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They came furious, and they came fast. Sky’s Chris Froome surged three, four, even seven times on the final mountain of the 2016 Vuelta a España to try to drop Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. It was not enough.
In what was a lively final romp across the mountains of Spain, with Esteban Chaves (Orica – BikeExchange) slipping ahead of a proud Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) to reclaim third going into Sunday’s finale, Froome’s attacks almost seemed more obligatory than effective.
After three hard weeks of racing, Quintana never gave an inch on the final ramps of the desolate Alto de Aitana. Barring disaster Sunday, he will win the 2016 Vuelta.
“I had no problem following Froome. He started to attack very early. That’s expected, and we were very attentive,” Quintana said. “The team was always very concentrated and we could keep everything under control all the time. Finally, on the climb I felt very good and I had no trouble countering Froome’s surges.”
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Quintana started Saturday’s final test with an almost insurmountable lead of 1:21. All the Colombian needed to do was avoid a disastrous fold, a crash, or a major blunder and the Vuelta would be his. Surrounded by his Movistar teammates, Quintana was vigilant early in the potentially explosive stage in the rugged mountains high above Spain’s dazzling Mediterranean beaches. And when the leaders hit the final ramps of Aitana, Quintana patiently marked Froome’s endless accelerations as the pair surged together toward the summit.
Despite a nasty crash during the stage involving J.J. Rojas, Quintana finally countered in the closing meters to slip ahead of Froome, all but securing his first Vuelta title and the second grand tour victory of his young career.
“I don’t know if he’d be upset by that [final acceleration], he’s done it before, but it doesn’t matter,” Quintana said. “He’s a great rider, and his team was at a very good level, and they were always making troubles for me. He did a great time trial, and he suffered to try to win this Vuelta.”
It was a fitting finale of a gripping battle between the peloton’s top two grand tour riders. A battered Contador, who crashed heavily in the first week, played his part, and helped Quintana take the winning differences in Formigal last weekend in the Pyrénées.
As Quintana bounded away Saturday, Froome ceded defeat in the end and even applauded as he crossed the line in a gesture of respect to the rider who has emerged as his primary grand tour rival over the past few seasons.
“We have a good respect between us,” Froome said earlier this week. “Sure, at times it can be fiery … at the same time, we do respect each other as rivals. I think we recognize it is good for the sport to have this type of rivalry.”
For Quintana, this victory marks the first time he’s beaten Froome one-on-one in a grand tour. He won the 2014 Giro d’Italia without Froome in the peloton. Quintana has twice finished second to Froome in the Tour de France, and this year he was third. The significance of the victory won’t be lost on anyone.
The Vuelta wraps up Sunday with an evening sprint finishing in the heart of downtown Madrid. For Quintana, this Vuelta marked a confirmation that he is Froome’s most dangerous rival. For Froome, the Vuelta was lost in last weekend’s ambush. Without those time loses, Froome might have finally become the first rider to win the Tour and Vuelta in a same year since the Spanish tour was moved to September in 1995.
No matter what, Froome goes home happy in his last race of 2016 with two stage wins and his third career second place at the Vuelta. That might sting for a little while, but his third Tour de France crown in July was the primary target of the year. A bronze medal in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics was the icing on the cake. Froome’s determination and grit all the way to the finish Saturday reveals more about his character than any result, and you know he will be back in top form next summer.
Gripping from start to finish, the 2016 Vuelta delivered the battle everyone wanted to see in July. Quintana will leave Spain with his confidence bolstered, and everyone will already be looking ahead to July 2017. The battle will resume.