BURGOS, Spain (VN) — Nairo Quintana strolled into the hotel lobby with a shy grin on his face.
The 24-year-old Colombian has one of the best poker faces in the peloton, but the Movistar rider was clearly happy to be back in the peloton.
“I’ve been training hard at home. It’s nice to see your family and friends, but I am ready to race again,” Quintana said as he sat down on a sofa. “I have a lot of big goals for the second half of the season.”
Quintana might be playing down his chances to win the five-day Vuelta a Burgos, which clicks into gear Wednesday and marks Quintana’s first race since winning the Giro d’Italia in dramatic fashion in May.
But one thing is very clear; any race Quintana starts these days, he’s a favorite to win.
So who’s going to beat Quintana in his return to Europe after winning the Giro?
The small clique of riders who might have been able to beat back the Colombian climber — Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), or Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) — all decided to skip the five-day race across northern Spain.
And with Movistar bringing a top-flight squad to protect him from whipping winds on the flats, it’s all but Quintana’s race to lose.
Of course, anything can happen in a bike race, but Quintana is the overwhelming favorite to defend his Burgos title from last year.
“Of course, I hope to win, but it’s been a long time since I have raced,” Quintana told VeloNews Tuesday night. “I have been training hard, staying focused on my fitness, with an eye on doing well in the second half of the season. This is a race I enjoy a lot.”
There’s a big difference between where Quintana is from one year ago. In 2013, he won the Burgos tour following his breakout Tour de France performance in which he won a stage, the mountains and youth classifications, as well as finishing second overall, before returning home to a hero’s welcome in Colombia.
This year, Quintana is returning to Europe intent on rediscovering his racing legs ahead of what could be an historic double. Quintana is taking aim at the Vuelta a España in what would be the first Vuelta-Giro double since Alberto Contador in 2008.
Quintana admits he’s not sure of his form ahead of Burgos.
“I have not raced in so long, so I have no way of measuring my form. I feel good, but until one races, one really doesn’t know,” said Quintana, who sat down for a chat with VeloNews and a reporter from Biciciclismo.com. “I feel about as good as I did at the start of the Giro.”
So who could challenge him? Peraud and Nibali were on their team’s respective long lists, but after their successful Tours, they’re both skipping the race. Rodríguez, a winner in 2011, wasn’t up to racing before his Vuelta bid later this month.
Katusha’s Dani Moreno, who won in 2012, could present the stiffest challenge. Mikel Landa (Astana) and David Arroyo (Caja Rural) will also be battling for the win.
The race also marks the European return of Carlos Betancur (Ag2r). Betancur hasn’t raced since Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and missed his highly anticipated debut at the Tour de France in July. Whether Betancur can seriously challenge his compatriot at Burgos or the Vuelta remains to be seen.
Chad Haga, Lawson Craddock, and Tom Peterson all line up for Giant-Shimano. Haga and Craddock are both in line for a start at the Vuelta, and will want to ride well to demonstrate to the team they’re ready for the Spanish tour.
The five-day route certainly suits Quintana. The opening two stages are ideal for sprinters or perhaps puncheurs, but Friday’s climbing stage marks a return to the Lagunas de Neila climb where Quintana sealed victory last year.
This year’s race ends with a 12.5-kilometer individual time trial at Aranda del Duero on a rolling course where wind could be a factor.
“This will be an important test before the Vuelta,” Quintana said. “If I see that I am not up to winning, I will help a teammate try for the victory. This will help me for the Vuelta, which is main goal right now.”
Vuelta a Burgos (August 13-17)
Stage 1, August 13: Burgos-Burgos, 143km — circuit course ending up the short by steep “castillo” climb above the historic center
Stage 2, August 14: Briviesca to Villadiego, 152km — rolling stage across the northern meseta, breakaway vs. the sprinters
Stage 3, August 15: Comunero de Revenga to Lagunas de Neila, 170km — decisive summit finale in the emblematic climb of the Burgos tour
Stage 4, August 16: Medina de Pomar to Villarcayo, 142km — a rolling stage with three third-category climbs, perhaps another chance for a breakaway
Stage 5, August 17: Aranda de Duero, 12.5km ITT — out and back on a rolling course; wind and heat could be a factor