Where did he go?
Is it over, will he ever again challenge for the top step of the Tour de France, have we already witnessed the zenith of Quintana’s talent?
It would be easy to jump to dire conclusions based on the Colombian’s last Tour and the first half of this one. After finishing second to Chris Froome in 2013 and 2015 and third in 2016 – and often scaring the wits out of Froome in the high mountains, Movistar’s ace climber has come back to earth with a thud.
You could excuse the foolishness and misguided thinking behind Quintana’s 2017 Giro-Tour double. He arrived at the Tour predictably worn out and showed that fatigue every time the gradients became extreme.
Quintana promised us all he would never again prepare to win the Tour by exhausting himself first in Italy. But now, arriving with fresh legs, he finds himself on the back foot in the Alps, already over three minutes behind race leader Geraint Thomas. He looks listless, and worse, ordinary. He appears so unlike himself, so unable to attack, that a heavier rider like Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), who rode to a second place in the Giro d’Italia, is beating him up the climbs by a significant margin.
It makes you scratch your head in wonder. What is going on? He looked in form based on his mountain stage win in the Tour de Suisse but in France, nothing. Several jours, sans.
Remember that the argument from Movistar team boss Eusebio Unzué for Quintana’s giro-Tour double was the claim that Quintana actually needed the first grand tour to improve his performance in the second. They insisted they had the race data and physiological evidence that upping the workload was a good thing. It clearly wasn’t.
Did Movistar, as Quintana’s father angrily suggested last year, overwork Quintana, throwing him into every race, grinding him down? With Quintana looking significantly off in his performance, that’s a statement worth revisiting. Father knows best.
This year the plan was the opposite – fresh legs, fresh mindset, putting the snap back in the Colombian’s accelerations. There was the expectation that Quintana would revert to the dazzling climber who could tear out big time gaps on a vicious mountain climb. We’d all see the return of his transcendent skill – the ability to simply ride away from the greatest climbers of this generation. When Quintana was on his game, even Froome cracked.
Then, are there other factors at play? Is he sick? Did the endless polemic of three captains at Movistar tire him out mentally? Was he unable to focus and compartmentalize like Froome, who thrives even when most of the cycling world believed he should have been banned and his Vuelta title stripped for over-using his asthma medication? Those factors seem unlikely.
Because of his diminutive size, Quintana seems more affected by winds and the stresses of the first seven to ten days in the Tour. Yet this edition of La Grand Boucle has generally served up good weather. Quintana came through the difficult mini-Paris-Roubaix stage across the cobblestones in good shape. So, what explains the lack of form, wattage, aggression?
The sport of pro cycling desperately needs a foil and true challenger for the big budget Team Sky and Chris Froome. Richie Porte simply cannot put together three weeks without crashes or illness. Vincenzo Nibali, for all his experience and tactical skill, does not have the team to break Sky’s stranglehold.
Quintana was that guy – the one rider with a freakish ability to be that angel in the mountains. A talent rare enough that no amount of Sky budget, no amount of high priced domestiques, could counter it.
It’s too early to write off Nairo Quintana, to say he’ll never win a Tour de France, but there are already people who are whispering it. The “suenos amarillo” is very much in doubt.
Where, exactly, did Nairo Quintana go?