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LOS MACHUCOS, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 06: Nairo Quintana...

Movistar vows to keep fighting after Los Machucos defeat

Movistar duo Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde vowed to keep fighting after they were dropped on the Los Machucos climb. Time is running out at this Vuelta for Movistar to dethrone leader Primoz Roglic.

Movistar was moving its chess pieces on the fearsome Alto de Los Machucos climb when the Slovenians dropped the hammer.

On a day when Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde desperately needed to claw back some time on Vuelta a España leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), it was Roglic, who linked up with compatriot Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Emirates), who grabbed the valuable seconds.

Quintana was dropped first, and then Valverde faded from the Slovenian duo. The two eventually linked up to limit their losses, crossing the finish line together, 27 seconds behind.

“We are now seeing that Roglic is the strongest rider, and Pogacar is demonstrating he is also very strong,” said Valverde, who remained second, but slipped to 2:25 back. “Today we gave up some time, but maybe the next time we can take back some time. We’ll go day by day. We have two key stages Sunday and Monday in Asturias.”

Quintana tried to jump about halfway up the Los Machucos climb. Blessed by good weather, the peloton could safely pick its way up the ramps as steep as 28 percent along Spain’s Cantabrian range.

Quintana ran out of gas and was swallowed up by the ever-dwindling GC group. Pogacar and then Roglic accelerated to trim the group even more, before they collaborated to drop everyone. Pogacar won his second stage of this Vuelta in his grand tour debut, and Roglic padded his lead on a day that many called the 2019 Vuelta’s hardest stage.

“From the way that the group was climbing, I was waiting for Roglic to accelerate, and that’s what happened,” Valverde said. “Once the Slovenians went away, we tried to go at our own rhythm, just as much Nairo and myself, at the maximum, to try to limit the losses. What next? We’ll see.”

Roglic, who took important gains in Tuesday’s time trial, is slowly strangling the life out of the GC fight in the Vuelta.

Miguel Ángel López (Astana) struggled on a day when he wanted to pounce, and even ended up ceding the best young rider’s jersey to Pogacar, who climbed into third at 3:01 back. López is now fourth at 3:18 in a Vuelta that could be turning into a fight for the podium.

With Pogacar jumping from fifth to third, Quintana was bumped to fifth, now 3:33 back. The Colombian vows to go down swinging in his final grand tour in Movistar colors.

“We tried, but Roglic is confirming he is the strongest in the race right now,” Quintana said. “I tried this attack halfway up the climb because I am the one who is further back, and I felt pretty good. It’s easier to follow the wheel and see what happens, but I preferred to try, because you don’t really know how you are or what kind of chances you have until you do.”

Movistar continues to be the deepest team on paper, and solidified its hold on the teams classification. Marc Soler, who lost time early in this Vuelta, is showing stronger form in the second week. He was ninth at Los Machucos to go along with eighth in the Pau time trial and fifth at Andorra.

“We tried to attack with Nairo to make the others suffer, but the Slovenians are very strong,” Soler said of Movistar’s tactics. “Roglic has his way of riding, good luck to anyone who can follow him. We’ll keep fighting to see if they have a bad day, and if the opportunity arises, take back the maximum amount of time.”

So far, Roglic has appeared rock solid throughout the Vuelta. He’s been leading the favorites in every major mountain stage so far, and gained decisive time in Pau, putting him in pole position to win his first grand tour.

Backed by a strong Jumbo-Visma team that includes Americans Sepp Kuss and Nielson Powless, Roglic is seeing the support he’ll need going into the final half of the Vuelta.

This Vuelta now has just four remaining stages where the Movistar duo could conceivably gain back some time. This weekend’s pair of stages deep in Asturias — Sunday’s finale to Santuario del Acebo and Monday’s climb to La Cubilla — could be Movistar’s best and last chance to shake Roglic. Both stages include summit finishes.

The two climbing stages during the Vuelta’s third week are hardly decisive. Stage 18 on Thursday, September 12 includes four Category 1 climbs, and stage 20 is a lumpy day with six categorized climbs. Neither day, however, finishes uphill, which could nullify a major battle.

Quintana vows the team will keep applying the pressure.

“We’ve seen where everyone is, and now we will try another strategy,” Quintana said. “We’ll see if we can try to attack from further out. There are still some decisive stages ahead of us that are not so easy and are very complicated. We will keep trying.”