After all the drama of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) fighting for victory in the Giro d'Italia and Chris Froome (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) battling it out at the Critérium du Dauphiné, the fourth of the top Grand Tour favourites, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), begins his final build-up for the Tour de France at the low-key Route du Sud stage race on Thursday.
Quintana’s last race was the Tour de Romandie in early May and he has spent most of the intervening period back home in Colombia, returning to Europe in time for his big objective of the season. After finishing second in his debut Tour de France in 2013 and then winning the Giro d’Italia last year (he also led the Vuelta a España before crashing out injured), Quintana is now looking to take his country’s first ever win in the Tour this summer.
Quintana’s lone build-up race for the Tour is the four-day Route du Sud, where the Colombian heads a Movistar squad lacking Spanish teammate Alejandro Valverde, who finished second here last year and who will be racing the Tour alongside the Colombian. This June, however, Valverde opted for the longer Critérium du Dauphiné for his first race back after the Ardennes Classics.
“The Route du Sud is a race I like a lot,” Quintana told a small group of reporters on Wednesday evening in the start town of Lourdes. However, without ruling it out completely, he played down his chances of a repeat of his win here in 2012. “I’m expecting to be able to get up to full race speed here, so without pushing myself too hard here, it’s ideal for me.”
“I hope to have a good race here, and my victory here in 2012 was a good one. But my objectives were different back then, it was a different moment.”
Quintana, Contador and Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) are the headline acts in the four-stage race. With no time trial, Saturday’s tough trek through the Pyrenees is likely to decide the overall. “Those climbs are going to be an important reference point for me,” Quintana agreed.
Most of the questions Quintana fielded were, understandably, about the Tour de France, how he will tackle July and his condition compared to his previous assaults on Grand Tours.
“As a rider, I’ve definitely moved forwards since winning the Giro d’Italia last year,” Quintana said, “I’ve stepped up in terms of race strategy, how to save as much energy as possible, and the way the team and I work together. Physically, too, I’m in good shape.”
Quintana refused to highlight any rider in particular as a favourite for July, saying “everybody is on a good level. They’ve all shown their strength in different races, Froome has won several, Nibali rode really well on one stage in the Dauphiné and Contador’s already won the Giro. After resting up a lot this month, I’m sure he’ll be in good shape too for the Tour.”
Quintana agreed that his victory in Tirreno-Adriatico had given him “a lot more confidence” – though, ever one to keep his feet on the ground, he added: “I know that I’ve been able to beat my rivals then, but they’ve been able to beat me, too.
“The Tour for sure is going to be a very dramatic race, because I’d say unlike in other years, there’s not just one or two riders who can win the Tour, or even four, this time there are maybe ten who have a chance of doing it.”
Expectations for July in Colombia, Quintana said, will be high, both among the public and the media, “particularly as the football hasn’t worked out so well” – though he was speaking before the national team resurrected its Copa America hopes by beating Brazil on Wednesday evening. In any case, support and interest amongst the fans back home is high. “It’s not just the Giro or the Tour that matters, they like it when I win in any race,” Quintana said. And although he is playing down his chances, that would, of course, include a repeat victory in the Route du Sud.
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