Vuelta a España leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar) overcame the Mas de la Costa climb on stage 17 without any difficulty on Wednesday. It was the first of the three big remaining obstacles en route to the overall victory. After Thursday's 191km transitional stage, he still faces a daunting 39km time trial, and another summit finale before the parade in Madrid on Sunday.
Quintana recognised that his chances of not losing time to second-placed Chris Froome (Sky) on Friday's time trial are low, and that he would, he said, be able to strike back on Saturday's final ascent to the Alto de Aitana.
The stalemate between the Vuelta GC's 'Big Four' that materialized in the four kilometre ascent of Mas de la Costa today represented another step towards Quintana claiming his second Grand Tour in three years.
Much of the foundations of that slatemate on stage 17's mountainous leg of the Vuelta were laid before the TV broadcasts kicked in, with Quintana having to defend his lead against multiple early attacks by rival teams.
"It was a very hard start, with lots of different breaks going and I had to get in all of them until I was sure that one had gone that didn't affect me overall," Quintana explained. "Then in the last climb" - when the next real challenges against his lead began to appear - "all I had to do was watch my rivals and defend myself."
"[Alberto] Contador (Tinkoff) attacked, [Esteban] Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) went for it, and they've got a big fight going on for the podium. I was keeping an eye on Froome, and I got through the day."
After Wednesday failed to produce more than a four kilometre face-off, Quintana recognised that the time trial would be a very different story.
"It will be real hand-to-hand fighting, my physical condition is there, and I just hope he [Froome] doesn't gain too much time."
In a similarly lengthy time trial in the Tour de France, Quintana conceded over two minutes to Froome, but he hopes his current 3:37 will be enough of a buffer. Even if not, Saturday's summit finish will provide a final opportunity to gain time back.
"Aitana is much more suited to my characteristics than this one [Mas de la Costa] and Movistar will put down a nice hard pace beforehand. If I don't have a good time trial, then I'll have a good opportunity on Aitana to strike back."
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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