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Nairo Quintana still dreaming of Tour de France success

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Movistar's Nairo Quintana

Movistar's Nairo Quintana
(Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
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Nairo Quintana during stage 5 in San Juan

Nairo Quintana during stage 5 in San Juan
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Nairo Quintana keeps an eye out for teammate Winner Anacona in San Juan

Nairo Quintana keeps an eye out for teammate Winner Anacona in San Juan
(Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
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Nairo Quintana visits the Movistar team car in San Juan

Nairo Quintana visits the Movistar team car in San Juan
(Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
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Nairo Quintana congratulates Winner Anacona for winning stage 5 in San Juan and taking the race lead

Nairo Quintana congratulates Winner Anacona for winning stage 5 in San Juan and taking the race lead
(Image credit: Stephen Farrand)

Nairo Quintana celebrated his 29th birthday in San Juan on Monday, perhaps taking a moment to reflect on his life and career and realise that he is entering his most important season.

Despite a recent lack of success in Grand Tours, and the emergence of other Colombian Grand Tour contenders such as Rigoberto Uran, Esteban Chaves, Miguel Angel Lopez and, especially, Egan Bernal, Quintana is still an idol in Colombia, a team leader at Movistar and he is recognised as one of the best climbers in the peloton.

He won the Giro d’Italia in 2014, the Vuelta a Espana in 2016 and has finished on the podium three times at the Tour de France. Quintana seemed on the cusp of becoming the first Colombian rider to win the Tour de France, but in recent years he has struggled against the dominance and efficiency of Team Sky and has suffered with internal rivalry at Movistar that was perhaps created to inspire him to victory in France.

Last year Quintana finished 10th overall at the Tour de France behind winner Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) after Movistar opted to go with three leaders: Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa. Valverde finished 14th and Landa a slightly better seventh, but a lack of clear leadership backfired and left Quintana questioning if Movistar remain the best team for him to try to win the Tour de France in the final years of his career.

Quintana’s contract with Movistar ends this year, and there has been little talk of a new offer for 2020. The summer, and particularly the Tour de France, will mark a crossroads in Quintana's career. If he can get back to his best, when his searing attacks in the mountains made everyone suffer and he was able to open decisive time gaps, then he will remain Colombia’s best Grand Tour contender. Otherwise, he may have to move aside and accept his best years are behind him.

“Another year comes and goes and I’m not a young guy anymore, but I’m not past it either. My numbers are still good, and I’m not tired. I’m not going to retire any time soon,” Quintana responds during a relaxed and intimate interview with the media present at San Juan, including Cyclingnews.

“Last year, before the Tour, my numbers were some of the best ever. The stage I won in the Tour de Suisse was a near-perfect performance, and we knew we were working well. Then what happened in the Tour, happened. I had the crash, but I won a stage. I was on a good level and I was confident in my ability, but it wasn’t enough.”

Quintana keeps an eye out for teammate Winner Anacona's overall lead in San Juan (Getty Images)

Keeping the Tour de France dream alive

Quintana has always said winning Tour de France would be a sueño - a dream. Despite so far missing out as the years pass by, he still sees it as an ambition rather than an obsession weighing on his sparrow-like shoulders. He still believes he can win the biggest race in the sport and so become one of the few riders to win all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.

"More than an obsession, the Tour is a dream. Sometimes it’s almost come true, other times not, but I’m going to keep on trying to win it," he says.

"The truth is that my rivals have become stronger and others have stepped up too. The level is higher now and many of the teams are competitive, and that’s made it harder.

"A couple of years ago, it was me against Team Sky, but now it’s not just about me, there are other rivals who have to attack too. In my first Tour, Roglic wasn’t there and Dumoulin was only on the way up. Now there are young riders like Egan Bernal, who’s learnt lots and who’s about to win a lot of races. The Yates brothers have progressed a heck of a lot too, and there are also Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot and others. The data indicates that a lot of us are on the same level, but in the Tour only one guy wins.”

Time trials, echelons and aggressive racing before the mountain stages of the Tour de France have always been Quintana’s weakness. But, recently he has lacked the ability to make a difference in the mountains, which has been a significant handicap and the reason for his slump in results.

His training and race programmes have been scrutinised, his teammates have changed and he has stepped away from riding the Giro d’Italia before the Tour de France. But, Quintana has still struggled come July.

Quintana confirmed reports that he is now being coached by former Italian rider Michele Bartoli, with new Movistar directeur sportif Max Sciandri likely to have convinced him to take a more scientific approach to his training even if Quintana insists there have been no major changes.

He is vague about the exact reasons why he has struggled in recent years, perhaps not knowing himself. But he makes it clear he is not a quitter.

"I try to improve and understand what’s been lacking or what I can change, but there are some things that you can’t change, that are in other people’s hands, that you can’t do anything about,” he says cryptically, insisting he is not just talking about the leadership battle with Mikel Landa.

“If something was fundamentally wrong, I wouldn’t go back to the Tour. If I want to do something, I do it or at least try. I’ve got a clear conscience because I’ve worked hard and done the best I possibly could. I want to continue doing that, continue on the right way and do the best I can.”

Quintana in time trial mode during stage 3 at the Vuelta a San Juan (Getty Images)

Landa and the future

Quintana will be joint Movistar team leader at this year’s Tour de France with Landa. The Basque rider will ride the Giro d’Italia with Valverde and then hopes to peak again in July. Quintana would prefer to be the sole leader in France and is not afraid to reveal his dislike for Movistar’s strategy.

“I like being the sole leader. [I've been sole leader] in many of the races where I’ve gone well, but in this team there are three leaders and one boss, and the boss decides,” Quintana says, referring to team manager Eusebio Unzue.

“When there’s more than one leader, you can only do your best and cross your fingers you are the best,” he says.

Quintana makes it clear he feels nothing personal about teammate Landa, apparently confident that he can prove he is a better Grand Tour option for Movistar.

"I’d say our relationship is good, pretty good, normal. We don’t argue, we’re teammates and I’ve never had a bad relationship in the past, so why should that change now?" Quintana asks.

"It’s a pity Mikel’s had a tough time because he always wants to do well. He struggled to recover after his crash last summer. Now he’s come back and he’s had that bad luck in Mallorca. Everyone knows a broken collarbone means he’s got some tough days ahead for him.”

Both Quintana and Landa are out of contract this season and so some believe Unzue is trying to use an internal rivalry to push them both to perform better. The carrot could be team leadership at Movistar for 2020 and beyond. Quintana is up for a fight and understands it could be a pivotal moment in his career, but for now he is refusing to play mind games, preferring to focus on his racing.

“My contract ends this year. I’m open to any possible situation in the future. I just hope I will have a great season.”