The Movistar Team bus is not usually a major point of congregation for local fans ahead of a Flemish classic but a determined flock gathered for a glimpse of Nairo Quintana in unfamiliar terrain in Roeselare’s Pollenplein on Wednesday morning.
While most riders at the start of Dwars door Vlaanderen line up aiming to fine-tune their condition ahead of the Tour of Flanders, Quintana arrived here with rather different ambitions. With the Tour de France set to the return to the pavé once again this year, the Colombian has opted – like his teammate Alejandro Valverde twelve months ago – to sample the cobbles by racing in Belgium.
Quintana had spent Tuesday morning across the border in France, making the pilgrimage to check out the sectors of pavé that will feature on stage 4 to Cambrai in July. On Wednesday, he looked to apply his learning as he took his competitive bow on the cobbles and an immersion course in the dark arts of scrambling for position on the narrow, rocky tracks of the Flemish Ardennes.
Although Quintana ultimately wasn’t a factor in Dwars door Vlaanderen in the same way Valverde was a year ago, he did remain within sight of the action until the final hour of racing, before sitting up in the finale and crossing the line at the back of the main peloton, seven minutes down on winner Jelle Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise).
Rain was general across Flanders on Wednesday and there was, quite understandably, precious little appetite from any of Movistar’s number to emerge from their cloister until the last possible moment before the start. It also meant that a sizeable crowd gathered as the minutes ticked by, as though awaiting a Marian apparition.
When Quintana finally did appear, however, there was disappointment for some. The Colombian was running for late and did not pause to sign autographs – though he may well have felt it would have been tempting fate to sign the yellow jersey proffered by one young fan in any case.
Taking shelter from the rain behind the signing on podium a short time later, Quintana smiled when asked by reporters about his reconnaissance the previous day. “It was good just to take a bit of a look around, it went well,” he said.
After laying down something of a marker by beating Alberto Contador and winning Tirreno-Adriatico last week, Quintana explained that his brief trip north was simply another element in his methodical build-up to July.
“I’ve been preparing and building towards the Tour de France since I fell last year at the Vuelta a España,” he said. “I started off with my physical conditioning in the winter, then the early-season races, and now sampling this kind of race is another important part of the preparation for the Tour.
“It’s an important day. Normally these aren’t races for me but it’s important for me to come here and try the cobbles and get to know them well. I’ve been to take a look at the specific sections of pavé that we’ll face on the route of the Tour de France, but I also wanted to try the cobbles in racing conditions.”
Quintana was able to rely on support from his Movistar ‘bodyguards’ Adriano Malori and Gorka Izaguirre for much of the afternoon, and was well placed in the many body of the peloton after the first dose of cobbles and hills had forced an initial selection after around 100 kilometres.
From there on, Quintana was – if not quite at the centre of the action – then certainly maintaining a watching brief. When the race broke up on the Taaienberg, he was active in the third group on the road, and even briefly joined Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory Racing) as he chased back up towards the head of affairs.
Quintana was next picked by the television cameras on the Oude Kwaremont. By that time he had been irretrievably distanced by the front of the race and seemed to make rather ginger process across that uneven sea of cobbles, but there was no need for his Movistar directeurs to haul him ashore and he reached Waregem ensconced in the main peloton.
“I felt good all day, and in the finale I tried to help my teammate Andrey [Amador] so he could be in front,” Quintana said after showering and changing aboard the Movistar bus. “With the crashes that others had, I didn’t want to take too many risks. But I feel good in this country, I enjoyed it and I think I’ll come back.”
Quintana is currently on the provisional start list for E3 Harelbeke on Friday, though it may yet prove that his Movistar squad feel he has already learned about the cobbles as he needs to at this juncture. Ever the diplomatic, however, Quintana nodded gravely when jokingly asked if he would consider riding Paris-Roubaix.
“In the future, I’d certainly like to come back and do Paris-Roubaix, even though it’s obviously not a race that suits me,” Quintana said.
The race that suits Quintana above all others is this year’s Tour de France – provided, of course, that he safely negotiates that treacherous fourth stage. With that in mind, the Dwars door Vlaanderen experience was banked as a positive one.
“I’m happy with today because it was a good experiment and today went better than I thought it would. My sensations on the cobbles were pretty normal. Sure, it was something different but I felt very good on them.”