Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) had played down their chances for the decisive mountain stage at the Abu Dhabi Tour, citing a lack of racing and fatigue as to why they nobody should expect them to race hard.
When the eight percent gradient up to Jebel Hafeet kicked in and shook out the peloton, both riders dug deep to ensure they were in the select front group. Contador sent young teammate Jesper Hansen up the road in pursuit of eventual stage winner Tanel Kangert (Astana) and Nicolas Roche (Team Sky), and grimaced as he danced on the pedals fought to stay on the wheels. Nibali rode a similar race, hoping for a chance of success, while knowing his limits and letting Kangert enjoy his well-deserved day of success.
Contador finished fifth and Nibali was sixth both at 50 seconds down on Kangert. The two Grand Tour rivals briefly shook hands after the finish, in a sign of respect and acknowledgement that their season was virtually over, with only Sunday's circuit stage left to race.
"The goal was to get the best result possible and I did that," Nibali said after downing a bottle of water in on gulp.
"This is my first mountain finish for a long time and I didn't know how my form was. I saw that I could push pretty hard but my heart rate was up to around 190, so I knew I risked blowing up if I'd made an attack or ridden more aggressively. I decided to stay on the wheel and I definitely didn't want to ruin Kangert's attack because it was a good move."
Nibali was genuinely happy that his Astana teammate had won and set up overall victory in this year's Abu Dhabi Tour. He was also happy to end his often difficult time at the Astana team on a high.
"Tanel is a really nice guy. On lots of occasions he's dug deep to help me win and helped me win some of my biggest victories, including the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France," Nibali said.
"This win means a lot for him and we're happy that he won, that the Astana team won too. This victory and my good performance is a kind of farewell gift for me too."
Contador smiles after the pain
Contador looked relatively fresh after the finish of the stage and smiled, knowing that he is only one day away from the end of his 2016 season.
He had hoped to start his vacations earlier but he had to lead the Tinkoff team at the Abu Dhabi Tour after missing Il Lombardia and angering team owner Oleg Tinkov. Despite his silent defiance to Tinkov's criticism, he managed to see the positive side to racing hard so late in the season.
"It's good because if you finish here you have less time to put on more kilograms in the winter," he joked.
"I knew that when I arrived in Abu Dhabi that I'd only need to enjoy the race and I've been enjoying all the days," he claimed. "Today, the feeling in my legs wasn't bad. The climb is very different to the Pyrenees or the Alps but it's a hard climb. You need a very strong team if you want to break up the race. It's true that next year if it's in the WorldTour it will be harder.
"Kangert isn’t a surprise winner. If you look at some of my interviews, I said that the favourites were Nibali, [Ben] Hermans and also Kangert. He's very skinny and the final was a true climb. I'm happy with my result. After the Vuelta, when I started to train for Il Lombardia, I got sick and couldn't ride. I'm happy with this race and the feelings I had.
"Tomorrow is the last day of the season, now I have time to enjoy the winter and then we can start to look at 2017."
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