Nairo Quintana (Movistar) coughed several times during his post-Terminillo stage victory press conference but he appeared far stronger than the bronchitis he's battling as he won the queen stage to Terminillo and is now on track for a second career overall win at Tirreno-Adriatico after dominating the climb to Rome's favourite ski resort.
Quintana attacked several times during the second half of the 16km climb, finally getting away from Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) with two kilometres remaining. He blasted past strong early attacker Simon Spilak (Katusha) and then rightly celebrated his victory.
Two years ago he won in similar style, fighting his way through a snowstorm to take his solo victory. He was arguably not as strong this time but is a far better rider and has a bigger palmares after winning the 2014 Giro d'Italia, the 2016 Vuelta a España and finishing on the Tour de France podium three times.
"I've got more experience and I'm more mature now. They are clear advantages that I took advantage of to win today," Quintana explained in his quiet but decisive tone that reflects his style on the bike.
"I'm not at my best because I've got a bit of a cold but my teammates were good at controlling the race and we reached climb together. Castroviejo was in the early move which helped me, then Andrey Amador and Dani Moreno were there with me, so I was able to keep my strength for the final attack."
Quintana's dominance on the climb to Terminillo and Movistar's strong opening team time trial means he now leads Yates by 33 seconds, with Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) third at 56 seconds and everyone else over a minute back. Tirreno-Adriatico is now his to lose.
"I think that there are some difficult and dangerous stages to come. For example tomorrow's stage is perhaps more difficult than today," he warned. "We hope to control things with the great team we have and so keep the same lead. But it won't be easy."
Thoughts and questions soon turned to Quintana's double goal of the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in 2017. Nobody has achieved the rare double since Marco Pantani in 1998. Quintana is ready to try, however, perhaps knowing that at 27, he is at the very peak of his career.
"The Tour is a dream we've always had and will always have and I'll be hugely motivated for what is a big goal. But we simply didn't think I could miss the 100th edition of the Giro after winning it in the past. We'll be giving everything in May too," Quintana explained.
When it was suggested that Quintana somehow struggles at the Tour de France, his reply was simple, honest but sincere.
"The problem could be that there's a rival who is stronger than me," he said with elegant subtlety.
"I've perhaps been unlucky or ill in recent years. We've just got to keep trying, keep working and hope things go our way this year."
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