Zdenek Stybar of Omega Pharma-Quick Step held off world road champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing by the width of a tyre to win Stage 7 of the 2013 Vuelta a Espana in Mairena del Aljarafe this afternoon as the peloton breathed down their neck. With one month of his reign in the rainbow jersey left, Gilbert is left still seeking his first victory in the rainbow jersey. Astana's Vincenzo Nibali retains the overall lead.
The race had seemed to be heading towards an inevitable bunch sprint as the day's three-man break was brought back with 15km remaining. But Gilbert launched an attack with around 10km remaining, Stybar following him. The pair seemed to be kept in check by the peleton but used a seris of roundabouts and tight corners in the closing 5 kilometres to their advantage.
They had a lead of 17 seconds with 2km remaining, but that had been cut to 9 seconds as they passed under the flamme rouge. Stybar, realising the danger posed by the chasing peloton, which had caught his team mate Tony Martin late on after that day-long solo ride yesterday, went hell for leather for the line. Gilbert responded, but just ran out of road before he could overhaul the Czech, twice world cyclo-cross champion.
Zdenek Stybar wins the stage (copyright: Unipublic/Graham Watson)
"It was just full gas," said Stybar of the finale.
"I was in a very good situation because we were going for a sprint for Gianni Meersman. But with 100km to go, I called my team car and told the directeur sportif that shall there be a breakaway, I wanted to give it a try, which would make it comfortable for the team too. However, before doing anything, I wanted to see the course first as we passed once on the finishing line.
"As we did it, I was sure there would be a breakaway. I was ready to move. I thought more guys would escape but there was only Philippe Gilbert and myself. Fabian Cancellara tried as well but didn’t bridge the gap.
"In the last kilometre, I tried to stay cool. I felt the peloton not far behind us. I knew it was all or nothing. To beat the world champion was very difficult but I perfectly launched my sprint. It doesn’t matter if I won by one centimeter or one millimeter, I’ve won!
Asked if he was inspired by Martin's exploits yesterday, he reflected: "Yesterday was an amazing day for us. In the last five kilometres, we were supporting Tony through the radio.
"We should have been disappointed after the finish but we hugged him as he nearly made it. He could be a legend. It was really hard to accept that he didn’t win but the atmosphere in the team was a motivating factor for all of us."
Today's runner-up, Gilbert, who after completing the Ardennes hat-trick in 2011 had a difficult start to the 2012 season before riding himself into form in last year's Vuelta ahead of winning the rainbow jersey in the Netherlands, said: "Yesterday was the first day when I had some feeling back in my legs after the crash," referring to his chute in the Eneco Tour earlier this month.
"I am happy. I am still missing a victory this season, but I have been close a lot of times," he added.
But there was bad news for Garmin-Sharp's Dan Martin who crashed more than 10km out just as the peloton was speeding towards the finish, driven by teams of some of his overall rivals who were keen to keep their challengers for the red jersey out of trouble with a series of roundabouts and tight corners figuring within the closing kilometres.
Martin, who has targeted victory in the world championships in Florence next month as his major goal for a 2013 season in which he has already won Liege-Bastogne-Liege as well as a stage of the Tour de France, has reportedly been taken to hospital to be checked over.
According to an official race communication, Martin suffered "“multiple blows to an arm and hip” - evident from the photo below - and lost 1 minute 33 seconds to his rivals, although that will be the least of the team's concerns this evening.
Dan Martin after his crash (copyright: Unipublic/Graham Watson)
With no wind as the race headed from Extremadura into Andalusia, it was a hot day in the saddle, and particularly for the three men who constituted the day’s break, Francisco Aramendia of Caja Rural, BMC Racing’s Marco Pinotti, and Christian Knees from Team Sky.
Aramendia, who spent four years with Euskaltel-Euskadi before joining his current team for the 2012 season, was a serial escapee during last year’s race, and in this 68th edition had also slipped into a break during Stage 2, won by Saxo-Tinkoff’s Nicolas Roche.
Pinotti, meanwhile, had unsuccessfully tried to get across to Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tony Martin early on in yesterday’s stage, in which the German would spend more than 170km out front on his own before being caught just metres from the line, the win going to Saxo-Tinkoff’s Michael Mørkøv.
Former German national champion Knees was a more surprising inclusion in the break, given that the team’s main challenge is for the overall and there is a big weekend in the mountains looming.
"It's been a couple of days that I've been trying to be in the main breakaway," said Pinott. "Spending so much time in front is good training and preparation for the world's time trial. So it was actually good for today."
Knees, Pinotti & Aramendia on the break (copyright: Unipublic/Graham Watson)
The three had got away with 14km of the 205.9km stage from Almendralejo raced, after earlier attempts to form the day’s escape had got away. Their maximum advantage of 7 minutes began to be reined in ahead of the halfway point, and with around 17km remaining, the game was up Pinotti being the last rider to be swallowed up.
By now, the peloton had already had a preview of the finish line, which also formed the day’s second intermediate sprint point, a little over 30km from the start.
It then headed on a loop across the Guadalquivir river before heading back towards the end of the stage in Mairena de Aljarafe, where that series of roundabouts in the closing kilometres had been flagged as a particular hazard, and which ultimately allowed Stybar and Gilbert to just stay away.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.