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Vuelta a Espana

Gutsy move pays off for Quintana and Contador

Brilliant tactics, the Spanish heat, some help from Alberto Contador — it all comes together to propel Nairo Quintana into a commanding lead at the Vuelta

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SABINANIGO, Spain (VN) — Chris Froome got bowled over Sunday as Movistar and Nairo Quintana dealt what could be the coup de grace in the Vuelta a España.

Quintana and two more Movistar riders infiltrated an early move spurred by Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) that turned Sunday’s short, three-climb stage into a booby trap for Froome. Starting the day within striking range at 54 seconds back, Froome’s Vuelta chances took a potentially fatal blow when he lost 2:37 to Quintana, and fell to 3:37 back despite remaining second overall.

Just days ago, Quintana said he’d need three minutes to sleep easy going into the 37km time trial in stage 19. Now he has that and then some.

“It was a ‘dia grandioso,’” Quinta said, referring to his “great day.” “Now I hope to keep the red jersey to the finish. I have a good difference now to Froome.”

What the heck happened? Team Sky’s calculating and dominant style it deploys to control the Tour de France each July misfired in the dramatically different conditions of the Vuelta late in the season. Contador bounded clear in the opening 10km of the short, explosive 116km stage ending atop the Formigal summit in the sunbaked Spanish Pyrenees, where temperatures were hitting the mid-90s (Fahrenheit) for the 2:30 p.m. start.

Looking to repeat his miracle shot from Fuente Dé in the 2012, Contador had two teammates in tow, and Quintana was alert to follow. Froome and Sky were caught asleep at the wheel. David Lopez was the only Sky rider to be with Froome as the main bunch blew up under the weight of two weeks of non-stop racing at the tail-end of a long, demanding 2016 racing calendar. The rest of the Sky Train, version Vuelta, was caught out in the main bunch. Contador, Quintana, and 12 others were gone barely five minutes into the stage.

“I wasn’t so optimistic at the start, because the climbs didn’t seem that difficult, but I attacked like crazy, and I didn’t even know who was on my wheel,” Contador said. “I knew that it was a dangerous bet, but look at what happened.”

Etapón! That’s how they say it in Spain. A stage to remember. Contador and Quintana were leaving Froome and the other GC contenders on the ropes. They built up a lead of almost three minutes as they went over two early climbs. Froome was left isolated with only Lopez — 100 of the Vuelta’s peloton finished out side the time cut, only to be saved by the race jury — but Froome is harder to kill than a New York City cockroach.

Froome kept tamping away, and with the help of Orica – BikeExchange and Astana (riding, according to them, to protect Michele Scarponi’s top 10), trimmed the gap to about 1:30 coming into the final grind up to the Formigal summit. The wide, sweeping climb is not nearly as steep as what’s found in France, but that almost made it harder — and more dangerous.

On the final 10km, it was every man for himself, pure mano-a-mano, Spanish style. Quintana buried himself to take time out of Froome. Contador cramped up, allowing Gianluca Brambilla to win Etixx – Quick-Step’s fourth stage of this Vuelta.

“I have never seen a leader ride so hard in a breakaway,” Brambilla said. “In the last kilometers, I focused everything on staying on his [Quintana’s] wheel. It worked out great.”

Behind Quintana, the remains of the day began attacking each other. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) led in the chasers with ninth at 1:53 back. That conserved his third place, 3:57 behind Quintana, and just five seconds ahead of Contador. The 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing) also clawed into podium contention, up to sixth at 6:12 back.

“Every day at the Vuelta, the speeds have been so fast. And there are still some hard days ahead of us,” Sánchez said. “If we keep going like this, only four of us will make it to Madrid.”

Froome spoke a few words to TV, and was gone. Team Sky did not release any comments on its website. The team will surely regroup for the remainder of the Vuelta, and with a week of racing, it is far from over.

“I think the team probably paid for a hard day yesterday,” Froome told ITV. “I’m in a difficult position (to win the Vuelta), but I am also still second, which is where I started the day.”

Quintana, however, could not hold back his smile. After battling in vain against Froome at the Tour — twice finishing second and this year third — having a chance to take it to his nemesis was sweet revenge.

“It turned out better than we could have hoped,” Quintana said. “We were looking at making some moves late in the stage, but you never know what can happen. It turned out to be a great stage when no one expected it. I took more gains today than I did in the big mountains. There was a split at the first part of the stage, with a twisting, dangerous start of the route, where everyone suffered and you can feel the pain from the previous day. We went with Alberto, and our teams pulled together.”

It was that perfect combination of elements — Contador, the heat, the weariness, and the tactics — that finally cracked Fortress Froome.