A strong climbing display from George Bennett of Jumbo-Visma saw him finish 9th in stage 7 of the Vuelta a Espana and move up to 8th place overall.
Alejandro Valverde of Movistar won the stage in his world champion’s jersey just ahead of Primož Roglič of Jumbo-Visma; with the pair of them moving up to 3rd and 2nd overall respectively behind Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana who continues to lead the general classification.
Stage 7 from Ondo to Mas de la Costa featured five categorised climbs including three that peaked within 22km of each other around the mid-point of the stage. It was a short but brutal final climb, however, that took the field up a climb that was just 3.8km in length but was given a category 1 rating in part because of its average gradient that was 12.2%; hitting sections of 14.3% and going up to the 20% mark.
The break of the day featured Philippe Gilbert of Deceuninck-QuickStep, Sebastian Henao of Team Ineos, Jelle Wallays and Tomasz Marczynski of Lotto Soudal, Gianluca Brambilla of Trek-Segafredo, Michael Storer of Mitchelton-SCOTT, Cyril Barthe of Euskadi Basque Country-Murias, Stephane Rossetto of Cofidis, Quentin Jauregui of AG2R La Mondiale and Sergio Henao of UAE Team Emirates. They built a lead that went out to 5 minutes, but unlike previous stages there was an air of intent among the peloton as the likes of Movistar took a more central role in the chase effort.
Allegiances in the break ended with 30km to go as an attack from Marczynski fractured the breakaway group. Gilbert and Sergio Henao were able to go across as the advantage to the main field dropped to around 2 minutes as the climb of the Puerto del Salto del Caballo continued to bite. Marczynski was unable to hold on, dropping back as Gilberto and Sergio Henao continued a partnership on the front. Their nearest challengers were Marczynski, Brambilla and Sebastian Henao who were 16 seconds adrift; but all the time the gap to the main field was closing.
Gradually the peloton began picking up the remnants of the breakaway, with Movistar still on the front of the pack. Up ahead Sebastian Henao and Gianluca Brambilla had succeeded in regaining contact with the leaders and the group of four continued to press on. With 20km to go the gap to the peloton had continued to shrink, but it had grown over the red jersey of Dylan Teuns. The Bahrain Merida rider had nothing left in the tank and he cracked long before the final climb of the day; his brief stay in the red jersey coming to an end.
Eventually Astana came forward to take over the pace-setting as Gilbert attacked the quartet, taking only Sergio Henao along with him. Gilbert became a little frustrated at Henao’s inability to come through and take a turn on the descent, but it was more a reflection of the pace Gilbert was exerting on the downhill than the Colombian’s willingness to assist. Once the road levelled out and began to climb again Henao was contributing again.
With 5km to go the gap to the two leaders was just 28 seconds and Astana were continuing to set a strong tempo, but on the run in to the climb Jumbo-Visma surged forward; putting the hurt on the main field as the catch was finally made with just under 4km to go on the lower slopes of the climb. Sep Kuss, Primož Roglič and George Bennett were on the front of the race for Jumbo-Visma with Miguel Angel Lopez, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde behind Bennett.
Eventually it was Nairo Quintana who laid down the gauntlet with the first attack of the favourites. That move quickly separated the favourites as Roglič, Lopez and Valverde managed to go with him; just behind the four riders George Bennett was fighting to limit losses. Bennett’s climbing display stood a real chance of putting him into the top ten if he could keep pressing on. He eventually took his place in the first chase group on the road that emerged with Rafal Majka leading it.
Meanwhile Quintana continued to push the pace before Roglič took over and began to crack Valverde and then Lopez with 2.3km to go. Valverde fought back, and eventually the four riders resumed normal service; building a healthy advantage over the contenders behind them. Behind the four riders the Bennett group was unable to keep its unity; steadily breaking up as the Kiwi kept pace with Tadej Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates.
1.5km from the finish Quintana returned to the front and from there he launched a powerful attack with 1.2km to go; looking every bit a stage winner but beginning to raise questions as to how many matches he might have burned as his companions responded to each attack.
Bennett lost contact with Pogačar with 1km to go, but he was holding his ground well in pursuit of a higher GC placing; looking almost certain to go into the top 10 at the end of the day as he put time into the likes of Esteban Chaves. Up ahead it was a four-up drag race to the line with 600m to go as all four riders looked to be at their limit. Alejandro Valverde eventually took over on the front, eventually ramping up the pace before unleashing with 150m to go.
Quintana and Lopez were the first to crack, but Roglič was able to keep pace with the world champion although he was unable to overtake him. Valverde crossed the line victorious with Roglič second and then a 6 second time gap opening up to Lopez and Quintana. Rafal Majka finished 5th at 42 seconds ahead of Ion Izagirre of Astana and the UAE Team Emirates duo of Pogačar and Aru, with George Bennett next to finish at 1.07mins.
Bennett’s performance was enough to put him into 8th overall at 3.34mins behind Lopez who now had just a 6 second advantage over Roglič.