The column: Of Nairo Quintana and green shoots at the Tour de la Provence
Is Nairo back?
In the words of 90s crystal ball-like today, the Magic 8 Ball, all signs point to yes.
“I think we’ll see a renaissance in Nairo this season. He really wasn’t happy at Movistar,” Matt Rendell recently told the Rouleur podcast. When it comes to Colombians, Matt has the inside track, but the second half of that certainly fits with the wider perception.
As a multiple Grand Tour winner, Quintana had every right to consider himself the Spanish team’s out-and-out leader. Due support and every human resource at their disposal.
Instead, Movistar head honcho Eusebio Unzué treated Alejandro Valverde as if he were the team’s true standard bearer. Maybe it was worth it. There’s a lot to be said for loyalty after all, particularly in this day and age. Still, there’s a good argument that it came at the cost of Quintana’s palmarès.
Although when we first heard about it, his transfer to Arkea Samsic was surprising – the rider and Movistar had felt like part of each other’s DNA – now we’ve caught a glimpse of the aforementioned renaissance, it’s no wonder he decided to seek out pastures new.
Last week, Quintana genuinely looked like a different rider to the one we’ve been used to over recent seasons. Not just because he was wearing the kit of Arkea Samsic rather than Movistar blue either.
Naysayers will (nay)say that the Tour de la Provence is too lowly a race to provide any concrete conclusions and also point out that he wasn’t up against his most fearsome GC rivals in their best form. They’d be correct on both scores. Points to them. Nevertheless, the last time Quintana won a race in February was three years ago – the 2016 Volta a la Valenciana. That season he went on to overall victory at Tirreno and lost out on his second Giro d’Italia title by a mere 30 seconds. That was, of course, the season when he was supposed to be targeting the Giro-Tour double. Hubris, maybe, but it surely spoke to a sense of self that went AWOL in the seasons since.
We have seen flashes of the old Nairo since then, such as on Stage 18 of the Tour last year. On that occasion, however, he didn’t ride away from everyone because he was better than them, but because he was too far down the GC order to be considered a real threat.
On Saturday, it really was a dominant Nairo that we saw. To bastardise the classic David Coleman quote, on Mont Ventoux (well, its lower slopes), the little Colombian opened up his legs and showed his class. On a 10km climb, a one-and-a-half minute margin over anyone is impressive. Something has to be clicking.
Rather than the Pro Continental side diminishing a galactico, Nairo has already elevated Arkea Samsic to WorldTour status in all but name.
Thanks to him (and Nacer Bouhanni) the team has already racked up 80% of their win tally from 2019. The new boys presumably cost the Breton bank a pretty penny but the investment appears to be paying off.
The big question, and one which we’ve been dancing around, is whether Quintana can be a Grande Boucle contender. Warren Barguil excepted, Arkea don’t have anything like Movistar’s mountain firepower but, as mentioned, it arguably did Quintana more harm than good over the last few years, anyway.
Indulging in predictions is a fool’s errand at this point in the year. Yet perhaps whether Quintana can win the Tour, or compete for a podium, matters less than the fact he’s able to enjoy racing his bike.
Read: The making of Nairo Quintana
“Nairo,” says Rendell “reminds me of a jazz musician of the 1920s who, from a certain amount of hardship, has been inspired and captivated by the glittering sheen on a saxophone. Or in his case, a bicycle. It hypnotised him and offered him something that’s very difficult to come by.”
After several years when he went without, if last week’s race is anything to go by, it finally seems to be offering him that again.
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