The Tour de France winner eased off but came back strongly in the closing metres of the 1.8-kilometre climb, where gradients reached up to 30 per cent. He eventually placed fourth at 26 seconds behind stage winner Alexandre Geniez (FDJ). Quintana placed four seconds back, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) 28 seconds and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) 1-36 minutes behind.
“It’s easy to think only it’s only 1.7, 1.8 kilometres and get a bit carried away,” Froome said while warming down outside the team bus. “I think a few guys did that and paid the price for it in last 500 metres.
“I was trying to ride my own pace there at the bottom. I did get gapped a bit from the leaders, but I kept clawing away and just tried to get back to the front by the last few hundred metres.”
With one kilometre left to race it looked likely that Froome would sink down the overall classification, but his fight-back on the steepest sections leaves him third overall, 11 seconds behind new race leader Ruben Fernandez (Movistar), who placed second today.
“I’m happy with how it went for me,” said the Sky leader. “The guys did a really good job to get me into position. A lot of respect to Michal Kwiatkowski and Pete [Kennaugh], they are both on the same time as me. Kwiatkowski, in the red leader’s jersey, just being a great team-mate, sacrificing himself and pulling me into the bottom like that. I am satisfied with how my legs felt and for day three and the overall standings.”
Fernandez attacked from the group with Movistar team-mates Alejandro Valverde and Quintana in the final 100 metres to gain the necessary time to take the leader’s jersey. With it, however, comes some responsibility.
“[Movistar] have a strong team, definitely a team that can ride in control for the race. I expect they will do just that,” Froome explained. “For me, it’s about staying out of trouble and choosing my moments.
“I hope to ride into the race. The time trial at the end will be a key stage for me, stage 19 to Calpe, that’s a stage I’m focusing on. For now, I’m just trying to stay out of trouble.”
Watch: Chris Froome at the Vuelta opening presentation
Froome may talk of “riding into the race”, but he already appears much stronger than many of his competitors – perhaps better than in any of his past Vuelta starts. Maybe only in 2014, when he had to abandon the Tour de France early due to a crash, was he in better form in Spain.
“Probably, but it’s hard to compare to other years. Every year is different. I think I’m in good shape now. I definitely feel that given another week, I’ll start to feel a lot better.”