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