Almendralejo to Mairena de Aljarafe 206km
Closing out the first week of the Vuelta was the 206km (128.75mi) ride from Almendralejo to Mairena de Aljarafe. It was one of the longest stages of the race, but also one of the flattest. And, as the mountains beckon tomorrow, a last chance for the sprinters, unless they're unable to scale the climb in the upcoming days.
Adding to the unquantifiable factors in the race was yesterday's finish, where the field nearly missed out on catching the only escapee of the day because they let him hang out there and underestimated his strength. That scenario was unlikely to transpire again.
Unlikely doesn't mean impossible. And since time trial specialist Macro Pinotti failed in his efforts to catch Tony Martin for the early break yesterday, he was out to get it right today. The BMC rider attacked early. Caja Rural's Javier Francisco Aramendia and Sky's Christian Knees joined him.
Seven minutes seems to be the number that wakes a lumbering field at this Vuelta. Once the escape had crossed that threshold 56km (35mi) into the race, the peloton took notice and started bringing them back. Pinotti was the last of the escapees to surrender and he was caught with 15km (9.4mi) remaining.
One of the features of today's stage is a technical finish. The route traverses six roundabouts in the final three kilometers, and the roads that link those circles are narrow. Another feature is that the field actually races through the finish twice, once for the intermediate sprint at 31.4km (19.63mi) to go, and then again for the final prize. This allowed the field to preview the finish and get a feeling of what it takes to ride it fast.
After Pinotti threw in the towel, the general classification teams took over at the front. Their task wasn't to win the day, but provide a safe passage for their leaders. Cannondale was in this mix, keeping Ivan Basso safe and on time. One team was left out of this tactic, Garmin-Sharp, and their top man, Dan Martin, crashed and lost time.
Then, with eight kilometers (5mi) remaining, BMC's World Champion, Philippe Gilbert, and Omega Pharma-Quickstep's cyclocross crossover, Zdenek Stybar, got away around a turn. Both riders are good at exactly the kind of effort needed to stay away.
Orica-Greenedge took the front for their sprinter, Michael Matthews. No one else helped. As the kilometers ticked off, the dynamic duo kept their lead hovering at around ten seconds. And then eleven as the final kilometer started. The field went into overdrive and the two kept their cool, with Stybar leading out Gilbert as the field thundered behind to close the gap. Gilbert kicked late and the two raced to a photo-finish, with both throwing their bikes at the line. The result: Stybar by a few centimeters. Belkin's Robert Wagner finished third, one second behind. Basso was Cannondale's top finisher in 59th.
Saturday marks the beginning of the mountain stages. The ride from Jerez de la Frontera - Alto Peñas Blancas is 166.6km (103.75mi) long. Most of the stage is flat but it finishes with a first-category climb 14.5km (9.1mi) in length. This will shake up the overall standings with all but the on-form climbers at the front when the finish line is crossed. Cannondale Pro Cycling's Ivan Basso is confident that he can stay near the front as the grade pitches up.
Stage 7: Almendralejo to Mairena de Aljarafe
1. Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 4:51:27
2. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC Racing Team same time
3. Robert Wagner (Ger) Belkin Pro Cycling Team same time
4. Adrien Petit (Fra) Cofidis same time
5. Juan Antonio Flecha Giannoni (Spa) Vacansoleil-DCM same time
Stage Results Cannondale Pro Cycling
59. Ivan Basso (Ita) same time
76. Cameron Wurf (Aus) same time
91. Cayetano José Sarmiento Tunarrosa (Col) same time
29. Guillaume Boivin (Can) 0:00:01
130. Lucas Sebastian Haedo (Arg) 0:03:45
134. Paolo Longo Borghini (Ita) 0:04:19
135. Andrey Zeits (Kaz) Astana Pro Team same time
136. Daniele Ratto (Ita) same time
137. Maciej Paterski (Pol) same time
138. Tiziano Dall'Antonia (Ita) same time
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana Pro Team 27:29:35
2. Christopher Horner (USA) RadioShack Leopard 0:00:03
3. Nicolas Roche (Irl) Team Saxo-Tinkoff 0:00:08
4. Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) RadioShack Leopard 0:00:16
5. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:21
General Classification Cannondale Pro Cycling
27. Ivan Basso (Ita) 0:01:32
54. Cayetano José Sarmiento Tunarrosa (Col) 0:07:21
86. Maciej Paterski (Pol) 0:19:37
94. Cameron Wurf (Aus) 0:21:04
99. Daniele Ratto (Ita) 0:23:01
109. Tiziano Dall'Antonia (Ita) 0:27:56
129. Guillaume Boivin (Can) 0:32:19
135. Paolo Longo Borghini (Ita) 0:35:21
167. Lucas Sebastian Haedo (Arg) 0:43:20