Two years ago, when Nairo Quintana (Movistar) met the media immediately after winning the Vuelta a España, the Colombian’s outlook on the Tour de France, and Grand Tour racing, could not have been more upbeat. As the curtain on the 2019 season begins to twitch - with racing only just completed - Quintana faced another autumn press conference. He again looked ahead towards next July's Tour de France but things were understandably far more contained.
Two difficult Tour de France, in 2017 and again in 2018, have undermined Quintana's GC hopes after he had finished on the podium in his previous three participations in 2016, 2015 and 2013. A poor Vuelta a España this autumn, with a three-week media soap opera featuring Movistar's leadership question as its main story line, further emphasised the question marks over what the Colombian can still achieve.
Quintana preferred to pull no punches when it came to talking to the media in Movistar's team meeting in Pamplona this Friday.
"I haven’t fulfilled all my objectives this year, and if that doesn’t work out, it seems like you’ve done nothing all season," Quintana, who won stages in the Tour de France and Tour de Suisse this season said.
"But I wasn’t missing in action, I was there, fighting away, sometimes better and sometimes worse. What's clear is that this was not my best year and not what we hoped for.
"I lacked that spark in the Tour and Vuelta. I had a crash in the Tour, which affected me, and I still have some lasting effects of that, but we were always thinking about the Tour."
The million dollar question is why has Quintana's career stumbled?
In 2017, having taken second in the Giro d'Italia, Quintana was not at his best in the Tour, but it was blamed on an excessively high workload, with the Colombian tackling four Grand Tours in 14 months.
And this time around?
"There are various things, and we clearly did something wrong not to be in good shape," Quintana explained. "Next year we'll try and do it better, and it's clear that I’ll be doing the Tour de France again, that is what Eusebio Unzue has told me will happen. So I want to get to work again.
"We need to look at what we did in the past, when I got onto the podium in the Tour, and more or less repeat that strategy. That’s the idea for 2019."
The key to it all, Quintana said, was too much training.
"We overdid it, and in the Vuelta I was exhausted. I always wanted to be up there, but although the first part of the race went well, I faded away in the second."
He brushed aside the media criticism of the past as categorically as he has done on previous occasions, saying "It makes me laugh. If you can’t attack, you can’t attack. What am I going to attack for, to benefit the guys who always follow wheels every day of their life? Why don’t they attack?"
Asked directly by one Spanish journalist "why can't you attack?" Quintana replied: "Some days I suffered from the heat when it was too hot, and I had to stay on the wheel, where I was holding on for as long as possible. But these days, everything is so controlled and measured with power outputs, that everybody knows that how long an attack can last for and at what speed, and whoever attacks first, possibly ends up paying the highest price."
Against power metre racing
Quintana argued that both racing on feelings and racing with data had their advantages, but he concurred with Valverde, who had spoken about the question earlier, that it might well be better to race, at least from the public’s point of view, without power meters.
As for beating Team Sky, he said, power meters were discouraging for those who thought they might chance their arm, but whose heads ended up telling their hearts to do the cycling equivalent of holding onto nurse for fear of something worse.
As Quintana put it, "if you stay on the wheels and look at your power meter, you’ve never going to win.
"But at 350, 400 watts, who is going to attack? People like to make comments about why they should attack, but when they [Team Sky] go at that rhythm, they know that no-one can. It's to Sky’s advantage to race like that."
He later concluded that "if they banned power meters, it would be better."
Quintana rubbished another idea that there should be a salary pay cap as a way to end Team Sky's domination, saying that "if they have got money, good for them. It’d be better than all the other [WorldTour] teams had the same money. Sky work in a good way and their investment pays off."
Movistar's 2018 investment in three leaders for the Tour de France backfired and while Quintana recognised he prefers alone command, he admitted that "it’s now up to us to share the leadership. We got along well. People talked all year long about the tension, but we worked well together."
Quintana's presence in the Tour is therefore as much of a certainty as anything can be eight months out - and at the moment he is the only Movistar leader with a definitive Grand Tour goal.
The Colombian was asked what he thought of the 2019 Tour de France route. He was appreciative of the high mountain stages, he answered, in particular, the ones finishing at altitude, and he added, somewhat pointedly - given the muttering by some parts of the Spanish media over whether he trains in South America or Spain - he would be preparing for them at home in Colombia.
The Giro d’Italia, at least for the moment, is ruled out but the Vuelta a España will almost certainly be back on his race programme.
Furthermore, he pointed out that there is no question of Quintana leaving Movistar after 2019. Instead, he will begin negotiations over his contract, which ends in 2019, mid-way through next year.
The key issue remains what the Colombian can achieve in the future, rather than where and when he achieves it.
"I haven’t lost that spark," Quintana insisted. "In some tests last year I got some of the best results of my career. But I lacked that good form on the two or three days that mattered."
"Nairo will be around for a while to come," he concluded with a smile.
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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