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Nairo Quintana rode to victory in the seven-day...

Colombian climber Quintana is king at Tirreno-Adriatico

The Colombian showcases his fighting spirit by winning the annual race across Italy after bouncing back from surgery and a crash

RIETI, Italy (VN) — It’s not the fact that he won, but the way he did it. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) blew the doors off the best of the peloton to win Tirreno-Adriatico to remind everyone the Colombian climber will be a very real candidate for victory in July’s Tour de France.

After a rough and tumble six months that included shoulder surgery and a crash at the Colombian national championships, Quintana returned to Europe last week somewhat as an enigma. Despite finishing third at the Tour de San Luís in his season debut in January, no one knew what to expect, but it didn’t take long for the defending Giro d’Italia champ to show his true colors.

Attacking through a pelting blizzard, Quintana gapped rivals such as Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) with such ferocity that all they could do was try to limit the damage. Quintana had just delivered his first knockout punch of the season.

“Nairo always wants to race to win, but he wasn’t sure how he could compete against the European level after such a long break,” Movistar sport director Chente García said. “It’s always important to win. It’s good for everyone on the team to see your captain riding well.”

Quintana’s coup also reveals new maturity and depth for the 25-year-old, who will take on full leadership duties at Movistar this season.

Some riders rely upon their power meters to race, spinning like a hamster on the wheel until no one can keep up. Others, such as Contador, like to dominate the stage, use a strong team to weaken up the opposition, and then deliver the winning attack on his terms.

On the stage 5 Terminillo climb, which at 14 kilometers was the longest climb so far this season in Europe, Quintana proved he could be wily as well as very strong. Contador’s Tinkoff crew was grinding away at the front, with Ivan Basso and then Roman Kreuziger taking big pulls to trim the field. Feeling confident, Contador floated back to the elite group to gauge who was looking strong. Quintana’s antennae immediately picked up the move, and when he saw Contador out of position on the left, Quintana bolted clear on the right side. He poured everything into the attack and after looking back, he opened up some serious real estate. He never looked back again.

Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing) gave a brave chase, but Contador said he wasn’t getting much cooperation from the others, and reminded himself that the Giro, not Tirreno, is his goal and he was forced to concede.

For Quintana, that crack of opportunity became a door he was intent on stampeding straight through.

“I needed this win for my head,” Quintana said. “Winning in those conditions at Terminillo makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. To beat those rivals, in conditions like that, and to finish in the snow, that makes it a very special day.”

What happens in March doesn’t necessarily provide a crystal ball for July, but it certainly provides some telling clues. Although Chris Froome (Sky) was a late-hour scratch due to a cold, Nibali, Contador, and others, such as Mollema, Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) certainly all walked away with new respect for Quintana.

Tirreno-Adriatico provided an early season X-ray about where everyone stands. Based on how the race unfolded, Nibali is clearly a step behind the fastest right now. He lost contact with the bunch in a circuit course over a second-category climb, and then waved the white flag when Quintana attacked up Terminillo. The Italian was on a similar track last season, when he flew off the radar for much of the year, only to come out gangbusters in July. It’s hard to read the Sphinx-like Nibali, because at a pre-Tirreno press conference he suggested he wanted more early-season results before the Tour.

Off-road drama with his team aside, Nibali will likely be skipping Milano-Sanremo this weekend and will reappear for the Ardennes classics. He might not race another stage race until the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, so Nibali looks to be holding his cards very close to his chest again.

Contador, meanwhile, won’t be satisfied with fifth overall, but he admitted early on that his approach to 2015 is very different than last year, when he roared into the season and won Tirreno-Adriatico as part of his excellent spring campaign. Taking on the Giro-Tour double this season, Contador clearly doesn’t want to peak too soon, so he might be taking it on the chin in some early season duels with Froome (who beat him at Ruta del Sol in February) and Quintana. The real goal is to win another pink jersey and then try to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year. For an experienced rider like Contador, what happens in February and March are merely preludes to the larger, more important battles.

Other protagonists during the week take positive signs out of Tirreno, with Mollema confirming his status as GC captain at Trek with a solid second place. He was the only rider who dared to chase Quintana alone through the blizzard at Terminillo, and he will take confidence from an important podium placing.

Pinot just missed the podium by four seconds to Urán in what’s an encouraging start to the season for the Frenchman, who will have huge pressure on home roads this summer to try to equal his third-place Tour finish from 2014.

Urán, like Contador, will be racing both the Giro and Tour, and a third-place result at Tirreno will bolster his confidence. But he needs to find that killer instinct that his compatriot seems to have plenty of if he wants to trade his back-to-back second places in the Giro for victory.

For Quintana, Tirreno-Adriatico represents another major milestone in his career. In 2013, he won the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) to announce to the world he is a force to be reckoned with. His dramatic ride across the Tour de France that summer revealed a character and strength that prompted Greg LeMond to call Quintana, “the best talent I’ve seen in 25 years.”

Quintana’s equally dramatic victory at the 2014 Giro to become the first Colombian to win the Italian grand tour pushed him into the elite of the peloton. His Tirreno win will only bolster his status as a Tour favorite, and cemented his place among the “Fab Four.”

“I don’t know what [Contador] is thinking after my win here. But I think all of the big climbing rivals are at a very similar level. Froome wasn’t here, so we didn’t see what shape he is in. But he and Contador showed how strong they are in Andalucía,” Quintana said. “Now I have won here. To me, it suggests that we are all pretty even. Contador will be strong at the Tour de France, but so will Froome and Nibali. And for all of us, it’s our main goal.”

Quintana will race next week at Dwars door Vlaanderen to get a taste of the cobblestones that await in the Tour this summer. After that, it’s a return to the Basque Country tour and the Ardennes, before a likely final tune-up at the Tour de Suisse. What’s sure is that when Quintana is toeing up to the line, he will be racing to win.