Stage 14 of the Vuelta a España saw the first act of a fascinating tactical battle emerge ahead of the final week of the Spanish Grand Tour.
With seven stages to go, including four major mountain stages and a critical long time trial, up to ten riders remain in contention for the win with six running as hot favourites: Fabio Aru (Astana), Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Esteban Chaves (Orica-GREENEDGE), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alejandro Valverde.
Here are the top contenders' likely gameplans to become the King of Spain.
The current race leader by 26 seconds, Aru is an explosive climber but not well-regarded as a time triallist. His attack on the slopes of the Alto Campoo on Stage 14 suggest he is attempting to build a buffer against better testers - especially Dumoulin.
However, his attack fell somewhat flat last night and actually resulted in him losing a few seconds to Quintana. The result suggests Aru could be vulnurable to attack, but with Quintana still three minutes in arrears its likely that Rodriguez will be the one to make a serious attempt to dislodge the race leader sometime over the next two stages.
Currently second on GC, this could be the veteran racer's last chance to win his maiden Grand Tour. Another noted climber, Rodriguez will almost certainly be on the attack during the next two mountain stages, both to dislodge Aru and build a buffer against Dumoulin. While not a world-class time triallist, Rodriguez can hold his own against the clock when it matters. Indeed, he came second to Dumoulin in this year's Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco time trial. However, that stage was half the distance of the Vuelta a Espana's stage 17 contre la montre.
Time trial specialist Dumoulin's job is simple over the next few days: stay within a minute of the race lead ahead of Stage 17's 38.7km race against the clock in Burgos. Dumoulin is currently 49 seconds behind Aru and is one of the best testers in the world. He can easily expect to take two or possibly three minutes out of mountain specialists like Aru. If Dumoulin can hold the pace over the next two days, he will be in a strong position to take his first Grand Tour victory.
The Orica-GREENEDGE rider may be yet to prove that he is a complete three-week rider, but he appears to be growing in confidence with each climb. While he came into the Vuelta hoping for a top ten placing, a spot on the podium remains a possibility as he currently lies in fourth place at 1min 29sec. The next three stages will be critical - both to see his ability to handle the pace over several days at the pointy end of a Grand Tour and to assess his hitherto unknown time trial pedigree. He could yet spring a surprise, although he admits he is getting tired.
Another veteran racer, Valverde is a former vuelta winner, tactically savvy and probably the most complete rider out of all of the Vuelta favourites. He faltered a little on Stage 14, losing 28 seconds to teammate Quintana, and is suffering from the aftermath of a shoulder injury. Still, he is a proven - if not explosive - force on mountain stages and a capable time triallist. While not a hot favourite at this stage, he is certainly still a danger man.
Last but definitely not least, Quintana should not be discounted as a possibility for a win. Currently three minutes behind Aru on GC (and 49 seconds behind teammate Alejandro Valverde), Quintana is showing sparks of form despite still recovering from a battle with illness.
Quintana's only hope may be to fire a long range attack at some point over the next two stages. However, he is also a capable time triallist, so may also make up time against the clock if illness and fatigue have not got the better of him.
"“I really suffered during the last few days, but it seems like my body has started responding better again," said Quintana after Stage 14. "I'm not completely recovered yet, since I'm feeling much pain in my stomach - it still doesn't work as it should do - but I felt really better today, with stronger legs.
"It's still possible to recover in this Vuelta.”