Nairo Quintana's status as the top favourite to win the 2017 Giro d'Italia was cemented on Sunday's first major climb to Blockhaus, as the Movistar Team leader powered into maglia rosa with a stunning solo stage victory. The Colombian left no doubt that he is far and away the strongest Giro contender in the mountains.
The controversy over whether Movistar should have waited when three of their GC rivals, Mikel Landa, Geraint Thomas (both Team Sky) and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) hit the deck close to the foot of the Blockhaus climb may endure for some time. Five days after a steady but unspectacular ride on the Mount Etna stage, Quintana produced one of the most memorable climbing performances of his career.
With each attack of the four he unleashed on the Blockhaus, more and more of the GC contenders fell behind, starting with former race leader Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) and continuing with Ilnur Zakarin (Team Katusha Alpecin), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo). Then finally, even Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrein-Merida) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) buckled under the Colombian's climbing pressure.
His rivals subsequently gained or lost positions amongst themselves, but Quintana forged on, ruling supreme. The Movistar rider did not even lift his arms in triumph as he crossed the line, but quickly raising his right fist in a brief, emphatic salute, it was obvious he knew just how much he had achieved.
At the summit, Pinot was 24 seconds behind, just ahead of Dumoulin, and overall Quintana's advantage of 28 seconds on the Frenchman and, above all, 30 seconds on a top time trialist like Dumoulin may see him lose the pink jersey in the time trial on Tuesday. But in the mountains, for now, the opposition is no match for the Colombian - and it is surely in the mountains where the 2017 Giro d'Italia will be won.
Additionally, Movistar proved themselves to be the strongest team on the climb, setting a ferociously high pace for Quintana for half of the Blockhaus that the Colombian then crowned with four powerful attacks.
Read more on this story
- Team Sky pick up the pieces as Giro d'Italia hopes take a battering
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- Giro d'Italia: Thomas, Landa & Yates crash en route to Blockhaus
- Stage 9 - Giro d'Italia: Quintana conquers Blockhaus
"We did the race as we wanted," Quintana said afterwards as he returned to the maglia rosa for the first time since winning the 2014 Giro d'Italia. "We'd been looking for the moment to go with this strategy and we took it. I'm just happy I got a good gap on the time trial specialists who can pull back time on me on Tuesday."
However, he had no intention, he said, of letting his rivals enjoy a spell in the maglia rosa if he could possibly avoid it. Movistar, he argued, wanted to hold the jersey "all the way we can in the race, we've got the squad for it. The race is only just starting and the battles will go on, right into the third week."
Questioned about the crash which saw three of his key rivals go down, and whether Movistar should have continued at a high pace, Quintana defended their failure to ease back and let their rivals return to the peloton. "When the race is on, it's on, it's not easy to lift your foot from the pedal. I'm just sorry the crash happened," Quintana said.
"I was well ahead, there was a crash behind, and I heard that had happened, but I had no idea there were so many GC riders involved."
The difference between his performance on Mount Etna and on the Blockhaus, he said, was a question of his racing into top form, and the extra stages in between had helped with that. "But I suffered a lot to get away and drop my rivals," he said. "The team went very well, I felt good and I was able to hold on.
"But the third week is going to be really tough with the summit finishes, there's the mid-race time trial and we'll have to see how it goes. I'm expecting Dumoulin to be a big rival in the time trials, maybe Nibali just had a bad day, we'll have to see if he can turn things round. There are lots of other rivals out there.
"There's still a long way to go in this Giro," he added in a press release where he dedicated his win to Colombian and South American cycling fans, to Michele Scarponi, and to his wife and all mothers, it being Mother's Day in many parts of the world, including Colombia.
"We'll see after Tuesday's TT if these 30 seconds over Dumoulin are many or too few, but for the time being, I'm feeling good, with strong health, good legs, and that's what really matters so early in this race."