Blistering early speed and sheets of rain across the Basque Country raised hopes of a dramatic finale to stage 12 of the Vuelta a España, but ultimately there were few frissons among the general classification contenders on the run-in to Bilbao. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), as is his wont, accelerated on the final ascent of the Alto de Arraiz, but his move carried little hope, far less any expectation.
Red jersey Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), and the Movistar duo of Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde dutifully upped their pace to match Lopez's and the effort soon petered out. Roglic's Jumbo-Visma teammates resumed control at the head of the peloton, and the podium contenders all rolled safely together to the finish in Bilbao. Another day less.
"The idea was to be up there with the best, but we knew that on a such a hard stage, there would be no real differences, it was just a case of everyone hanging on as best they could," Lopez said in the mixed zone afterwards, the white jersey of best young rider on his shoulders. "Nothing happened, but I'm glad it didn't rain because there would have been a lot of skidding."
When Valverde wheeled to a halt by his soigneur in the finishing straight on the Gran Via de Don Diego Lopez de Haro, he was immediately swarmed by a scrum of microphones and cameras. As he spoke, Valverde helped himself into a long-sleeved jersey and inched a path through the maelstrom towards his team bus. Another day less.
"We were attentive all day because it was a very fast stage, and the team did a very good job," Valverde said. "Lopez attacked, and when he did, I was a little bit blocked in by Pogacar. Nut even if I reacted a bit late, I did it without problems."
Pogacar is only 20 years of age and in his first-ever Grand Tour, but the Slovenian dealt comfortably with a stage where men with designs on the podium had little to gain but plenty to lose. He posted himself near the head of the peloton on the succession of climbs in the finale, just behind Roglic's yellow and black guard, and there he remained until the finish in Bilbao.
"The final was pretty hard, and I think it was pretty hard all the stage, but there was nothing serious today. The breakaway went and it was a good day for the GC to be calm," Pogacar said after he had come to a stop past the finish line.
If Thursday's trek through the Basque Country was only ever a potential pitfall for the podium contenders, then Friday's finale atop the wickedly steep ascent of Los Machucos offers a rather more robust guarantee of skirmishes among Roglic, Valverde et al.
Roglic carries a lead of 1:52 over Valverde into stage 13, while Lopez is third at 2:11. Quintana, after a calamitous time trial, is fourth at 3 minutes, with Pogacar a further 5 seconds back in fifth. In the Basque Country on Thursday, Roglic and his strong Jumbo-Visma squad looked impregnable; his rivals will hope to uncover hitherto unseen weaknesses as the week progresses.
"Tomorrow is going to be another big day, with Los Machucos," Lopez said, before reminding himself that there are no fewer than seven classified climbs on the menu on Friday. "There's not only Los Machucos, there's also what comes before, there's a lot of hard terrain. I'm looking to have good legs tomorrow, and let's hope we can do something."
Pogacar drew comparisons between Los Machucos – which climbs for 6.8km at 9.2 per cent, but with gradients of 25 per cent – and last Friday's finale atop Mas de la Costa, where the current top five on general classification revealed themselves to be the strongest men in the race. "Tomorrow is a bit longer and I think it will be like stage 7," Pogacar said. "It will be a stage that will explode."
Valverde, for his part, was reluctant to dwell at any length on the demands of Friday's stage. Part of the day's intrigue will come from how Movistar deploy their two leaders – and the team continues to insist that it had two – but Valverde limited himself to a pithy assessment of what lay ahead.
"Obviously, tomorrow will be harder than today," said Valverde, who jokingly batted away a radio reporter's request for a prediction. "Tomorrow, I'll tell you. I don't know."
Los Machucos will reveal more.