• Unmetered... Nairo Quintana at full throttle. (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)Source: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
The best two days of Grand Tour racing you ever saw, or, given the time of year, the best two days you never saw? Either way, is there room for one last twist to the 2016 Vuelta a España, wonders Anthony Tan?
Cycling Central
5 Sep 2016 - 6:56 PM  UPDATED 5 Sep 2016 - 11:53 PM

Stage 9, 2013 Tour de France to Bagnères-de-Bigorre. Stage 19, 2015 Tour de France to La Toussuire.

Two precedents. Two occasions where Team Sky leader Chris Froome had been isolated. The main protagonist in each case? Movistar.

Go early, go hard. Easy to say, difficult to execute.

Clearly, after the fourteenth stage of the Vuelta to the Col d'Aubisque, where, try as he did - albeit too late - Nairo Quintana failed to dislodge Froome, the men at Movistar had to employ a different tactic. A tactic that worked previously.

"We don't have the budget to do that, that's for sure," he said, implying Sky had effectively paid for the assistance. Responded Cioni: "I didn't talk to (the Astana sport directors) during the stage."

It's fair to say the maillot roja was being a little disingenuous when he said the day following: "To be honest, we were thinking more about taking some moves in the finale." His team-mate Alejandro Valverde told us so. "It was a split created by both Alberto (Contador) and us; a joint strategy which both teams took advantage from to create some gaps," he said at the finish in Formigal, at the end of the arguably the most thrilling two stages we've seen in a Grand Tour post-2000.

Quintana catches Froome napping at Vuelta a España
Nairo Quintana cleverly tightened his grip on the Vuelta a España following the 15th stage, while Chris Froome's hopes took a hammering.

But why did Team Sky, supposedly one of the best-prepared teams, not see this coming?

Said Tinkoff sport director Steven De Jongh: "We knew the start would be hectic, so we wanted to have as many as possible in the front with the small roads coming up." From the accounts on the ground at the start in Sabinanigo, it seems that most of those wearing Rapha were sitting at the rear of the 164-strong peloton. In a team so singularly focused around one man, why weren't they near him?

There was also their insistence to use up their horses the previous day, simply because Movistar's Daniel Moreno, sitting twelfth overall, was in the 40-man move. Why Team Sky felt it was solely up to them to control proceedings still baffles me: Moreno was more than five-and-a-half minutes down on Quintana at the start of the day; and despite having finished four times in the top-10 at the Vuelta he has never looked like winning it. Still, had they brought a stronger line-up, should that effort have knackered them so much to render them useless as tits on a bull the day following?

If they are to win, Team Sky, over the remaining six stages, must somehow regroup and recoup three and a half minutes between now and Madrid. Their sport director at the race, Dario Cioni, says they're still looking at it as "a glass half-full", although maybe that's press officer in him talking, since until 2014 that's what he did for the team.

Still, it could've been worse. Much worse. Orica-BikeExchange, who until Sunday's stage held third and fourth overall, also missed the move; and for one reason or another, a helping hand came from Astana. ("It was obvious Astana had a lot of interest to defend the ninth place [overall] of [Michele] Scarponi," De Jongh sarcastically told The Cycling Podcast's Lionel Birnie. "We don't have the budget to do that, that's for sure," he said, implying Sky had effectively paid for the assistance. Responded Cioni: "I didn't talk to [the Astana sport directors] during the stage.")

Regardless, Quintana is right where he needs to be: "I've opened the gap I considered I needed before the (Stage 19) TT; I just hope I can keep it and stay strong until Madrid."

Before Sunday, Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford suggested that Froome will grow stronger as the race progresses, and Quintana, who has been particularly aggressive the past week, may fade. Even if that were borne out, saddled with a 3'37 deficit, it will require a lot more than fading to win. It will require the mindset of the very person who yesterday gave him 118.5 of the most difficult kilometres he's ever ridden: Alberto Contador.