Nairo Quintana gulped in huge mouthfuls of air after crossing the finish line in Oropa at the end of stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia, but there were also signs of a satisfaction on his face after he finally put his health problems behind him and distanced race leader Rigoberto Uran.
"I ended the day much happier than in the last few days; I'm feeling better at last," the Colombian climber said after getting changed in a Movistar van parked near the finish.
"I had better legs today and that's a good sign for what's to come. Ever since I crashed I've had some bad days, especially suffering with the flu that gave me problems for several days. Fortunately, everything seems to be back on track, and today's stage gives me confidence and reassures me for the remainder of the race."
Quintana did not hesitate to follow Domenico Pozzovivo when he jumped away from Uran, Cadel Evans and the remainder of the overall contenders three kilometres from the finish, on the steepest part of the climb to Oropa. He did not share the work with the Italian but then jumped him in sight of the line. He gain 25 seconds on Uran and made it clear he was back to best on the climbs.
His comeback has begun and he will try to regain his 3:04 deficit in the remaining four mountain finishes and the Monte Grappa mountain time trial.
"The 25 seconds to Urán are not a lot compared to what I'm still trailing him by, but they're useful and show me that we can gain time in the mountains," Quintana said.
"Tomorrow's difficulty is at the end and we will keep the same plan as today, trying to stay close to the favourites and see what we can do. There's still a long way to go in this Giro."
Movistar impresses in the mountains
Team manager Eusebio Unzue greeted Quintana and all his riders as they reached the Movistar van. He was equally happy with the performance of Quintana, with how the team rode during the stage and with the final result. Quintana's time gap to Uran remains significant at three minutes, but he proved that the Giro d'Italia is far from over.
"This is a good day for us," Unzue told Cyclingnews.
"We're happy to see that Nairo's improving and getting better. We can't say he's at his best yet but he's on the way. Now we'll see what happens. He can only get better."
"It's good that he was up there with the leaders and that he was able to go with Pozzovivo and gain some time. Uran lost some time but he was intelligent to ride at his own pace and didn't lose a big amount."
Unzue played own any problems with Pozzovivo, defending Quintana after the Italian accused him of not doing his share of work during their attack. He hoped that Quintana and Pozzovivo can work together to pull back more time on Uran, Evans, Rafal Mjka and Wilco Kelderman.
"I saw that Nairo was tired at first when he went with Pozzovivo. He managed to recover on the false flat and then felt better, he wasn't playing games. Nairo's not like that, he worked when he's able to work," the experienced Spanish team manager said.
"I think he and Pozzovivo can work together on other stages. They need to, they both need to pull back time."
"Sunday's stage to Montecampione is hard and it's a long climb to the finish. Pozzovivo lost some time in the time trial like Quintana and so I'm sure he'll try to attack again. Hopefully Nairo can go with him and they can mover closer to Uran. That's our hope and our plan."