For a spell, the Caminito del Rey seemed set to host a statement of authority from Nairo Quintana (Movistar) at this Vuelta a España, but by the summit, the Colombian had been surprisingly usurped by his fellow countryman and eventual stage winner Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
"I ran out of strength," Quintana admitted simply at the top, after he cracked in the final 1,500 metres having established the select winning move with an attack three kilometres from home. He eventually laboured across the line in 6th place, 26 seconds down on Chaves, though he had the consolation of putting a handful of seconds into his principal rivals for final overall victory.
"I tried because I felt good," Quintana said. "I wanted to have a go, and then after that I wanted to follow but I wasn’t able to. The heat affected me in the final kilometres. But I have to congratulate my fellow countryman. He was very strong and he deserved the win.
The short climb to the finish of stage two was expected to favour puncheurs such as Quintana’s Movistar stable-mate Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), and there was surprise when the Colombian seized the initiative by surging confidently out of the front group with three kilometres remaining.
Only Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), Nicolas Roche (Sky) and – briefly – Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) were able to follow, while Quintana’s rivals for overall victory all held fire, mindful, perhaps, that the slopes had yet to bite in earnest.
The combined efforts of Quintana and Dumoulin were enough for the leaders to open a sizeable gap over the fragmenting peloton, though Chaves managed to bound his way across to them by the time they reached the final two kilometres.
Even at that point, Quintana still appeared the master of his domain, but when Chaves hit the front shortly afterwards, his supremacy wavered and then abruptly collapsed. As the gradient stiffened to 15%, Quintana was suddenly in difficulty and unceremoniously dropped by his companions.
For 400 metres or so, Quintana stoically tried to quell the revolution by staying within sight of Chaves, Roche and Dumoulin, but he would wilt definitively inside the final kilometre, where he was caught and passed by Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin).
Joaquim Rodriguez, too, nipped past at the line, though Quintana at least held off Chris Froome (Sky) by four seconds and finished 11 seconds up on Fabio Aru. He would also put more than a minute into Vincenzo Nibali, who paid a heavy price for his frantic pursuit after he was caught up in a crash with 35 kilometres to go.
Expecting the unexpected
If there was no point in reading the runes of the performances in Saturday’s neutralised team time trial, the messages from the Vuelta’s first competitive stage were simply impossible to decipher. Though Quintana will be disappointed and concerned in equal measure by his travails in the finale, he still comes away from the Vuelta’s first summit finish in credit.
"It was interesting to get a bit of an advantage and we’ve put some time into some rivals," said Quintana, who lies 6th overall, 36 seconds down on Chaves when time bonuses are factored in. "Today shows that I'm here to chase the win, despite the fact that this is the first time I’ve ridden both the Tour and the Vuelta in the same year."
Quintana drew a positive, too, from the fact that he and his teammates avoided the large crash that hampered Nibali and ended the Vuelta of David Tanner (IAM Cycling). "We were lucky because we were very close to getting caught up in that crash," he said. "But that’s the Vuelta – you get nervous finishes, hard climbs, crashes and things you just don't expect."