For almost half an hour, Nairo Quintana had deftly smothered specific questions on his fellow Tour de France contenders with non-committal politeness. “I’ve been in races with all of them,” he said softly at one point of Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali. “Sometimes I’ve won and sometimes they’ve won.”
It was only towards the end of his press conference in San Luis on Sunday morning that Quintana was finally coaxed into picking out one of that trio as his chief rival. The question came almost by way of provocation. Froome, he was told, had last week named Contador as the man to beat in July. What did he make of that?
After waiting for the translation, Quintana flashed a smile. “Froome said it’s Alberto, right? Well, I think Alberto will be my strongest rival as well,” he said, before quickly returning to diplomacy: “But we’ll have to see how Nibali and Froome are too.”
Quintana begins his season at the Tour de San Luis on Monday beneath the oppressive sun of an Argentinian summer, but thoughts are already trained firmly on the white heat of July. En route to victory at last year’s Giro d’Italia, it was Quintana’s mental fortitude – his defiance after that controversial Stelvio stage, for instance – that impressed as much as his physical strength, and he will surely have to call on those reserves again in 2015.
Still only 24 years of age, Quintana is perhaps the outstanding favourite for a climbing-heavy Tour de France and over the next six months, the questions on Froome, Contador, Nibali et al are not going to abate. It’s been some time since so many seemingly evenly-matched contenders have lined up together at the Tour and while Quintana is ostensibly the purest climber of that quartet, he acknowledged that making the difference in the mountains would not be straightforward.
“It’s clear that I’m a climber and that’s my weapon but the others are strong climbers too,” he said. “In cycling today, riders have to be complete on all terrains to win a Grand Tour, so the deciding factor is how you manage your energy and the pressure over the course of the three weeks.”
Quintana can draw confidence from his first three Grand Tour appearances, where he seemed to grow stronger in the third week, and from his last outing at the 2014 Vuelta a España, where he held the overall lead when he crashed out despite appearing still short of his best in the opening ten days.
“I’ve been second in the Tour, I’ve won the Giro, I was leading the Vuelta when I crashed out,” he said. “Right now I feel like I’m up to the level needed to win but I know it won’t be easy. I have a great team and that gives me a lot of confidence and tranquillity.”
At the Ruta del Sol in February and Tirreno-Adriatico in March, Quintana will have a brace of early-season rendezvous with his Tour rivals, but he downplayed the idea that psychological point-scoring would be a priority in the spring. “It’s a step towards the Tour de France. Sure, it’s a race and you want to do well, but always with the principal objective in mind.”
On first glance, with its five summit finishes and mere 14 kilometres of individual time trialling, the 2015 Tour route seems tailor-made for Quintana, but almost like a platform video game, there is a treacherous foe to be overcome before the climbers can unlock the bonus levels that follow. For the second successive year, there will be a cobbled stage in the opening week, with 13.3 kilometres of pavé on the menu on stage 4 from Seraing to Cambrai.
Quintana’s 2014 season was brought to a premature halt by a fractured shoulder blade sustained at the Vuelta but he gave short shrift to the notion that the injury might have a residual effect on his performance on the cobblestones in July. “I’ve had a lot of physiotherapy and I’ve done work in the pool over the winter and I don’t think it’s going to affect me on the pavé,” he said.
The pavé will nonetheless be new ground for Quintana, even if his training regimen in his native Boyacá Department has been known to include the occasional trek across dirt tracks and unmade roads. Like his teammate Alejandro Valverde in 2014, he seems likely to test the waters at a brace of races in Belgium in late March, most likely Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke.
“I’m looking into it and I’ll see which one suits me best, but in any case we’ll go there with part of the group that will form the Tour de France team,” Quintana said. “You have to respect them, but the cobbles are not something to be afraid of. The pavé is the same for everyone.”
Valverde, of course, will be alongside Quintana in Movistar’s Tour line-up in July. Two years ago, Quintana was – in theory, at least – the junior partner at the race until a combination of crosswinds and a broken rear mech on the road to Saint-Amand-Montrond tipped the balance of power away from Valverde. In 2015, the hierarchy seems more clearly defined in Quintana’s favour from the outset.
“I’ve learned a lot of things from Alejandro, from his good points and from his errors,” Quintana said of his stable-mate, before quickly adding: “In his case, it’s mainly been from his good points.”
Since joining Movistar ahead of the 2012 season, Quintana’s progress has been prodigious. He entered the professional ranks with a heady reputation after beating Andrew Talansky to the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir, but cycling history is littered with the names of amateur stars who failed to make the transition to the elite level.
Yet Quintana scarcely seemed to break stride on reaching the WorldTour, announcing himself with an assured solo win at Morzine at the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné and giving the appearance of a man who had simply arrived on the biggest stage already fully formed. Not so, he insisted in Argentina on Sunday.
“A lot has changed since I joined this team,” he said. “I knew how to ride a bike but I knew very little about cycling. I used to just do everything that I was told to do but now I’ve learned to make decisions for myself and I’ve learned how to be a leader.”