They had said all along that the road would decide who would be the leader of the Movistar Team, and in the end it did. As the tarmac turned to concrete just under four kilometres from the top of the Monte Oiz on stage 17 of the Vuelta a España, Nairo Quintana quietly lost contact with the group of overall contenders. He would only slip further back as the gradients reached infernal levels and, with that, the debate which had been simmering since the start of the Vuelta, evaporated into the mist that shrouded the Basque mountain.
Quintana eventually finished 1:04 down on his teammate Alejandro Valverde, who became top dog not merely by default but by asserting himself and putting eight seconds back into overall leader Simon Yates to keep his hopes of a second Vuelta title very much alive.
After wheeling to a halt on the mountainside, Quintana refused to make excuses for his disappointing display.
"I didn't have any strength left," he said simply. "I'm not going to make up lies and say that I'm ill or anything. I feel OK but there was no strength left.
"The climb started fast, and I was struggling to hold the wheel. I dug in and dug in but then I couldn't hold on any longer."
The stage 16 time trial had seen Valverde move 42 seconds clear of Quintana, but that was not enough to definitively establish as the Spaniard as the sole leader. The complexion on Monte Oiz, despite the poor visibility, was rather more clear.
Valverde remains second overall, now 25 seconds down on Yates, while Quintana is now sixth overall at 2:11, having been overtaken by Enric Mas and Miguel Angel Lopez.
Quintana conceded that Valverde has shown himself to be the strongest of the two and vowed to back the Spaniard in what remains of this Vuelta, with a flat stage on Thursday preceding a double-header climax in the mountains of Andorra.
"As we've said from the start, it's about winning the race with the team. It might have been Alejandro, or it might have been me. We've seen that he was stronger and we have to back him now and carry on with whatever strategy we might now employ," Quintana said.
"The way we've always worked in this team is we get legs up there and let the road decide. That's always happened and will keep happening. You have to get behind it, because the important thing is the team wins."
There was no sign of tension between Quintana and Valverde on Monte Oiz. Valverde went to find Quintana beyond the finish line and the pair embraced before briefly filling each other in on how they'd finished.
"The good thing is that Alejandro was up there," said Quintana. "In the team things are still good, so we keep working, and we'll see what happens in the coming stages.
"Alejandro managed to pinch some seconds today and I'll be there for whatever will be the strategy of the team from now on."
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