While there was talk that Phil Gaimon (Garmin-Sharp) perhaps had the Tour de San Luis general classification lead firmly under control after conceding so few seconds on Tuesday's first mountain finish, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) obliterated all but four seconds of the American's 4:19 lead over the Colombian during his stage victory on the Alto El Amago mountain finish.
Gaimon had turned the race upside down with a remarkable victory from the day's early break on the opening stage, his first day of racing for Garmin-Sharp, which left the big-name GC favourites facing a 4:35 deficit. But what was gained during an escape lasting nearly 164km on Monday was wiped out in a span of a brutal 9.4km ascent to the finish on Thursday where Quintana crushed the climb like only he can.
Next up for Gaimon and Quintana is Friday's 19.2km individual time trial in the city of San Luis where another battle will be fought for general classification supremacy.
Regarding Gaimon's time trialing ability, Garmin-Sharp team director Chann McRae told Cyclingnews earlier in the race that, "He worked on his time trialing this winter and before we signed him we told him it was going to be really important for him this year."
Can Gaimon hold on to the leader's jersey versus the rider who finished second in the 2013 Tour de France?
"Four minutes and four seconds are very different," said Gaimon. "I time trial very well, but I've never time trialed at this level or done a time trial in a race this size. I'll do my best and I think I've got one more day [in the leader's jersey]. The last climb [on Saturday] I'm more worried about."
Saturday's stage features the third and final mountain finish on the 7km-long Mirador del Sol. The climb averages nearly 9 percent in gradient with its steepest sector of 15.5 percent between three and two kilometres to go.
Gaimon is an unknown entity to virtually all of the WorldTour peloton, and Quintana expressed respect for the Garmin-Sharp program.
"We don't know much about Gaimon, but since he's on Garmin-Sharp he's probably really good in the individual time trial," said Quintana. "We just have to wait and see what happens."
"I feel good. We have a new bike that we're going to try tomorrow so I'm feeling really good about it."
Quintana has displayed considerable acumen against the clock in WorldTour stage races such as Vuelta al Pais Vasco (2nd by 17 seconds to Tony Martin) and Paris-Nice (3rd by 27 seconds to Richie Porte), but both of those had climbing sectors. Friday at the Tour de San Luis features an out-and-back 19.2km test that's wide-open and climbs only ever so slightly (82 meters) to the half-way point.
The four-second time differential between the top two riders on general classification also occurred in 2012, when Alberto Contador led Levi Leipheimer by a similar deficit. Two years ago Leipheimer scorched the time trial to take both the stage victory and the leader's jersey, which he would retain through the finale.
Only time will tell how the 2014 edition will unfold for Phil Gaimon, the WorldTour team rookie, versus Movistar's climber extraordinaire Nairo Quintana.
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Based in the southeastern United States, Peter produces race coverage for all disciplines, edits news and writes features. The New Jersey native has 30 years of road racing and cyclo-cross experience, starting in the early 1980s as a Junior in the days of toe clips and leather hairnets. Over the years he's had the good fortune to race throughout the United States and has competed in national championships for both road and 'cross in the Junior and Masters categories. The passion for cycling started young, as before he switched to the road Peter's mission in life was catching big air on his BMX bike.
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