This article originally appeared on Cyclingnews.com.
Nairo Quintana finished off one of the most sensational Tour de France debuts of recent years when he won the final mountain stage at Annecy Semnoz. Away at the front with just race leader Chris Froome and Joaquim Rodríguez for company, the 23-year-old Colombian responded to an attack from Froome just outside the final kilometre, then produced an acceleration of his own that neither of his rivals could follow.
Approaching the line, Quintana's poker face finally broke into the widest of smiles. He threw his arms wide to celebrate a victory that not only secured him the white jersey of best young rider, but also moved up him up to second place overall as Alberto Contador finished more than two minutes back, dropping to fourth overall behind his compatriot Rodríguez. Fittingly, Quintana's summit victory and hugely impressive performance in the Pyrenees and Alps over the past fortnight also earned him the King of the Mountains jersey on what is his country's national day.
Quintana was overjoyed to have won and taken second place overall. "It's an incredible win for me. It's difficult to understand what has happened. I'm very, very happy for what happened today and during all the Tour," he said.
"We controlled the attacks on the climb and were sure that we'd be able to do what our DS had planned out for us. This is a special day for me and for Colombia. This is for everyone in Colombia: my family and all my friends, who have helped me so much. I want to thank everyone in Colombia."
The other big winner on the day was yellow jersey Froome. His Team Sky teammates kept the Briton out of trouble all day, then seized the initiative approaching the final climb. Their pace-making thinned out the yellow jersey group very rapidly on the first ramps up towards Semnoz. Froome then produced a surge of his own that proved too much for Contador, and never looked to be in any trouble until well inside the final kilometre. He gave a thumbs-up as he crossed the line, the Tour de France now all but won.
"I can't quite believe this is happening, that I'm sitting here in this position. It's amazing. I'm sorry, but I'm lost for words," said Froome after he stepped down from the podium. "Obviously we've still got to roll into Paris, but that's the GC side of it pretty much sorted. Finishing like this has been very special."
Asked about his thoughts going into the final few kilometres of the stage, Froome confessed: "It was quite hard to stay on top of it. When we reached 3km to go I knew I had accomplished what I had been aiming for. After that I was just trying to stay in the wheels, although I was struggling a bit to do that."
Joaquim Rodriguez was disappointed not to win the stage but is going to celebrate his third place overall in Paris. He now has a full set of Grand Tour podium places.
"The podium is a great achievement, I'm very happy: not a lot of riders managed to enter the top-three of all the big stage races," Rodriguez said.
"I look forward to celebrate tomorrow, with my family and my friends. Today I felt in a great shape: maybe if only Froome helped me in the last climb and leaded us from time to time, I would have saved some energies and I could have fought for the stage victory. But never mind, the podium was the most important thing, so I'm happy like this."
How it happened
Predictions that the stage would be packed with attacking moves from the GC contenders from the off proved wrong, although one instantly recognisable rider did all he could to pull off the most unlikely of coups. Jens Voigt, 41 years young and riding his 16th and possibly final Tour de France, was in the break that went on the approach to the first climb, the second-category Côte du Puget. With the RadioShack veteran were Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar), who was hoping to take the mountains title by sweeping up points on the five climbs that preceded the final ascent to Semnoz.
Rolland led over that summit. Following it, another small group of riders got across the stage leader. Among them was Euskaltel's Igor Antón, who challenged the Frenchman for top points on the subsequent third-cats, the Col de Leschaux, Côte d'Aillon-le-Vieux and Col des Prés. Antón led over the first and Rolland the second. Antón looked set to take the points on the third of them until Rolland switched suddenly into his path, forcing the Basque to take evasive action in order to avoid riding into fans at the roadside.
A rematch would have been interesting, but Voigt prevented that by pushing up the pace on the front of the breakaway group, which quickly disintegrated behind the German. He crossed Mont Revard with a lead of 90 seconds and extended that lead by another minute as he dropped into the valley beyond.
Van Garderen has a go
BMC's world champion Philippe Gilbert and teammate Tejay van Garderen jumped away from the peloton in pursuit of the remnants of the lead group. Once with Rolland, Antón and several others, Gilbert gave all he had to reduce Voigt's advantage in order to set up van Garderen for an assault on the final climb. However, after Sky took over the pacemaking in the main peloton approaching the foot of the climb to Semnoz, this group was rapidly reeled in.
Voigt's advantage had been cut to 43 seconds as he led onto the final 10.7km ascent. The German managed to hold off the peloton for a couple of kilometres, but eventually yielded with 8.5km remaining, as Richie Porte led a much-reduced yellow jersey group past him. Moments later, Rodríguez made the first dig from this group. Quintana responded, as did Froome, who went to the front of the group, then set his legs whirring furiously with an attack of his own, which proved too much for Contador.
Rodríguez and Froome did most of the pace making thereafter, the Spaniard determined to wrest at least third place on the podium, the Briton simply wanting to keep his two remaining rivals in check. The trio stayed together until Froome attacked just short of the one-kilometre kite. Quintana eased up to the Briton in an instant. Then he was off, fast and smooth, towards victory and what looks likely to be a very glittering future.