The experienced Spanish manager admitted to Cyclingnews that while the team time trial and the two road stages in Ireland may have limited importance come the final reckoning in Trieste on June 1st, they were anything but straightforward.
“Getting through the first few stages of the Grand Tours with no incidents or crashes is already a good start. They’re always the most stressful stages of the race, and we’ve come through feeling ‘mission accomplished,” he said.
With his favourite terrain, the high mountains, still a long way off, Quintana is currently lying 59th, 1:09 behind race leader Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).
That may not sound so spectacular, but the experienced team director, who is backing Quintana in his effort to become Colombia’s first ever Giro d’Italia winner, knows there is a long way to go yet in the 2014 race.
Unzue has a history of success in breakthrough Grand Tour triumphs, going back to the days when Spain’s only major team was sponsored by Reynolds and then Banesto. Together with Jose Miguel Echavarri, Unzue jointly oversaw Miguel Indurain’s successful bid to become Spain’s first ever winner of the Giro d'Italia in 1992. But whilst Quintana has already shown he can take a runners-up spot in his debut Tour de France, Unzue believes that “with Nairo we still have to be patient.”
“He has to show again he is still the kind of consistent rider that he was in last year’s Tour. We have very high expectations but we are going to have to see how he gets on over the next three weeks,” he said.
“Fortunately he’s come here in good shape, and with the help of the team he’s got through these first stages in a good position. These stages are key to the race and he’s got through well.”
When it comes to his ability to maneuver through the bunch on the flat stages and avoid crashes and cross-winds, Unzue says Quintana “needs help, but he’s able to handle himself very well. He’s a rider with a strong character and at the very least he knows where he wants to be. In this case [Andrey] Amador, [Adriano] Malori, [Fran] Ventoso and [Jonathan] Castroviejo are the Movistar riders who are charged with keeping an eye on him.”
The next key stage
Unzue thinks the next key stage at the Giro d'Italia will be the time trial on stage 12.
"All these summit finishes in the first week will sort things out a bit and it will be like measuring each favourite’s temperature, but the important mountain test will be in Oropa on stage 14. That’s where we’ll really start to see what the favourites are able to do,” he explained.
“In any case, those stages are only the end of one segment of the Giro and the start of the next. It’s the days through the mountains from then on which are really daunting."
"Whatever happens here: not falling off, a little time lost...” he believes, will barely register in comparison the time gaps established in the mountain stages.
“And that’s what really keeps us calm, knowing he’s such a great climber when there’s so many hard stages yet to come. But he’s 24 years old, handling all the weight of being a Grand Tour leader by himself for the first time in his career. Let’s see how he can do that. The most important thing is that he’s doing well and he’s getting through the stages fine. All we need right now and for the moment is to avoid bad luck.”
Having directed numerous top riders to Grand Tour success including Indurain, Abraham Olano, Pedro Delgado and Alejandro Valverde; Unzue says Quintana breaks the mould in comparison: he has never known a rider with “so much character.”
“In that sense, he’s like Bernard Hinault.”