Vuelta a Espana
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Vuelta: Quintana puts his cards on the table

Starting the Vuelta as the outright favorite, Nairo Quintana steps up and starts showing winning form on La Camperona in stage 13.

LEON, Spain (VN) — It might have been only six seconds, but that time against archrival Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), in the final 150m of Friday’s summit finale, told the untold story so far in this Vuelta a España.

Nairo Quintana (Movistar) confirmed what everyone has been whispering inside the peloton since the Vuelta started nearly two weeks ago in Málaga. In the first of three decisive climbing stages across northern Spain, Quintana is slowly but surely taking control of the Spanish grand tour.

“The most important thing was to take some time and I did it,” Quintana said at the stage 13 line. “The summit was pretty short and explosive and you had to wait. On the longer climbs is where we will see where we really are and we hope to make even bigger differences.”

Quintana and Yates were the leading two GC favorites at the nose of the peloton as the short but explosive Camperona summit finale put the overall leaders under pressure. The day’s large breakaway won the stage, but Quintana wanted to grab this Vuelta by the scruff of the neck.

After gapping other direct rivals, Quintana punched the gas with about 150m to go on the final ramp to the line and put in six seconds into Yates.

The message was clear: Quintana is putting his cards on the table to win the Vuelta.

“It was practically the first day of the true mountains in this Vuelta. Every second in your favor is appreciated,” Quintana said. “It’s still open. Anything can happen at any time and you cannot afford a mistake. We hope to keep going with the same sensations and keeping working well as a team and maintain the momentum we have.”

After two weeks of a tightly bound race — the stage started with the top-10 overall favorites divided by less than one minute behind overnight leader Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) — La Camperona served its purpose to reveal who has the legs to win.

Quintana and Yates slowly ground away from the others on the steepest final 4km of the stage when ramps kicked up to 19 percent. Miguel Angel López (Astana) appeared to drop a chain and was forced to stop on the steep climb in an incident that clearly impacted his race. He finished 20 seconds behind Quintana.

Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First-Drapac), and David de la Cruz (Sky) trundled in together at 25 seconds behind Quintana. Riders moved up and down the overall standings, but it was Quintana who took the day’s momentum.

Herrada hung on to the leader’s jersey, with his lead to Yates reduced from 3:22 to 1:42. Quintana leap-frogged ahead of his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde into third at 1:50 back and just eight seconds behind Yates. Valverde rode well to remain fourth overall now at 1:54 back.

“I am happy to keep going at a good level on such a demanding final as this,” Valverde said. “The team worked hard all day and [Quintana] revealed that he is very, very good. It was a good day in respect to the GC. We’ll see how we can recover for tomorrow.”

Movistar still doesn’t have the red leader’s jersey but it’s been racing much of the Vuelta as if it has. It’s boldly stepped up the past few days to control the breakaways when Mitchelton-Scott, Cofidis and other teams were not willing to burn their matches.

When a big group peeled clear in Friday’s stage from Asturias to Castilla y León over the Cantabrian mountains, Movistar worked hard with Andrey Amador and Winner Anacona to reduce the gap from nine minutes to just under four minutes at the Camperona base.

“We want to win the Vuelta and we didn’t want the break to get too far up the road. There were some dangerous riders in the group,” Quintana said. “It’s better for us to work a little more and control the breaks.”

Herrada might hang on for one more stage — Saturday’s finale to Alto Les Praeres is steeper but shorter than La Camperona — but no one expects the Cofidis rider to still be in red by the end of Sunday’s summit finish at Lagos de Covadonga.

Without longtime rival and defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) skipping the Vuelta, Quintana started in Málaga as the favorite to win. The pressure has slowly been building and now Quintana is poised to step up when it counts.

“Nairo feels he has to win this Vuelta,” said Movistar sport director Pablo Lastras. “He is getting there day by day, showing himself and I think he will do it. Sunday is going to be the stage for him to show that.”

The Vuelta is far from over, but it’s Quintana who is slowly squeezing his rivals and edging closer to the overall leader’s jersey. By Sunday it could very well be his.