The nervousness that typically permeates the start of a mountain stage at the Tour de France was punctured by the joyous cheering of the small but vocal pocket of Colombian fans congregated near the Movistar bus in Lannemezan on Thursday morning.
Already at fever pitch when feting Winner Anacona, there was a striking intensity about their chanting when Nairo Quintana emerged from the bus and soft-pedalled across to the crowd barrier to salute them.
“Nai-ro! Nai-ro!, Nai-ro!” went the mantra as Quintana entered the forest of outstretched arms and fluttering yellow, red and blue flags to be among his people. Forty minutes down the road from Lourdes, a religious experience.
Quintana would produce no miracles on stage 12, but he may feel perhaps, that he has at least crossed the threshold of hope by breaking even with the seemingly unflappable Chris Froome (Sky) on the final haul to Plateau de Beille at the end of a day of extremes. From broiling temperatures on the Portet-d’Aspet and Col de la Core, the race would climb into heavy rain, hailstones and thunder by late afternoon.
“It was a difficult day, with really demanding climbs and, above all, serious temperature changes and rain in the finale,” Quintana said after a stage. “The weather took even more energy from us, but we withstood it and we attacked the leader several times.”
Despite suffering heavy losses at the hands of Froome and Sky on La Pierre-Saint-Martin two days ago, Quintana and his teammate Alejandro Valverde felt sufficiently emboldened to attack the yellow jersey in turn, albeit in hope more than in expectation.
Valverde responded to an acceleration from Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) with seven kilometres remaining, while Quintana launched his first effort three kilometres later, though he was unable to place Froome – or the surprising Geraint Thomas, for that matter – under significant duress.
“Sky managed to control all of the attacks, both ours and the ones from Alberto [Contador] and Vincenzo... They dominated the situation pretty well and have shown themselves to be strong, both Froome and his teammates,” Quintana said after finishing alongside Froome in a group that came home 6:47 down on stage winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
In the general classification, Quintana remains in third place, still 3:09 behind Froome. “We'll keep dreaming and trying; there's still a long way to go and everything won't be decided until the final mountain stage,” he said.
Quintana had entered the Pyrenees just two minutes down on Froome after punctuating a trying opening week of the Tour with strong showings on the pavé to Cambrai and in the team time trial to Plumelec. The Colombian would doubtless have settled for such a state of play before the race began, but he was to endure a surprisingly large setback once the Tour entered his favoured terrain.
Both on his last Tour appearance in 2013 and en route to victory at the Giro d’Italia a year ago, Quintana seemed to improve as the race went on, saving his best for the third week. Indeed, at the Giro, Quintana also trailed by three minutes at the end of the second week, only to turn the race on its head in the space of one afternoon on the Stelvio and Val Martello.
With that track record in mind, and with a brutal finale in the Alps still to come, Quintana looked to strike an optimistic note at Plateau de Beille, though he will be all too aware that this particular iteration of Froome and Sky seems on a level above what he has encountered up to this point.
“I feel well at the moment, we're as strong as in previous days. I think my level shouldn't go down in what's left in this Tour,” Quintana said. “If I keep it like today, I think we can try to do some good things between now and Paris. There's still a long way to go. We’ve lost some ground already, but we’ll keep fighting until next Sunday."