The smile on Nairo Quintana's face as he celebrated overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico said it all. He made history as the first Colombian to ever win the weeklong Italian stage race and more importantly he showed he was back on form after crashing out of the Vuelta.
His audacious attack in the snow on Terminillo and his dominant stage victory also showed his Grand Tour rivals what they will face in the mountains at the Tour de France. It may only be March but Quintana (Movistar) had landed a significant first blow to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and the absent Chris Froome (Team Sky), who opted to watch the race at home in Monaco after a last minute illness.
Quintana started the final time trial with a 39 second lead on Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing). It was down to only 19 seconds after the short, intense 10km time trial but Quintana did what was needed to seal victory and lift the trident winner’s trophy of ‘the race of the two seas.’
"I needed this win for my own head and also to show my fans that I am still here," Quintana said in the post-race press conference, still happy with his success.
"Last year (after winning the Giro d'Italia) I won the Vuelta a Burgos but then in the Vuelta a España I sadly couldn't give my fans the satisfaction of the win because of that disastrous fall. To finish on the podium in Argentina (at the Tour de San Luis) was reassuring, although it's a very different type of race and lacks the big rivals who go to the WorldTour races. It was fantastic to come here, to find my team in great form, and ready to work hard, as ever, and to win. Its emotional, and good for my head."
Tirreno-Adriatico was Quintana's first race in Europe. He missed the Ruta del Sol after hurting his shoulder – the same one he injured at the Vuelta – in the Colombian national championships. Contador and Nibali had several races under their belts, with Contador apparently on good form after clashing with Froome in Spain. Yet Quintana's attack seemed to indicate that he was on far better form, even if he played down his superiority.
"I don't know what he (Contador) is thinking after my win here," Quintana said when asked about arguably his biggest rival for the Tour de France.
"I think all of the big climbing rivals are at a very similar level. Froome wasn't here, so we didn't see what shape he is in. But he and Contador showed how strong they are in Andalucia and it was a magnificent spectacle, one of them winning one day, then the other the next day. Now I have won here. To me, it suggests that we are all pretty even. Contador will be strong at the Tour de France, but so will Froome and Nibali. And for all of us, it's our main goal."
The iceman of the peloton
Quintana set up overall victory with his solo attack on the constant but not steep slopes of Terminillo. He went clear with a sudden acceleration with six kilometres left to race and kept going as his rivals chased each others' tails and the snow made for an epic day of racing.
Quintana may be a pure climber, who perhaps prefers the heat of the summer, but he has become the iceman of the peloton after attacking in the snow on the Stelvio to set up victory at last year's Giro d'Italia and again in terrible conditions on the 16km up Terminillo.
"When I remember that day, the hair stands up on the back of my neck," he said, remembering victory more than the cold conditions.
"It was a spectacular win in enchanting surroundings. I'd have to do my homework to compile a ranking of my favourite mountain stage wins, but to beat those rivals, on a day like that, in the cold, with a nervous, twitchy peloton, and then to finish on the Terminillo in the snow, in conditions that made for wonderful photographs, was special, even if I have to say that we suffered a lot that day."
While his rivals will have to scrutinise their form and hope for better results in the clash at the Volta a Catalunya next week, Quintana knows he can savour his Tirreno-Adriatico success and be optimistic about the rest of the season. He will not clash with Froome, Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha) and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) in Spain but will instead head to Belgium.
"I want to dedicate this success to my family but also to my team," he said, "Fortunately we had no mishaps this week and the team was always very strong. Everyone was always very attentive and helped me. Now its time for a few days rest before facing the cobbles next week and then the Tour of the Basque Country."