All's well that ends well. As far as sending three climbers over the cobblestones of northern France goes, Movistar couldn't have asked for much more from stage 9 of the Tour de France. Granted, Mikel Landa crashed and was forced into a long chase, but limiting his damage to just seven seconds allowed the Spanish team to revel in a team performance that far exceeded expectations.
Many feared for the Spanish team. Alejandro Valverde is an 'all-terrain' rider and showed this spring he can handle cobbles, but for pure climbers Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa the Paris-Roubaix-inspired stage represented a major pitfall that had the potential to derail their entire three weeks.
However, the men in blue were the right side of almost every split on a chaotic day. When the peloton was chopped in two on sector 12, with 67km to go, they had all their men up front, barring Jose Joaquin Rojas who had to abandon due to an early crash.
Quintana did have one small mishap, but the real adversity came when Landa crashed with 32km to go. While taking a drink from his bidon, he hit something in the road and came down hard, ripping his jersey and shorts on the right-hand side. Imanol Erviti, Daniele Bennati, and Andrey Amador all dropped back to try and pull him towards the front of the race. It didn't look good, with the gap to the GC group hovering at 40 seconds for several kilometres, but late on, with the help of AG2R similarly working to rescue the day for Romain Bardet, they turned it around in the final 10 kilometres and Landa came home just seven seconds behind his rivals.
"I'm happy because we rescued a very complicated situation," Landa said at the finish line.
"I was taking a drink on the tarmac between the cobbled sectors and I rode over a drain. My teammates were 10 out of 10 after that crash, and not just then but during the whole day, looking after us three, rectifying that problem. We have to congratulate them because they did an incredible job."
As for his injuries, and how they might affect him later in the race, it was "just surface damage," Landa hoped.
"At the moment I don't really know how I am," he said. "My right shoulder is stinging a bit but it seems it's nothing more serious."
Quintana's performance had to be one of the rides of the day, given how heavily it was predicted those 15 cobblestone sectors could count against him.
The Colombian was briefly caught behind early on, but barely put a pedal stroke out of place thereafter as the chaos unfolded around him. He was never far from the front of the main group, accelerating out of the corners and onto the wheels of seasoned pavé specialists.
"We overcame the day, and we were very attentive as a team," Quintana said outside the Movistar bus in Roubaix. "The most important thing was to be strong and be very focused all day. I had a little bit of a problem but my teammates helped me get back to the front. It wasn't easy, because there are riders here who are specialists and they have a lot of strength, and their bodies really help them.
"We were motivated for the stage and we knew we had the team to help us out. Landa got caught out, but we managed to bring him back as well. We saved the day, and we've managed to avoid troubles and now we're getting closer to the mountains."
The lack of damage on the cobbles will allow Quintana to look less regrettably on his losses of more than a minute on the opening day when he suffered a late mechanical problem. He is more than a minute down on most of his rivals but there will be no shortage of opportunities for him in the Alps and Pyrenees in the second half of the race.
"I lost some time on the first day, but I hope to recover that in the mountains," he said. "The physical condition is good, and I hope to be in a good position to take on this Tour with a lot of motivation.
"Now the rest of the Tour is different. We have the best part of the Tour ahead of us and we will be fighting now against our rivals on terrain that favours us. Let's hope that the strength and the luck keep following us, and we have to remain calm."
Amid the smiles and fist bumps at the Movistar, there was one word on everyone's lips: 'equipo' – 'team'.
With so much of the conversation surrounding Movistar at this Tour de France focusing on their three 'individuals' and the potential headaches of having three leaders, it was a day to bask in the collective.
It didn't go unnoticed that when Quintana had his problem, Erviti, Bennati and Amador dropped back to help him back to the front, and when Landa had his, the same three were sent back again. The three leaders were mostly up front, but in the case of an incident, they would each get the support of the full supply of domestiques.
"It was an incredible day," Valverde said. "A very, very hard effort, but we managed to rescue the situation extremely well. In the end, and after so much effort, the team managed to bring Mikel back to our group and I'm super happy because they demonstrated the great work they can do and we got through a very difficult day."
Movistar have now come through the treacherous first nine days in a position they might have signed for at the start of the race.
Valverde is fifth overall, 1:31 down on yellow jersey Greg Van Avermaet but just 48 seconds off the best-placed of the true GC contenders, Geraint Thomas. Landa is now 10th at 1:42, while Quintana is 21st at 2:50.
There had been so much trepidation in the Movistar camp over the first week of the Tour, and in particular the pavé but, as Valverde said, "now comes our turf".
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