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What started so promising with a bold attack by Alejandro Valverde midway through the stage ended bitterly for the Spanish outfit that marched confidently into the Tour with three GC leaders.
When the dust settled at the La Rosière summit, Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa both lost time to archrivals on Sky. Valverde sank out of the top-10 after starting the stage dreaming of yellow.
“We had to try to open the race, and what Valverde did caused a lot of pain in the race,” said Mikel Landa. “Now we have to look at the differences, rest a little and see how things are in the morning.”
“We wanted to ‘play’ today,” said Nairo Quintana, “but to tell the truth, we didn’t feel like we wanted to.”
Movistar was reeling at the line. Quintana was dropped first by stage-winner Geraint Thomas (Sky), who also grabbed the yellow jersey, and then by archrival Chris Froome. Quintana crossed the line with fellow podium contenders Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) at 59 seconds back.
Landa said he felt the effects of crashing two stages in a row and crossed the line 13th at 1:47 back. Landa slotted in at seventh overall at 2:56 back and Quintana ninth at 3:16 back.
“It was hard for me all day,” Landa said. “I back started hurting on the first climb and I couldn’t follow the rhythm on the final climb. We’ll see with our doctors how we are, and consider what our next steps will be.”
On a day Movistar was hoping to challenge Sky, the British outfit smashed its Spanish rival.
Perhaps feeling confident in his position on GC at the start of the stage with a shot at the yellow jersey, Valverde made a surprise move with 54km to go on the Col du Pré. Movistar had Marc Soler waiting up the road and the pair quickly did some damage, momentarily putting Valverde into the “virtual” yellow jersey.
It was a move that Movistar had been planning from the outset.
“The plan this morning was that we would attack today,” said Movistar director Eusebio Unzue. “We hoped that Alejandro might do a little more damage and we were also hoping that somebody else would go with him, but as we saw that wasn’t how it turned out.”
Sky didn’t panic and found some help from Bahrain-Merida when Franco Pelizzoti and Nibali helped tow the GC bunch over the Cormet de Roseland with 38.5km to go.
Sky put five riders on the front of the bunch to set a brutal pace and started to pull back Valverde. Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) also jumped clear and linked up with Valverde, but the veteran Spaniard ran out of gas. Dumoulin dropped him on the final climb and he couldn’t stay even after the hard effort when the GC group roared past.
Valverde didn’t speak to journalists waiting at the finish line, but he was visibly disappointed. Taking the day’s most combative prize was little consolation on a day that went upside down.
Instead of having three GC options threatening Sky, Movistar is on the back foot. Quintana will have a fight on his hands even to get within podium range.
“It was a very hard tempo all day long,” Quintana said. “We lost some seconds that I hope are not too much to be able to keep fighting for the race.”
Movistar has been notoriously conservative with Quintana in previous Tours, often holding him back until the final stages before letting him try to attack Froome.
Perhaps that tactic will be a wiser one following Wednesday’s misfire on the road to La Rosière.
Movistar will try to regroup and take the fight to Sky. Now they don’t have a choice.
“Tomorrow we have the very hard Alpe d’Huez in what’s a tremendous stage,” Landa said. “We’ll have to try again and make it a hard stage.”