Nairo Quintana (Movistar) has taken a potentially decisive step towards outright victory in the Vuelta a Espana on Sunday after forming a successful alliance with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) that opened a major gap on arch-rival Chris Froome (Sky).
In a dramatic breakaway of 14, Quintana, Contador and the rest attacked almost as soon as racing had begun on the stage.
After three mountain passes and a daylong pursuit, Froome lost two minutes and 37 seconds to the Colombian at the finish line and is now 3:37 overall, a time gap that could spell curtains for the Briton's chances of taking both Tour and Vuelta in the same year.
Nothing can be ruled out after such a dramatic stage like Sunday's in any case, which saw Froome and Sky, having controlled the Vuelta well for the first two weeks, suddenly received a serious blow. And Quintana, whilst a decidedly more cheery rider than he has been for the last week when giving interviews and wishing journalists "a very good evening" before he left the leader's press conference, was cautious about what the overall implications are.
"There's the big time trial and we will have to watch what happens.
"This attack was not planned in this way" - his teammate Alejandro Valverde said the original idea was to attack on the last ascent - "but we used the moment we could and it worked out fine."
Asked about how he rated the day's racing, the 2014 Giro d'Italia winner described the stage as "one of the best, a big moment. The team were brilliant, always with riders ahead and in general, riders like Jonathan Castroviejo and Ruben Fernandez" - present in the break away - "did a superb job, whilst Alejandro (Valverde) was controlling from behind.
"We knew how to maintain our gap overall, and Alberto was a big player in this strategy, too."
Could Sky try to turn things around and pull of the same manouvre, Quintana was asked. "Of course they are going to try to do that, and I'm lucky to have Alejandro there, supporting me. Without my team I wouldn't be where I stand overall."
As for how Contador had played out his part in the Movistar-Tinkoff manouvre, unsurprisingly Quintana had fulsome praise for his main ally on the stage.
"He's a great tactician, a very cunning rider, and this has played in his favour. We saw that in Fuente De in the 2012 Vuelta and we saw that again today."
As for how he will tackle the race from now on, Quintana said, "at the moment, I'm not too scared of anything. I've got a lot of respect for that time trial, although hopefully it won't be too unfavourable and I will play a defensive game on the mountain stages to come."
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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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