With his third career Tour de France appearance on tap this season, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana is optimistic that a yellow jersey is within reach if just a few more things go his way this time around.
Quintana’s 2015 Tour campaign got off track early in the race when he lost 1:28 to Sky’s Chris Froome in heavy crosswinds in the second stage. However, he battled back in the third week and finished the Tour 1:12 behind Froome in second. To Quintana, that’s enough of an indication that he already has the necessary tools to pull off the overall win.
“I take it with calm. I’ve always said that if I work hard, I will be in good shape at the Tour. Let’s hope that bad luck doesn’t go with us, and as for the rest, I think, arriving there having worked well, the results will come,” the Movistar rider told a small group of journalists at January’s Tour de San Luis.
2016 is the first year in which Quintana, two-time winner of the Tour’s white jersey, can’t look to the young rider’s classification as a consolation prize for missing out on yellow. Nevertheless, he’s confident that he has already found a successful Tour formula. As such, the 26-year-old Colombian isn’t planning on making any big adjustments to his approach this season.
“My method of training has been good. You saw that the time I lost last year was because of an error or bad luck, not because of a lack of form,” he said. “So I think the preparation is good. What I do want to plan is the type of races, to be able to reach the Tour not so saturated with racing, but with good training.”
Good preparation or not, Quintana is not underestimating Froome, who has been the only rider standing between Quintana and the yellow jersey in Quintana’s two Tour starts. He acknowledged just how difficult it can be planning a race strategy given Sky’s immense talent.
“On the day of La Pierre-Saint-Martin [stage 10 of the 2015 Tour], Sky’s strength was clear,” Quintana said.
“I set my team to work from mid-stage, to pull, because I wanted the race to be very fast, because it was very hot and it was the first day of climbing in the Tour — I thought people would pay the price, and that is what happened. The only thing was that the Sky riders, and Froome in particular, were enormously superior to all of us.”
Some observers have wondered whether Movistar waited too long to get aggressive in last year’s Tour, but Quintana points out that trying to strike from afar at every opportunity is easier said than done.
“Even attacking from a distance they are always going to cover you, so it is not so easy to attack,” he said. “And then, trying to make up lost time, you can lose three times the time you want to make up.”
Still, Quintana has proven he has a special talent for racing over the course of three weeks, gradually working his way up the leaderboard in all three of his grand tour podium performances. If he’s going to defeat the likes of Froome, Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador, and Astana’s Fabio Aru in July, he knows he’ll have to rely on his special ability to thrive across 21 days on the bike.
“It’s an ally that accompanies me, and I hope it’s always there.” Quintana said of the three-week length of the grand tours. “In the races that I have done, like the  Giro d’Italia that I won, [the length] was in my favor.”
Until July, Quintana will focus on his preparation across a carefully selected assembly of prep races. So far, Quintana’s build-up certainly appears to be on track, given his third-place GC finish at the Tour de San Luis, a feat he pulled off despite putting in plenty of effort to help his younger brother and teammate Dayer Quintana nab the overall title.
The next big target on his calendar is the Volta a Catalunya in late March, where Quintana has a bit of unfinished business. He’s performed well there in the past but has never quite landed on the GC podium.
“I have always liked the Volta a Catalunya,” Quintana said. “Something has always happened — I’ve lost my place on the podium on the last day, and I’d like to try again. It’s a race I like very much. I’ve also got a very nice stage win that I remember there. Why not try again?”
The race was also the setting of a revelatory moment in 2011 between Quintana and Contador. Having taken up competitive cycling relatively late in his youth, the Colombian said he never imagined he might one day drop Contador in the mountains at the Tour, but Contador appears to have seen it coming.
“In the Volta a Catalunya in 2011, I was with him, and in a private moment, he told me that one day I would be alongside him, attacking him and competing with riders like him,” Quintana said.
Quintana has bettered Contador twice now at the Tour de France, and at the moment the bookmakers are giving Quintana — not the two-time former winner Contador — the best odds to unseat Froome as Tour champion this summer.