The move contained heavyweights of the calibre of Mathias Frank (AG2R La Mondiale), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Simon Yates (Michelton-Scott), all of them serious threats to Alejandro Valverde's overall lead.
But in a flurry of attacks and counter-moves that largely took place in a tunnel less than 15 kilometres from the finish, Quintana - riding only his second stage race of the season - was able to follow the trio.
The Colombian then largely sat on the back of the quartet as it forged a maximum gap of 30 seconds on the peloton before Sky and, much later, Bahrain-Merida, worked hard to bring back their rivals.
Quintana did try a brief dig close to the finish at a point when it seemed the breakaway would be caught, but his move was instantly closed down by the other three racers. Finally, the four were swept up by the peloton just as they reached the line, crossing the line in second to fifth behind stage winner Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) but with no time difference.
Talking briefly after crossing the line in fifth place as he donned a jacket against the cold, Quintana told reporters "the strategy was that I shouldn't work, that's what the director said." When it was put to him that he could have taken the overall lead had the break stayed away, Quintana responded simply, "Alejandro is the leader."
Still, Quintana's quick reaction and ability to stay with the other three attackers confirms that Movistar's two leaders for the race are both in top condition, with Marc Soler also remaining in contention. How the Spanish team will play their cards on Thursday's crucial stage remains to be seen.