When Nairo Quintana (Movistar) floundered in the crosswinds in Zeeland last Sunday, conceding a minute and a half, one wondered whether his voyage to the foot of the mountains would prove an ill-starred one given the prevailing currents in the opening week of this Tour de France.
In the five stages since, however, Quintana has steered a steady course. Left flat-footed, like almost everyone else, by Chris Froome (Sky) on the Mur de Huy, he proceeded to break even with the other overall contenders on the cobbles the following day. A late crash on stage 6 to Le Havre aside, Quintana has suffered no unduly rough seas since, and he reaches the second weekend of the race in 16th place overall, 1:56 down on Froome.
"We’re satisfied especially because up to now he’s been good, his health is good and he’s recovered from his crash yesterday," Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue told Cyclingnews in Fougères on Friday evening. "He went through some difficult days but he got through them very well, though it’s true that we’ve lost some important time on Froome that won’t be easy to recover because he’s shown he’s very much on form."
The prognosis seemed rather bleaker on the artificial island of Neeltje Jans on the North Sea coast after stage 2, when a glum-faced Quintana answered just two questions from reporters before climbing into a Movistar team car and being promptly driven off. With another week of such torrid days stretching before him before the apparent safe-haven of the Pyrenees, it was the most trying moment of Quintana’s race to date.
"Yes, that was the toughest day, with bad weather and few riders on the team who fell. It was a day where the team was a bit disorganised because of the crashes and that might we didn’t get it together to limit the gap as we would have liked," Unzue said.
"But I’m very happy with how things have gone since, because Nairo has come through very dangerous stages with the wind and the pavé, all things that aren’t ideal for him. Doing some classics in the spring proved to be very reassuring to him before the pavé stage."
Quintana’s surprisingly composed showing on the road to Cambrai on Tuesday compensated in part for the disappointment of losing 11 seconds (plus six more in bonuses) to Froome on the Mur de Huy the previous afternoon, though Unzue does not believe that climbing hierarchy will automatically transfer from the Ardennes to the high mountains.
"I think Nairo was good, perfect there. Losing 11 seconds to Froome at that point, I think it’s normal or excusable," Unzue said, adding that he did not expect major changes to the overall picture on the Mur de Bretagne on Saturday. "I think that normally it ought to stay together tomorrow more than it did at Mur de Huy."
Instead, the final act of this most intense of opening weeks, Sunday’s short but hilly team time trial from Vannes to Plumelec, seems likely to provoke the greater differences among the general classification contenders. Despite counting former Hour Record holder Alex Dowsett among their walking wounding, Unzue sounded an optimistic note about Quintana recouping some of his lost ground in Brittany this weekend.
"I would like to regain a few seconds on Sunday in the team time trial, and at the very least stay more or less at the gap we’re at now," Unzue said. "And after that, the Tour is long. It’s true that a gap of 2:08 is a lot to a rider like Froome and it’s going to be hard to bring back but we’ve seen all sorts on the Tour in the past.
"Riders can have bad days, and if the real heat arrives, then look out because anything could happen, especially because this first week has been animal stuff. People have put in a huge effort every day, partly because of the crosswinds and the fear of echelons. All of those small things have added up to make a very, very stressful opening week."
Quintana, Froome, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) entered this Tour as the four galacticos, the seemingly inseparable quartet of overwhelming favourites. A week in, seemingly all bar Froome have displayed a moment’s weakness or endured an afternoon of ill fortune.
"At this moment, I think Froome has shown that he is very, very, very strong," Unzue said. "He was very good on the Mur de Huy, in theory a stage that wasn’t ideal for his characteristics. And then after last year’s problems, he got through the cobbles very well, with a strong team. He’s had a fantastic first week. The other years, I’ve seen him a bit nervous, but he’s been very calm here."
After an adverse start, however, Quintana will surely feel that he, too, is now beginning to move into calmer waters.