As Nairo Quintana (Movistar) emerged from the anti-doping caravan atop Rifugio Panarotta, he was immediately waylaid by a boisterous group of Colombian fans who had already stood chanting his name while he provided his sample. Some applauded, more shouted their support, and others even leaned forward to hug him.
Quintana was attempting to make his way to the post-stage press conference some 300 metres up the road but he stopped and shyly accepted the accolades until he was quietly ushered into an organisation car and driven the rest of the way.
It was the only time Quintana’s progress had been impeded on a day that saw him comfortably withstand the attacks on his overall lead on stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia. In the first true test of his brief term in the maglia rosa, Quintana closely shadowed the accelerations of Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) to maintain his overall lead.
“It was a relatively calm climb, but with plenty of attacks,” Quintana said. “I controlled what was important to me, the others were fighting for what was important for them. My team was working well and things went pretty well.”
Quintana leads Uran by 1:41 minutes with just three days left to race, including Friday’s mountain time trial to Cima Grappa and Saturday’s finale atop the onerous Monte Zoncolan. Given his climbing credentials and, especially, the lightness with which he has carried the pink jersey to date – both on and off the bike – Quintana is the overwhelming favourite to claim overall victory in Trieste on Sunday.
“The Giro isn’t finished, there are still three days to come and nothing is certain until the white line in Trieste,” said Quintana, who suffered from illness in the second week of the race but recovered to take the lead in contentious circumstances at Val Martello on Tuesday. “Physically I’m feeling better every day. The illness is passing and I think I can do a good time trial tomorrow. I think I can continue in the maglia rosa without losing time.”
On paper, the Cima Grappa time trial seems to be the final chance for Uran to make up his deficit on Quintana, particularly given his resounding victory in the Barolo test last week. The 26.85-kilometre time trial, however, features just seven kilometres of flat before the searing climb to the finish, a feature that ought to help Quintana limit his losses at the very least.
“It’s a time trial I like. There’s a big change in altitude and I think it suits me, but the important thing is not to lose time to my rivals,” Quintana said. “Uran did a time trial on a good level last week and others can do well too, like Pozzovivo and Pierre Rolland. I think those are the riders who can do a good time trial.”
Uran’s current deficit, of course, is roughly equivalent to the time that he conceded to Quintana on the descent of the Stelvio on Tuesday, when he was under the impression that the race had been temporarily neutralised. The fact that the two Colombians were briefly roommates in Spain when Quintana first raced in Europe adds another layer of significance to their battle at the top of overall standings.
Speaking at Rifugio Panarotta, however, Quintana said that he had no difficulty in separating their personal and professional relationships. “We have a good rapport. We lived together in Pamplona, they were good times. I like Rigo’s way of being,” Quintana said.
“But, personally, it doesn’t affect how I race because that’s my work. I’m the leader of the team when the team says I am. We’re good friends outside of racing but we’re rivals on the bike, by necessity.”
His media duties over, Quintana climbed into a Movistar team car for the long descent to his hotel in Bassano del Grappa. Even in the sanctuary of the passenger seat, however, he was flagged down intermittently by groups of Colombian supporters still on the mountainside. He paused each time to roll down the window and wave a greeting. A queue of traffic built up behind, and perhaps that was only fitting – on and off the bike, it seems, the Giro is now marching to Quintana’s beat.