Froome rode clear with Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) finishing behind an early escape. Moments, that seemed like hours, passed afterwards between the scattered groups of arriving riders.
Nicolas Roche (BMC Racing) arrived with Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), Fabio Aru (Astana) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) 11 seconds later.
Warren Barguil (Sunweb) with Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) 21 seconds later. Then after another short clearing in the finishing straight 330 metres above the Alcossebre village, Valerio Agnoli towed home Nibali at 26 seconds.
They both looked back at the clock once over the line. Nibali, having won the 2010 Vuelta a España, the 2014 Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia twice, could have made the quick calculations on the spot. The Sicilian and winner of the third stage to Andorra now sits 36 seconds behind Froome in the overall.
“These kicks like this, 10 to 15 minute efforts, are always hard for me to manage and I’ve always paid,” Nibali said. “And also today that was the case. But overall, I’m good and looking ahead with optimism.”
The team cars went directly down the short 3.4-kilometre climb to where the red and blue Bahrain-Merida bus waited next to the coastline.
Sports director and coach, Paolo Slongo collected the gold coloured SRM power meters from the team bikes. He looked up and said that he always knew that Nibali would lose time on this stage.
“It’s neither large nor small,” he said of the loss. “But you don’t win these Grand Tours by much these days, so it’s not good to lose anything.
“These types of climbs aren’t suited to Vincenzo. They are short forces. He can’t do these short and violet efforts. He prefers longer climbs. The short dry efforts are hard to digest for him, but if it was 10 kilometres then it’d be different.
“I don’t know when Nibali will have his chance. If Froome keeps going as he is then there won’t be an occasion for him to take time, it’s Froome that’s going to take time from the others,” Slongo said.
“It depends if Froome cracks, because Froome like Vincenzo also goes well on the long climbs. Froome goes well on any terrain, it’s us who suffer on these short climbs. If Froome maintains his form it’s difficult to beat him.”
Nibali made a fin on top of his head when he won in Andorra, something he has never done in celebration to recognise his nickname ‘The Shark.’
Froome is aware of Nibali’s attacking traits. For that reason, and because Nibali prepared specially for the Vuelta and skipped the Tour, he named ‘The Shark’ as his top rival.
With only five days in, and only one of the nine summit finishes competed, there remains much to race until Madrid.