There was considerable mirth among the riders of Katusha-Alpecin and Direct Energie as they navigated the back streets of Le Puy-en-Velay in search of their hotels in the aftermath of stage 15 of the Tour de France. With much of the peloton set to spend Monday's rest day in the shadow of the imposing statue of Notre-Dame de France that dominates the skyline, many riders realised the quickest way to their lodgings was by bike, even if they weren't entirely sure of the route.
Nairo Quintana's Movistar team were among them, but there was precious little levity about their journey to the Inter Hotel Bristol on the edge of town. Instead, a troupe of navy-clad riders soft-pedaled from their bus, Quintana in their midst, and picked their way through the finish area with ashen faces after the Colombian lost four minutes to his overall rivals and all hopes of a podium finish at this Tour.
Quintana's defiant attack on Friday's short but explosive leg to Foix raised hopes that his troubled Tour might take on a different guise as it entered its final week, but the nigh-on two minutes he pegged back on Chris Froome (Sky) et al there proved little more than an illusion. His pedaling leaden, Quintana was distanced on Sunday almost as soon AG2R La Mondiale began to force the pace in earnest on the category 1 Col de Peyra Taillade.
Though nursed by his fellow countryman Carlos Betancur, Quintana would never regain contact with the men who will decide this Tour. He reached the summit 1:30 down and by the finish, his deficit was just shy of four minutes to the yellow jersey group. As the Tour breaks for its second rest day, Quintana lies 11th overall, 6:16 behind Froome and almost six minutes off the podium.
"It was a very hard stage and I felt the tiredness of the previous ones," Quintana said. "Unfortunately, I'm not recovering the way I expected and I've lost time again. The head always pushes more than the body, but when it does not respond, there is not much to do."
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There is, of course, a very obvious explanation for Quintana's travails on this Tour, namely his exertions at the Giro d'Italia, where he placed second overall behind Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb). Like Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and even stage 15 winner Bauke Mollema, Quintana is clearly short of his best, still suffering the effects of his exertions in May. But while Pinot and Mollema entered this Tour with their ambitions strictly limited to chasing stage victories, Quintana arrived in Düsseldorf evincing belief that he could win the Tour outright.
The rationale behind the double attempt was that Quintana had appeared flat at the 2016 Tour only to produce his best form of the year en route to victory at the following Vuelta a España. That logic, however, has proved flawed. The competition at the Tour is higher than at the Vuelta – or, more accurately, their levels of fatigue are much lower. It was, in hindsight, a most quixotic enterprise on Movistar and Quintana's part.
Quintana's father Luis took to the airwaves over the weekend to bemoan Movistar's decision to send him to both the Giro and Tour this year, reportedly complaining that the Spanish team was "burning out" the 27-year-old.
At the Giro, a solo stage win at Blockhaus apart, Quintana seemed more laboured in his climbing than at last year's Vuelta or his sparkling 2013 Tour debut. Even as Quintana carried the pink jersey into the final time trial of the race, Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue was publicly admitting that his star was some way short of his best.
After placing second in his Tour debut in 2013 and then winning the Giro the following year, Quintana's bar has been set higher than most. If second place at the 2015 Tour and third place a year ago already felt like disappointments, then there seems little consolation to be drawn from the third week here.
"We are still fighting to see what will come from the week that we have left," Quintana said. "We continue to look forward, always without giving up. I'm not thinking about what the target will be in the last week. The important thing now is to recover."
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