We promised a breakaway success on stage 7, and that is exactly, precisely, one hundred percent what we didn’t see. Instead, we saw the morning break swallowed up with 30km to go, and a second group kick off shortly after that on the last climb. They never got far, thanks to hard work from teams like Etixx and Bora-Argon, but Cannondale’s Simon Clarke and Astana’s Luis Leon Sánchez held on for as long as possible down towards the line, making for a nail-biting final few kilometres. The catch was yet to be made as they passed under the flamme rouge, and the reinvigorated sprint teams were doing their best to line up in a disordered but speeding bunch. A crash looked imminent, and that’s what we saw — and it was none other than Alberto Contador who hit the deck mere moments before Clarke and Sánchez were reabsorbed. Some teams lost interest in the confusion after the crash — especially the Tinkoff man who had been driving the pace, and was now backing down whilst clutching his ear-piece. Valverde made an appearance, but seemed reluctant to take the wind too early, and so effectively settled for third rather than fight for the top spot. Meersman was badly placed, Gilbert had a long way to go round, Goncalves was caught behind the crash, and Felline was nowhere to be seen. This left an opening that Jonas Van Genechten delighted in filling on behalf of IAM, and he sped his way to the top of the podium — his first grand tour win ever, and his only win of the year at all. Daniele Bennati managed second place, despite the carnage of his team captain’s crash.
Stage 8 isn’t the first summit finish of this year’s race, but it is the first cat 1 finish — and indeed, the first cat 1 so far at all. The profile is near ridiculous, with the riders steadily climbing only a couple of hundred metres over the first 170 or so kilometres, followed by about 700m of climb all in one go. I mean, come on — the profile looks like a ramp from an Evel Knievel stunt. If Sagan was in this race he’d probably try to backflip it. But in all seriousness, this stage — which doesn’t even have an intermediate sprint — is effectively four hours of warm up before a terrifying ascent up the Alto de la Camponera. It’s 8.5km long, at an average of 7.4%, and that includes the slight levelling off after a particularly sharp rise (25%!!) at the 4km mark. That makes the last 2.5km easily in excess of 15%, and mostly above 20%.
This stage is, in all respects, a test for the pure climbers. There’s no sprint, no climbs or descents on route, and the hardest gradients come on the final run to the line. If you want to do well here you will need to attack on those vicious gradients, there’s no other way around it. The chance of a breakaway lasting is minute; the only way they’d last is if the G.C. teams decided not to chase hard, but it’s too risky to let a gap grow out on the run up to a climb such as this. It’s by some stretch the most likely setting for a coincidence of stage winners with top G.C. riders here, so let’s remind ourselves who’s in with a shot.
So far the most sprightly climbers have been Chris Froome, Esteban Chaves, and Alejandro Valverde. Alberto Contador has lost the pace a little and has now come down hard — at the time of writing this it’s still unclear as to whether he’s suffered serious, race-altering injuries. Nairo Quintana is on paper here to work for Valverde, but Movistar’s plans always seem to involve the sort of team work that drags both men up the leaderboard.
There are a few other riders who have produced good climbs so far. This is the first big threat to Darwin Atapuma‘s red leader’s jersey, and we may well see him surrender it on stage 8. He’s a great climber, but we’re not certain he’ll be able to stick with the stinging attacks that are sure to come on those final tough gradients. With four exceptionally strong riders within a minute of him, including Valverde at only 24 seconds, it will be touch and go for Atapuma even on a good day for him. Dimension Data have Igor Anton, who is never a slouch on this kind of finish. BMC have Samuel Sánchez, in lieu of a tired-looking Tejay, and he’s actually a very good bet here; he’s clearly in form, and he stands to climb up into the top 5 on G.C. if anyone ahead of him has a bad day. And Etixx are pinning their hopes to Gianluca Brambilla, who has ridden very well so far, thought lost just a little ground on the exceptionally steep ramps on stage 3. Rubén Fernandez, of course, was the big news of that stage, but it would be surprising to see him given permission to attack on such a key stage for Movistar. Better outsiders might be Orica’s Simon Yates, who showed good form by winning stage 6, the other young Brit Hugh Carthy, who we expect much from in the coming years when he moves from Caja Rural and up to the World Tour with Cannondale-Drapac in 2017, Ag2r’s Pierre Latour, if he’s feeling good, and Louis Meintjes, if he’s not wrecked after his hard Tour de France.
Picks: Froome is looking sensational so far, but we think this one will be marked in red pen in the roadbook of Esteban Chaves. This tour is a big, big target for the Colombian, and in last year’s race he went hard on the first big mountain to announce himself as a strong contender. We expect that he’ll make his big move here. For a more interesting podium pick, we’ll reiterate that Samuel Sánchez is looking very strong.