Nairo Quintana indulged in a spot of soul-searching as he absorbed the disappointments of the final mountain stage of the Vuelta a España. “Sometimes you’re smiling, sometimes you’re sad,” said the Colombian on the Coll de la Gallina.
This, he conceded, was “a sad day”. It wasn’t long ago that the main talking point of the Vuelta was the potential internal leadership tussle at Movistar, but after Quintana’s woes on Monte Oiz on Wednesday left Alejandro Valverde as top dog, the Spaniard was not only unable to usurp Simon Yates but plummeted off the podium on a bruising Saturday in Andorra.
For Movistar, despite Valverde’s two stage wins, it was a sorry end to the Vuelta, with Quintana also falling to eighth overall after dropping to help Valverde on the final climb.
For Quintana personally, his status is at risk of waning. A precocious talent who was considered a shoo-in to become the first Colombian Tour de France winner when he burst onto the scene five or so years ago, he has faltered in the last couple of years. He won the Giro d’Italia in 2014 and the Vuelta a España in 2016, finishing on the podium of the Tour in both years, but he hasn’t managed to hit those heights since.
Last year he was runner-up at the Giro but outside the top 10 at the Tour, while this year he made the Tour his number one priority but could only manage 10th – with a stage win – before coming to the Vuelta.
“It’s not only victories that make you great,” Quintana insisted beyond the finish line on the Coll de la Gallina on Saturday afternoon.
“In the difficult moments you also learn and they force you to reflect on what you do, on how difficult winning is, and how much of an achievement it really is when you do it.”
Quintana was criticised by some in Spain for his approach on the two concluding Andorra stages, and whether his actions helped or hindered Valverde. On Friday he attacked early on the final climb of the Coll de la Rabassa but was joined by Yates and eventually dropped back to guide Valverde, though, partly due to a puncture, he was unable to limit the damage. On Saturday he once again went on the attack on a couple of occasions but ultimately dropped back for Valverde, though by that point it was clear it was a lost cause.
“We were out to win since the start of the Vuelta, always working as a team. We wanted to win the race today with Alejandro, or at least secure a podium finish, but it wasn’t to be,” Quintana said.
“As the team has done for me in the past, today it was down to me to work, and I don’t have a problem doing so. We played our strategy and it didn’t come off for us.”
Quintana will head to the World Championships later this month on a course that is set to suit the climbers. It represents a last chance to salvage a season that has veered far from the script that was pencilled in at the start of his career.
“We leave the Vuelta having learned a lot and with a lot to reflect on,” he said. “We need to use the difficult moments to move forward.”