Thirteen months after Nairo Quintana (Movistar) proved to be the one rider Sky could not control in the 2012 Criterium du Dauphine - when he attacked on the Col de Joux Plane in the Alps and won at Morzine - the 23-year-old Colombian was back giving Sky extra work to do on the mountain stages of the Tour de France.
Seemingly unaffected by his three crashes in the first week, Quintana attacked on the Col de Pailhères some seven kilometres from the summit, an attack that helped split the field and which saw overnight yellow jersey wearer Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) out the back.
In a move which looked deeply reminiscent of the devastating attacks by legendary Colombian mountain climbers like Fabio Parra, Lucho Herrera and Oliverio Rincón in the 1980s and 1990s, Quintana soared past stage leader Christophe Riblon five kilometres from the summit, and had a gap of a minute by the top of the Pailhères.
A superb fightback by Sky's Pete Kennaugh, as the British rider led the pack over the top of the Pailhères and then on the long drop down to Ax-les-Thermes, saw Quintana's lead whittled away to just 25 seconds. Quintana is not a poor rider technically - as witnessed last year by the way he came off the Joux Plane, which has one of the most twisting, difficult descents of the entire Alps - but the rolling, ‘pedallable‘ descent to Ax-les-Thermes made it difficult for the flyweight climber to maintain his advantage at the head of the race..
Briefly joined by Pierre Rolland (Europcar) at the foot of Ax 3 Domaines, the Colombian then set off up the climb alone after Rolland was unable to collaborate, but as he began to run out of gas, Quintana was caught and dropped by Froome, like the rest of the field. Finally the Colombian had to settle for ninth, finishing in the same group just behind Contador and equally he is one place behind the Spaniard overall, in eighth, two minutes and two seconds down on Froome.
Although his yellow jersey on the road never became yellow for real, Quintana has now taken over from Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) - dropped at the foot of Ax 3-Domaines - as the race's Best Young Rider, with Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) in second place, 46 seconds behind.
Riding in his first ever Tour de France, Quintana admitted that he had thought at some points he was going to win, "but the Sky riders were too strong and I couldn't do it. It's been a good day, nonetheless. I ran out of energy on the final climb, but I had my Movistar teammates behind and thought they would be able to take over," - as indeed was, up to a point, the case with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) who finished third.
1987 Vuelta winner Herrera was one of Quintana's childhood heroes, and so too, was Mauricio Soler, the 2007 King of the Mountains in the Tour who is still suffering from the injuries caused by his very bad crash in the 2011 Tour de Suisse's stage six, when he was lying second overall after winning the second stage to CransMontana. Quintana used his French tv post-race interview to send Soler his best wishes and greetings.
So what's next for Quintana, who also defeated Sky's Richie Porte in the Tour of the Basque Country and won the Route du Sud in 2012 and the Tour de L'Avenir in 2010? "Sky are strong, but I will be thinking about another big attack and we will see what we can do to break them," Quintana promised.
Regarding other possible objectives, like the Best Young Rider's classification, Quintana says that, "I'd like to go with this all the way to Paris." As for the King of the Mountains jersey, in which Quintana is currently fourth, six points down on Froome, "that depends on the race, I'll take it on the day by day."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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