Nairo Quintana's rollercoaster relationship with the Tour de France took another dramatic turn on stage 18 with the Colombian bouncing back after a disappointing two weeks to win the first stage in the Alps and jump from 12 to seventh on GC in the process.
The former Vuelta a Espana and Giro d’Italia winner has flattered to deceive in the Tour de France ever since a string of three podium places between 2013 and 2016, while the last few years have seen the 29-year-old’s Tour hopes flicker between the mercurial to the mediocre in comparison to those early years of promise. But on stage 18 to Valloire the pint-sized climber provided another timely reminder of both his undoubted class and ultimate underachievement that seems to follow him at the biggest race of all.
He escaped as part of a 33-strong group early in the stage and was ever-present as the break thinned out on the Col d’Izoard and the Galibier. With 26km to go the Colombian took off and quickly distanced a group that contained just Romain Bardet and Alexey Lutsenko and when the gap quickly expanded beyond 30 seconds the stage win never looked in doubt.
"This win reflects the amount of work I've put in to be ready for this type of performance," he said at the finish.
"It was a really grand day for me, and it was within the team strategy. We wanted to put ourselves in the right position for winning the stage and for Mikel Landa to improve his GC position. So it's a fantastic day for me, my family and for the team, for my teammates, and for the country."
Quintana and his Movistar team have never appeared to sing from the same hymn sheet at the Tour de France. It’s a similar scenario to 2018 when the team arrived with a three-pronged attack that was quickly dented in the mountains before Quintana eventually helped paper over the cracks with a stage. At times, in this year's race, it has looked as though the Spanish squad has tried their best to replicate last year’s blueprint with questionable tactics at several key points. They have remained in contention and relevant simply because they have one of the strongest squads but the fact that Quintana now sits above Landa in GC will raise questions over the team’s tactics for the rest of the race.
For today at least Quintana - who is leaving the team for Arkea at the end of the year will not concern himself with such matters. A third stage win in the Tour is a significant milestone for any rider, even one who perhaps hasn’t been at his best since the summer of 2016 or the Giro of 2017 when he finished second.
"This stage was one for the pure climbers, for the real climbers in the bunch, and I was present. I was ready for it. It's a beautiful win, and on a stage like this, with this type of profile, it makes me emotional,” he said in his winner’s press conference.
"Even though we don’t have the position we originally wanted we’ll keep fighting. Even though I crashed a few days ago, I didn’t want to surrender. Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde were well-positioned so I wanted to help them get into a better position on GC. I managed to get into the break, which was very strong, with two teammates. We were waiting for Mikel to attack because he told us he was in very good shape today, but when we saw how it was unfolding at the end of the stage we decided to go for the stage victory."
Quintana played down and suggestions of a conflict within the Movistar armada but there has seldom been a demonstration of him or Landa sacrificing their races for each other, while Valverde is perennially cast in the role of a shadowing parent who makes sure that the two youngsters never have a public tantrum.
"There is no conflict and I'm not upset with them," Quintana said.
"Everything was very clear this morning. The idea was to put riders in the break to help Mikel's attempt to get into the podium positions. But in the end, Andrey [Amador] and I decided to bet on a stage win."
Landa's post-stage comments reflected a different mood in the camp. The Spaniard failed to attack on the Galibier, but he finished in a group that contained the yellow jersey. He is now a minute behind Quintana on GC.
When asked if Movistar would support Quintana on stage 19, Landa, who is also set to leave the team at the end of the season, responded with a long pause before saying: "We will see, no? We have to play it tactically with our riders."
Whatever happens on stage 19, if Landa and Quintana are involved, it's likely to be entertaining.
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