By Jonny Long
Alejandro Valverde took the summit finish victory on stage seven of the Vuelta a España as Miguel Ángel López reclaimed the red jersey following Dylan Teuns' very brief tenancy.
The world champion made the final selection alongside Movistar team-mate Nairo Quintana, Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Astana's Miguel Ángel López on the final 4km climb of the day that featured some tough gradients.
Quintana persisted in stretching his legs at the front of the group, as Valverde lurked ominously at the back, with Roglič and López sharing the responsibility of not allowing the Colombian to escape and solo to victory.
Going into the final 500m, Valverde came to the front, and didn't let up, staying ahead until the finish line with Roglič pushing him all the way. López allowed a six second gap to open up between himself and the Slovenian, with Quintana coming in behind his countryman, having worked hard to return a stage victory for Movistar.
López reclaims the red jersey, leading Roglič by just six seconds, his advantage halved. Valverde moved up to third, 16 seconds back, followed by Quintana who is 27 seconds in arrears.
How it happened
Stage seven provided another uphill finish, this time to test Dylan Teuns' resolve on the race leader's jersey. The first category summit finish climb to Mas de la Costa was only 4km in length but provided some punishingly high gradients over its short distance.
It took more than 60km of racing for a break to establish itself, with the first bit of action in the stage being Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) abandoning the race, unable to handle the injuries sustained in a crash the previous day which took out his team leader Rigoberto Urán.
The peloton preferred to wait until after the first flat section was concluded and the race headed towards a number of classified climbs before allowing eight riders, including Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) to go up the road.
Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates) took the KOM points available at the summit of the first climb of the day, the category three Puerto del Marianet, before also taking the second category Puerto de Eslida.
The breakaway had a gap of just over a minute with less than 60km to go as James Knox (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) crashed and abandoned the race, the 23-year-old having also failed to finish the Giro d'Italia earlier this season.
Jelle Wallays (Lotto-Soudal) took the intermediate sprint before the road started to go uphill once more, and riders began to drop. With 26km to go, Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) dropped from the peloton, lef to cherish the red jersey for the remaining kilometres before officially relinquishing it at the finish line.
Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos) attacked with 25km to go, opening up a gap for a short while. Further up the road, Henao once again took the KOM at the second category Puerto del Salto, rising to second in the classification behind Ángel Madrazo (Burgos BH).
As the race headed into the final 15km, Gilbert sensed the fight was going out of the break and attacked, taking Henao with him. However, as the duo hit the start of the final climb of the day, the category one Alto Mas de la Costa, they were swept up by the peloton and the GC race took over.
Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) hit the front to quickly whittle the group down to only the strongest riders, before Nairo Quintana (Movistar) hit the front. The race was then whittled down to four riders, Quintana, Roglič, Valverde and López.
Quintana would accelerate numerous times over the last few kilometres on a testing climb, attempting to set things up for Valverde who sat at the back of the group, biding his time.
Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) and George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) all gave chase behind but barely threatened to get back on to the elite quartet at the front of the race.
With a little over 500m to go, the four spread across the road for a brief moment before Valverde came to the fore, not letting another rider come past him as he climbed towards the finish. Roglič tried his best to keep up, finishing on the same time, as López and Quintana finished third and fourth.
Despite López losing six seconds to Roglič, he regained the race lead, his advantaged reduced to just six seconds over the Slovenian. Valverde's victory saw him rise up the GC standings to third and just 16 seconds behind the Colombian, while his team-mate of the same nationality, Quintana, sits fourth, 27 seconds back.
Vuelta a España 2019, stage seven: Onda to Mas de la Costa (183.2km)
1. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, in 4-32-11
2. Primož Roglič (Slo) Jumbo-Visma, at same time
3. Miguel Ángel López (Col) Astana, at six seconds
4. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at same time
5. Rafał Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 42s
6. Ion Izagirre (Esp) Astana, at 48s
7. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, at 51s
8. Fabio Aru (Ita) UAE Team Emirates, at same time
9. George Bennett (Nzl) Jumbo-Visma, at 1-07
10. Óscar Rodríguez (Esp) Euskadi Basque Country - Murias, at 1-20
General classification after stage seven
1. Miguel Ángel López (Col) Astana, in 28-19-13
2. Primož Roglič (Slo) Jumbo-Visma, at six seconds
3. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 16s
4. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 27s
5. Rafał Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 1-58
6. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, at 2-36
7. Esteban Chaves (Col) Mitchelton-Scott, at 2-52
8. George Bennett (Nzl) Jumbo-Visma, at 3-34
9. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Sunweb, at 3-36
10. Fabio Aru (Ita) UAE Team Emirates, at same time
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