Up to and including today, the Vuelta a España has seen its red leaders jersey change hands seven times between six men. From Peter Kennaugh back on day one to Nairo Quintana today after the Colombian won the first high mountain stage to retake a lead he had coughed up a day go and put time into his closest rivals heading into the first rest day.
Until today this Vuelta had been one of multiple hills, with a handful of short-sharp summit finishes. The kind of steep climbs that suit you one day and punish you the next. The kind that some climbers love and some hate. It seen opportunities for breaks to survive (hence the race leadership changes) and for small chunks of time to be exchanged among the leaders while those left in contention are whittled down daily.
So much so that after this first week and a bit of racing, only a handful were left in contention. Even Alberto Contador found himself minutes adrift to the likes of Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde and the Colombian pair of Nairo Quintana and Esteban Chaves. Froome looked good one day gaining a few seconds, Valverde would lead the group in a sprint another day, and then Quintana set off and took time on both of them over the weekend. And this was after Quintana himself had looked frail on one of the short hard climbs earlier in the week.
The upshot however, was that coming out of the weekend and into the serious mountains today, from which a new picture would emerge as to who truly was on form, the four contenders were separated by less than a minute. David De La Cruz was the morning leader having taken the jersey off Quintana on Sunday, but at 19 seconds to the Colombian was his team-mate Valverde with Froome at 27sec and Chaves at 57sec. Alberto Contador was 1min 39sec back and looking a shadow of his former self, but these longer climbs bring out a different kind of rider and with a season of racing in all their legs, it was still a journey into the unknown despite what we had seen through the first nine stages of racing.
And as it turns out Quintana still looked sharp. He won the day and retained his race leadership with Chris Froome being best of the rest among the GC men. For a while though it looked as though the Sky rider was in deep trouble when, with about 6km to go, he dropped off from a hard pace being set by Movistar before Quintana and Contador reduced the lead group further with respective attacks. Was this the Contador we all know; better suited to these longer climbs? Was this Quintana staking his claim to bury Froome from contention? Or was this Froome measuring his effort in a way that only he seems capable of, before reeling in the gap?
Froome has made a habit of that in recent years and seems to know his body and his limits more so than anyone else. Call it the computer on his bike giving him out wattage readings, but the rest have one too and yet he often seems to know where his red zone is best. The gap went to almost a minute at one stage before slowly coming down again. And then Contador dropped away from Quintana and soon Froome had him caught. Contador with a power metre on his own bike must surely have seen the signs and known that he was overextending himself. Froome’s catch only confirmed it and you could almost sense it happening before the Spaniard cracked. Then Froome was off in pursuit of Quintana, though the the younger Colombian wasn’t going to fall apart so easily. The road ran out and he took the victory and Froome was left limiting his loses, rolling home third a second behind Robert Gesink from the early break and 25sec down on the new red jersey.
Contador for what it was worth lost a further 1min 5secs overall to Quintana in those closing kilometres and is essentially left now having to resort to one of those wild exploits he has become famous for to try and shake up the race and get himself back into it. I cannot see it, but expect him to thrill us all by trying. Such tactics are often what the greats turn to when legs alone can no longer sustain them and we’re seeing it more and more often from Contador. Still, I must give him credit for at least trying to distance Froome today when he sensed blood in the water but surely Froome’s rivals must know by now that the Sky man losing a wheel, or even half a minute, isn’t a sure sign of his demise.
Also losing time was Chaves who limped in three seconds ahead of Contador but who drops to more than two minutes down on Quintana. As such this Vuelta is now a race for three. Froome and the two Movistar men. Valverde lost only a few seconds to Froome today and is second overall. Both himself and Froome are 57sec and 58sec behind the Colombian respectively.
A rest day tomorrow, but already looking ahead there is so many questions to ask. Quintana has less than a minute on Froome now, but how much effort is the Movistar rider putting out? Can he sustain it? Can he build on it? Will Froome slowly find his legs, or at least, not continue to lose them at the same rate as others? And most of all, how much time does Quintana require on Froome before the 37km time-trial on stage 19?
Between now and that time-trial there are four summit finishes and a number of other mountain stages and Quintana may need to work Froome over on all of them to build enough an advantage to feel safe for the race of truth. This Vuelta is a week and a bit old and it’s already a race for three, perhaps even two, but it’s going to be a fantastic battle to watch.
Overall standings after stage 10:
1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 38h37’07”
2. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) @ 57″
3. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 58″
4. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) 2’09”
5. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 2’54”
6. Leopold Konig (Sky) @ 2’57”
Rider of the week:
I’ve got to go with Darwin Atapuma. He didn’t win a stage last week at the Vuelta but he got in the right move and survived to the finish to take the overall race lead from Ruben Fernendez and retain his jersey for four days before his countryman, Nairo Quintana took over. A solid stage racer who has a knack for getting in good moves, don’t expect this to be the last you see of him in this Vuelta, though it would be a big ask to expect to see him again in red.