Calm at the eye of a storm of polemica. On a day that saw him bend the Giro d’Italia to his will in the most dramatic and contentious of circumstances, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was typically equable after taking possession of the maglia rosa Val Martello.
The Colombian moved into the overall lead on the Giro’s tappone thanks to a two-part offensive – a surprise attack on the treacherous descent of the Stelvio and a relentless show of force on the harsh final haul to Val Martello. Inevitably, it was the former that dominated the discussions afterwards.
Many of the principal overall contenders, including overnight leader Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), began the descent of the Stelvio convinced that the race had been temporarily neutralised due to the combination of low clouds and roads made treacherous by melting snow.
By the time they had completed the long drop to Laas on the other side of the mighty pass, however, Quintana was almost two minutes ahead in a group that also included Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), Pierre Rolland and Romain Sicard (Europcar) and Gorka Izagirre (Movistar). Although the gap closed slightly before the base of the final climb, it yawned wide open again on the tightly-wound hairpins of Val Martello.
"I don’t understand why there is controversy," Quintana said afterwards. "I never received an order from the organization or my team about a neutralization. And we made the decisive difference on the climb, not on the descent."
Wrapped in a team issue ski jacket and speaking in the same calm and measured tones that never seem to vary with his fortunes, Quintana denied that he had instigated the attacking on the descent of the Stelvio.
"Rolland and Hesjedal started hard on the descent and I went on to their wheel with a teammate," Quintana said. "That meant there were six of us ahead, and we started the climb together. I never attacked going down the descent, and I never heard an order from anyone that the stage would be neutralized."
When the pink jersey group had crested the summit of the Stelvio between banks of snow and shrouded in low cloud, a curious instruction crackled over the race radio. A motorbike bearing a red flag was placed in front of the group to lead the way in poor visibility and it was ordered that there should no attacks while the flag was showing.
"I don’t know, it was raining a lot and I couldn’t see well," Quintana said. "I knew they would signal the dangerous bends, but nothing more than that.
"I made up more time on the climb. We didn't take as much on the descent as we did on the final climb at Val Martello."
That much, at least, is true. Quintana hit the base of Val Martello with a lead of 1:43 over the Uran group, but the advantage began to stretch inexorably upwards as soon as the road began to climb. After shedding himself of his arm warmers and swapping clear glasses for shades, Quintana began forcing the pace with 15 kilometres remaining and gradually fragmented the leading group.
His most stinging acceleration came 7.5 kilometres from the top, coincidentally just as he moved into the provisional overall lead on the road. Although Quintana would only shake off Hesjedal on the final kick towards to the line, his advantage continued to grow on everyone else as he bobbed up the slopes, and he reached the summit 4:11 ahead of Uran.
"It's very gratifying," Quintana said. "With my results this year, I’ve been confirming all the kind of rider I am. The fact that I was second at the Tour de France last year was not just luck. I’ve been working very hard, and I will continue to keep working."
Quintana’s victory leaves him 1:41 clear of Uran, 3:21 ahead of Cadel Evans (BMC) and 3:26 up on Rolland in the general classification with three more summit finishes to come, including Friday’s mountain time trial to Cima Grappa.
After injuring a buttock in the mass crash at Montecassino on stage 6 and suffering with influenza for much of the second week, Quintana’s catastrophe of a Giro has now taken on a more pleasing guise. On the coldest day of the race, he appeared to be himself again. The road to Trieste is an arduous one, but the Colombian is in a powerful position.
"My body is feeling better and better I am still coughing a bit," Quintana said. "I know they will attack me more, but I have a great team helping me. My entire team was there on the Stelvio, and they are going to help me to protect my lead all the way to the end."
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