Quintana eyes third week of Tour de France to test Froome

Movistar rider finds strong ally in Valverde

On the eve of the Tour de France, Colombian Nairo Quintana looked fresh and relaxed as he addressed the assembled media at the race headquarters in Saint-Lô. The Movistar rider reiterated his goal of winning the Tour de France with an aim at the third week as his chance to shine.

Of the race favourites, Quintana has had the most successful season so far - he's won three stage races in the Volta a Catalunya, Tour de Romandie and most recently the Route du Sud, and come third in the Tour de San Luis and Vuelta al Pais Vasco. He's also demonstrated improved time trialing abilities, winning in Route du Sud and coming a close second to Alberto Contador in Pais Vasco.

Still, he acknowledged it will be a tough battle between himself and his rivals, in particular defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Team Sky).

"The objective of winning the Tour de France is possible this year even if it's going to be harder than ever because of the quality and quantities of the rivals," Quintana said. "We've prepared well for my yellow dream, and with the team that I have we have great possibilities. I feel relaxed and I have a great conditions. All the feelings this year have been positive in all the races I've done.

"I've had a similar preparation from last year, because that's what has worked well. I think, once again, that the third week is the most important."

Last year, Quintana lost a crucial 1:28 on stage 2 to Neeltje Jans when the peloton was split in the crosswinds of the Netherlands. He lost to Froome by 1:12 in the end, and clearly has the capability to beat Froome.

Some speculate Froome is coming into the Tour de France less prepared, having raced only four events this season, though he won the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Herald Sun Tour in February. If Froome has any weaknesses, Quintana says he has not yet found them.

"Maybe he's a little bit under condition during the third week, but I've heard that he's prepared especially for the third week so I don't think we'll see him weaken then," he said of Froome.

While previous years saw Quintana come into the race as a co-leader with veteran Alejandro Valverde, this time around the Spaniard has pledged to race entirely for his younger team leader. Valverde finished third in the Giro d'Italia and has the Olympic Games on his mind after the Tour de France.

"Alejandro is a great rider," Quintana said. "It's really important to have him by my side. He helps me and he always makes a big difference when racing against my rivals. He's here to help me win."

The first step toward contending for the overall victory in Paris is to get through the tricky first week unscathed, he said. "Tomorrow is going to be nervous. We have to be near the front with all my team close to me so that we can avoid the crashes."

Quintana will put to use the lessons he learned in 2013 and 2015, when he finished second to Froome.

"We have learned many things," he said. "Above all, perhaps to manage my efforts more, have more tranquility and know when you really have to be careful. It's the maturity that I have achieved not only in the Tour but in other races."

Quintana could also benefit this year from a route that appears to suit him.

"I am happier than other years," he said. "It is a [mountainous route] that helps me a lot and I like it. There are stages that are very key to the general. There are two time trials, very close to the Mont Ventoux. And the last week is full of many mountains where we can see big differences. But my rivals also have similar characteristics and are very strong in those kind of mountains."

The Colombian also knows there are more rivals to watch out for than just past winners Froome and Contador.

"The most direct rivals are Chris and Alberto, and there are others that few have considered but that we must be very attentive of, like Pinot, Bardet, Aru ..."

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