Michael Woods takes the win
Just seven months after breaking his leg at Paris-Nice, Michael Woods pulled-off one of the biggest wins of his career by outriding a large breakaway group that contested the finish of stage seven of the Vuelta a España 2020.
The Covid pandemic that subsequently brought the season to a halt meant the Canadian didn’t end up actually missing much racing. He was back riding competitively as soon as everyone else was in August, and back to his best within a month as when he won stage and held the overall lead for a time at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Another crash on the first day of the Vuelta seemed like it might cause yet another disruption to his season but, despite being out of contention for the overall classification, he proved he was back to his best on Sunday when he finished second on the finish to Formigal, and masterminded a successful victory from the break on stage seven.
As Woods explained after the victory, he only got into the break in order to do a marking job for his team leader Hugh Carthy, reacting to the presence of rivals like Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma). Not inclined to take any turns, he was able to save up energy while the others burnt theirs, and had the legs to first launch an attack on the Puerto de Orduña climb, then again 1200 metres from the finish that none of his fellow escapees could respond to.
Valverde rides back into overall contention
Movistar already had two riders right up there on GC in Enric Mas and Marc Soler, who were placed fifth and seventh respectively. Now, having managed to get himself into a breakaway on stage seven, they have a third card to play with Alejandro Valverde moving up to ninth, just 2-03 down on Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers).
The home team have already deployed the tactic of firing dangerous riders up the road for other teams to chase, with Soler winning stage two by attacking on the downhill to the finish, and did something similar on stage seven. Valverde slipped away with a number of other riders on the first ascent of Puerto de Orduña to join a larger breakaway group ahead that had formed earlier.
With teammates Carlos Verona and José Joaquín Rojas also present in the group to help set the pace, Movistar were able to put Ineos Grenadiers under serious pressure in the peloton, and almost had Valverde in the virtual red jersey by the finish.
Valverde’s time gained at the finish might not have been so high, with him arriving at the line 52 seconds ahead of the peloton, and he’ll also be disappointed at losing the chance to win the stage by missing Woods’ attack in the finale, but he’ll be delighted at remerging as a serious GC contender once again.
An aggressive race
Although there were no attacks by any of the favourites on the second and last ascent of the day’s headline climb, Puerto de Orduña, the stage was still a very exciting, competitive one thanks to the attacks that had been made earlier in the day.
The break that got away at the start of the day was already of a large size difficult for the peloton to control, and got bigger still when several more riders attacked on the first climb of Puerto de Orduña to join them
Among them, crucially, were Alejandro Valverde and Geroge Bennett (Jumbo-Visma), both of whom posed a threat to the GC at 3-00 and 3-22 respectively, while the peloton might also have been uneasy about the presence of Mitchelton-Scott’s Mikel Nieve (at 3-28) and Trek-Segafredo’s Kenny Elissonde (at 4-11), too.
Bennett also had his Jumbo-Visma team-mate Sep Kuss with him to help, and the rest of the break were invested in its survival in order to have a chance of a stage win, so there followed for most of the day an intense pursuit between the breakaway and the Ineos Grenadiers-led peloton trying to contain it.
It was non-stop intrigue and tension right up until the line, with attacks constantly coming both from riders seeking to improve their standing on GC and from those simply hoping to win the stage. For yet another day at the Vuelta, we were kept very much entertained.
Ineos Grenadiers keep their cool
Ineos Grenadiers were put under a lot of pressure on their first day defending the red jersey for Richard Carapaz, but just about managed to control the danger.
With Jumbo-Visma and Movistar sending dangerous riders up the road, and Hugh Carthy’s EF Pro Cycling and Dan Martin’s Israel Start-Up nation teams both happy to let them do all the work, the onus was on Ineos Grenadiers to lead the peloton all day.
The impulsive reaction would have been to shut down the attacks immediately, but instead the British team rode with caution, perhaps wary of using up all their domestiques too quickly and risk being exposed for the crucial final climb. With their more cautious strategy, Carapaz still had Dylan van Baarle and Andrey Amador with him for the climb, and the latter remained with him all the way to the top.
They ended up losing almost a minute to both Valverde and a bit less to Bennett, but things could have been worse had Carapaz been left isolated to attacks from his more direct rivals on the final climb
Maybe stronger Ineos Grenadiers line-ups, like the one that recently triumphed at the Giro d’Italia, might have been able to snuff out the attacks altogether without breaking much of a sweat, but this one needed to be more cautious in their defence. Stave seven will go down as a relative success, but there are signs of weaknesses that the likes of Jumbo-Visma and Movistar again seek to exploit.
No Covid positive tests
Spain might be seeing a rise in Covid cases at the moment, to the extent that the government has imposed a new curfew, but the virus has not yet infiltrated the peloton as every rider was given the all-clear following the rest day’s tests.
That will come as a big relief to everyone in the race, especially considering what happened on the first rest day of the Giro d’Italia, which saw some of the biggest names present and even two teams in their entirety withdraw from the race.
Although the virus did not force anyone to go home, there was still one abandonment, as Jay McCarthy crashed into a ditch with about 60km to go.
It was a nasty crash, and the Bora-Hansgrohe rider remained static for a while before being taken away by an ambulance, but the Australian was, thankfully, conscious.