MONTELIMAR, France (VN) — Nairo Quintana stepped out of the Movistar bus Saturday morning to the same cheers as usual, but he seemed to lack the same snap in his legs.
Was Quintana sick? Movistar denied it. Was the Colombian demoralized after losing three minutes to Chris Froome (Sky) in the opening two weeks of the Tour de France? Quintana denied that.
“My morale is high,” Quintana said. “I will keep fighting in this Tour. Now we are approaching ground that favors me. We will devise a strategy to recover the time.”
What’s going on with Nairo? That’s the question going around the peloton as Quintana pedals into the Alps this weekend in fourth place at 2:59 behind Froome.
So far in this Tour, Quintana hasn’t been as sharp as he’s been in previous editions. The mantra of “waiting for the third week” is running out of road. All eyes will be on Quintana to see if he has the legs to seriously challenge Froome in the final week. When asked about his expectations, Quintana put on a brave face.
“I am feeling good. [Friday] wasn’t an ideal time trial for me, and I couldn’t do it as well as I wanted due to the wind. I had to fight against the wind, and we lost a lot of time to Froome,” Quintana said. “Let’s leave this wind behind, and move into terrain that favors me more.”
Quintana’s confidence was sky high coming into this Tour, but after being battered by heavy crosswinds for the past four days, Quintana will be relieved to pedal into steeper roads. Sunday’s stage over the hors-categorie Colombiere should prove to his liking.
Quintana will have the pressure to deliver. The Colombian didn’t attack in the Pyrenees, insisting he was waiting for the right moment. And when he did attack on the lower flanks of the abridged Mont Ventoux in Thursday’s chaotic stage, he was quickly swamped by Sky, and then dropped by Chris Froome and Richie Porte (BMC Racing), with Bauke Mollema (Trek – Segafredo) later bridging across, leaving Quintana in their dust.
If and when the attacks come, Froome won’t be waiting sitting down. The Sky captain has previously been the brunt of Quintana’s attacks, but he also has his eye on others, including Bauke Mollema (Trek – Segafredo) and BMC’s Porte and Tejay van Garderen.
“I have no doubt [Quintana] will attack in the Alps,” Froome said. “We know he goes well in the last week. Last year, he put me under a lot of pressure, and I think we expect the same this year. I am comfortable with the advantage I’ve got, and it gives me a bit of breathing space, but I know the hardest part of the race is still to come.”
Quintana’s position is hardly ideal, but when compared to his two previous Tours, he’s actually in a better position. In 2013, after coming out of the Pyrénées, Mont Ventoux and a time trial, he was fifth overall at 5:57 back. Last year, in a comparative position in the race after losing time in stage 2 and in the first stage in the Pyrenees, he was 3:10 back.
Movistar prefers to look at the bright side. Quintana hasn’t crashed, and he did the best to limit his losses in a hilly, very windy time trial to Froome to 2:05 on Friday. Alejandro Valverde is fifth overall, at 3:17 back. There is still hope.
“Throw in the towel? No way. Froome is doing things in the race that we’ve never seen before, and he once again proved he is superior in the time trial,” Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué said. “We are going into the mountains that favor the climbers, but I don’t believe anyone is racing for second place yet. I think everyone will try to attack Froome, and put him in danger. We are not renouncing anything. Not yet.”