Colombian climber Nairo Quintana (Movistar) says that Wednesday's stage 11 to Montpellier was the most difficult in the Tour de France for him due to the flat and wind-ravaged roads in the south of France.
Quintana, five-foot five and less than 55kg, lost 12 seconds in the overall standings when race leader Chris Froome and his team-mate Geraint Thomas fired clear in the closing kilometres. The Team Sky pair joined world champion Peter Sagan and his Tinkoff helper Maciej Bodnar in fierce crosswinds, leaving Movistar powerless behind.
It was the second surprise attack that has Froome has launched in this year's race, following his sudden move on the Peyresourde descent to Bagnères-de-Luchon on Saturday, where he gained 23 seconds. Regardless, Colombian fans crowded the Movistar team bus and chanted "Nairo, Nairo" until he appeared at the door to speak with the press.
"This was the most difficult stage in this Tour for me. It was a flat stage with a lot of wind, one where sprinters lost a chance to win a stage," Quintana said.
"We spent about the same amount of energy [as Sky]. They took advantage of the moment, and took some seconds."
Froome and Thomas latched onto Sagan and Bodnar's attack when the stage had 12km left to run. The four pushed the gap out to 21 seconds as the sprinters' and other classification teams struggled to mount a chase. At the line, Sagan won ahead of Froome, six seconds in front of Quintana's group.
With the six-second bonus for second place, Froome gained 12 seconds and moved his lead over Quintana to 35 seconds.
Watch: Stage 11 highlights
The 26-year-old from Colombia's East Andes, who placed second to Froome in both 2013 and 2015, is seen as the most dangerous rival. He currently lies fourth, behind Brit Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) at 28 seconds and Ireland's Daniel Martin (Etixx–Quick-Step) at 31 seconds.
"I’ll keep a positive feeling after this day. We didn't crash, but the organisation really doesn't think a lot about the riders given the risks that are they putting before us,” said Quintana. “We are risking our lives every day, they ought to think more about that [rider safety]."
The race returns to terrain more favourable for Quintana on Thursday when it climbs the Mont Ventoux. The only twist is that because of high winds, around 104kph today, Tour Director Christian Prudhomme decided not to take the riders to the summit and shortened the final climb by six kilometres.
Quintana, who at one point had around 20 microphones and voice recorders inches from his mouth, shook his head when hearing the news.
"It will be a shame if we cannot race the entire Ventoux because it's a beautiful climb. It's a day that is very good for me and a stage that is a lot better for me than one like today. We will have to race it in a different manner," he added.
"Nothing is decided yet. The classification is being trimmed down slowly, and much more is still to come in this Tour, the last mountains and the time trials."
After Mont Ventoux, the race must still cover two time trials, a rolling one on Friday and one climbing up Megève, plus two summit finish stages. The race is far from over, but Quintana will need his Movistar team at their very best if he is to reach Paris in the yellow jersey.
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