On the coldest day of the Vuelta a España so far, Nairo Quintana is perhaps himself again. Like his climbing forebear Charly Gaul, the Colombian seems to be a man who operates better as the temperature drops, and he confirmed that impression by moving into the overall lead during stage 9 at Valdelinares.
In May at the Giro d'Italia, Quintana snatched the pink jersey on the snowbound stage to Val Martello. After struggling beneath the blazing sunshine of Andalusia through this Vuelta's opening week, he seemed suddenly reanimated amid the sheets of thundery rain that tumbled in the final two hours in Aragon.
Along with Joaquim Rodriguez, Quintana was the only man who succeeded in catching Alberto Contador after his fierce acceleration two kilometres from the summit, and that performance was enough to divest his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde of the red jersey and put 23 seconds into Chris Froome. In the general classification, he now lies 3 seconds ahead of Contador, 8 up on Valverde and 28 in front of Froome.
"Normally, I feel good in all types of weather, but I was affected a bit by the heat we experienced during the first few days," Quintana admitted in his press conference in the ski station at the summit, his hushed tones barely reaching past the first row of seats. "Today I had good legs and we worked to keep the red jersey in the team."
Quintana's attack amid the confusion on the snow-flecked descent of the Stelvio sparked days of polemica at the Giro, and by comparison, his assumption of the overall lead here was positively low-key.
His coexistence with Valverde in Movistar's Vuelta squad does not seem an entirely straightforward one, of course, but there was no obvious sense of a damaging internecine struggle at Valdelinares. Tactical considerations did not come into play – Quintana could follow Rodriguez in pursuit of Contador, while Valverde could not and instead finished with Froome.
"I didn't talk with Valverde in the finale but we were both climbing well," Quintana said. "I felt that I had good legs today and it was a good opportunity to take the overall lead. Today didn't really change a lot in the race, and it's the second and third week that will really decide it.
"There is no debate, we have two leaders. We're both up there, and whether it's Alejandro or me, the objective is to get the win for the team."
Movistar now hold first and third in the general classification, but on the final approach to Valdelinares, it was Froome's Sky team that whittled down the red jersey group with a determined display of pace-setting. Froome's anticipated attack never materialised, however, and he surprisingly conceded ground in the finale.
"I was a bit surprised that Froome was dropped, but maybe he just a bad day just like we all can have," Quintana said. "You can't rule Froome out. It's not a big difference, and I'm sure he'll be up there."
Froome will expect to respond in Tuesday's time trial to Borja, but given the force of Contador's attack in the finale at Valdelinares, Quintana has identified the Spaniard as the chief threat for final overall victory. Contador abandoned the Tour de France with a fractured tibia in mid-July, but made a surprise recovery to start the Vuelta, and his level of performance in the opening week has been startling.
"Alberto's attack was really very strong," Quintana said. "Froome is the number one favourite for the time trial, but Contador is the number one rival for the Vuelta."