Despite his diminutive stature, the Movistar climber made the early 47-rider split with team-mates Imanol Erviti, Nelson Oliveira and José Joaquín Rojas and leaving Alejandro Valverde in the rear group to cover race leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma).
On a perfect day for a Belgian team which revels in the conditions on display on the longest stage of the Tour, Deceuninck-Quick Step naturally got the job done with seven of its eight riders in the break and Philippe Gilbert taking his second stage victory of this year's Vuelta.
It was that Deceuninck-Quick Step power move which Movistar piggybacked to its ultimate advantage, not only bringing Quintana back into contention before the penultimate mountain stage of the race, isolating Roglic and making him work while keeping Valverde on the virtual podium and leaving open the possibility of taking the overall in Madrid.
"The split got formed almost inadvertently," Valverde said. "I couldn’t get in despite being quite near the front at the start because it was built with riders progressing through the left side of the road, in an instant, with no room for reaction. Jumbo later tried to close the gap, yet weren’t able to, and that gave us a bigger and bigger advantage."
The move returned some five minutes to Quintana and Movistar was right to be delighted with the outcome, saying it "showed again the courage and strategical nose of its best days'.
“We made the right moves, and I hope I can recover from my recent illness because this was a spectacular stage," Quintana said. "We made huge gains into a stage where anything could happen. Here we are, back again. I’m steadily improving from my flu, but I have to wait for tomorrow in the mountains to see how I’m really doing.
"It’s nice to do so well in what you could call an ‘anti-Nairo’ stage, flat and so windy. I always said I’d give my everything until the very end. Our plan was to make the race leader’s team suffer with those attacks, and ahead in my group, gain as much time as possible. We’re back in contention for La Roja."
Movistar's perfect day also shifted the positions of Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), third and forth prior to the stage but now fourth and fifth. While their times haven't changed much relative to Roglic, Quintana and Valverde they both have to regroup, not just physically but psychologically.
"At one of those climbs near the end we accelerated to leave the teams in pursuit without energy, yet Astana was really strong and kept some numbers at the front," Valverde said. "Astana really saved Roglic from losing his red jersey, but it’s how cycling works, everyone rides for their own interests.
“We can only be happy about this result. It was a good stage to try and create some echelons, and thanks to them, we’ve got Nairo back into race contention and it will offer us two very good chances to go for the GC.
"Many people will be suffering after today’s effort and it could play an impact tomorrow, especially those who pushed all day, which I didn’t do, staying all day on others’ wheels."
Stage 18 will be all about climbing. The peloton will tackle four punishing category one climbs over 177.5km between Colmenar Viejo and Becerril de la Sierra in the Madrid region.