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With Quintana gone, who can beat Contador?

It’s been a summer of destruction for GC favorites in this year’s grand tours.

At the Giro d’Italia, Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Janez Brajkovic (Astana), and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) didn’t make it out of the first week.

At the Tour de France, three big hitters — Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Chris Froome (Sky), and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) — all exited in spectacular, if unfortunate crashes.

With each major crash, the dynamics of the grand tours changed. It’s impossible to say what might have happened, but the departure of so many favorites sent ripples across the peloton in each race.

Wednesday saw the Vuelta a España lose one of its most important protagonists, with the exit of Giro champion Nairo Quintana (Movistar), the plucky Colombian who was daring to stand tall against the best of the Spanish peloton at the Vuelta.

Quintana, 24, was already damaged goods when he started Wednesday’s stage following his dramatic, high-speed crash in Tuesday’s time trial, losing more than four minutes and the red leader’s jersey all in one frightful moment.

Quintana crashed again early in Wednesday’s stage, going down in a pileup in the first hour of racing. Team officials confirmed Quintana dislocated his shoulder, and could undergo surgery as soon as Thursday.

Just like that, one of the Vuelta’s most important players was gone. And like what happened at both the Giro and Tour, the dynamics of the Vuelta will change dramatically.

The first to recognize the significance of Quintana’s departure was race leader Contador, who knows he will now be able to confront the remainder of the Vuelta with one of his most explosive rivals out of the race.

“It’s a shame about Nairo. It’s been a crazy season, with a lot of the favorites crashing out, like what happened with me at the Tour,” Contador said. “It’s too bad for Nairo, but cycling is like that, and you have to press the advantage when you’re feeling good.”

Without Quintana, Contador’s road to overall victory opens up dramatically.

Even with his losses in Tuesday’s time trial, Quintana remained a very dangerous and unpredictable foe to Contador. He had vowed overnight to help teammate Alejandro Valverde, and would have certainly attacked deep in the final week as he recovered from his injuries suffered Tuesday. Quintana is one of the few riders who provokes true fear among the top GC riders. He not only can match the world’s best climbers, but he has the punch and acceleration to go with the change of rhythm, and then attack over the top.

Valverde to stand alone

Quintana’s exit also derails dangerous Movistar’s two-pronged attack. Now Valverde will have to stand alone against Contador.

“I have a bittersweet feeling about Nairo’s fall and abandonment,” Valverde said at the line. “It happened just behind me.”

Valverde, 34, still managed to claw back seven seconds on Contador on Wednesday, with an intermediate sprint and the second-place bonus at the finish line, trimming his gap to Contador to an encouraging 20 seconds.

Valverde started this Vuelta publicly backing Quintana, without discounting his own GC options. Valverde boasts a solid track record in his national tour, winning in 2009, second in 2006 and in 2012, behind Contador, and third in 2003, 2004, and 2013, and he’s right in the thick of things again.

But can he truly challenge Contador? That remains to be seen. After falling short of the podium at the Tour de France in fourth place, Valverde came to this Vuelta without too much pressure. Now that Quintana’s gone, Valverde has the full weight of the team’s expectations thrust yet again on his shoulders.

“What can we do? I’ve been leader before at the Vuelta, so it’s happened again,” Valverde said. “I’ve already changed my mentality. Throughout this Vuelta, I’ve always been right there, always with Nairo, and now, alone.”

Looking at how vigilant, and how easily, Contador was covering the moves in Wednesday’s potentially explosive mountaintop finale at Aralar, it won’t be easy for anyone to snatch away the race leader’s jersey.

Froome remains an enigma

Chris Froome (Sky), the 2013 Tour winner, fell flat Tuesday, unable to deliver a knockout punch that he needed to revive his GC hopes. On Wednesday, he was dropped with 2km to go, yet fought back to regain contact with the top favorites, saving the day.

Froome didn’t speak to reporters immediately following the stage, but posted this Twitter: “Words cannot explain how tough that final climb was today. I’m very relieved to have finished where I did. The fight continues.”

Contador perhaps missed a chance to distance Froome for good. In fact, Froome climbed to fourth overall, now 1:20 back, after Winner Anacona (Lampre-Merida) slipped from fourth to eighth.

It’s too early to say the fight for the podium is on, but Katusha seems more intent on winning a stage with Joaquim Rodríguez, fifth at 1:35 back. The Russian team railed it up Aralar, but Rodríguez seems to be lacking his typical finish-line acceleration to put Contador under serious threat, admitting as much when Fabio Aru (Astana) punched it in the final kilometer to win the stage.

“I tried to stay with Aru when [he] attacked, but he is very explosive,” Rodríguez said. “I am still in the hunt, and I took a time bonus. It was harder and faster than we expected, but in the end, I am happy with it.”

Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), third at 1:08 back, and Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing), sixth at 1:52 back, both surged back into contention thanks to strong time trial Tuesday. Neither could follow the elite four of Contador, Valverde, Rodríguez, and Froome when they sprinted for time bonuses at the end of Wednesday’s stage.

Contador’s Vuelta to lose

Contador is the master of controlling the peloton, and measuring his efforts. With the exception of his 4:11 winning margin to Andy Schleck in the 2009 Tour, most of Contador’s grand tour victories have been quite tight affairs. With the support of a strong Tinkoff-Saxo team, Contador looks to be in the driver’s seat going into the final 10 days of the Vuelta.

In fact, Contador’s most dangerous rival could be his injured knee. He gained the leader’s jersey in Tuesday’s time trial barely 50 days after he crashed out of the Tour with a fractured tibia.

Contador admitted that he got through the opening week of the Vuelta on his innate talent. Now that he’s feeling stronger, his confidence is building as well. But there are few telltale signs that Contador could be vulnerable. Froome, Rodríguez, and Quintana were able to chase him down when he attacked Sunday, and at Aralar, he chose to ride conservatively rather than attack Froome when he was on the ropes.

The hardest part of the Vuelta is still to come, with three straight brutal climbing stages across Asturias this weekend. Anything could still happen, but the one rider who could have singlehandedly blown up the race is no longer in the race. The Vuelta is now Contador’s to lose.

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