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Nairoman, reborn

17 Feb 2020

Words: Joe Robinson

Of all the riders I write about, Nairo Quintana is the one to be written off by readers most regularly. Tip the Colombian at a Grand Tour, suggest he may put in a performance or that he is among the favourites for victory and people will be quick to suggest the contrary.

A lot of riders, even those less successful, get away with half the criticism Quintana is subjected to by the press and fans alike. It’s often along the lines that Quintana was always overrated.

A rider whose hype never lived up to his performance. That his Giro d’Italia victory was down to luck and that his Vuelta a Espana victory was due to the misfortune of Chris Froome. That he always sat in the wheels, never ready to take a race by the scruff of the neck.

Even though he regularly picked up big results in big races on big mountains, it was never the dominance that he was touted for when he broke onto the scene at the 2013 Tour de France and people were quick to point that out.

I always defended Quintana. There were always flashes of the brilliance, like the Tour stage over the Col du Lautaret last year where he was climbing on a completely different planet. Or the year before to the summit of the Col du Portet. It was never consistent but when it happened, it was always spectacular.

Change of scenery

In the off-season, Quintana surprised a lot of us, myself included. The rather insular, sometimes hard to deal with character switched away from the Spanish-speaking Movistar team, his home for the previous eight seasons, for pastures new at Arkea-Samsic, a French team that wasn’t in the WorldTour, but in the second rung ProTeam rankings.

On face value, it’s a move that suggests regression. Think what you will of Movistar, but they have been one of the world’s best teams, consistently, for a very long time. Grand Tour and Monument victories are proof of that, wins they have regularly acquired.

At 30 years old, an age that’s usually a Grand Tour contender’s prime, Quintana was passing up the opportunity for leading one the world’s most proven at whichever Grand Tour took his fancy for the unknown of ProTour riding.

And I’d heard rumours, like most of us had, about Quintana’s character. That he wasn’t much of a team player, that he was quite resistant to change, a bit of a nightmare for some sponsors and was above all incredibly stubborn when it came to his position in the team. After all, Alex Dowsett did say he ‘wasn’t a very nice man’ live on television last year.

Moving to a team with Nacer Bouhanni and Warren Barguil - two further riders that come with that tag of ‘maverick’, if you’re being kind - it looked as if we were heading for some form of dark comedy that sees the very public capitulation of three immensely talented yet controversial riders.

But then he and they produce a performance as he did on Saturday. Stage 3 of the Tour de la Provence. Not an important race but a significant season opener that shows us who had a good winter.

The summit finish halfway up Mont Ventoux to Chalet Reynard was always going to be the General Classification decider and while the peloton was not stacked with major GC talent, there was enough - like Thibaut Pinot, Wilco Kelderman and Hugh Carthy - to give us a reasonable barometer.

For a long period, it looked as if the peloton had conceded the stage win to Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Remi Cavagna, whose sizeable three-minute lead looked enough to secure the win.

That’s until Quintana sent his men to work. The Arkea-Samsic team massed to the front of the bunch and began to pull hard. Even Bouhanni, the sprinter spurred on by a win earlier in the race, did his bit. By the bottom of the climb, Cavagna had been caught and the main bunch had been shredded down.

Barguil did his turn, Winner Anacona stretched out things a bit further and then, with 7km of the 10km climb left, Quintana attacked. It was vicious, it was unanswerable, it was Quintana back to his best. He flicked the entire race in one fell swoop.

Record's broken

By the line, Quintana had reached Chalet Reynard in 28 minutes and 12 seconds, technically a new record, beating Marco Pantani’s 28 minutes 20 seconds from 1994. Let’s be clear, Quintana set no such record as he, unlike Pantani, Lance Armstrong, Froome and the rest, was only racing half of the entire climb but it was a massive statement of intent.

It was Quintana puffing out his chest, peacocking, showing people that he is one of the world’s best climbers and that, on his day, he is unmatchable.

Sure this was just one performance. One stage in what’s quite a small race in February, a world away from the Tour de France this summer and the challenges of Egan Bernal, Primoz Roglic and the rest. But this was Quintana telling the world there’s life in the not-so-old dog yet and that the doubters have got him all wrong.

And if this move to Arkea-Samsic proves a reawakening of the sleeping giant that is Nairo Quintana, a master stoke that reignites a much-anticipated career, then I’m all for it.