Nairo Quintana won't forget what pressure is. He's experienced the joyful sensation of rising to the top ranks well before anyone took notice of him, as well as the resulting lows of being expected to do the impossible every day. He knows what it's like to fulfill the highest expectations -- the expectations, it should be said, of all of his native Colombia -- and to let them down. The Movistar leader entered the Vuelta a España searching to redeem the hopes of a Nation after a tremendously disappointing Tour de France, where Sky's Chris Froome smothered him and his ambitions day after dreary day.
So when Quintana found himself up the road from Froome on today's 10th stage of the Vuelta to Lagos de Covadonga, you might excuse him for feeling a lifting of the pressure, if ever so briefly, as he soared to an apparent date with destiny in Madrid. But Quintana himself seems to know better, and seemed to know (via his earpiece if nothing else) that the pressure was still on. For just as quickly as Froome seemed to melt away and drift out of contention did his body warm up and his legs return, and it was Froome who then put on a show. The Kenyan Englishman spun his legs, stared laser-like at his stem, and cut his minute deficit on the road to Quintana in half, regaining the ability (should he look up) to see his young rival up the road.
Quintana undoubtedly knew that he was nowhere near overall victory, and did what he had to do, using one of the last remaining ramps of the varied climb to drop his remaining company, cruise past Dutchman Robert Gesink of LottoNL-Jumbo -- the last survivor of the early breakaway -- and maintain his edge all the way to the line. Froome caught and passed Quintana's former company, most notably Alberto Contador of Tinkoff, a former Vuelta winner on three occasions, who lost 1.05 on the stage to Quintana at the end. But Gesink caught on to Froome, along with Dimension Data's Omar Fraile, and the Dutchman outsprinted Froome for precious bonus seconds. Froome now lies 58" back of Quintana and in third, one second behind the Colombian's Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde, who also sagged on the climb but also limited his losses.
Quintana is hardly in a position now to be anointed the likely winner. After all, it was two years ago when he took the overall lead of the race, only to crash in the Red Jersey the next day, on a time trial, and to eventually withdraw from the race. Moreover, one minute in hand is not enough to stop Froome with a long time trial still to come in the race's final week.
However, twice in as many tries, Quintana has looked like the race's preeminent climber, and nothing gets you an advantage in the Vuelta a España like the ability to climb. On Saturday's crazy finish he put 33 seconds into Froome and today he bagged another 30 (bonuses included). Both times Froome looked good but not good enough. Today especially it seemed like a harder climb would have given Quintana even more room to roam. But that can change, with the race not quite half over and with another oddball finish Wednesday after tomorrow's day off, and two sensational Pyrenean events approaching next weekend. Froome certainly is riding with the heart of a champion, if maybe not quite the legs. It's really a two-man race now, and it should be a sensational one, unlike July's headliner.
All photos by Jaime Reina, AFP/Getty Images