If he had the legs and the moment was right, everyone knew it was coming. And when Jarlinson Pantano jumped out of the bunch in the early part of the brutally steep Los Machucos finish climb, it's usually a dead giveaway something is up his sleeve. And yet, when Alberto Contador made his move with six kilometers remaining of stage 17, no one answered.
Contador dug deep; his teeth gritted in his typical 'never-say-die' grimace. He pushed the pace hard, then harder. The gap stretched to an incredible 50 seconds over race leader Chris Froome (Sky) and his posse of teammates. Finally, other rivals reacted, leaping around Team Sky to try and limit the damage.
One by one Contador picked off the riders ahead. First Miguel Lopez (Astana), who had attacked moments earlier in pursuit of Pantano, and then the scattered remnants of the breakaway. With three kilometers to go, only one rider remained out front: Stefan Denifl (Aqua Blue Sport), the sole survivor of the day's six-man escape group.
"I wanted to turn the pedals, and finally my legs responded today," said Contador. "It was important to put my foot down, and the bike responded. I knew that Miguel Ángel Lopez would attack and I wanted to follow him if he moved. He opened a small gap, and I gave chase. On his wheel, I felt was that I was comfortable, and I saw he was slowing on the ramps, so I didn't think twice about pushing on. I went ahead, and today I had enough left to keep going."
Although Contador ate into the 90-second lead held by Denifl, he ran out of real-estate to catch the Austrian, who went on to take the biggest win of his career. Twenty-eight seconds later Contador crossed the line in second, and the clock began to tick.
When the times were tallied, the cost to the rivals sitting ahead of Contador on the General Classification should have them concerned: Contador edged almost a minute closer to the podium and now sits 1 minute and 21 seconds from the third step held by Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo).
Contador continued: "Today I had good legs; it was one of my best days of the race. The weather is how I like it, and that is always a factor. It was a shame not to be able to win the stage for my team and my fans, but there are three hard days ahead so let's see what I can do.
"The podium is both near and far. Given the time differences at the start of the day, I've gained a lot of time, but the podium is still near and far," pointed out Contador, carefully treading the middle ground.
With two more summit finishes in the next four days, including the monstrous l'Angliru on Saturday, Contador may be playing it coy, but his rivals certainly must be feeling his pressure from behind.
He then added: "I think things can still happen in this race. In the end, it's a Vuelta in which you give everything in every stage, and you have to prepared for anything to happen. Tomorrow, I will encounter one of the climbs that have marked my history as a rider. It's always special to be there. Let's see what happens tomorrow."
"I'll ride with my head, my heart, and my legs," he smiled.
But, of course. It's the same way he has always ridden.