It was a small climb, but Nairo Quintana (Movistar) used it to test Sky's Chris Froome and his rivals for the yellow jersey. When the Tour de France finished the three-kilometre rise to the airstrip above Mende, in France's southwest, he had dropped all his peers bar Froome, and moved from second to third overall in the process.
The next goal, however, is even harder: drop Froome. As strong as Quintana looked as he danced away from the peloton, he couldn't shake the yellow jersey from his back wheel — and in the final stretch it was Team Sky's leader who attacked, bursting clear and adding yet another second to his overall lead.
Yet the Colombian, who spent his childhood at 3000 metres, promises to attack Froome at every chance possible as the race enters the Alps.
"It wasn't a planned day. I had good legs and thought that some may be paying after the hot days that we had," Quintana said in his quiet voice on the open and hot airstrip after the stage finish.
"We wanted to test Froome, and we will continue to do so, to attack him to get to our target: the yellow jersey."
Brit Steve Cummings (MTN-Qhubeka) zipped clear of his escape companions to win the 14th stage. While he was racing towards the line, the live television coverage switched back to the main peloton four minutes behind.
Quintana attacked. Reigning champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) tried to follow, but was dropped. Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) fell behind too. Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) also lost ground.
Froome was the only one who could stay with the aggressive Colombian. Eager to show why he still had the race leader’s yellow jersey, Froome distanced Quintana by one second on the landing strip finish.
Quintana now trails by 3-10 minutes, but moved up on van Garderen, jumping from third to second in the overall classification.
"He's dangerous," Sky's Geraint Thomas said of Quintana. "They all are. Nairo's that much closer to Froomey, that's why he's the big threat."
Froome rode away with the 2013 Tour, but Quintana in his debut managed second overall and won the young and mountains classifications.
Movistar decided to give him the chance to win a grand tour and took him to the Giro d'Italia last year, where he succeeded over Rigoberto Urán and Fabio Aru.
Now more mature at 25 years old, Quintana's aim is now the Tour title when the race finishes on the Champs-Élysées next Sunday. "The theory was not to have a super start," his trainer Mikel Zabala told Cycling Weekly, "but to evolve in the second and third week."
Many are predicting a sprint stage tomorrow in Valence, but after that Quintana could take his chance again. The longer Alpine climbs where he can get into his rhythm, said Zabala, suit him the best. He may try for early gains in stages like Pra Loup, or maybe hold off until one of cycling's most famous climbs
"The day to drop Froome will be the Alpe d'Huez," Sports Director José Arrieta said. "Remember his crisis there in 2013?"
Froome briefly suffered a hunger crisis in 2013 and needed to take a gel from team-mate Richie Porte. He recovered, however, and won his first Tour title.
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