Nairo Quintana and his Movistar team failed to crack and pull back time on Chris Froome (Team Sky) on stage 9 of the Tour de France but as the riders travelled north to Nantes for the first rest day, the Spanish squad was buoyed by their ability to isolate Froome. Team Sky's aura of invincibility took a serious blow.
Quintana made four aggressive attacks on the second half of the Hourquette d'Ancizan climb. Froome responded confidently to each one but the Colombian climber confirmed he is likely to be Team Sky's biggest antagonist in this year's Tour de France.
Quintana moved up to seventh overall after the Pyrenees, 2:02 down on
Froome. He is likely to lose at least a minute in the stage 11 time trial to Mont-Saint-Michel but could gain time in the high mountains such as Mont Ventoux and in the Alps.
"It was a beautiful stage and quite a good result for us - we proved that we have an excellent squad, with all riders at a very strong level, ready to help myself as well as Rui and Alejandro," Quintana said.
“We showed the world Sky also has weaknesses, but Froome is really strong and it's difficult to hurt him. Still we're taking some energy from him, making him work and suffer in view of the next stages."
Quintana is just 23 years old and is the favourite to win the best young rider's white jersey competition. Early leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) is second at 1:23. The USA's Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) lost seven minutes on the second stage in the Pyrenees and so is fourth in the white jersey classification, at 7:33.
"Getting through this week with the white jersey is quite good and I'm really happy to be wearing it," Quintana said.
"There are still many strong rivals in front of us, which we will have to fight against in the remainder of the race. Fortunately the first rest day comes tomorrow and we'll try to profit from it - getting on a short ride with the teammates, talking about anything but the race to get the nerves off."
Unzue upbeat after the Pyrenees
Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzue will no doubt allow his riders an extra hour in bed on the first rest day after their impressive collective performance in the Pyrenees. Movistar has three riders in the top ten overall: Alejandro Valverde is second, 1:25 down on Froome, Quintana is seventh at 2:02 and Rui Costa is tenth at 2:45.
Unzue claimed that the Movistar riders were more concerned about distancing Porte than making an all-out assault on Froome on the last climb, hence their decision to ride strongly, with only Quintana going on the attack.
"Froome was isolated on the second pass but after that, because of the way it panned out, we had to work to stop Porte coming back. That’s pretty much what we worked towards all day – making sure that Sky will no longer have the opportunity to play two cards," Unzue explained to Cyclingnews.
“A missed opportunity? Well, maybe, but it’s not easy to work all day and then attack at the end. Quintana tried but Froome held it together and controlled everything all day. The stage wasn’t ideal for taking time on him. There was a moment between the Col de Menté and the Peyresourde when it looked really interesting, with about eight riders at the front, but then Saxo and teams that weren’t represented closed the gap and that was the stage finished."
A Spanish alliance
Unzue revealed his respect for Froome after his strong performance on the climb to Ax 3 Domaines but hinted that he is ready form a Spanish alliance with Alberto Contador to try and defeat Froome and Team Sky. "We still hope that we can beat Froome," he said.
"We realised yesterday that he was the strongest. What he did yesterday was worthy of a grand master. That’s the truth.
"Can we form an alliance with Contador? We’ll certainly try, but it’s a question of whether you have the strength to take advantage when the opportunity arises."