Nairo Quintana (Movistar) has said that he still needs to step up a level to be able to take on his rivals in the Giro d'Italia, after a steady but unspectacular performance on the climb to Mount Etna.
Expectations that Quintana would go on the rampage on the Giro's first major summit finish were not that high, given it's so early in the race but it was impossible to rule it out because of the Colombian's reputation for aggressive mountain racing.
At one point Quintana briefly swung out of the peloton and across the road and the crowd and the media scrum at the finish line instantly chorused 'Nairo', as it suddenly looked as if Quintana might be revving up to try to attack Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and the rest of the contenders on the Sicilian's home turf.
However the attack never came and Quintana went with a far more prudent strategy. Although clearly able to respond to the occasional surging acceleration amongst the favourites, Quintana relied heavily on teammate Andrey Amador when Nibali put in his one real attack.
After finishing eleventh inside the group of favourites, it emerged that behind Quintana's usual Sphinkx-like expression, he was still thinking it was best to bide his time.
"My objective in this first mountain stage was to be up there with my rivals and not lose time on them," Quintana, now sixth overall, told Spanish newspaper AS.
"I'm noticing that I'm lacking in race rhythm a lot and I'm still not at my rivals' level. It was my first big day in the mountains with the other competitors and these early stages, and the ones that precede the Blockhaus will help me get up to speed. In the next mountain stage, I think I'll be going better."
Responding to Nibali
After winning Tirreno-Adriatico in mid-March, Quintana took time off from racing and he only rode the Vuelta a Asturias in late April, prior to travelling to Sardinia last Tuesday for the Giro d'Italia. He won one stage in the northern Spanish stage race, to the summit finish of El Acebo and finished second overall, but with his eye on both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, he has yet to hit top form.
Quintana praised Amador's hard work when Nibali attacked and all his Movistar teammates.
"He closed down the move and I could stay on his wheel. But not just Andrey, the whole team has been going well and I'm very pleased with how they're working here," he said.
"We had to respond to Nibali's attack," his compatriot Winner Anacona, who also rode strongly on the climb, told Colombian reporters at the line. "It was tough, the wind made it very difficult, but we've kept the rivals at bay for a day. We did what we had to."
Quintana played down his status as leading favourite for the Giro d'Italia.
"You can't underestimate the rest of the field, there's some very good rivals here," he said.
"Nibali performed well and showed that he's ahead of the rest, Team Sky showed their cards with [Geraint] Thomas and [Mikel] Landa, they are two rivals we can't underestimate. And [Ilnur] Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) has shown his form, because it wasn't at all easy to make a move like that and open up a gap. Then of course [Bob] Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) has been in great shape, and we have to count on him too."
Quintana will now have four flatter stages to find his form and raise his game before the next key mountain stages – the steep Blockhaus mountain finish on Sunday's stage 9 and Tuesday's stage 10 time trial after the rest day. But as his Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzue warned on Monday, the Giro d'Italia is an unpredictable beast at the best of times. Quintana may therefore find that other challenges may test his form sooner than the weekend.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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