Movistar played chess high in the French Alps on Thursday and won big with Nairo Quintana winning over the Col du Galibier.
But that victory meant the team put the brakes on Mikel Landa and his Tour de France podium dreams.
On a day when Movistar wanted have its cake and to eat it, too, it was more than happy to settle for one juicy slice in what is its first stage win in this year’s Tour.
“We started the day with the idea of building a bridge for Mikel [to attack],” Quintana said. “Once we had a sufficient gap, they lowered the pace from behind and bet on me for the win.”
There were a lot of moving parts and plot lines in Thursday’s epic climbing stage across the Alps. With the yellow jersey on the line, teams were bracing for a brutal stage with nearly 5,000m of vertical climbing.
Movistar had two goals: give Quintana a chance to win the stage and set up Landa for a long-distance attack to shake up the GC. Midway through the stage, when the Quintana group was opening up a promising gap, the team decided it couldn’t have both.
Landa finished the day just as he started, at 4:54 behind race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step). The Basque climber had announced big intentions coming into the final trio of climbing stages and wanted to open up a long-distance attack to bolster his podium ambitions. Those dreams were stifled when Quintana was feeling good in the breakaway.
“We hoped to win the stage with Nairo and improve my situation on GC,” Landa said. “At least one of the two things worked out. I’m happy for him and he deserves it after his crashes and other setbacks.”
Movistar slotted Quintana, Andrey Amador and Carlos Verona into a 23-rider breakaway. The gap hovered around eight minutes to fast-dwindling GC group when it hit the Col de l’Izoard. Movistar’s Marc Soler surged to the front and the gap to the Quintana group soon cut to five minutes.
Moivstar had to make the call. If they kept pulling from behind, there was a big option the winner could come out of the GC group. If they eased up, the Quintana group might have wings to stay clear.
It was a long way from the Izoard to the Col du Galibier to pull all the way, so Movistar made the call to ease up the chase. No one else piled on from behind, choosing to save their matches for the finale still looming on the horizon at the Galibier. That gave new life to Quintana’s bid for a stage win that saved his Tour.
“We went hard on the Izoard when we saw that some of the rivals were on the limit,” Landa said. “But we eased off so that the gap to Nairo would grow again.”
When Movistar eased off the pace, the Quintana group worked their way toward the Galibier with the winning gap safely intact. Quintana then surged clear with about 5km to go on the upper reaches of the Galibier to gap the chasing Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale). The Colombian soloed over the top and drove home down the twisting descent to win his third career stage.
Landa, meanwhile, never tried to attack up the Galibier — or couldn’t — and followed in with the GC favorites. In the end, Quintana actually nudged ahead of Landa in GC, to move seventh at 3:54 back, with Landa remaining at 4:54 back now in eighth.
The victory pushed Movistar back into the lead on the team GC as well as sets up the team for the final two battles in the Alps.
The emotional win also helped Quintana salvage another frustrating Tour. Yet again, Quintana lost time early in the race and suffered a crash in the second week. He ceded more time on the Tourmalet last weekend, but proved yet again he is capable of delivering a spectacular performance in cycling’s steepest and longest mountains.
“That’s what happens when you have more than one card to play,” Quintana said. “This Tour didn’t always go the way we wanted, but we kept our head down and kept fighting, and here’s the result. We knew it could be a good day for me, and we worked out some different strategies.”
With Quintana set to move to Arkea-Samsic next season, it was likely his last Tour de France success with the Spanish team. With everything in play this weekend, maybe Quintana will have the chance to pay back the favor.