HIGHS & LOWS
It could be argued that Nairo Quintana was the stage racer of 2016, with a Vuelta and two more World Tour GC wins. So why was the season seen as a disappointment for the Colombian?
Nairo Quintana seemed not to crack a smile all year in 2016, until the last days of August. The impassive mask finally slipped high on the spectacular road to Lagos de Covadonga, at the end of stage 10 of the Vuelta a España, when he crossed the line alone and rode into the small crowd of people who had made it to the summit.
Quintana had outfoxed and outridden Chris Froome and coaxed Alberto Contador into doing too much – or rather, Contador, with a series of searing attacks on the lower slopes, had been guilty of self-immolation.
At the summit, where Quintana won alone, his face relaxed into a smile. A weight seemed to lift from his shoulders. His jersey was torn – the rip creating a neat flap in the middle of his back – and there was some dried blood, but victory was an effective balm. There was the briefest of waits, just 25 seconds, before Froome materialised in the same small finish area.
Froome rolled to a weary halt just a couple of metres from Quintana – space was limited up there – and the body language was telling: Froome slumped over his handlebars, Quintana, all 165cm of him, stood tall.
The time gained and lost was incidental. What did matter was the evidence that Froome had not cast a spell over Quintana. Or if he had, Quintana had broken it on a mountain that is becoming synonymous with Colombian success. It was here that Quintana proved he could beat Froome in a straight up, mano a mano contest, and in the formative phase of a three-week race, not in the dying days when it was too late, as he did at the 2015 Tour de France.
Quintana went on to win the Vuelta thanks largely to another attack, this one on a stage that immediately went down as one of the most notorious, and best, of recent Grand Tours.
It was the short, 118km 15th stage to Formigal when Quintana followed an early sortie by Contador; a 14-man group containing several of each man’s teammates, putting Froome and Team Sky on the back foot. They never recovered. Quintana delivered the killer blow later in the day, attacking again and only losing the stage to Gianluca Brambilla, who had been able to sit in. This time the margin was significant: more than two-and-ahalf minutes.
Thus, Quintana was able to finish his season on a high. Or, as some would have it, to salvage it from a sense of lingering disappointment, of momentum halted and progress stalled.
Yet isn’t it extraordinary to be speaking in such terms, and to be critical of a 26-year-old who finished the season with a Vuelta win, a podium finish at the Tour de France and three other stage race victories? Quintana’s contemporary, Esteban Chaves, finished the year without a win in a Grand Tour though also with two podium finishes – results for which he will be lauded. True, Chaves won Il Lombardia but this was the icing on a generous cake.
Quintana is different, and accordingly judged against different criteria. For starters, there are the expectations generated by his precocity. Then there is the belief established three years ago that he is a Tour winner-in-waiting, and that anything less than a win must be a disappointment. And there is also his riding style, so smooth as to look effortless. With Quintana, there is no sense that racing a bike is painful. It looks so natural that it is puzzling when he doesn’t win. More than once – at Arcalis in this year’s Tour, for example – Quintana has been criticised for not attacking when he has looked, looked, capable of doing so.
In reality, he is inscrutable. Like some other great climbers, his expression doesn’t change; he wears a mask, making it impossible to know how much he is suffering. But implicit in such criticisms is the suspicion, as ridiculous as it will sound to anybody who has ridden a bike, that he is not suffering – or worse, not even trying.
Quintana might also be the victim of a false set of expectations, which arose when he burst on to the scene, especially at the 2013 Tour, when he emerged as Froome’s main challenger. In build, he is a climber in the classic mould, so the expectation follows that he should be lighting up mountain stages with spectacular attacks. In reality, he is a diesel who keeps going as others fade. Don’t get him confused with Contador.
Nevertheless, many expected this to be the year of Quintana’s coronation. After finishing second to Froome at the 2013 Tour, he skipped the 2014 race to ride – and win – the Giro. A first Tour win was merely delayed. In 2015 he returned and went close, finally breaking Froome at Alpe d’Huez, 24 hours from Paris. But it was too little, too late. Another mountainous day and he’d have had it.
Or another year. The momentum seemed to be with Quintana this season after a near perfect build-up. He was third at the Tour de San Luis in January
In build, Quintana is a climber in the classic mould but in reality he is a diesel. Don’t get him confused with Contador
(his younger brother, Dayer, also with Movistar, was the winner); he won the Tour of Catalonia; he was third behind a rampant Contador at the Tour of the Basque Country (where a planned but ill-advised bike change in the time trial probably cost him the win in that stage); he won the Tour de Romandie; he won the Route du Sud. He went to the Tour as many people’s favourite.
It wasn’t form that Quintana seemed to lack in France so much as initiative, or self-belief. He shadowed Froome as they climbed the Col de Peyresourde towards the end of stage 8, the first big day in the Pyrenees, then went to sleep when Froome clipped off the front as they crested the summit, before the descent to the finish in Luchon.
The realisation that his main rival had launched an attack came too late – Froome had flown and by Luchon had won the stage and gained 13 seconds, plus a time bonus. It wasn’t the time that was significant, it was the blow to Quintana’s pride and self-esteem. “If I was his director I’d bash him over the head with a bicycle pump,” said EtixxQuick Step directeur sportif Brian Holm.
The next day was a stage that should have suited Quintana: into Andorra, finishing with the long climb to Arcalis. Movistar had a plan, placing men – as many as five at one point – in the early break as reinforcements for later. Sky were wise to this now familiar strategy, controlling the pace (deep into the stage, their big men for the flat roads, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe, were where they had no right to be: still in the lead group) and allowing the break so much rope that one of its survivors, Tom Dumoulin, hung on to win the stage. More significantly, Quintana wasn’t able to take advantage of the team-mates who’d infiltrated the break.
On the climb to Arcalis, Quintana shadowed Froome. “In the back of my mind, I was waiting for Quintana’s attack,” said Froome at the finish.
“I’d like to think he was on his limit. It was a tough day out there, but it looks like he stuck to my wheel like glue.”
Something seemed to be bothering Quintana: he cut an increasingly unhappy and even sour figure as the Tour went on. On the flat stage to Montpellier, as they were hit by crosswinds, Froome once again used his initiative as much as his legs to escape with Peter Sagan. The result: more time in the bank and another blow to Quintana’s pride.
Quintana’s post-stage comments exposed him to some ridicule but revealed the extent to which Froome had got under his skin. “The organisation doesn’t often think about the athlete, the cyclist,” said Quintana. “They look for a certain type of spectacle but without realising the type of dangers they send us into. We’re all risking our lives every day and they need to think more about stages like this.”
It wasn’t only Quintana who was losing his grip. His boss at Movistar, the vastly experienced Eusebio Unzué, echoed his rider’s complaint that a flat stage, with turns in the road and possible crosswinds, should feature in the race: “As always, losing time is not what we want but looking at this incomprehensible route – which seems hard to believe, honestly – which made us pass through the series of towns that we did, on top of that wind, racing with the risks that entails to riders, to the public…”
The time Quintana lost to Froome on a stage that elicited such a hysterical reaction from the Movistar camp? 12 seconds. But the reaction was typical of Quintana’s Tour. There followed a minor controversy when footage emerged of the Colombian holding on to a motorbike as it negotiated the wreckage after Froome’s crash on Ventoux. Then he cited health problems as the reason for his apparent lack of form: “It could be some sort of allergy I’ve got at the moment because my legs aren’t getting enough oxygen.”
There was more grousing at the Vuelta – oddly, on the rest day that followed his win at Lagos de Covadonga. Perhaps, in digesting the results, Quintana was annoyed that he gained so little time on Froome, who had been dropped early on the climb but paced it almost to perfection. With the help of his power meter, perhaps? Quintana seemed to think so, arguing on the rest day that the gadgets should be banned from races.
When Quintana’s comments were relayed to Froome, the Tour winner felt renewed confidence. To Froome, the remarks revealed his rival’s sense of vulnerability and confirmed that he could beat Quintana at the Vuelta, too. Perhaps he would have done, had Quintana not followed Contador’s attack on the road to Formigal. Ironically, this is why, for some, the jury is still out on Quintana. More than one critic has said that Quintana wouldn’t have won the Vuelta without Contador’s willingness to lay it on the line – and that Quintana owed the Spaniard a favour when, later in the race, Chaves attacked to dislodge Contador from the third step of the podium.
Quintana’s ability is obvious and his grit and ambition are already the stuff of
Critics said that Quintana wouldn’t have won the Vuelta without Contador’s willingness to lay it on the line
legend, but to questions about his willingness to launch death-orglory attacks – regardless of whether such attacks are even part of his armoury – have been added questions about his temperament. He can answer those questions by never again complaining about power meters or crosswinds.
Or by achieving his dream of winning the Tour. In 2017 his assault might form part of a Giro-Tour double, as Unzué hinted at the launch of the Giro route. The veteran team director also admitted that Movistar – strong at the Vuelta but hapless at the Tour – would need to be better, and have a core of five or six riders around Quintana through the year.
The question could be whether, in beating Froome to win the Vuelta, Quintana proved something to himself – that the bogeyman is beatable – and how much confidence he has been able to draw from that.
Still, however, there is a sense that Froome blocks his path to yellow on the Champs-Élysées in 2017, at least if Unzué’s remarks about a possible GiroTour bid are any indication. “The ideal scenario,” said Unzué, “would be that if Nairo rides the Giro then Froome does so as well.”
Quintana went all- out to win at Lagos de Covadonga to take the Vuelta GC lead
The 2016 Vuelta was Quintana’s second GT win after the 2014 Giro. Next up: the Tour?