Nairo Quintana has not yet climbed onto the final podium of this year's Tour de France and they're already asking if he can win the next one. Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue could only throw his arms wide and smile when the question was put to him outside the team bus in Le Grand Bornand on Friday, a day that saw the Colombian youngster finish comfortably with the yellow jersey group to retain third place overall with just two stages remaining.
"I think that he's certainly a rider for the future," Unzue said as he sheltered from the rain under the canopy of his bus. "After seeing how he has gone through this final week, I think he's already well prepared for the possibility of winning the Tour some day."
Quintana, of course, has raced this Tour with the urgency of a man who can't wait for tomorrow. Aggressive in the Pyrenees, he seemed the only rider competing in the same race as Chris Froome on Mont Ventoux, and he has been increasingly assured in the Alps. Quintana distanced the yellow jersey on Alpe d'Huez on Thursday and put in a tentative dig over the top of the Croix-Fry on Friday for good measure.
Although his Movistar teammate Rui Costa claimed stage victory from the day's early break, Quintana appeared disappointed that the high tempo imposed by Saxo-Tinkoff over the day's final three climbs had limited his scope for going on the offensive.
"We tried sending [Alejandro] Valverde ahead in the end to see if I could jump later, but we didn't really have the opportunity to attack," said Quintana, who still showed his hand by matching Joaquim Rodriguez's acceleration near the summit of the Croix-Fry. "At least the stage ended without incident and I'm still on the podium."
Saturday's summit finish above Annecy at Semnoz appears ideally suited to a climber of Quintana's characteristics, but rather than chase the stage victory he sought in vain at Ax 3 Domaines and again at Mont Ventoux, the 23-year-old insisted that his primary focus was on protecting his current overall position.
"We'll have to wait and see how the stage develops: sometimes you think it will go one way and then the race doesn't go as you think. It'll be a difficult day to stay on the podium and we must be ready for attacks from my rivals," he said.
While the yellow jersey of Chris Froome seems out of sight, 5:32 clear on the overall standings, Quintana is just 21 seconds down on second-placed Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and, on the evidence of the race's summit finishes to date, has every chance of overhauling the Spaniard on Saturday.
"The truth is that it's possible. He's up there," his manager Unzue said, although with Roman Kreuziger and Joaquim Rodriguez lined up just behind Quintana, caution could prove the better part of valour. "The gaps between second and fifth place are really minimal. Above all, we're trying to hold a place on the podium. But if we have the chance to take second, we'd certainly go for it, but for now, we're very happy with third place."
Unzue has spent much of the past three weeks playing down the prospects of Quintana, who lined up for the Tour ostensibly on a fact-finding mission as Alejandro Valverde's chief lieutenant. It didn't escape notice, however, that Quintana had prepared very specifically for the Tour by training at altitude for two months in Colombia. Remarkably, he didn't race for the entire period that separated Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour, yet he has scarcely missed a beat since returning to Europe just ahead of the Grand Départ in Corsica.
"He's really a great climber, but in the flat stages that didn't suit him here, he showed that still has the knack of finding the right position with the help of his team," Unzue said. "He's also defended himself well in the time trials and he's been very consistent, so he deserves to be on the podium of the Tour de France."
Quintana's performances at the Tour have brought the talents that claimed the 2010 Tour de l'Avenir, the toughest stage of the 2012 Dauphiné and overall honours at this year's Tour of the Basque Country to the widest possible audience.
"I'm impressed simply by how he recovers in the third week," Unzue said. "As for everything else, well, I already knew he could do that."