For once, Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) gave something away. Nearing the summit of Los Machucos, as the road levelled out and it became clear that his day's work was more or less done, the Slovenian allowed himself to drift backwards onto the rear wheel of his fellow countryman Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates).
When the finish line approached, Roglič made no effort to come around the youngster. Stage 13 of the Vuelta a España duly fell to Pogačar, while Roglič quietly paid another substantial deposit on final overall victory in Madrid a week on Sunday.
Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) followed home almost half a minute later, yet more seconds seeping from their deflating Vuelta challenge. Miguel Angel López (Astana) fared even worse, conceding over a minute. At the finish, they wore the haggard faces of men who feared the beatings might continue until morale improves.
In Spain, Roglič appears to be following the well-worn Miguel Indurain template of devastating the opposition in the long time trial and then hammering the message home on the next mountaintop finish, all while conceding stage victory as recompense to an ally of circumstance.
And, like Miguelon before him, Roglič doses out his words as sparingly as possible in his post-race press conferences, as though every syllable uttered were equivalent to a watt wasted.
"No, I didn't," Roglič said when asked if he had anticipated making such gains on his overall rivals atop Los Machucos. "For sure, I expected a fight until the end. It was a hard climb and a good finish for me."
Valverde is now the only man within three minutes of Roglič in the overall standings, albeit at an increasingly distant 2:25. Pogačar moves up to third, 3:01 back, while López trails by 3:18 and Quintana lies 3:33 behind.
On the short but dizzyingly steep ascent of Los Machucos, Roglič allowed Quintana some early leeway, but when the Colombian punched himself out, the maillot rojo came to the fore. It is difficult to accelerate on slopes of 20%, but Roglič made two sustained efforts either side of the 3km to go banner.
The first saw off López and Quintana, while the second did for Valverde. Only Pogačar could follow, and the Slovenian tandem passed early escapee Pierre Latour (AG2R La Mondiale) en route to dividing up the spoils.
Roglič demurred slightly when it was put to him that the psychological blow of dropping pure climbers on slopes of 20% was perhaps even more important than the time he gained.
"I think both are important, but mostly the time is the one that counts in cycling," he said. "It's nice to have some more of a time advantage."
Shortly after Roglič had crossed the line and been ushered towards the podium, his Jumbo-Visma teammate Sepp Kuss reached the finish and summed up his leader's performance on Los Machucos neatly.
"It's just an onerous climb," Kuss said, "so if you have good legs, then you're probably going to win."
Slovenia takes control
Slovenian cycling has made headlines of all sorts in 2019, and the nation with a population of just over two million people is enjoying a most remarkable season, headlined by Roglič and Pogačar.
The duo has been winning stage races all year – Pogačar won the Volta ao Algarve and Tour of California, while Roglič claimed the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour de Romandie, as well as third place at the Giro d'Italia – and, for now at least, they are the two strongest men at this Vuelta.
"It was just beautiful for Slovenian cycling to have two guys in front. We just both went full gas to the finish," said Roglič, whose 20-year-old compatriot might yet become a rival rather than an ally in the Vuelta's final week.
"I think he's a really, really big talent. He has a great future ahead of him. He's a rival in GC and he's on the podium. He's still a really good friend of mine, so it's a nice day."
There are still four mountain stages remaining before Madrid, including the stage 18 trek through the Sierra de Guadarrama, which has been something of a Bermuda Triangle for race leaders in Vuelta history. At this juncture, however, it seems difficult to envisage Roglič losing his way.
Asked if the vicious gradients of Los Machucos had suited him better than the shallower climbs to Santuario del Acebo and Alto de la Cubilla in the coming days, Roglič responded with matter-of-fact assurance.
"Yeah, I like all of the climbs," he said. "Normally when you're good, you don't have much problem on any kind of climb."
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