Sam Bennett of BORA-Hansgrohe has sprinted to his first grand tour stage win. The 27 year old Irishman out sprinted Elia Viviani and Niccolo Bonifazio to take the win. There was no change in the top 10 on GC, with George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo continuing to hold 9th place overall.
After the difficulty of stage 6 up Mount Etna a number of riders would have doubtless been looking forward to an easier day in the saddle over 159km from Pizzo Praia a Mare. Not a single categorised climb was to be seen, with the opening 70+km being almost perfectly flat. But any ideas of an easy day out were quickly put to bed by Tony Martin of Katusha-Alpecin. The multiple world time trial champion jumped into the early break of the day with two other riders; and that prompted alarm bells from the peloton.
Quick-Step Floors, Martin’s former team, were well aware of the problems that could be caused by having a rider like Tony Martin to chase; and so the pace was on from very early as they tried to peg him back. In a few minutes his breakaway was over, but Katusha-Alpecin weren’t. They duly sent Maxim Belkov into the next break, to be joined by Davide Ballerini of Androni-Giocattoli-Sidermec and Markel Irizar Aramburu of Trek-Segafredo. This group was significantly more acceptable to the break, so off they went.
Mitchelton-Scott, with the maglia rosa on the shoulders of Simon Yates, led the peloton, meaning Sam Bewley’s presence on the front of the pack was necessary from early on. They did let the break gain a lead of 4.20mins in the opening 23km of racing, and received support from Quick-Step Floors and Wilier Triestina. In fact it was the presence of the latter two teams that cut into the break’s lead, bringing it back to 2 minutes with 123km to go.
Gradually though the front runners in the peloton knew that they couldn’t afford to bring the break back too quickly; and the trio were allowed to build up to around 3 minutes again. But the peloton were still seeming far to keen on keeping the break on a very short leash today, and with 70km to go the gap was down to 1.50mins. It was quite the statement from both Quick-Step Floors and Wilier-Triestina that they had absolutely no intention of missing out on the bunch sprint that was to come.
At both of the intermediate sprints Elia Viviani of Quick-Step Floors consolidated his lead in the points classification. There was also interest shown at the front of the peloton by Groupama-FDJ, who moved onto the wheels of Wilier-Triestina who were just perched behind Mitchelton-Scott at the front of the pack. With 50km remaining the breakaway’s lead sat at 2mins and rebuilt to just over 2.30mins before the chasers opted to lift the pace and bring things back together.
While the trio up ahead continued to function well as a break, an inevitable lift in the tempo meant that the bunch brought the break back to less than a minute with a little under 19km to go. Quick-Step Floors and Wilier-Triestina at this stage were the major protagonists at the front of the race, while interest on the front of the race was also shown by Israel Cycling Academy. A last ditch attack from Davide Ballerini only delayed the inevitable, with the Italian being caught with 14km to go.
Team Sky now took over pace-setting on the front of the race but there was a little bit of nerves in the front, with a few riders feeling free to throw caution to the wind, including both Nicolas Roche of BMC Racing and Tony Martin once again. That move was brought back, but then another move went courtesy of Alex Dowsett. All the while it appeared that the sprinters’ teams were reluctant to set the tempo to bring the break back.
Katusha-Alpecin still weren’t done yet, with Dowsett being caught and then Mads Wurtz Schmidt heading up the road. This time it was George Bennett’s LottoNL-Jumbo squad who led the chase that caught up to him with just over 10km to go. As they went under the 10km to go banner LottoNL-Jumbo and AG2R La Mondiale led the way then, with Bahrain-Merida and EF Education First-Drapac showing their interest in the move. Team Sunweb weren’t far from the front, and neither were Team Sky; with the latter surging to the front with 7km remaining.
It was a chaotic final few kilometres as some half a dozen teams at any one time were contesting the front of the race, that was humming along at upwards of 70kph. Eventually though Lotto Fix All looked like they may have a bit more order established. Trek-Segafredo were on their wheels, with the rest just trying to hold on. Quick-Step Floors and Elia Viviani had a lot of work to do to get the points classification leader up to the front of the race, with Trek-Segafredo now taking over with 3km to go. LottoNL-Jumbo and Bahrain-Merida were right there with them, and so too EF Education First-Draapac with 2km to go.
Through 2 ninety-degree turns the field stretched right out as they raced along the beachside to the finish. Elia Viviani finally made his way to the front behind Lotto Fix All and Tom Scully, who drove the pace for EF Education First-Drapac. But behind Viviani was Sam Bennett, poised perfectly to strike as Viviani sat about 6 wheels back. LottoNL-Jumbo led the sprint out for Danny van Poppel, with Sacha Modolo ready to strike for EF Education First Drapac and Kristian Sbaragli of Israel Cycling Academy also initially well positioned.
Modolo launched a big kick for the line but he’d gone too early, and Viviani and Bennett both played the patience game. It looked like Viviani might well make it a hat trick, but Sam Bennett dug very deep and came through to win by a little under a bike length. Viviani took second place, with Niccolo Bonifazio of Bahrain Merida third ahead of Sacha Modolo and Danny van Poppel.
George Bennett crossed the line in 30th place, safe and losing no time on GC. Sam Bewley also finished in the bunch after successfully protecting teammate Simon Yates; while Tom Scully, after his efforts in the lead out, finished just a few seconds behind the bunch.