When Nairo Quintana (Movistar) emerged from his saddle and accelerated just over a kilometre into the Jebel Hafeet climb, it seemed like the hotly anticipated showdown between the stellar array of GC riders at the Abu Dhabi Tour would indeed be served up.
In the end it, simmered but never quite came to the boil as Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) – high-calibre riders but perhaps a rung below Grand Tour winners Quintana, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Fabio Aru (Astana) – stole away and spent half the climb out in front on their own.
Others set off in pursuit, but the very biggest names seemed more concerned with watching and marking each other than with what was going on up ahead. In the end, it resembled a fight for Quintana's wheel more than a fight for victory.
"I was there to always control Quintana and Contador," Nibali told reporters at the summit, while AG2R's Romain Bardet – as if they'd rehearsed it together – added: "I was just supposed to follow Quintana and Contador."
Contador himself explained that he was marking Quintana and riding in the interests of his Trek teammate Bauke Mollema, who ended up fourth. "I knew that Nairo was the most dangerous rider, and I knew that if I managed to control things for Bauke, it would be best way for us to make an impact," said the Spaniard.
Quintana put in a few digs, driving particularly hard with just over 6km remaining, but Contador was on his wheel faster than you could say 'attack', with Nibali in tow. Quintana then eased up, accelerated again – with the same outcome – and then eased up again, looking round at his rivals.
"It was a shame. In the end, having to make attacks as well as respond to those of rivals was an excessive effort," said Quintana.
"There were lots of rivals just waiting for me to make a move, and it was difficult to carve out an advantage. When other riders jumped I had to go after them on numerous occasions. Other riders then capitalised on those moves to attack, and with their quality they were able to make good of it."
Quintana ended up in 10th place, leading home a group with Bardet, Contador and Nibali just behind. Aru stole 10 seconds or so with Rafal Majka with a late drive once the stage had already been decided.
"There were lots of attacks, and the pace would go up, but then it'd slow down, and that gave the riders space to gain time ahead," explained Nibali.
"We'd end up in three sometimes, going ahead, but then we'd look at each other and slow down. It was just a stand-off – a race of nerves and violent attacks."
Romain Bardet perhaps had the best excuse given that for much of the climb he had teammates up the road in Mathias Frank and Domenico Pozzovivo, who had been given free reign since Bardet himself didn't feel so strong.
"It was very tactical. On the climb there were no teams – no big leader with teammates – so it was a bit disorganised," said the Frenchman.
"In other races there have been a really strong team like Sky and they set the pace very high for the leaders but that wasn't the case here. I guess it was a spectacular race to watch, but it made it difficult to play the right card."
Takeaways from the GC men
Fabio Aru (Astana)
"We have to congratulate the riders who arrived in front of us because they climbed very fast. I'm satisfied with these two races in the Emirates, I think I have completed another important step in my training and now I'm looking forward to riding at Strade Bianche and Tirreno–Adriatico in the coming weeks".
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
"My legs responded well. I wasn't bad on the climb. Many riders like Alberto and Quintana already showed they were strong in other early races, so I had my first face-off with them and it went pretty well. I just need to keep improving from here."
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale)
"I wasn't sure of my legs so I told my teammates to do their race, but I was happy to be able to follow Quintana and Contador when they attacked at the end – it was for 10th place but still good for the mind. It's just my second race. It's hard to say how my form is because it was just full gas then just stop. I'm happy, I've moved on since last week, I wasn't very good after my crash but now I'm better, still improving. I don't really like the early season but it's better than last week and I hope for more the next few weeks."
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
"I'm very happy with the way my team protected me this week and on today's stage. Everyone made a big effort to keep me out of trouble and that gives me confidence for the future."
Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo)
"At the end of the day, I decided to come to this race at the last minute. When we decided to come here it was to gather speed. I had a training camp lined up between Andalucia and Paris Nice, but we swapped it for this race to get the speed in the legs. And that's what we've done. There was a clear leader today, Bauke, and we had to get behind his chances. The truth is my sensations were good. Coming almost straight from Ruta del Sol, with the travel and the time changes, I wasn't sure how it was going to go, but I've felt very good."
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