Nairo Quintana started the Tour de France among the top favorites for the overall title. Things haven’t gone his way in the GC battle over the past two weeks, but he earned a worthy consolation prize Wednesday, soaring to victory atop the highest mountain of the race in stage 17.
“We were a bit depressed in the last few days, so we needed this victory,” Movistar’s climber said. “Today is a marvelous day.”
Movistar rode into the Tour with a hyped three-pronged-attack. Quintana, twice a Tour runner-up, was one of the top contenders on the start list, but ace climber Mikel Landa and grand tour stalwart Alejandro Valverde were also co-leaders.
The trio has struggled to live up to expectations this July. Crashes and mechanicals have played their part, but their form was also suspect. Two weeks into the race, it was clear that none of the three would be winning this Tour de France. Instead of gaining time in the Alps, as Movistar knew it must to have a chance at the overall win, the team saw all three of its heavy hitters lose time.
As of Wednesday morning, Landa was sitting sixth overall with Quintana in eighth and Valverde in 11th place. With yellow almost certainly out of reach, Quintana shifted his focus to claiming his first Tour stage win since 2013, when he climbed to victory in the penultimate day of racing.
He delivered in stage 17, which squeezed three hard mountain climbs into a short 65 kilometers.
Quintana followed an attack from Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) early on the final climb of the Col du Portet. Before long, he dropped the Irishman. Behind, the other GC contenders were content to let the Colombian go.
It was the long-range attack many had hoped Quintana would deliver earlier in the race.
“I’m sorry to not have had better sensations in prior days; my body was not feeling well and I lost too much time, which made me feel very bad,” he said after the stage. “Fortunately, my body is feeling well again for what remains of the Tour.”
After going solo, Quintana began motoring through the remnants of the early break. He briefly linked up with one of those riders — Valverde — and then pressed on, ultimately sweeping up the last man from the escape, Tanel Kangert (Astana). From there, there was nothing but daylight between him and the finish.
“It went just the way we had planned. We had Valverde and Soler up the road and their work was really important,” Quintana said. “We knew that it was a stage for pure climbers and we showed our strength.”
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The high-mountain raid propelled Quintana up the overall leaderboard into fifth overall, 3:30 behind race leader Geraint Thomas (Sky). With an individual time trial still to come — and with four time trial talents in front of him on GC — Quintana may find it hard to land the final podium even with another big performance in the upcoming stage 19.
Still, he promised to “keep fighting.”
“We know the overall win is difficult, but we will make the race hard and we’ll see where we are capable of ending up,” he said.
No matter how the rest of the Tour plays out, Quintana has a hard-earned stage victory in one of the most difficult days of the race. Even if he came into the Tour with loftier goals, Wednesday’s victory at least gives Quintana and Movistar something to show for their efforts in the biggest event of the season.
“Things did not go well in this Tour. We had some sad days,” he said. “This victory brought the dream back and encouraged us to keep working.”