Nairo Quintana's fellow Colombians crowded round him to applaud and even hug their hero after the climber successfully kept his rivals behind him on Thursday's mountain stage.
After a relatively straight forward first stage in the pink jersey yesterday, Quintana faced his first real test as the leader in the Italian race.
The Movistar rider answered the few questions asked of him on the final climb as he kept his general classification rivals Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma – QuickStep) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) in a short leash, while letting an early breakaway ride to victory.
“It was a relatively calm climb, but with plenty of attacks,” Quintana said. “I controlled what was important to me, the others were fighting for what was important for them. My team was working well and things went pretty well.”
Quintana finished just in front of Uran, who is second overall, and keeps his 1:41 lead over his compatriot. There are just three stages left to race, including Friday's mountain time trial to Cima Grappa and Saturday's mountain stage with a summit finish at Monte Zoncolan.
Being probably the most exciting climber to emerge in recent years added with the mental strength and tactical nous he has shown in pink, Quintana is everyone's favourite to win the Giro at first attempt but the climber played down any such idea.
“The Giro isn’t finished, there are still three days to come and nothing is certain until the white line in Trieste,” said Quintana, who recovered from an early illness to snatch the lead from Uran in contentious circumstances at Val Martello on Tuesday.
“Physically I’m feeling better every day. The illness is passing and I think I can do a good time trial tomorrow. I think I can continue in the maglia rosa without losing time.”
The Cima Grappa time trial looks to be Uran's last opportunity to make up the lost time, especially after the OPQS rider's impressive win in the last time trial in Barolo last week. But the upcoming mountain time trial features only seven kilometres of flat terrain before a climb to the finish, so Quintana should at the very least be able to limit his losses.
“It’s a time trial I like. There’s a big change in altitude and I think it suits me, but the important thing is not to lose time to my rivals,” Quintana said.
“Uran did a time trial on a good level last week and others can do well too, like Pozzovivo and Pierre Rolland. I think those are the riders who can do a good time trial.”
Uran's deficit is approximately what he conceded to Quintana on the descent from the Stelvio pass, when some teams were under the impression that the race was temporary neutralised.
The two Colombians were roommates in Spain when Quintana first arrived in Europe at that adds another storyline to their duel for the Giro title. Quintana insisted, however, that he had no problem separate their personal from their professional relationship.
“We have a good rapport. We lived together in Pamplona, they were good times. I like Rigo’s way of being,” Quintana said.
“But, personally, it doesn’t affect how I race because that’s my work. I’m the leader of the team when the team says I am. We’re good friends outside of racing but we’re rivals on the bike, by necessity.”
After finishing his media responsibilities, Quintana entered a Movistar team car which took him back down to his hotel. On the long descent he had to roll down the side window several times to wave, as groups of Colombian fans still on the countryside showed their appreciation for their number one rider.
Quintana might be correct in pointing out that anything can still happen in the Giro but it seems increasingly unlikely that he will lose the pink before the race concludes on Sunday.
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