead of 2.20mins only to be pegged back to 1.40mins by Cannondale-Drapac and UAE Team Emirates.
While the final climb of the day would surely be where the race would be decided, the first climb of the day would also test matters for the field, and the time gap that would be allowed by the main field would be interesting and gauge whether the bunch would be concerning themselves with stage honours or be more focussed on the GC battle. Cannondale-Drapac continued to lead the field and with 66km remaining the gap stood at 2.58mins. From there the team, which had Tom Scully right there in the mix, proceeded to gradually eat away at the lead.
The break headed up the category 2 climb with a lead of around 1.30mins. It didn’t take long for the breakaway to disband either with three riders left out in front at the head of the race, Ludvigsson, Mas and Vilela. Their lead over the peloton grew again but there was a sense that their days were numbered as Team Sky began to make their presence felt that little bit more. Over the climb the gap didn’t drop significantly and the three leaders continued on.
Back in the bunch, however, Romain Bardet launched an attack with 30km of flat roads to go before the final climb. The fact that the roads were flat was significant as Bardet is not renowned for his time trialling prowess; and his move wasn’t to last a great length of time. Up ahead a changing of the guard saw Marc Soler and Tobias Ludvigsson now leading. In the peloton Cannondale-Drapac continued to lead the peloton, but their numbers were depleted as with 25km to go they brought the break’s advantage back down beneath a minute.
That lead continued to dwindle as the climb to the finish line awaited. The peloton didn’t hurry to bridge back to the leaders, but the games to sort out position were underway. Cannondale-Drapac maintained their lead on the front but Team Sky and BMC Racing were moving forward to assert themselves before the climb. With 10km to go the gap was just 34 seconds. That gap more or less remained until 8km to go as the teams swarmed at the front. Team Sunweb, Bahrain-Merida, Orica-SCOTT and Team Sky now made their presence felt at the front, jostling for position and eating a little bit more into the break’s advantage.
With 6km to go Marc Soler made a last ditch effort to stay clear, dropping Ludvigsson, but with such a marginal lead it looked like it was nothing more than perhaps a last ditch hope to gain the most aggressive rider prize. As Soler was caught with just under 6km to go, Team Sky finally laid down the gauntlet, stringing the field right out in an effort to put Chris Froome’s rivals into the red zone before the climb even really began.
4km from the finish Team Sky looked in complete control, with Fabio Aru of Astana, Michael Woods of Cannondale-Drapac, and Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale all well positioned. Bardet got the attacks underway with a little more than 3km to go He had company in Enric Mas from Quick-Step Floors and Richard Carapaz from Movistar, although Bardet seemed more concerned in going on his own. It resulted in a very stunted breakaway effort and eventually Carapaz went on the attack with 2.5km to go; this time dropping the others.
Team Sky continued to lead though, with just one rider left to support Chris Froome. Things seemed to have settled for now although Bardet again launched another attack approaching 2km to go. The gap to the GC group was just a handful of metres though. At the back of the group Adam Yates of Orica-SCOTT was one of the early GC contenders looking to be in trouble, as Mikel Nieve simply led the bunch with his pretty relentless pace. Romain Bardet was caught for the third and final time with 1.5km to go and from here the way was clear for the GC contenders.
Nieve was continuing on with a very strong and confident ride for Froome, leading the way with 1km to go. Everyone seemed to be waiting for Froome to make his move though, unable to make an attack themselves. The finale was playing into Sky’s hands but eventually an attack went from David de la Cruz. Froome was on his wheel instantly with Alberto Contador on Froome’s wheel; the wheel he’d stalked for the entire climb.
Having brought de la Cruz back Froome then piled on the pressure and this time there was no response from Contador who couldn’t match the Brit. It looked like Esteban Chaves and Michael Woods might be closing Froome down, and with 200m to go Chaves managed to catch the Vuelta leader, but no sooner had Chaves caught Froome than he found himself drained and unable to keep the wheel. In the closing metres Froome was able to distance the Colombian by 4 seconds, with Woods a further second back to finally take his first stage win of 2017. Behind Woods Wilco Kelderman of Team Sunweb took 4th at 8 seconds, with Alberto Contador losing 12 seconds along with de la Cruz, Nicolas Roche lost 14 seconds with Nibali, Aru lost 17 seconds, van Garderen 19 seconds, Adam Yates 27 seconds.
The result meant that from the top 9 being separated by 50 seconds at the end of stage 7, the gap was much more like a grand tour results page at this stage now. Froome leads Chaves by 36 seconds overall, while Nicolas Roche maintains 3rd place at 1.05mins. Vincenzo Nibali at 1.17mins and Tejay van Garderen at 1.27mins round out the top 5.
Aaron Gate of Aqua Blue Sport was the first of the Kiwis across the line in a large group containing stage 8 winner Julian Alaphilippe. Behind him and arriving together were Sam Bewley of Orica-SCOTT, George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo and Tom Scully of Cannondale-Drapac.