Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) has encountered few problems whenever the road has climbed at this Vuelta a España, but the Colombian endured a fraught finale to stage 8 after he was among the fallers in a mass crash some 50 kilometres from the finish in Murcia.
Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin), Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Kris Boeckmans (Lotto Soudal) were all forced out of the race by the injuries they sustained in the incident, but Chaves emerged with a mere flesh wound.
"I just scratched the paintwork," Chaves joked after collecting another red jersey from the podium.
Chaves can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible. After picking his way through the carnage and remounting, he found himself almost a minute down on the peloton, and though second-placed Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) was in the same situation, Chaves’ overall lead was at real hazard.
"When you crash like that, you’ve got a lot of things going through your head but my directeur sportif Neil Stephens is an old dog and I had him in my earpiece the whole time," Chaves said. "He told me that there were still 50 kilometres and almost an hour and a half of racing left, and he reminded me to keep calm."
Chaves also had a platoon of Orica-GreenEdge teammates to help pace him back up to the peloton, and he was safely back on board before the race tackled the first of two ascents of the category 3 Alto de la Cresta del Gallo, a 3.6km climb with a wicked descent.
Billed as a transitional day before, stage 8 had suddenly taken on altogether different guise. There was something of a détente – albeit a high speed one – in the bunch on the first ascent, but the second time around, Dumoulin hit the front in a bid to shed himself of Chaves.
The Colombian responded well there, but he faced a further onslaught on the way down, as Alejandro Valerde (Movistar), eager to impress on home roads, tested his overall rivals’ resolve by charging down the descent. Once again, however, Chaves was among the first to bridge across, and he would finish the day safely in the 49-man leading group that formed on the fast run-in to Murcia.
"It was a very stressful day," Chaves admitted. "Normally you’d see that stage in the road book and think it was going to be a transitional stage at the end of a stressful first week, but that wasn’t the case at all in the end. The last 50 kilometres were very nervous, it was up and down all the time, but I managed to stay in a good position and fortunately we have the red jersey for another day.
"On the second climb, I was attacked quite a bit and my teammates had already used themselves up by working to bring me back up to the peloton, but luckily I was able to stay calm and defend myself."
Chaves retains a 10-second lead over Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) in the general classification, while Nicolas Roche (Sky) moves up to third place at 36 seconds following the abandon of his cousin Dan Martin.
Sunday sees the Vuelta return to the kind of finale more suited to Chaves’ characteristics as a puncheur, with the finish line atop the short, sharp Alto de Puig Llorença, a climb just 4.1 kilometres in length, but with an average gradient, 8.9%, redoubtable enough to make it a category 1 ascent.
On the evidence of his exploits at Caminito del Rey and Sierra de Cazorla, those figures will be to Chaves’ liking, though he revealed on Saturday that he prefers a more instinctive approach to racing. Power-meters may be de rigueur for professional riders at this point, but Chaves chooses to place tape over the screen rather than be beholden to its numbers. "I prefer to race on feelings," he said.