Nairo Quintana makes his move, Chris Froome misfires, Alberto Contador fights back, and Katusha take an impressive stage win

Quintana might be the man to beat

27 August 2016 71st Vuelta a Espana Stage 08 : Villalpando - La Camperona QUINTANA Nairo Alexander (COL) Movistar Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

Nairo Quintana (Movistar) celebrates claiming the Vuelta leader’s red jersey after stage eight (Sunada)

Today’s excessively steep finish at La Camperona was the first climb at this year’s Vuelta to split the favourites, and it was Nairo Quintana (Movistar) who emerged as the strongest.

He was able to follow an acceleration from Chris Froome (Team Sky) and then put in his own attack, leaving the Briton for dead and ultimately putting over 25 seconds into all of his GC rivals. He gained enough time to move into the overall lead ahead of compatriot Darwin Atapuma (BMC Racng), and the onus will now be on the other GC hopefuls to attack.

Having looked out of sorts at the Tour de France, Quintana at last looked the match of Froome. Today’s stage had an eccentric contrast between a flat opening 170km and the extreme steepness of the final climb, so the Colombian still needs to demonstrate superiority on stages with more and longer mountains – but right now he looks like the man to beat.

Chris Froome mistimes his big effort

Chris Froome (Team Sky) attacks the fiendish climb at La Camperona (Sunada)

Chris Froome (Team Sky) attacks the fiendish climb at La Camperona (Sunada)

Over the years we’ve become very accustomed to Froome’s measured strategy on steep climbs like this – he rides at his own pace, usually losing touch early on but storming back towards the top to pass those who had initially dropped him.

At first, La Camperona played out in much the same way. Froome drifted back as Movistar set the pace at the front of the peloton, then worked his way back to the front and attacked.

>>> Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana prepared for two more weeks of Vuelta battles

He was able to drop everyone apart from Quintana, but then the Colombian made his move and Froome suddenly looked to be struggling. He drifted back and was eventually caught by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Sergio Pardilla (Caja Rural) and even passed by Alberto Contador (Tinkoff).

It’s unusual to see Froome’s trademark accelerations fail, and it was perhaps a sign that he overestimated his strength today. We might see him race a little more conservatively in the next few key stages.

Alberto Contador looks fine

Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) puts in a strong performance on stage eight of the Vuelta a España (Sunada)

Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) puts in a strong performance on stage eight of the Vuelta a España (Sunada)

Yesterday, what had already been a bad Vuelta for pre-race favourite Alberto Contador appeared to be on the brink of falling apart.

Having consistently lost time on uphill finishes and in the opening team-time-trial, the Spaniard suffered a crash in the final kilometre of yesterday’s stage, leaving him frustrated and in pain heading into today’s crucial hilltop finish.

He was expected to be left trying to limit his losses so soon after such a painful-looking crash, but instead he looked somewhere near his best, gaining time on every rival aside from Quintana. In the space of just 24 hours he has gone from possible write-off to a serious contender once more for the overall.

Katusha pull-off stage win

27 August 2016 71st Vuelta a Espana Sergey Lagutin (Katusha) takes the win on stage eight (Sunada)

Sergey Lagutin (Katusha) takes the win on stage eight (Sunada)

Up ahead of the GC action was the battle for the stage, contested by an 11-man breakaway group that were allowed up the road by the peloton.

Katusha held the numerical advantage with two riders, and played that card to perfection. First Jhonatan Restrepo attacked before the climb to force other teams chase. Then, after he was caught with 1.5km to go, teammate Sergey Lagutin – who had cleverly followed the wheels of the group chasing Restrepo – attacked the four-man group to win the stage.

The Uzbek rider seemed stunned to have won, shaking his head with a look of disbelief on his face as he crossed the line. A professional since 2004, this is the both the first Grand Tour stage the 35-year old has ever won, as well as being easily the biggest win of his career, continuing the trend of unlikely stage winners that has so far characterised this Vuelta.

The steep slopes of La Camperona shake up the race

La Camperona, the final climb of stage eight of the Vuelta a España (Sunada)

La Camperona, the final climb of stage eight of the Vuelta a España (Sunada)

La Camperona was hyped up as being a real spectacle of a climb, and it lived up to expectation. Riders across the race were forced to crawl up its gradients of over 20 per cent, while fans lined the roadside.

There were also considerable gaps in the peloton, with Contador finishing 25 seconds behind Quintana, Froome 33 seconds, Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) 57 seconds and red jersey Atapuma over two minutes.

Steep finishes aren’t exactly a novelty at the Vuelta, and there are more to come over the next two weeks, but this one was unique for the sheer relentlessness of its gradient.