In professional cycling, two years is an eternity – especially when your name is Nairo Quintana.
The glory days began with a runner-up spot at the 2013 Tour de France, followed by a Giro d’Italia title the following season, another second place at the 2015 Tour, and victory at the 2016 Vuelta a España. Yet, they now seem so long ago that, despite being only 29, everyone seems to be questioning if the Movistar rider's best days are over.
It has become apparent that racing the Giro d'Italia before the Tour de France isn't ideal for the little Colombian. In fact, his best Tours have seen him do the Tour de Romandie followed by the Route d’Occitanie – formerly the Route du Sud – in the preparation period, but these last couple of seasons Movistar have deviated from that formula and it hasn't worked out very well at all.
They've experimented with more than 40 days of racing in 2017, and fewer than 30 days in 2018, and still Quintana has lacked sparkle in July. His victory on the short-but-intense Pyrenean stage last year saved a bit of face, but eighth overall certainly wasn't the performance the team were looking for.
When they turned up at the start with three protected riders, of which Quintana was the number-one choice, it smacked of more stars than helpers in the team. Already, that decision of having more than one named leader is a deviation from the norm, but the Spanish squad seem to be continuing with the idea even this year, despite its ambiguity, because Mikel Landa shares the burden of being involved in the fight for the GC. Quite how the Spaniard will manage that, when he loses time at the beginning of every Grand Tour and then spends the rest of the race trying to recover the situation, beats me, but that's what's been decided.
As for Quintana, the very thing you could rely on him for – namely to be in the front probing and asking questions of the other favourites when the big mountains appear – has been sorely missing from his game these last few seasons. In its place are weary performances that see him in the front group but being subject to what his rivals are doing rather than doing any of the dictating or decision-making.
I do wonder if the team's tactic of having two or three leaders plays on his confidence – as if he needs to prove that he's better than the others in his team before he can get on with the bigger challenge of the GC battle. There is certainly a reluctance to take the initiative in his racing that's gone on for far too long now, and whether that's because he cannot or dare not is hard to decipher. Maybe it's a mix of the two, but what’s certain is that he's getting a reputation for following too much and waiting until it's too late. It’s strange, because that sort of riding is not what has produced his best results.
Maybe the atmosphere at Movistar has become too serious and too intense as they try to match Team Ineos, with everything studied and planned to the nth degree, but the fun looks like it's missing from his racing. Colombians ride instinctively when they’re growing up, with little thought given to consequences. They gradually learn some race craft, but the panache is never usually erased entirely. Nairo Quintana seems to have lost his for the moment but I, for one, hope he re-discovers his way again.
This year, he has been present in the races he's done but, apart from Paris-Nice, it's been lacking in something again. If his recent showing at the Critérium du Dauphiné is anything to go by, he'll be involved in the racing on some days at the Tour but while his best day might see him bag a stage win, his worst day might take him out of the overall contest.
During the Dauphiné, we spoke to Movistar directeur sportif Jose Luis Arrieta about Quintana's preparation.
"Nairo is returning to competition again after a break," said Arrieta. "His last race was in early April, so a long while ago. It’s not a GC objective for us here. We are here essentially to get some race efforts in, so it's good that he can just follow the best riders.
"Nairo’s here to re-discover the racing rhythm and build his condition for the Tour, and with that in mind we hope he’ll be better each day," he continued. "He still has some time to improve. He’s come here from Colombia, which suits him: he can train at home, in a calm way, and it’s at altitude so he has that, but he doesn’t have to leave his family to prepare properly. It’s been his usual method of preparation.
"At the Tour de France he won’t be the sole leader; at Movistar we like to have at least two options just in case of a crash, sickness or some other incident. He’ll be protected along with Mikel Landa. Alejandro Valverde will be there, too, but not for the GC," Arrieta said.
"The choice of riding the Dauphine instead of doing the Giro is down to our preference that he races the Tour and then the Vuelta. We looked at the Giro route and how it fitted in with our objectives, but we also have to remember that, for Movistar, his presence in Spain is important, so we’re here to work towards those goals. We have looked at some parts of his pre-Tour preparation and thought that maybe his body is reacting differently to before, but no major changes have been made. He has a new trainer this season, and they have made some changes to his training as a result. He's in good shape," said Arrieta.
Quintana's 2019 race programme
- Vuelta a San Juan (January 27-February 2): 8th
- Tour Colombia (February 12-17): 5th, with 1 stage win
- Paris-Nice (March 10-18): 2nd
- Volta a Catalunya (March 25-31): 4th
- GP Miguel Indurain (April 6): 42nd
- Critérium du Dauphiné (June 9-16): 9th
Race days: 37 (23 WorldTour)
UCI ranking: 37