For three of the past four years, Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzue has overseen a successful assault by Nairo Quintana on the podium of the Tour de France – yet each time, he has seen Chris Froome (Team Sky) finish first, beating his protege. Could this July produce a different result? Unzué certainly hopes so.
In their last confrontation at a Grand Tour at the 2016 Vuelta a España, Quintana came out ahead of Froome with the Colombian placing first on the final podium in Madrid. Froome finished second, for a third time in his career. Although encouraging for Movistar’s star GC rider, Unzué preaches caution, too, about reading too much into that result. That is partly because one pivotal stage last September, to Formigal in the Pyrenees, had nothing to do with the Vuelta’s more predictable, set-piece battles in the mountains and against the clock. But it’s probably even more to do with the fact that since 2012, with the exception of his abandon due to a crash in 2014, Froome’s track record in the Tour de France could hardly be termed uneven.
“Beating Froome in a head-to-head struggle is very difficult for everybody,” Unzué emphasises to Cyclingnews. “He’s been the top name for Grand Tours in the last five to six years. It’s true that Nairo beat him in the Vuelta last year. But it was due in part to a day of racing which in theory was a transition stage [to Formigal – ed.] but which ended up being much more decisive. Nairo got in a break which worked well that day and where there were lots of different interests at stake. Thanks to it, the Vuelta could be won.
“It’s also true that we opened up some important time gaps on Froome in the Lagos de Covadonga during the Vuelta. But overall Froome defended himself very well.”
What ways are there, then, to beat the Briton? According to Unzué, one powerful factor in Movistar’s favour is – quite simply – Old Father Time.
“Logically, at 27, Nairo is continuing to improve, and at 32, Froome will be focused on maintaining his already excellent level of performance. I hope that with time, we’re getting closer to closing the gap on Froome, or maybe even overhauling him,” Unzué reasons. “Froome has an impressively strong team, he knows what he takes to win the Tour, not once but three times, and it’s going to be very complicated to beat him. But his time will come to an end at some point and that’s what we’re fighting for. We’re working on that.”
This year’s Tour offers a very different route to the usual July menu and that could, Unzué believes, at least keep the GC ball in the air for longer. “It’ll make for a much more nervous, unpredictable Tour, one in which more things could happen. It’s certainly a different kind of route, even if at the end of the day, when it comes to the big names, any kind of three-week course suits a Grand Tour specialist,” he says.
“But this route is one where it’s going to be very difficult to predict the results. In a normal Tour, there are two or three really key days, and five or six more where things could happen. Now you get the impression it could be a few more days at least where that’s the case. And for Nairo, too, it’s clear that the 35 kilometres of time trialling in the Tour this year suit him better than the 70 kilometres against the clock in the Giro d’Italia.”
Quintana himself, Unzué says, is in good condition. “We’re just hoping he’s recovered well from the Giro d’Italia and the impression we have is that he has done so,” he says. “He’s a great specialist in Grand Tours, a rider who wins them, from time to time and who is rarely off the final podium. He’s ridden nine, won two, been on the podium four times, was leading another when he crashed.
“Obviously, having a strong team is always a key factor for winning a Tour, too, although it’s not always necessary to have one, as we could see in the Giro d’Italia.” At the Giro, the overall winner Dumoulin’s Team Sunweb teammates were often notable by their absence in the mountain stages of the final week.
As for Quintana's Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde, Unzué bats away any the idea that the Spaniard’s superlative first half of the season means that he warrants more than his current status of domestique deluxe for Quintana in the Tour.
“The only thing I ask Alejandro is that he maintain the level he’s always had. How could I ask him to do more? He will be the best support rider for Nairo.” Unzué says. Valverde’s crack at Grand Tour leadership this year will come, Unzué says, in the Vuelta a España, which Quintana is not racing for the time since 2013, but where Froome is likely to participate.
“However, as we often say here in Spain, man proposes and God disposes,” Unzué warns, and there’s no denying in life and in cycling the best laid plans may indeed go awry.
But with a very different Tour route, and a Quintana who tends to race better in his second Grand Tour, too, Movistar certainly believe they can close the gap on Froome. Whether that’s enough to net the Spanish team its first Tour since Oscar Pereiro in 2006, though, remains to be seen.