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?

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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?

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