Although Nairo Quintana and his teammate Alejandro Valverde are almost two minutes behind Tour de France leader Chris Froome (Sky) coming into the first rest day, the Movistar riders still insist that the race is not yet lost. With nothing but hilly stages between Pau and Paris, the diminutive Colombian is hoping that the heat and the high mountains will give him the advantage he needs.
Quintana held Froome to just 16 seconds in the stage 1 time trial, but then missed the split in the crosswinds on stage 2 and gave up another 1:28. The team made it through the next crash-filled stages intact, although Quintana was banged up in the uphill crash on stage 4, and Quintana says everyone is still in good shape. "The team is still whole and performing really well, as everyone could see yesterday in the team time trial," Quintana said. "I think that Pyrenees, with Alejandro and all of them by my side, will be a good opportunity to turn things around in our favour."
The transition from flat road racing and a rest day into a high mountain finish is always a difficult one for the riders, and with stage 10 traversing 145 rolling kilometers before heading straight up the hors-categorie La Pierre-Saint-Martin ascent, Quintana expects an unpredictable day.
“It's a fairly steady climb, really demanding and one where temperatures could play a role. They say it usually heats up more than others nearby," Quintana said. Normally a rider who copes with the heat better than most, the Colombian is unsure of how he will perform because the race has been on largely flat roads for the first nine stages.
The rider who lit up the 2013 Tour de France and climbed to the Giro d'Italia victory last year is the most naturally talented rider in the peloton when it comes to climbing, but he played down his chances for tomorrow's stage. "It's been 15 days since I climbed such a demanding mountain. There could be attacks from the foot of it, at the end or even not happening anything at all, but I like it, just like with all other long climbs."
Though the Movistar riders are in the bottom of the top 10 on the general classification, Quintana says the first nine stages have shown little of where each rider's form lies. "We could see some details, but the climbs were actually short, steep ascents, suited for explosive riders, which doesn't tell me much about who is doing well or poorly."
The remainder of the Tour has few days where the GC riders can rest: from La Pierre-Saint-Martin they head over the Col du Tourmalet and Col d'Aspin en route to the finish, stage 12 ends on the Plateau de Beille and has three major climbs preceding it. Only stage 13 and 15 offer a transition, with the Mende finish on stage 14 providing another punchy finishing climb that could drive a few more small wedges into the standings. It's then onto the Alps after the rest day in Gap, with two short but intense mountain stages - stage 19 to La Toussuire and 20 to Alpe d'Huez which will be flat out from flag to finish.
"Any day could become crucial - the only difference between the Pyrenees and the Alps is the former coming on the second week, and the latter, on the final one," Quintana said.
Movistar also has last year's fourth place finisher Alejandro Valverde in its midst, and though the Spaniard continues to be cast in a support role, he said that both he and Quintana have very good chances for the major mountain stages. "This will be a really, really hard Tour for all of us, with the previous nine days taking its toll at the end," Valverde said. "The race is not lost at all."
"All stages will be crucial: there are either mountaintop finishes, steep climbs like Mende, or short, hard climbs at the end. Tomorrow's stage will bring a 50-minute, one-hour long ascent for the first time in a while, and combined with the rest day, the heat... important things might happen."
Valverde is putting his personal ambitions on the Vuelta a España, and said that the team's goal is “winning the Tour in Paris with Nairo.”
“When we analysed the Tour route, and knowing that I also had to ride the Vuelta, we came to a conclusion that, even though this first week was important, the most difficult part comes from tomorrow on. We worked well, did weeks of altitude training, but I didn't overcook myself to reach the start at 100 per cent condition, but at this very moment. I think I'm at 100 per cent or really close, myself as well as the whole team. We will fight for Nairo, then we'll think about the Vuelta."
Valverde also reacted to the news that Ivan Basso has left the race after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. “On behalf of myself and the whole team, we send him our best wishes and full support," said Valverde, and Quintana seconded: "It's sad to hear news like that. We send him all strength from here."