Vincenzo Nibali, Romain Bardet and Fabio Aru explain why the big Grand Tour stars let Rui Costa and Ilnur Zakarin fight for Abu Dhabi Tour glory

The ‘queen’ stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour on Saturday ended as many western films do: with a stand off. But in this case, the main protagonists were all left standing.

Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale)… They all attacked, bridged or marked, but none fired the deadly bullet that would make the Jabel Hafeet film a classic.

Instead, Portuguese Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) rode clear while the principle players “faced off” on the 10.8-kilometre climb.

Costa won the stage and took enough time to likely keep the overall lead when the WorldTour stage race ends tomorrow on the Formula One Yas Marina circuit.

“I always controlled Quintana and Contador,” Nibali said. “We’d ended up in three sometimes going ahead, but then we’d look at each other and slow down.

“It was just a stand off, a race of nerves and violent attacks”

Costa, the 2013 world champion rode free with around 6.5 kilometres to climb. Russian talent Zakarin bridged to him.

Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), the revelation of last year’s Giro d’Italia, motored solo behind. Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), who made his mark in the 2015 Vuelta a España, took off later, passed his Dutch countryman Kruijswijk, but could not catch the lead duo. He placed third.

Out of the top three, the organiser RCS Sport only invited Costa to the favourites pre-race press conference. The main reason was that Costa leads the home Emirates team with Brit Ben Swift.

The spotlight was aimed at others. Dumoulin explained that day he was happy not to be invited with the 14 favourites.

“This is the first test of the season,” Dumoulin explained after the climb today. “All the stars want to show off, and that gives the other guys possibilities.”

“I don’t know why,” Kruijswijk said of the stand off. “If they where good enough they would’ve tried more.”

Quintana launched his first attack 9.3 kilometres from the finish. He had Contador for company immediately. Nibali too.

Once Bauke Mollema rode free, Contador rode defensively for his Trek team-mate.

“There were many attacks,” Nibali continued. “The pace would go up, but then it’d slow down. The riders ahead had their space to gain time.”

Costa won ahead of Zakarin. He had 10 seconds on Dumoulin and 58 on the Quintana group.

“There were many leaders and no very strong team-mates,” Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) said.

>>> Rui Costa out-foxes Quintana and Contador on Abu Dhabi Tour’s big climb

“In other races, Sky might set a high pace and control it for the leader, but that wasn’t the case here.

“It may have been spectacular to watch, but it was hard to play the good card.”

Ilnur Zakarin and Rui Costa during stage three of the 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour. Photo: ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI

Costa was king of the corral. The WorldTour home victory means much to his team, the first professional one from the UAE that announced new title sponsor Emirates Airlines one day before the race.

“There are more than just Aru, Nibali, Quintana and Contador, there are many strong riders here,” Fabio Aru (Astana) explained as he wiped down.

“Complements to them for them to playing their cards. It’s not as if Costa, a former world champion, or Zakarin were unknowns. Or Dumoulin.”