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Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Colombian struggles in Barolo time trial
In vino veritas? Movistar's Nairo Quintana will certainly hope not, but the testing Giro d'Italia time trial through the vineyards of the Langhe suggested that the Colombian’s condition is not of the same vintage that carried him to second place overall at last year’s Tour de France.
The state of Quintana's form has been something of an enigma since the very beginning of this Giro, not least due to the fact that he did not race for over five weeks beforehand, preferring instead to prepare alone at altitude in Colombia.
A similar template served Quintana well last July, of course, but the early signals from the pre-race favourite's camp were not altogether encouraging. The buttock injury he sustained in the mass crash at Montecassino was certainly a pain, but word soon spread that a pollen allergy was of even greater concern.
Although Quintana battled to 13th place in Thursday’s time trial, he conceded 2:41 minutes to his fellow countryman and new maglia rosa Rigoberto Uran, and he now trails the Omega Pharma-QuickStep man by 3:29 in the overall standings.
"It was a long time trial and I tried to hang in there as best I could," Quintana said afterwards. "I wasn't as good as I had hoped. I had some problems with my breathing, not with my legs. I hope to recuperate in the coming days because the hardest days are still to come."
The effects of Quintana's efforts on the rolling course were apparent as he slowed to halt afterwards and took a towel and a bidon from his soigneur. Bent over his handlebars, he coughed repeatedly as he was pushed up the hill towards his waiting team car, and he was still spluttering when he was persuaded to turn back around and speak to reporters in an impromptu mixed zone just past the finish line.
After sitting on a small chair and slowly composing himself while a string of camera crews and reporters tightened around him, Quintana eventually nodded that he was ready to face questions on the day's stage. Illness, he said, had severely limited his performance on the road to Barolo.
"I couldn't breath well, it really affected me, and you notice that against your rivals who are in perfect condition," Quintana said. "I am taking some antibiotics at the moment, but I hope I get through it, and I can be at my best for the decisive days - the idea is to still fight for this Giro."
Quintana entered the Giro as the outstanding favourite for overall victory, but he has struggled to make the expected impact thus far. He provided none of the anticipated sparkle on the first mountain stage over the Carpegna to Montecopiolo last weekend and, illness notwithstanding, his performance in the Langhe was some way short of his outing in a similar test at Chorges during last year's Tour.
"Things haven't gone as well as I had hoped so far," Quintana admitted quietly, and with such a large deficit to a fellow climber in Uran, he is aware of the magnitude of the task ahead of him.
The 24-year-old can take heart, however, from the fact that from here on in, the terrain is almost exclusively to his liking. At the weekend, the Giro tackles back to back summit finishes at Oropa and Montecampione, where Quintana will face inevitable if unfortunate comparisons with Marco Pantani's exploits on those climbs.
In the third week, meanwhile, the Gavia, Stelvio and Zoncolan await, as well as a mountain time trial to Monte Grappa. Provided he recovers from his current ailment, Quintana has the potential to paint himself back into the picture on that mighty canvas.
"Now we are going into the mountains and the idea is to try to make up some time," Quintana said. "The hardest part of the Giro is still to come, so let's hope I can recover my health for the final week."