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Tour de France

Unzué: ‘Nairo is ready to win the Tour’

"Nairo is the peloton’s best climber right now," says Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué

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Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué believes the third time will be a charm for Nairo Quintana, who says his young protégé is “ready to win” the Tour de France.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Quintana has only raced two Tours — each time second to Sky’s Chris Froome in 2013 and 2015 — and for the Colombian’s third crack at the yellow jersey, Unzué says the peloton will see an even better Quintana this July.

“This will be the best version of Nairo,” Unzué said. “He’s now more confident, more prepared, with a higher level of experience. Now he is ready to win the Tour.”

How is he better? The Colombian is already considered the most dangerous pure climber in the peloton, but Unzué said Quintana has matured both on and off the bike. For one, he believes Quintana will surprise in the time trial stages during this year’s Tour, but Unzué also sees a wiser, more experienced racer than the one who exploded onto the international stage in 2013 as Tour runner-up.

“To be close to victory makes you want it more, to work harder, to really realize what you have to do to win the Tour,” Unzué told VeloNews in an interview. “Nairo now is more meticulous, he’s more professional. We know he has the class, but there is more to win the Tour. Now there is nothing holding back Nairo.”

The veteran Spanish sports director has worked with some of the biggest names in Tour history, including Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain. In a career that spans four decades, Unzué admits that Quintana is something special.

“Nairo is convinced that when he races, he is going to win,” Unzué continues. “He has the mind of a big champion. He is very confident. That’s why it was almost a blessing in disguise to have finished second.”

It was Unzué who made the controversial call to keep Quintana out of the 2014 Tour de France, and slotting him into the Giro d’Italia instead. Unzué could never have guessed that both Froome and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) would have both crashed out, but Unzué is unapologetic.

“Nairo needed to know what it took to win a grand tour, and the 2014 Giro was perfect,” he said. “He’s only raced the Tour twice, but those two years have served like a ‘masters degree.’ Now the next exams will be able the chance for him to show that he can win something as big as the Tour. He is ready.”

Unzué is a key figure in Quintana’s entrée to Europe. After he won the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir, Unzué invited this plucky Colombian to undergo physiological testing at Movistar’s base in Pamplona, Spain. Technicians wired up Quintana, but they thought the power numbers had to be a mistake, and ran the tests again. After the third try, the technician called Unzué with the results. At 18, Quintana was putting out power equivalent to a seasoned pro, and soon had his first professional contract.

When Quintana hit Europe in 2012, he was intent on proving his value. He won his third pro race, the two-stage Vuelta a Murcia in February, and then won a mountain stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné across the French Alps ahead of Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins, and Froome. Unzué was convinced he had something special when Quintana rode to 36th in his grand tour debut in that year’s Vuelta a España.

“It was in his first year, in the last week of his first grand tour at the Vuelta, is when I realized that he is a big rider,” recalls Unzué. “He was only 21, but the way that he was capable of finishing off the race so strong. You can see details in his vision, his ambition, how he carries himself, you see that he is not a normal rider.”

Quintana’s been on a tear this spring, winning the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie, and the Route du Sud last week in his return to Europe. Movistar will bring a strong squad to back Quintana, with Alejandro Valverde, third last year, completed committed to helping his younger teammate. Unzué said they are not in any way intimidated by Sky’s superstar team: “We have full respect of Froome and Team Sky. He is the strongest rider in grand tours the last five years. To beat him won’t be easy.”

Many think the additional time trial kilometers in this year’s Tour could torpedo Quintana’s chances against the superior Froome, but Unzué’s not among them.

“For his size and weight, he’s actually a very good time trialist,” he said about Quintana. “Against the specialists, he will lose time like a rider like Froome, but against the others, not so much, and even he can win time. We believe this Tour will be won in the mountains, and Nairo is the peloton’s best climber right now. We have reason to be optimistic.”

Movistar confirms Tour roster
Also Monday, Movistar confirmed its Tour roster. As expected, Valverde will slot in as a super domestique, with an eye on building form for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. Also tapped are Portuguese roleur Nelson Oliveira, Colombian climber and Quintana confidante Winner Annacona, as well as Spanish riders Imano Erviti, Gorka and Ion Izagirre, Dani Moreno, and Jesús Herrada. Notable names left off are Andrey Amador, Alex Dowsett, Fran Ventoso, Jonathan Castroviejo, and new Spanish road champ JJ Rojas.