Quintana and Valverde work together to seal stage victory
Stage seven was an example of how formidable a force Movistar can be if their star assets manage to work together.
The team made clear their intent of landing a victory early in the stage, when they massed at the front of the peloton to set a pace that ensured the day’s break would not make it to the finish.
Then on the punishingly steep gradients of the final climb to the finish, Nairo Quintana accelerated at the front so that only he, Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde, Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Miguel Ángel López (Astana) remained in the leading group.
The key difference between stages six and seven was that, when Valverde looked in danger of being dropped, Quintana opted to knock the pace off for his teammate rather than continue to ride hard.
That meant that Valverde remained in contention at the finish, which, as a sprint up very high gradients, was tailor-made for him. The 39-year old put in a lethal acceleration and out-sprinted Roglič to the line, to claim his first and Movistar’s second stage win of the race.
The four strongest riders of the race emerge
The Alto Mas de la Costa offered the clearest picture yet of who are the strongest riders of this Vuelta a España.
The quartet of Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, Primož Roglič and Miguel Ángel López emerged at the front of the race on its lower slopes, and continued to ride away from the rest over the course of the climb.
At the summit, the next best rider Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) finished 42 seconds behind, with other potential overall contenders like Tadej Pogačar (51 seconds) and Esteban Chaves (1-37) losing even more time.
This elite quartet now occupy the top four places on GC, with just 27 seconds separating them, and the next best rider – again Majka – much further adrift at 1-58.
It seems likely therefore that the winner of the 2019 Vuelta will come from one of these four riders, and, if these early stages are any indication, that it will be a closely contested fight between them.
Teuns dethroned as overall leader after just one day
Dylan Teuns’s stint as overall leader lasted just one day, with the Belgian ceding the red jersey to Miguel Ángel López.
He faced a tough challenge defending the jersey on a stage featuring such a difficult finish, however had been expected to put up more of a fight than he was ultimately capable of – as it turned out, Teuns had already lost any hope before even reaching the final climb, having been dropped halfway up the category two Puerto del Salto del Caballo several kilometres earlier.
Clearly Teuns must have used up lots of energy on stage six in his bid to gain the jersey, where he dug deep until the finish to make sure he held a big enough gap over the peloton to inherit the overall lead.
As a result of his disappointment today, the red jersey has now changed hands four times already – the most at this early stage of the Vuelta in any edition of the race since 2008.
The breakaway fails, but offers glimpse of on-form riders
The determination of Movistar to land a stage win meant that the day’s breakaway were never given a realistic chance of making it to the finish, but we did get a glimpse of some of the strong form certain riders in the breakaway are currently enjoying.
Most eye-catching of all was Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), who turned out to be one of the two strongest riders in the group on the category two Puerto del Salto del Caballo – a climb which, at roughly 10km in length, you might usually expect to be too long for a rider with his punchy characteristics.
He might have left the stage empty handed, but the performance was a very good sign heading into next month’s World Championships in Yorkshire.
The other strongest rider in the group was Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates), who enjoyed his best performance in a Grand Tour stage for some time.
Back in his heyday, this was the kind of stage you could envision him competing for victory in at the front of the peloton, making use of his light frame and vicious sprinting acceleration.
Although he was not given the opportunity to do so, a potential bid for the mountains classification is now on the cards having picked up a total of sixteen points over four of the day’s summits.
James Knox crashes, but remains in the race
For a little while, it seemed to television viewers that James Knox’s second Grand Tour of the season had ended the same way as his first, with an on-screen graphic revealing he had abandoned.
However, although the Deceuninck – Quick-Step rider had indeed crashed, it turned out that graphic had made a mistake, and that he had successfully managed to remount his bike and continue riding.
The young Brit was far from left unscathed, complaining of pains in his body sustained from the impact in a post-race interview. But, more encouragingly, he also expressed confidence that he would be able to continue riding.
Having impressed so much earlier this year with a top ten overall at the UAE Tour and third at the Adriatica Ionica Race, we’d love to see what he can do in a Grand Tour, and hopefully we’ll see him in some breakaways during the mountainous stages in the second and third weeks of the Vuelta.