The Belgian will head into the mountainous week-end at the top of the points classification.
Many teams, still winless in the first third of the Vuelta a España, had big plans for stage 7 (Maceda – Puebla de Sanabria, 158.5 kilometers), and to be sure they stand a chance of achieving their goal, decided to keep the original six-man break of the day on a leash. Inside the final 60 kilometers of the stage in which the peloton bided farewell to Galicia, Astana took command of things and went for a change of pace, stretching out the bunch and dropping the riders on the uphill road taking to the third-category Alto de Padornelo.
Midway up the ascent, Dario Cataldo (Astana) attacked, sparking a response from four other men, including Etixx – Quick-Step's Gianluca Brambilla. Ninth in the general classification, the Italian sensed there could be an opportunity for the move to make it, so he spent a considerable amount of time and energy at the forefront, helping the group build a 40-second advantage over the top of Padornelo. However, on the long and fast descent, the riders stopped collaborating and the bunch gained ground and eventually caught three of the attackers, including Gianluca.
At the 3km to go mark, Simon Clarke (Cannondale-Drapac) and Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) still held 15 second over the peloton, but the joint efforts of Etixx – Quick-Step and Giant-Alpecin helped the pack reabsorb them in the final kilometer, an uphill one with gradients of 5%. On a left-hand curve, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) crashed, an incident which took several other riders to the ground, while the ones who escaped unscathed contested the sprint in Puebla de Sanabria, which was hosting a stage arrival for the first time in three years.
The crash occurred with 500 meters to go made up for a scrappy finish, which saw Jonas van Genechten (IAM Cycling) emerge victorious after beating Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Gianni Meersman was also there, flying the flag for Etixx – Quick-Step and finishing seventh, a remarkable result considering he was slowed down by the crash and had to empty the tank in order to rejoin the front group on the sharp incline before launching the sprint.
"What a tough and fast finale this was! Because of that incident, I was forced to hit the brakes and lost some speed, so I didn't have the possibility to sprint. It's a real pity, as the legs were there and I was very confident of getting another strong result. Would have been nice to land a third win, but things are as they are. Now the race will tackle the mountains and I'll try to help my teammates as much as I can. It remains to be seen what we can on that terrain", said Gianni Meersman, the first Belgian rider in eight years to lead the points standings at the Spanish Grand Tour for at least four days.
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele