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The two top riders in the Giro d’Italia, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, had their final head to head on Saturday when they crossed swords on the cruel ascent of the Zoncolan. The duo have both worn the Maglia Rosa in this year’s race and underlined their status as the two strongest riders when they rode away from the other overall contenders on the wall-like climb.
Uran did what he could to reduce some of the three minutes seven second deficit he had overnight. However Quintana wasn’t letting him out of his sights, remaining tight on his back wheel when his compatriot tried to make a move. Their pace saw off the others but there was to be no separating them on the Zoncolan.
Quintana then went to the front inside the final kilometre, setting the pace to the top of the climb and giving the impression he could have gone for the stage win had the day’s break not been so far up the road.
Instead, Australian rider Michael Rogers was first to the line, clocking up the second Grand Tour stage win of his career just ten days after the first.
Quintana now knows that he only needs to avoid crashes or other mishaps tomorrow to seal the final victory, which will be his first Grand Tour win. He achieved the feat despite being sick during the race; in fact, he said after the stage that he’s still not full over it.
“Even today, I was a bit ill. During the stage, the mucus made be feel ill, the effort too,” he said. “I suffer as much as the rest because I’m a human being like everyone else. My legs hurt, but I managed it well, and looked tranquil, but inside I felt the pain.”
He faced criticism earlier this week when he was one of three riders who fought it out for the stage win after attacking on the descent of the Stevio. They created a gap despite the race being neutralised, and faced calls afterwards that they should be docked time for the surge.
Quintana said that he was out to prove a point Friday and Saturday. “Today was a spectacular stage that added to my lead in the Maglia Rosa which I won on a very difficult day when many didn’t want to see the beauty of the stage. This motivated me for the mountain time trial, when I demonstrated who I really am as a cyclist.”
“The Zoncolan was pretty demanding, ‘impegnativo’, as they say here. The racing pace was high all these days and the riders came really tired into the last climb. We’re happy with this success, all of us into the team. In the end of the first week and the beginning of the second, I was very much ill, frightened that I couldn’t fulfil the expectations.
“I went through some ‘transition’ stages and struggled a bit, but I did my best to recover and my body is now okay. We’ve got the Maglia Rosa on our shoulders and a pretty large gap over second place – I’m calm.”
Omega Pharma Quick Step rider Uran finished second overall last year and based his season around trying to win his own Grand Tour. He may yet go on to do so in the future, but today’s final mountain stage showed it would not be in this Giro d’Italia.
He’d love to have won, but accepts his runner-up slot.
“Today the team put out together another great performance. The guys were there really fighting for me. We sent Serry in the front to have somebody there for me on the last climb. But as I said yesterday, that climb is too steep to make a big difference. So we went, and Wout did a good tempo with me. We caught Serry and he did a great job for more than a kilometre.
“I have to say it was beautiful to ride on this climb in the middle of such a big crowd. I am really happy with this second place. I think OPQS as a team had a great Giro, and I’m satisfied with my spot on the podium. I think we took all the chances we could on the road and did what we had to do, so I am happy.
“I am also happy for the management, staff, and sponsors of this team. This is historic. It’s the first Grand Tour podium in the history of the team. I hope it is just the first of many podiums. We will see what can happen and we will fight for it.”
First and second overall in the Giro shows the Colombian resurgence in the sport, something which is also reflected in the stage victory on Thursday plus the King of the Mountains title of Julian Arrendondo (Trek Factory Racing).
Quintana’s victory tomorrow will be the second-ever Grand Tour victory for the country; legendary climber Lucho Herrera won the 1987 Vuelta a España after the race leader Sean Kelly was forced to leave the race due to bad saddle sores.
There may well be more three week wins ahead; many of those who watched Quintana in this race and saw him take second in his first-ever Tour de France last year are convinced that he is a future winner of the latter event. He’s only 24 years of age and surely has more improvement in store as he ages.
Other Colombians are also shining, increasing the prospects that the country could have a very strong presence in the years ahead.
Quintana said that he was moved after today’s stage, realising that a huge achievement is less than 24 hours away. “Some tears did come to my eyes when I got onto the podium. I’m really happy,” he said. “I’m about to clinch a really important goal in my life. I’m about to win in such a beautiful place, with all the fans, as well as Italians, Colombians… as from other parts of the world. I’m just super proud.
“We’ve got this 99% sealed now. There’s just the last stage left tomorrow, which we know is relatively flat, and as we saw today, the team is also really strong. We hope to round off this excellent Giro confirming the results and raising our arms through the last finish line.”
His participation in the race came after team manager Eusebio Unzue decided that he should concentrate on the Giro d’Italia rather than on the Tour de France. The Spaniard reasoned that Quintana would be under a lot of pressure after last year’s Tour debut, and that there was time enough to return to the race.
He also wanted to give Alejandro Valverde the chance to lead the team in the Tour. The Spaniard is now 34 years of age and this year will almost certainly be his last chance to try to win the event.
Quintana said before that he would do whatever the team required, and stated today that he is pleased with the tactic.
“It was a pretty difficult decision on Eusebio’s part, but it was perhaps the best decision we could have taken,” he said. “I’ve learned a great deal here: how to ride in different conditions, when I was ill, when I was wearing the Maglia Rosa… how to lead a team in a three week tour. I’m very grateful to the Giro d’Italia.”