Alberto Contador takes a thrilling pre-Tour victory over Nairo Quintana at the Route du Sud

It was just as everyone had hoped. One very big climb, two very big stars, one epic mano-a-mano battle. Saturday’s “queen stage” at the four-day Route du Sud did not disappoint, and provided an exciting preview of what lies in store for next month’s Tour de France.

With two of cycling’s “Fab Four” squaring off in the Pyrénées over the weekend, it was no surprise that Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) delivered exciting performances up the Cat. 1 Port de Balès near the end of the three-climb, 160km stage to Bagnères-de-Luchon. Contador took the stage win and overall lead, but Quintana was right on his heels.

Both were back in action after breaks, Contador racing for the first time since winning the Giro d’Italia, and Quintana after an even longer lapse, with the Tour de Romandie in early May his most recent race appearance. Tinkoff-Saxo took control of the race, setting a pace that blew up the peloton. Contador attacked, and Quintana marked his every move. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Pierre-Roger Latour, just 21, who stayed in front of the leading pair most of the way up the gruesome Balès.

Contador jumped clear on the final climb to split the pack, with Quintana marking his wheel. The pair linked up to Latour, and all three summited together. The Spaniard made his winning move with a daring descent to the finish line, gapping Quintana and taking the overall, now leading by 17 seconds with one stage to go.

“On Port de Balès I was with Quintana and I asked him whether he wanted to collaborate in order to bring Latour back, who was alone at the front. Quintana said he didn’t want to because he considered that I was very strong,” Contador said at the line. “There was still a long way to go but I tried to control the race to the top of the climb. At that point I got a few meters from Quintana and I realized it was a question of gritting my teeth and holding on to the finish line. I staged a few attacks, just enough to be able to control the race. Every win is always important and boosts your morale but this one doesn’t mean much. The main objective remains the Tour de France.”

Quintana, too, seemed satisfied with his performance, his first race in nearly six weeks. After training at his home in the Colombian Andes, Quintana was not sure of his fitness, but Saturday’s ride confirms he’s on track for the Tour, even if he didn’t want to take risks on the harrowing descent.

“I’m very satisfied with what I did today. It was a big test, and I felt strong. Tinkoff drove a high pace all stage long, and it was really like a Tour de France stage, with big speed all the way,” Quintana explained. “At some certain point, Contador explained to me that should I give some turns, he’d let me win the stage. I told him that I wouldn’t take any turns nor attack him. The roads into the descent were gritty, it made no sense to take any chances and lose everything. Contador really made a risky descent. As I said before, I’m happy with how I rode today, and my body responded well to the efforts.”

The day’s fireworks provided an exciting preview of what lies in the store for the Tour. Quintana will be racing the Tour for the first time since 2013, and Contador returns on the heels of his Giro win, trying to become the first rider since Marco Pantani to win the Giro-Tour double.

With Chris Froome (Sky), hot off his victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) also lining up in Utrecht, this year’s Tour could be one for the ages.

Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Patxi Vila, however, downplayed the significance of Saturday’s stage, at least in terms of trying to predict how the Tour might play out.

“It goes without saying that every victory in a race is encouraging, but we think we cannot draw any conclusion today in what regards the Tour de France,” Vila said in a team release. “Quintana showed today he was strong. In addition, he’s also fresher and without any doubt he will be a strong rival next month. There will be other very strong rivals as well, so it’s a long way until the Tour.”

The Tour starts July 4 in Utrecht, but on Saturday, Contador took bragging rights out of the Route du Sud.