Nairo Quintana’s Movistar team put on an impressive collective performance in the Tour de France's first important climbing stage on Wednesday, making the running during significant chunks of the very hilly trek through the Massif Centrale and in particular on the Col de Puy Mary, the hardest single climb of the day.
"Sky tried to control to stop the break going away too far, then when Movistar came in, it was more to hurt their rivals than to go for the stage," Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) observed later.
Amongst those who suffered with the high pace on the second category climb were Astana's Vincenzo Nibali and Jakob Fuglsang, as well race leader Peter Sagan (Tinkoff). Sky's Mikel Landa also disappeared from the main group, which was down to just 30 units by the summit of Puy Marie, some 30 kilometres from the finish.
Encouragingly for Movistar, Valverde and Quintana were the quickest, together with Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), to respond to a very late attack by Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), and Valverde and Quintana remain in third and seventh place, respectively, with the Pyrenees fast approaching on the horizon.
"Sky started to move things a bit to pull back the break, and then as we're second in the hierarchy of favourites, we felt we had to come in and help them,"explained Jose Luis Arrieta, Movistar sports director, at the finish.
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Movistar then applied the pressure on their rivals even more, Arrieta explained, because "it was the first big mountain stage and the first really hot day we've had, and you never know on days like this what will happen. The Massif Centrale has produced some surprises in the past in this race."
He was not overly surprised, he said, though, that Nibali had lost over eight minutes, "because Astana had always said that Aru was their Tour de France contender."
At the same time, Arrieta said he was not at all displeased that others, like BMC, would now have to work to defend the leader's jersey, saving Movistar's resources, "given that this is a very long race." But he also explained his idea with Movistar's hard work on the climbs was also not to let the breakaway take too much time as "there are always surprises in the Tour" - and too great a time margin for the leading trio could have been risky. Finally, Movistar's strategy paid off handsomely.