For the first time since his stage win in Andorra, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) pulled back time on Chris Froome (Team Sky) after a fraught finale when the Vuelta a España leader crashed twice and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) went on the attack.
Nibali said that there could have been no predicting the drama of the last hour's racing on Thursday, as Froome hit the deck not once, but twice, in a very short space of time. Froome was then forced to chase hard in an attempt to regain contact with the Bahrain-Merida group of GC favourites, which in turn was chasing Contador.
In the end, Nibali gained 20 seconds on Froome but lost 22 on Contador, meaning that in the overall battle, the gap between himself and the Briton has dropped to just 59 seconds. As a result, the two Andalusian summit finishes this weekend look even more certain to prove crucial in Nibali's fight to take a second Vuelta a España, seven years after his breakthrough GC victory here in 2010.
"I thought maybe that something would happen today [Thursday] but not like this," Nibali told reporters afterwards. "When Alberto Contador went, we were going flat out to chase him. When Froome crashed, we were already going all out to retake Contador so there was no waiting."
Nibali recognised that although Contador is still over two minutes behind him, he constitutes a threat to him. However, it was notable that when Froome went up to Nibali to talk briefly after Contador initially broke away, there was no collaboration from Bahrain-Merida to bring back the Spaniard and Sky lead the chase. A few kilometres further on, though, that had changed.
"Alberto is always dangerous, and this is Alberto's style of racing," Nibali reflected afterwards. "Today's he's shown that he's going really well." With the racing 'on' at the point when Froome crashed, he said, there was nothing to do but continue to drive to chase Contador.
It was a much different situation to the 2015 Tour de France, where Nibali was forced to defend his attack on the Col de la Croix de Fer that came when Froome had a mechanical. This time, the group of favourites had no choice but to keep going.
"If we had waited, then Alberto would have gained even more time, and he's already dangerous. This is how racing goes, you can't do anything else."
Nibali said he had seen Froome's first crash, which happened right in front of him on a left-hand bend, and said that the descent was "very slippery and very dangerous. I was a few metres further back, because that's the way I do things, thanks to that I was able to avoid it. I could have crashed as well. We were going pretty hard at the time."
It is a sign of his depth of experience, though, not to mention duels with Froome going all the way back to the 2012 Tour that Nibali played down the consequences of a time gain of 20 seconds to a bare minimum. He concluded very simply, "Froome is still Froome." Indeed, the Italian knows very well that despite all the drama of the stage, in the grand scheme of things regarding the Vuelta GC, the events on the road to Antequera are likely to prove no more than an interesting skirmish.
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