Good news and bad news from the Balcón.

Valverde closes in

Alto del Balcón de Bizkaia.

Sounds musical in that weird Basque way. There was good and bad on the insane 20%+ grades on stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana. The GC battle came into even higher focus and some big names slipped away in definitive fashion.

Adios Nairo Quintana. Put the 2018 season down as another one full of failed promise and disappointment for the little Colombian who just two years ago was the most dangerous climber in the peloton. Remember when he used to scare even four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome? Yeah, those days are over.

Before the Balcón de Bizkaia, Quintana had made it clear that he simply didn’t have the legs. Not in the previous mountain stages, not in the time trial, not in the Vuelta period. It’s a bit baffling.

He held onto the final select group of riders — race leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Enric Mas (Quickstep) and Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde  — but in the final three kilometers, Quintana blew up, dropped quickly behind and then rode in by himself more than a minute behind his teammate. He’s now officially buried over two minutes behind Yates.

Steven Kruijswijk also made the front group before fading badly. It was a bit like what happened to his LottoNL-Jumbo teammate Primoz Roglic in the Tour de France. Roglic had done a stunning ride in the final mountain stage to put himself just ahead of Froome for the final podium spot only to explode the following day in the time trial. For Kruijswijk, it was the reverse — into third after an amazing ride in the TT, only to lose all his gains and more on the Balcón. He’ll have to battle with Lopez and Was for third overall, as the three riders are within 50 seconds of each other.

We also waved a disappointed goodbye to Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama FDJ). We could barely see them through the thick mist at the top of the Balcón. They’re both over four minutes down on GC, although Pinot will console himself with his big victory two days ago on Lagos de Covadonga. We suppose Uran might feel better about his teammate Michael Woods taking the victory today but it really doesn’t do anything for Uran’s personal palmares.

And as if sad couldn’t get more tragic, the sight of Fabio Aru crumpled on the road next to a rock wall, then screaming at his bike and his team car support people was truly a dark moment. His face was a pure expression of profound dismay and anger and his ripped bib shorts exposed his entire right buttock. Shocking, bloody, an entire season a compete and utter failure. At the Balcón, Aru truly hit rock bottom.

Big winners? Simon Yates lost eight seconds to Valverde who is now right on his tail, 25 seconds back, but the Briton is still in control.  As for Valverde, the 38 year old continues to confound our opinion that he’s too ancient to actually win a grand tour. He’s acting like he’s Chris Horner at the 2013 Vuelta a Espana.

Then there’s the revelation of this Spanish grand tour, Enric Mas. He is now officially the real deal and at just 23 years of age, he’s got plenty of time to keep improving. The Balcón de Bizkaia was his coming out party.

 

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