The road to Tour de France victory, so tradition has it, goes through the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse, but Nairo Quintana (Movistar) sticks resolutely to his own path as he lines out for the Route du Sud as his final preparation race ahead of La Grande Boucle.
Now in its 40th year, the Route du Sud is a curious kind of Tour tune-up. Not once has the winner of the Pyrenean gone on to take the spoils in July, and the last maillot jaune – albeit a revoked one – to emerge from the race at all was Lance Armstrong in 1999. He would be stripped of that win in 2012, of course, but in any case, he had also raced the Dauphiné the preceding week.
Quintana, however, has made a habit of prioritising training over racing in the build-up to the Tour. On his debut in 2013, Quintana didn't race at all between Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour, a gap of some 68 days. Last year, the Route du Sud was Quintana's sole race between the Tour de Romandie in early May and this season, he quietly shelved plans to line out at the Tour de Suisse to return to the tried and trusted.
While Chris Froome, Alberto Contador et al were flogging themselves at the Dauphiné over the weekend, Quintana was quietly underlining the appeal of the Route du Sud in a press conference in his native Colombia, which was a sort of debriefing for the local media after his month-long block of training on home roads.
"The Route du Sud allows me to get race pace without pushing my body to the limit," Quintana explained. "The last races we've done were a month ago, and we're also facing into a tough race at the Tour. It has enough French mountain roads, and is good enough to finish the preparation."
Winner of the Route du Sud in 2012 – when Movistar resisted the temptation to thrust him into the Tour squad – Quintana was out-lasted in a high-quality duel with Contador in last year's race, placing second overall. In the absence of any other bona fide Tour contenders, Quintana will be the overwhelming favourite for victory in a season where he has scarcely put a pedal stroke askew thus far.
Saturday's étape reine features the mighty Col du Tourmalet ahead of a stiff summit finish at the Col de Couraduque, and despite Quintana's admission that the Alps have been kinder to him than the Pyrenees over the years, he ought to find the terrain there very much to his liking.
The race as a whole – and Saturday's key stage in particular – will serve as something of a progress report for Quintana as he builds towards the Tour, and if he is not yet in condition to win, his brother Dayer – winner of the Tour de San Luis – could step into the breach for Movistar.
The podium finisher from San Luis, Eduardo Sepulveda (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) is another contender for the win, not least because of the 13-kilometre time trial around Albi on Friday afternoon, though the Andorra resident is still feeling his way back into competitive action after breaking his wrist and being knocked unconscious when he was hit by a barrier at La Drome Classic in February.
There are just three WorldTour squads – Movistar, FDJ and AG2R-La Mondiale – in the Route du Sud peloton, a far cry from the 1990s when even Jan Ullrich was liable to be sent to the Pyrenees for a final pre-Tour work-out. Even so, it will be interesting to see how Hugh Carthy (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) fares in this company. Sergey Firsanov (Gazprom-Rusvelo) showed flashes of his capabilities in the final week of the Giro, while Luis Angel Maté (Cofidis) is likely to be an aggressive presence.
It is noteworthy, too, that Direct Energie will field a team that bears quite a resemblance to its likely Tour de France line-up. Thomas Voeckler is a Route du Sud regular, winning the race in 2006 and 2013, and a stage winner as far back as 2004. Sylvain Chavanel will fancy his chances in the Albi time trial.
Bryan Coquard will expect to pick up a morale-boosting sprint win ahead of a Tour where Direct Energie will devote at least three riders to leading him out. Arnaud Démare (FDJ) looks the man most likely to deny him, though the Milan-San Remo winner's form is questionable: he is not part of FDJ's Tour de France plans and is coming off the back of an illness-hit Giro d'Italia.
The Route du Sud opens on Thursday with a 196-kilomete leg from Courniou to Bessières. The rugged early terrain, including the Col des Thérondels might help to give a breakaway a head start, but the sprinters' teams – namely Direct Energie – have a long, flat run-in to the finish in order to set up the anticipated grandstand finale.
With just four days at their disposal, the organisers have seen fit cram in two stages on Friday. The morning leg, a brisk 92 kilometres in length, brings the peloton over some rolling roads early on before a fast run-in to Albi. The afternoon stage is an undulating13-kilometre time trial around Albi that includes the Côte des Archers and the Côte de Carlus and will provide the first shake-up of the general classification.
The Route du Sud ought to be decided on stage four, which brings the race into the Pyrenees proper. The category 3 Col de Coupe and category 2 Couret d'Ausque provide the overture before the bunch tackles the Col du Tourmalet from Bagnères-de-Bigorre. After the long drop to Luz-Saint-Saveur, the road climbs again towards the category 2 Col des Bordères, before the summit finish on the Col du Couraduque.
Sunday's concluding leg, by contrast, is a rather gentler affair, with the peloton tackling eight laps of a 17-kilometre circuit around Clermont Pouyguilles. All told, a slow-burning preamble to the Tour de France.
"If I'd raced the Dauphiné, I'd have had to spend fewer days training at altitude," Quintana said before flying to Europe. "I've prepared myself to win the Tour. I know I can complete my preparation at the Route du Sud, with a time trial and a nice mountain stage."
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