Nairo Quintana in the third week

Photo by: filip bossuyt

After Chris Froome hurried his way to what appeared an impregnable lead after stage 10, I wrote that Grand Tours aren’t just about who’s fastest, they’re also about how tired you get and I pointed to how Nairo Quintana had been stronger than Froome by the end of the 2013 Tour.

So it has proven again. Attacking with about 5km to go on stage 19, the Colombian gained 30 seconds. Munching along with his expressionless face, he made Froome look even more frantic and harried than usual behind him. The Sky man even got out of the saddle at one point, which is very uncharacteristic. Apparently those spindly legs can actually support the weight of a human being – albeit a frighteningly emaciated one.

In many ways this result was perfectly timed. Quintana’s still behind overall – quite some way behind really – but he is now manifestly the strongest rider in the race. If the strongest rider were leading, all tension would be sucked out of the narrative like energy gel from a foil sachet, but this leaves us asking how much time he can gain on the final mountain stage (more of which below).

Those Colombians, eh?

If you’re a Colombian cyclist, people tend to characterise you a certain way. Regardless of your actual strengths, you will be considered a climber; an exotic mountain man with unparalleled ability going up anything steep.

People are forever amazed by Rigoberto Uran’s time-trialling and disappointed by his climbing, even though he’s been around for long enough that we should have a pretty clear idea of his strengths and weaknesses. In a way, it’s worse for Quintana, because he really is a great climber. It’s just that people miss the subtleties.

The man’s a grinder. He doesn’t tend to skitter about making pointless attacks and early in Grand Tours he will more often than not come second to someone like Chris Froome. Quintana’s strength is that after three weeks of racing, he’s still going strong. His blank face is the same and his legs are the same.

This is how he approaches Grand Tours. It’s just that ‘being the best climber after three weeks of racing’ inevitably gets shortened and then people get confused when he’s beaten.

No-one respects the yellow jersey

A cup of piss earlier in the race and now someone’s gobbed in his face, Chris Froome’s steadily accumulating the bodily fluids of roadside fans. It seems no-one respects the yellow jersey – not even Vincenzo Nibali.

What was really a rather brilliant stage victory by the Sicilian, attacking on the penultimate climb and riding a long way alone, was perhaps slightly marred by when he chose to attack. He says he didn’t see that Froome had been waylaid by a mechanical issue, but TV coverage showed him turning his head through 180 degrees to stare straight at him, turning again for a confirmation look and then attacking while indulging in a third look.

There are two views of this (which is two fewer than Nibali apparently needs in order to see something). One is that it’s a bit shitty to attack someone in these circumstances and that it isn’t ‘the done thing’. The second is that it’s racing and anything goes. Where precisely you stand on The Spirit of Cycling largely depends on whether or not you were attacked.

Froome went to speak to Nibali after the stage. “I won’t say the words he used because they’re too harsh and it’s not nice to say them,” said the Italian.

This tiff rather overshadows the fact that Nibali has ridden increasingly well in this race. The way he rode on the short climbs in the first week, it looked like he could have been well short of form, but it has since become apparent that those harder efforts are his only weakness. On long, steady climbs he’s fine and his endurance is clearly good too. He’s actually moved up to fourth now, ahead of Alberto Contador. I’ll put the top ten in lower down the page so you can see the time gaps ahead of this final mountain stage.

Where’s Geraint Thomas gone?

It’s all caught up with him. Or, in his own words: “Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. I was a cheap Ikea nail today.”

The Welshman lost touch with the leaders probably not even halfway through the stage. His resources had run dry and he ended up losing 22 minutes. He did a a lot of riding on the front during the hardest passages of racing during the first week and this has probably been the difference between him and someone like Nibali, who was sheltered for much of that time.

Stage 20

Argh. Jesus. This is what you’re finishing with?

Here’s the profile. Not one, but two ‘beyond categorisation’ climbs and they’re crammed into just 110.5km of racing. That makes everything more intense and there’ll probably be people attacking here there and everywhere. Why hold anything back? There’s nothing to wait for any more (except stage 21, obviously, but that isn’t really meaningful racing for the overall contenders).

Here’s the top 12, so you can also see who might be challenging for a top ten position. The most important gap is the first one – 2m38s between Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana. A big gap, but not an impossible one…

top-ten-stage-19