As low cloud rolled in over the summit of Monte Grappa on Friday afternoon, it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the mountain began, but there is no longer any sfumatura to the overall picture at the Giro d’Italia following Nairo Quintana’s victory in the stage 19 time trial.
Just over a week ago, Quintana floundered in the time trial through the wine country of the Langhe, but on a pure mountain test as stiff as the region’s famous digestivo, the Colombian took flight to stretch his overall lead out to 3:07 over Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
At Barolo, stricken by illness and still hindered by his crash in the opening week, Quintana had seemed a shadow of the man who had so troubled Chris Froome in the mountains at last year’s Tour de France. After turning the race on its head on the tappone to Val Martello, however, the final week of the Giro has turned into something of a coronation.
“The Tour allowed me to show the world who Nairo Quintana is and this Giro has been the confirmation of that,” Quintana afterwards, bundled up in a Movistar puffy jacket. “The world now knows that I can fight for grand tours. Before I was unknown and now I have confirmed what I can do.”
On the eve of the time trial, Quintana led Uran by 1:41 – more or less what he had gained on that contentious descent of the Stelvio on Tuesday – but he had demurred when asked if he felt that he needed to put more time into his fellow countryman so as to remove any sort of an asterisk from his triumph. Instead, it seems that clocking the best time up the fearsome 19-kilometre climb was simply a point of pride.
“I didn’t want to say it before but this stage is my speciality and I couldn’t let it go by without winning it, especially as my family came here from Colombia to watch me today and that gave me an extra gear,” said Quintana, who announced himself to the world in 2010 by sealing Tour de l’Avenir victory in the final mountain time trial to Risoul.
Like most in the top ten, Quintana began the test on a traditional time trial bike, but after completing the first, flat seven kilometres, he changed both his bike and his helmet just as the climb began in earnest. Unlike the frantic changes of Uran or Fabio Aru (Astana), however, there was a discernible calm about Quintana’s swap, with manager Eusebio Unzue even taking the time to murmur a few words of advice before pushing him on his way.
“I was tranquillo during the change because I knew it would help me,” Quintana said. “I had prepared well for how to do it.” At that precise point, he was 16 seconds behind Uran, but as the road began to tilt upwards, so too did the tide begin to turn. By the second time check 7km from the summit, he had the best time, and only Aru was within touching distance.
At one point, it even looked as though the young Sardinian’s agile pedalling might carry him to victory ahead of Quintana, but on the final ramps of the seemingly interminable climb, the maglia rosa’s power began to tell, and he won the stage by 17 seconds, while Uran took third, some 1:26 down.
“I had great sensations today and I took advantage of that, and I think I gave the people what they wanted to see today,” said Quintana, who would continue to pedal a series of tight laps of the podium area as he warmed down after his effort.
On Saturday, the mighty Monte Zoncolan awaits and with the Giro all but won – and the Stelvio polemica seemingly put to rights, at least in the time column – it remains to be seen whether Quintana looks to complete a hat-trick of stage wins or, in the manner of a patron, engineer a victory for somebody else.
“I’d like to try to win the stage myself or help a teammate to do it: remember that Igor Anton won there a few years ago,” said Quintana of the steepest ascent of this Giro. “I went to see it during the spring although I couldn’t ride to the top because of the snow. It’s quite a demanding climb but then those are the climbs I like.”