Nairo Quintana has said that the criticisms levelled at him after he failed to put in a concerted attack at Lagos de Covadonga on stage 15 of the Vuelta a España are not hurting him as much as his legs. At a press conference on Monday’s rest day, the Movistar rider told reporters that he didn’t have the legs to take time.
There was plenty of expectation on Quintana’s shoulders heading into what was dubbed by some the queen stage of the race, not least because victory at Lagos de Covadonga had proved the making of his 2016 overall victory. Quintana had looked strong on La Camperona, the first of the three summit finishes that closed out the Vuelta’s second week, and Lagos de Covadonga was supposed to be his preferred terrain.
Shrouded in mist, the group of favourites was whittled down to a select few on the lower slopes of the climb. Quintana dragged back a couple of attacks but failed to land his own decisive blow. He did not chase down Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) when he slipped up the road, much to the frustration of Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), and Quintana eventually gave away eight seconds to the red jersey – four of which came in bonus seconds.
“I am not worried about the time that I have lost in the stage finishes, but I gave away time bonuses, which I don’t like,” Quintana said at his team’s hotel in Suances on Monday. “The critics don’t hurt me, but sometimes the legs do. For this reason, I didn’t make attacks. I am not all-powerful and when there isn’t any more strength, I am not superior to the others.
“Other years, I have done what I could and sometimes I went, this year no. But I am still at a great level.”
Quintana heads into the final week of the Vuelta in third place overall, 33 seconds down on Yates. His teammate Alejandro Valverde, meanwhile, is ahead of him in the standings, 26 seconds behind Yates. Prior to the race, Quintana was expected to surge clear as the team’s leader, but Valverde has put himself in a position of strength with just five stages remaining to decide the race. During the press conference, Valverde said that he would like to take his second Vuelta a Espana title but refused to be drawn on whether Quintana would be required to work for him.
“I would like to win the Vuelta with Movistar,” he explained. “You don’t have to make a drama about who is the leader. It is a perfect situation for us. We have a rider ahead that is really good, Simon Yates. I could win, Nairo, Yates or ‘Superman’ Lopez… Also, we have got rid of guys like [Wilco] Kelderman and [Emanuel] Buchmann. Yesterday, Nairo closed gaps and so did I. Everyone has done what he could.
“At the moment, I am ahead but I don’t want to say who will be better in the mountains. You have to race and to make differences. I could also have a bad day in the mountains.”
Team manager Eusebio Unzue backed both his riders, saying that there was little to say who would or should be the team leader.
“There isn’t a clear leader because they haven’t clarified who that must be,” explained Unzue. “There are seven equal riders. Yesterday, in a really hard stage, from second to seventh they were split by six seconds. The whole week has been hard and nothing has become clearer, only that they are consistent and that the strongest guys are all fairly equal.”
Two brutal mountain stages await the riders in Andorra at the end of the week, but first, the general classification riders must tackle the 32-kilometre time trial to Torrelavega. It is a chance for Valverde to put time into some of his rivals, the team believes, but the Spaniard is cautious about how much time he can really gain.
“I know the time trial only on paper. It’s a rest day today, and with the route close to where we’re staying, we’ll spend the morning trying to get a closer look at where we’ll race,” said Valverde. “As Eusebio has said to me, it’s a time trial which doesn’t suit me badly, but it won’t be really worse for our rivals than for me. And I’m not Miguel Indurain, either, if you think I can build a big gap there. We’ll see what we can do after we inspect the route, and we’ll also try and get a feeling of our legs after the important efforts in the last few days.”