HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will never win Paris-Roubaix, but the Colombian knows if he wants to win the Tour de France, he’ll have to survive a version of the “Hell of the North” this summer.
The spindly climber might have looked out of place at the start line of E3 Harelbeke, surrounded by brawny cobble-bashers, but Friday’s race marked the end of a weeklong experiment of getting a taste of what lies ahead this July in the Tour.
“It was important for Nairo to race on the cobbles here this week,” Movistar sport director José Luis Jaimerena told VeloNews. “It’s one thing to see them, but it’s something else to ride them at race speed. What we want is to avoid surprises.”
Surprises, bad luck, crashes, and disaster — those are the key words to describe what all the main GC riders will be looking to avoid during stage 4 of the 2015 Tour. For the second year in a row, Tour organizers are including treacherous sectors of the feared pavé in the race route.
Last year, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) paved the way toward his first career yellow jersey thanks to a spectacular performance across the pavé. The Italian took nearly three minutes out of archrival Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) on a day that also saw Chris Froome (Sky) abandon the race.
After seeing how popular the stage was among media and fans, Tour organizers have included another stage featuring cobblestones in the first week. Stage 4 from Seraing to Cambrai will feature seven sectors of pavé totaling 13km. Like last year, the stage may prove decisive.
For Movistar, the main worry will be shepherding Quintana safely across the bumpy hurdles. To prepare for the looming onslaught, Quintana and his teammates spent five days in Belgium to get a taste of what is in store.
“We went to the pavé sectors that will be featured during the Tour, and we had a very good look at them,” Jaimerena continued. “It’s something new for Nairo. He’s never raced in such conditions, so it was important that we made some time to inspect the sectors and race here.”
In 2014, Movistar made the same investment with Alejandro Valverde, who raced in Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Prijs Harelbeke. It paid off, as Valverde survived the cobbles to ride into the Tour’s final week with real podium options (he eventually finished fourth overall).
“The first week of the Tour is going to be about not losing the race,” Jaimerena continued. “What you want to avoid is losing all options for victory in the first week. If we can get Nairo through the first half of the Tour in good shape, then we’ll see what happens in the mountains. What we want to do is avoid disaster, and deliver him in a position to take flight in the mountains.”
Following inspections of the Tour stage earlier in the week, the 2014 Giro d’Italia champion raced Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday to 78th place without mishap. Friday’s wild and wooly Harelbeke race was something else. Four of Quintana’s Movistar teammates crashed out, and as the tension ratcheted up on the narrow roads, Quintana wisely pulled the plug with about 60km to go.
“In a race like Harelbeke, it’s dangerous no matter where you are in the bunch. Look what happened to [Fabian] Cancellara today,” Jaimerena continued. “Nairo got a sense of what it was like to be on the cobbles at race speed, but there was no sense in taking unnecessary risks.”
A Giro defense is definitely not in the cards. Quintana will line up next at the Vuelta a País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), a race he won in his breakout 2013 season. The team remains undecided if he will start in the Ardennes classics and/or the Tour de Romandie. Either way, he’ll go home to Colombia to train at altitude before returning to Europe in June, with either the Critérium du Dauphiné or Tour de Suisse ahead of the Tour de France.
After a morale-boosting victory at Tirreno-Adriatico against the likes of Nibali and Contador, Quintana takes renewed confidence out of his cobblestone adventure this week.
When VeloNews jokingly asked if Quintana could win Paris-Roubaix some day, Jaimerena turned serious.
“One thing about Nairo, he fears nothing,” Jaimerena said. “Of course, he’ll never win Roubaix, but now he knows what to expect when the Tour comes in July. It will only give him more confidence.”