QUIN­TANA: DOU­BLE TROU­BLE

Nairo Quin­tana em­barked on an am­bi­tious Giro-Tour dou­ble. He was sec­ond in Italy, but does that make him more dan­ger­ous?

Procycling - - Contents - WR ITER ALAS­DAIR FOTHERINGHAM IM­AGE KRISTOF RAMON*

Watch­ing Nairo Quin­tana bat­tling for vic­tory in the Giro d’Italia this May, Team Sky prin­ci­pal Dave Brails­ford ad­mit­ted that he couldn’t help won­der­ing how the Colom­bian’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in Italy would af­fect his per­for­mance in the Tour de France. “It’s at the back of my mind,” Brails­ford said with a grin to a small group of jour­nal­ists at the stage 8 fin­ish in Peschici.

“The trick of it is to try and see the world through his eyes, and if you’re try­ing to win the Giro and win the Tour, what are you go­ing to be do­ing here? Just get ev­ery­thing and go as hard as you can ev­ery day, or are you go­ing to keep in the back of your mind that you don’t want to get too nailed here if you want to try and win the Tour?”

Brails­ford was far from alone in look­ing at Quin­tana’s Giro in the con­text of the Tour. The Colom­bian is widely viewed as Chris Froome’s key ri­val for July, and though he’s yet to beat him at the Tour (he’s been sec­ond twice and third in Froome’s three wins), he did beat him fair and square at the Vuelta last year. Quin­tana’s de­ci­sion to race the Giro d’Italia be­fore the Tour was a huge risk, given the com­plex­ity of try­ing to peak for both races. Or per­haps he was hedg­ing his bets by try­ing to get the big win in early. His even­tual sec­ond place over­all to Tom Du­moulin was a com­par­a­tive fail­ure for the Colom­bian, how­ever, and if he flops at the Tour, it’ll be easy to find a rea­son: the Giro-Tour dou­ble is one of the big­gest chal­lenges in the sport.

Should he do the un­think­able and win the Tour, or even fin­ish on the podium, there may be more GC con­tenders on the Giro’s start line, ru­moured to be in Poland, next May. Should Quin­tana be as un­even a per­former in July as he was in 2016, or worse, then the path from Giro to Tour, largely ig­nored for years, will fall back into dis­use.

Grand Tours are where Quin­tana op­er­ates the best. Last April, well be­fore talks about Quin­tana’s Giro-Tour dou­ble bid be­gan, sports di­rec­tor José Luis Ar­ri­eta – who is be­hind the wheel of the Mo­vis­tar team car for nearly all Quin­tana’s big races– told

Pro­cy­cling that three-week stage races are where the Colom­bian al­ways gets the best re­turn for the ef­fort he puts in.“If you look at his Grand Tour results, sec­ond in the first Tour he ever raced and then sec­ond again in 2015, first in his first ever Giro, then lead­ing the Vuelta in 2014 and only los­ing when he crashed out, it’s clear he’s a genius at this sort of rac­ing,” he said.

This be­lief acts as bedrock for Mo­vis­tar’s de­ci­sion to go for dou­ble or quits with the Giro and Tour in 2017. But phys­i­o­log­i­cally and men­tally, they have more re­cent ev­i­dence. As Ar­ri­eta said be­fore the Giro be­gan, Ale­jan­dro Valverde’s track record in both Grand Tours last year blazed the trail when it came to tak­ing Quin­tana to the Giro be­fore the Tour.

Mo­vis­tar’s man­age­ment had al­ready ob­served that de­spite the 10-year age gap be­tween Valverde and Quin­tana and their dif­fer­ent ca­reer paths, they tended to train in sim­i­lar ways. They also no­ticed that Valverde had rid­den well when not at 100 per cent in the 2016 Giro, yet claimed a podium fin­ish and a stage win and gone on to be very strong in the Tour. Mo­vis­tar rea­soned that what had worked for one of their stars would work for the other. Valverde was one of Quin­tana’s idols when he was a young ama­teur in Colom­bia. That per­haps helped Quin­tana raise fewer ob­jec­tions when the plan was hatched. With its eyes on the main prize of the Tour de France, Mo­vis­tar was not par­tic­u­larly both­ered that Quin­tana went into the Giro a lit­tle un­der­cooked. Quin­tana him­self said that he lacked the form to at­tack on the first sum­mit fin­ish at Mount Etna, stage 4 of the race. For the first week, Quin­tana was prin­ci­pally con­cerned with dodg­ing bul­lets (which he did on Etna but no­tably failed to do in the Mon­te­falco TT where he shipped 2:53 to Tom Du­moulin). The aim was to de­lay com­ing into top form in or­der to en­sure that it would last as long as pos­si­ble into July. When Quin­tana went for it on the Block­haus on stage 9, this was on a stage with a sin­gle climb, right be­fore a rest day. Put to the test on a more bru­tal in­di­vid­ual ef­fort over far less favourable ter­rain, as at the Mon­te­falco TT, the Colom­bian crum­pled.

Mo­vis­tar’s plan in the Giro was to build up steadily for the third week, rather than hit­ting the ground run­ning, and not only, as Mo­vis­tar man­ager Euse­bio Unzué pointed out, be­cause two thirds of the Giro’s moun­tains came in the fi­nal third of the race.

“If you look at the race in terms of me­tres of climb­ing and the den­sity of climb­ing this is a sig­nif­i­cantly harder fi­nal week that we’ve seen for a while,” Brails­ford said, dur­ing the Giro’s first week. “So one would imag­ine it’s go­ing to take its toll. Mo­vis­tar does have the nous for that sort of strat­egy, so the thing with Nairo would be for him to stay there, stay there, stay there, and let peo­ple dis­ap­pear off the back, rather than him go­ing miles off the front. The ques­tion for them is how to make peo­ple come off the back with­out go­ing off the front. That’s what I’d do.”

Mo­vis­tar of­ten had do­mes­tiques off the front on the hilly and moun­tain stages, most no­tably An­drey Amador - him­self a

Put to the test on a bru­tal in­di­vid­ual ef­fort over less favourable ter­rain at the Mon­te­falco TT, the Colom­bian crum­pled

dis­tant GC threat - Gorka Iza­girre and Win­ner Ana­cona. But what was no­table through much of the Giro, and even on the Um­brail­pass, where Quin­tana only re­sponded to Nibali’s at­tacks rather than go­ing for it him­self, was that Quin­tana’s team looked to be way more pre­pared for bat­tle than their leader. This cost Quin­tana the Giro - he wasn’t able to har­ness his team’s strength when he him­self was not quite at 100 per cent. A fully fit Quin­tana might have beaten Tom Du­moulin, but a fully fit Quin­tana at the Giro wouldn’t be able to hit the Tour with race-win­ning form.

It is true that Quin­tana’s solo at­tack on the Block­haus did wreck the chances of vic­tory for a large per­cent­age of the Giro’s GC con­tenders. But col­lec­tively Mo­vis­tar, start­ing with Rory Suther­land and José Joaquin Ro­jas be­fore the climb and then con­tin­u­ing with Amador, Ana­cona, and Vic­tor de la Parte on the as­cent it­self, was even more im­pres­sive. All this, too, after win­ning the pre­vi­ous stage with Iza­girre.

But the dan­ger of rac­ing the Giro be­fore the Tour is the risk of burnout in the lat­ter race. Cer­tainly Quin­tana’s ri­vals for the Tour would have no ob­jec­tion to this hap­pen­ing, and they might have even tried to make that hap­pen. That was ru­moured to be the case in 2015, when

As­tana seem­ingly fired as many bul­lets as pos­si­ble at pink jer­sey Con­ta­dor in the third week of the Giro with Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa. The idea was to tire him out for the Tour, where they were de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons with Vin­cenzo Nibali. As­tana didn’t go on to win the Tour that year, but then again, nei­ther did Con­ta­dor, who was a tired fifth. Be­fore Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa crashed out of con­tention on the ap­proach to Block­haus, Brails­ford had al­ready ar­gued that one of Sky’s aims would be to race Quin­tana as hard as pos­si­ble in the Giro.

“There’s no deny­ing it’s at the back of my mind, even if it’s a sec­ondary thought,” said Brails­ford. “But just as for Nairo, the eas­ier the Giro, the more favourable that would be for him, in terms of get­ting as re­freshed as pos­si­ble for the Tour, for us, the harder the bet­ter.”

For Brails­ford, Sky’s Giro GC bat­tle rep­re­sented an op­por­tu­nity lost on two counts, both for the Giro and the Tour, though the idea of tir­ing Quin­tana out for the Tour would ap­peal to more GC con­tenders there than just Sky.

But his­tor­i­cally, what­ever the in­ter­nal rea­sons for Quin­tana hav­ing tried to win the Giro and then the Tour, and what­ever his ri­vals’ at­ti­tude to­wards that, when fans look back, the first thing they will con­sider is the results in both. Then the sec­ond will be to con­sider the sheer phys­i­cal and men­tal ef­fort that went into do­ing both races. Staying mo­ti­vated over such a long pe­riod of time, in peak phys­i­cal con­di­tion, is no mean achieve­ment, and even Quin­tana’s ri­vals know that.

“Hats off to him, he’s come in and wants to give it a go; you’ve got to re­spect that,” said Brails­ford. Did he re­ally think it was a path to fol­low? “I’d like to think we’ll see more and more of it.” In any case, Brails­ford doesn’t see Grand Tour dou­ble bids end­ing there, with Froome set to go for the Tour and Vuelta him­self this sum­mer. “And sooner or later some­body’s got to go for all three, too.”

Quin­tana fol­low­ing Valverde’s foot­steps again and par­tic­i­pat­ing in all three Grand Tours in a sin­gle sea­son seems a way off yet. And Mo­vis­tar’s strat­egy with the Colom­bian has come a long way since 2013 when they sim­ply dropped Quin­tana into the Tour to see how well he could do. But if Mo­vis­tar’s idea in 2017 was to repli­cate Valverde’s Giro-Tour dou­ble with Quin­tana, team-mates say they have a pri­mary as­set in com­mon.

“They’re two dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent riders,” team-mate Rory Suther­land, who’s rid­den with Quin­tana in the Giro and with one or both Mo­vis­tar lead­ers in three pre­vi­ous Grand Tours, told Pro­cy­cling. “But one thing I’ve no­ticed with them, and maybe one or two other riders, is that they both have this killer in­stinct for win­ning. They’re like a dog when it grabs hold of some­thing and re­fuses to let go. Nairo has it, Ale­jan­dro has it, Al­berto [Con­ta­dor] has it. When they get to that mo­ment they’re like that dog, there’s no fear.

“Al­berto was al­ways the same, when he gets it into his head that he’s go­ing for the win, it’s like ‘we’re go­ing. I’m go­ing all in,’ even if it doesn’t work. It’s not an in­stinct of know­ing what to do in a par­tic­u­lar mo­ment, but they want to at­tack, they want to win. I like win­ning races too, but these guys, they need to win, it’s life to them.”

It’s co­in­ci­den­tal that the Giro track record be­tween 2014 and 2016 of the three riders Suther­land names - Quin­tana, Con­ta­dor and Valverde - was a stun­ning one: two first places over­all fol­lowed by a third. How­ever, their joint Tour de France record in that pe­riod was rather more un­even, and none of them won it - which brings us back to why Quin­tana was at the Giro, and the ef­fect it may have long-term. Quin­tana has al­ready won the Giro in 2014 and the Vuelta in 2016, but after three podium fin­ishes in the Tour and no vic­to­ries, it’s clear where his sense of un­fin­ished busi­ness must be the strong­est. The ques­tion is, has the Giro helped or hin­dered him in that aim?

Nairo and Ale­jan­dro have this killer in­stinct for win­ning. They’re like a dog when it grabs hold of some­thing

Quin­tana poses pos­si­bly the big­gest threat to Froome at this year’s Tour de France

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