Second in 2013 Tour, can Quintana take Colombia's first Giro?
Last year in the Giro, Colombian riders provided much of the entertainment and drama (of the right sort), with Rigoberto Urán taking second overall - the country's first ever podium finish in the race - whilst the best young rider overall went to compatriot Carlos Alberto Betancur. Colombians Sergio Henao and Darwin Atapuma also secured top 20 finishes overall.
Fast forward 12 months, and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) has moved ahead of Urán to claim the mantel of Colombia's top GC rider after his spectacular Tour de France, where he netted, in one fell swoop, an Alpine stage win, second overall, the King of the Mountains title and the Best Young Rider's classification.
For a rider making his debut in the Tour, it was a hugely impressive series of results, but rather than return to France in July, Movistar have opted to send their Colombian to the Giro. As a result, Quintana, sporting a new haircut atop of his usual smiling face, found himself in Belfast on Wednesday, sitting alongside Rigoberto Urán as a top favourite for the 2014 Giro d'Italia at the race's opening press conference.
Asked to reflect on Colombia's crop of top results in recent years - which represents a comeback of major proportions - and the fact that they were fielding not one, but two favourites for the Giro, Quintana confirmed that "for Colombia this is something that is very important".
"It's perhaps the first time in history we have two Colombians with the status of favourite before a Grand Tour, and that doesn't happen every day. I'm sure that people back home are pleased about that."
Quintana was cautious about his chances, saying "I think everybody on this [table of top contenders] is at more or less the same level. However, I'm fully expecting some young rider to provide a big surprise and be up there as well, because that's what always happens."
"So we'll have to take things on the day by day, see what happens and not get ahead of ourselves."
Although Quintana got off to a flying start in 2014 with victory in the Tour of San Luis in January, since then he has not been as successful as in 2013. In the Volta, where he won the Valter 2000 stage last year, he was ill and since then he has been training in Colombia. He came back to Europe and Pamplona, his adopted base on this side of the Atlantic, eight days ago.
"I haven't been at the same level as before this year, now I have trained hard to move up a level and the race will decide if I'm better or worse than before. I haven't raced for more than a month, I was counting on [the Tour] Asturias [cancelled at the last minute last week - Ed.] to test myself and see if I was really at the level I wanted to be."
"More than data, I've been relying on my gut feelings to judge my condition, and my instinct tells me things are going well. I hope it [my instinct] doesn't let me down. I have the same kind of feeling about my condition as I had before the Tour last year, in the Vuelta I raced the year before that [where he was instrumental in helping Alejandro Valverde, Movistar team leader in the mountains] and I didn't have that many problems, there, either."
For Quintana, like almost all the other riders, the three stages in Northern Ireland and Eire represent a voyage in the dark. In fact, he has not ever raced in Ireland before, the closest to Belfast coming when he rode in the Tour of Britain last autumn, finishing 14th.
"That experience has helped me a bit, I think, because the roads are going to be similar, and you can get a bit more of an idea of what you can expect and what will be coming up."
"The keys to the route? In Ireland, there's already one to worry about, and that's not to lose the Giro here. Then we can try and open up the gaps in the high mountain stages when the race gets back to Italy."
"It's a very open race, and luck will be as big a factor as ever. There are climbers, too, who haven't been present here [in the opening press conference] and for sure they're going to do it well, too."
Although rumours continue to swirl that Quintana may finally end up doing the Tour de France as well as the Giro, he denies that's the case. Asked if the Tour is totally ruled out for 2014, he responded simply, "yes."
"The Tour is always on my mind," he added in another interview. "That said, since it was decided I'd do the Giro, I've concentrated 100 percent on this race. With time, I will return to the Tour with the idea of trying to get back on the podium again."
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