It failed to materialise in the Tour de France, but in the Vuelta a España's Lagos de Covadonga summit finish on Monday, fans finally saw the full-on battle they had been waiting for between grand tour stars Chris Froome and Colombian Nairo Quintana.
Team Sky’s Froome showed a moment of weakness and Movistar’s Quintana, showing a riding style that was smooth as silk, powered away. Once Froome rebounded, it became an individual pursuit over the remaining six kilometres to the lake at top.
“As it is now, I consider Froome the number one favourite,” Quintana said after taking the red jersey and his first Vuelta a España stage win.
“I find it difficult to understand his racing style, but little by little, we are understanding the tricks of his strategy, and we hope to find a way to open even more advantage on him.”
Quintana, second twice and third this year in the Tour de France behind Froome, won the stage. He took 31 seconds on Froome, who admitted that he feels the Tour de France, the Olympics and the rest of the season in his legs.
He now leads the overall by 57 seconds over his Movistar team-mate Alejandro Valverde and 58 seconds over Froome going in to the first rest day on Tuesday. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) sits at 2-09 and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) at 2-54.
It does not immediately look great for Froome, but those wanting the ding-dong must leave Monday's stage content. Froome's superiority and Quintana's failure to show up with his A-game in the Tour de France this July left some bored by the yellow jersey battle. This time around, Quintana appears at his best and Froome at a level below what fans saw in France.
Now, Quintana has his first Vuelta a España stage win to add to those from the Tour and Giro, where he won the overall in 2014.
"I have always been confident about my capacities," Quintana said. "Sometimes I was better, sometimes not so good, but now I am feeling better than he is, and that fills me with a lot of confidence."
More of the same duels should come as Quintana will fight to get every minute possible before starting stage 19, the 37-kilometre time trial in the third week.
“I'm going to need three minutes when I arrive to the time trial,” Quintana said. “Froome is still very close, especially when you look at what lies ahead, so we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing, to distance him even more."
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