The rest of the 15km climb up the side of the menacing volcano, the Colombian wasn’t looking at all like the world’s most dangerous climber. And by his own admission, he’s not, at least not right now.
“The lack of racing days really has had an effect on me,” Quintana said. “I’m not yet at the fitness level of my main rivals.”
Question marks surround Quintana as the Giro leaves Sicily Wednesday after nearly a week of racing that sees the GC still knotted up in a stalemate.
The 27-year-old entered the 2017 Giro as the five-star favorite, but he’s facing a complicated balancing act in the most ambitious season of his young career. He wants to win this Giro, but he also wants arrive at the Tour de France with something left in the tank to fight for yellow.
That means the peloton will be seeing a very different kind of Quintana as he takes on the extraordinary Giro-Tour double.
Perhaps call it: “Just Enough Nairo.”
“Nairo is not 100 percent right now,” said Movistar’s José Luis Arrieta. “He will keep growing, growing, growing. He is capable of staying with the best even when he is not in his best condition.”
There’s an expression in Spanish that characterizes Quintana’s approach to this Giro: poco a poco. Little by little. Or, in cooking parlance, a slow boil until it really counts. Quintana wants to spend as little as strength as possible, and execute when he must, to try to win his second Giro title, and complete the first half of his double attempt.
“Nairo is coming into this Giro quietly, and the idea is that he will be reaching his best in the final week,” Arrieta continued. “This Giro is very long, with all the heavy racing in the final week. That’s when we want to see the best of Nairo.”
So far though this Giro, Quintana has been discretely hidden in the pack, protected behind a wall of blue jerseys as Movistar builds a cocoon around its star climber to protect him from crosswinds, crashes, and surprise attacks. With Milan still 18 days away, Quintana needs time to grow before hitting peak form in the brutal, decisive final week.
So far, so good. This is exactly how Movistar wants the Giro to unfold.
“It’s been nervous racing in these opening days, like any first days of a grand tour,” Arrieta said. “We will be happy to get to the peninsula. We have brought a team to protect Nairo on the flats until the big mountains.”
Up next are three long transition stages that should give Quintana a few more days to find his legs before the next major test at Blockhaus on Sunday. The steep, 13.6km finale is much more demanding than Etna, and after headwinds tamped down the action on Etna, Quintana and other climbers will be under pressure to move.
Why? Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Geraint Thomas (Sky) are expected to take big gains in the Montefalco time trial next Tuesday. Quintana is facing off against another Sky rider in Thomas who has an eerily similar profile to longtime nemesis Chris Froome, and he won’t want to give up too much time against the clock.
“Everyone is saying I am the big favorite, but you cannot rule out the others,” Quintana said. “A lot of riders have shown up at this Giro in top shape.”
Movistar might be hoping that Quintana can win this Giro without being at his absolute best, but the depth of the field and the ambition of his opponents could mean Quintana will have to go deeper than he wants.