Things looked to be going pretty well. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was barely 20 seconds slower than archrival Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) over the top of a deceptively steep third-category Moncayo climb to open Tuesday’s 36.7km individual time trial to Borja. Not great, but not bad, either, especially considering that meant he was still ahead of most of the other GC rivals at that point of the race.
Things quickly unraveled for the Giro d’Italia champion, who started the stage last as the overnight Vuelta leader. The Colombian reached down to tighten his shoe, and came into a sweeping right-hander too hot. Quintana tried to brake, but it was too late. His real wheel skidded, then clipped a guardrail, and he went catapulting over the handlebars.
“I am f—ed,” Quintana told reporters at the line. “The bike didn’t brake.”
Quintana’s Vuelta changed in an instant. When his bike’s rear wheel hit the guardrail, he flipped once, landed on his back, and rolled to stop. His saddle snapped off, evidence of the brutality of the impact.
Team staff quickly attended to Quintana, but he stubbornly remounted the bike, eventually crossing the line 82nd, 4:07 behind winner Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). He sunk from first to 11th, now 3:25 behind new leader Contador.
“I felt good on the climb, but my bike wasn’t braking properly on the descent,” Quintana explained. “Before the curve, I was tightening my shoe a bit, because it was loose, but I don’t think it had anything to do with the crash. What happened is that it took too long to brake, and it wasn’t enough, and I went to the ground.”
According to Movistar officials, it doesn’t appear Quintana suffered serious injuries. He was able to finish the stage, and ride in the tucked-in time trial position, revealing that he should be able to continue in the Vuelta.
The 24-year-old was lucky to avoid more serious injury. Despite his insistence that the brakes were not fully engaged, he was able to slow his speed considerably before the impact. He was also able to change his trajectory, so when he did collide with the barrier, he went flipping back toward the road surface, rather than over the guardrail onto the exposed mountainside.
“Luckily, I was able to avoid the worst of the blow,” he said. “I don’t think I did too much damage. My left ankle hurts, and I have a few bumps and bruises, but I don’t think I’ve hurt anything too seriously.”
Before the start of the stage, Quintana was sounding confident in his bid to win a second grand tour this season. Now, with his GC hopes as tattered as his torn skinsuit, he vowed to help teammate Alejandro Valverde, who rode well to slot into second overall, now 27 seconds behind Contador.
“Cycling’s like that,” Quintana said. “I’ve lost some time, and now I will try to [help] Alejandro to try to reach the podium.”
Valverde expressed his dismay at Quintana’s misfortune. He didn’t even realize his teammate had crashed until he was told by journalists waiting at the finish line.
“I am content to be close to Contador, but it’s a bit bittersweet after Nairo’s fall,” Valverde said. “I didn’t even know. It’s a shame to fall like that, being the leader, when you’re making good time. To have both us well-positioned in the GC would have been better, but the most important thing is that Nairo is still in the race. I am sure he will bounce back, even though it must have been a hard blow. We are still going to fight to the end, and we’ll keep making a good Vuelta.”
Based on Quintana’s track record, however, if he’s not seriously hurt, he will be bounce back from this setback and go on the attack. To win a stage, or perhaps even more? The hardest part of the Vuelta is still to come.