• If you know Chris Froome, you know he's not finished. (AFP)Source: AFP
When he first wore the maillot roja, Nairo Quintana confidently said: "It's never too soon to get a leader's jersey." Until September 11 in Madrid, it's not too late to take it away, either, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
30 Aug 2016 - 7:06 PM  UPDATED 31 Aug 2016 - 1:37 AM

"Never underestimate a short person. Often their drive and passion, faculty and flair are merely in concentrated form, intensifying the impact. 'When you see Jac on stage, she booms out of that little body'."

This is an extract of a profile I read on the weekend of the 149 centimetre-tall acting powerhouse that is Jacki Weaver, who shot to Hollywood fame after her portrayal of sociopathic matriarch Janine 'Smurf' Cody in Animal Kingdom.

It could just as easily apply to Nairo Quintana.

"This incessant need to attack may come back to bite him. Then again, if he is to win this Vuelta, he has no other choice."

When Quintana, at 1.67 metres a whole 18 centimetres taller than Weaver, is on stage in the mountains, one feels he's about to explode out of his little body, too. But in July we waited for three weeks and got nothing. He nevertheless finished a creditable third, 4'21 off the winning pace.

Was he sick? Did he train too much? Was Chris Froome and Team Sky simply too good?

"I'm disappointed to not have been able to create more of spectacle. Some of my physique has gone missing. I've suffered from allergies," was his explanation.

Allergies? (Perhaps to a Froome in top form?) He's never made mention of this before, not that I recall, anyway. "I won't take part in the Olympic Games. I want to recover and be ready for the Vuelta a España to give emotions and animate the race."

A good thing he skipped the Olympics, because contrary to most expectations the road race was not the sole domain of Grand Tour contenders, demonstrated by the podium of Greg Van Avermaet, Jakob Fuglsang and Rafal Majka. Even on stage three of the Vuelta, when his team-mate Ruben Fernandez took the leader's jersey atop the Mirador de Ézaro, the first of 10 hilltop finishes in the race, and Quintana finished just six seconds behind the group containing Alejandro Valverde, Froome and Esteban Chaves, he said: "When it comes to myself, I could feel the wear and tear of the Tour."

However, there came a qualification: "Yet I feel like these gaps won't matter much at the end of the Vuelta."

Sure enough, by the eighth stage the boy from Boyacá turned the tables - a blistering attack near the end of the eight-kilometre long Alto de la Camperona distancing Alberto Contador, who had crashed heavily the day previous, by 25 seconds, Froome by 33 seconds and Chaves by 57 seconds. He was now wearing the maillot roja. "This was my main expectation for the day: try and put some time on our rivals," he said. "It's never (too) soon to get a leader's jersey: it's better to be ahead with a few seconds than trying desperately to make them up from behind."

The first real mountain finish would not arrive for another 48 hours. Lagos de Covadonga, arguably the most famous climb in the history of the Vuelta.

On an overcast Monday afternoon and six kilometres from the summit of this highly irregular 12-kilometre ascent, Contador attacked. Quintana reacted immediately. But on this day the 33-year-old Spaniard's ambition overwhelmed his legs. ("I played the Nairo card and I made an error. He was very strong, he changed the rhythm and that made me blow up.") His companion, meanwhile, was cruising - to victory. "I felt good," Quintana said afterwards, a statement of the bleeding obvious. Though perhaps there was caution in his words because like the rest of those who have ridden the Tour beforehand, his form is somewhat unknown. So far, this has been a Vuelta a Yo-Yo.

So far, Froome isn't biting. "He doesn't know how he is at the moment," team-mate David Lopez, who paced his leader up Covadonga before Froome, at one stage 40 seconds in arrears, contained his losses to just 25 seconds, told The Cycling Podcast's Richard Moore post-stage. "He prefers not to go and play with Contador and Nairo and everyone in the attacks. He prefers to keep his pace and see how he feels. It's still a long way in this Vuelta; we also have a time trial. So, we are really confident to try and win this race."

Ten stages down, 58 seconds separate Froome from Quintana. Going into the Stage 19 time trial Lopez spoke of, a 37-kilometre race against the clock that's made for the specialists, so concerned is the Colombian about the three-time Tour champion, he says he'll need around three minutes' head-start. "We must to continue to pick up the pressure, doing the same we've done until this point: attacking and attacking to keep (Froome) further. Should we keep this minute we have when the Calpe TT looms," Quintana says, "he'll be the main favourite."

This incessant need to attack may come back to bite him. Then again, if he is to win this Vuelta, he has no other choice. A reversal of form could also happen to Chaves, fourth on GC at 2'09 behind. Below par so far, I don't think we've seen the last of him. Let's not forget Contador either, out of the big four the only one who's won the whole thing; a day to recover and he may - no, he will - come out swinging. "I still think it's too early to make a judgment on the Vuelta," he said after the stage to Lagos de Covadonga.

"I think we need to be calmer in order to take a decision. We have to assess the pros and cons, the circumstances, and, based on that, decide what the best strategy will be. Obviously, my goal isn't just to ride a good race, my goal is to fight for the overall win. It's true though that right now this is quite difficult; I don't want to use the word impossible because I don't like it."

26-year-old Nairo (can you believe he's still only 26?!) said Monday his mum always prays for him "so everything can go right". Mrs Quintana should stay on her knees, because if you know Chris Froome, you know he's not finished.

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