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Movistar boss on a Quintana Tour win: ‘One day it will arrive’

Sport director and manager Eusebio Unzué says sooner or later, Nairo Quintana will win the elusive yellow jersey.

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PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué is taking the long view about beating Team Sky and Chris Froome.

With three Tour de France wins inside four years and backed by the powerful Sky roster, Froome demonstrated yet again this summer he is hard to beat. Movistar and Nairo Quintana later took a morale-boosting win at the Vuelta a España, but Unzué knows that a Froome in top form is hard to topple.

“Froome looked more vulnerable in 2013 and 2015 in the last week of the Tour, but this year we saw a different Chris Froome,” Unzué said. “He took time differences in the descent and then on the flats. We discovered a different side to Froome. Not only is he strong in the mountains and time trials, and with the team he had at the Tour, he was impossible to beat.”

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The veteran sport director and manager knows he has a gem with Quintana, but he also knows he’s going up against one of the best grand tour riders in a generation. So Unzué is playing a patient hand, waiting for Sky to make a mistake to open the door for Quintana to pounce.

As Movistar turns the page on yet another exceptional season — with victory in the Vuelta and podiums in both the Tour and Giro d’Italia — it is already looking ahead to 2017. Or, as Unzué puts it, “change the chip,” and hit the re-set button for a new year of challenges.

Unzué, who led Miguel Indurain to five straight yellow jerseys in Spain’s golden era, has finally found another rider capable of winning the Tour. He also knows his Colombian protégé is running up against a rider who could be the next to join the five-win club. Unzué is taking the long view, and with Froome turning 32 before the start of next year’s Tour, he believes time is on the side of Quintana, five years younger.

“After winning the Giro and Vuelta, obviously the next big step is the Tour,” Unzué said of Quintana. “It’s always difficult to win, but one day it will arrive. We believe he will win it sooner or later, because he has a Tour in his legs.”

Unzué has been trying to figure out how to crack the “Froome code” ever since Quintana emerged with a second-place result in 2013. Quintana is the only rider capable of putting a dent into Froome in the high mountains, but there are two problems. First, to get to Froome, Quintana has to punch through the all-but-impenetrable “Fortress Froome” that includes riders who would be leaders on any other team. And when Quintana does manage to drop Froome, the African can recover any lost time with big gains in the time trial.

“What was clear from the Tour and the Vuelta is that we saw a Froome more solid than ever before. He’s at the best level of his career,” Unzué said. “He was unbeatable, with the form and the team he had. We were able to win at the Vuelta thanks to some great tactics. Nairo was strong and the team was very sharp, and thanks to that we were able to achieve the victory.”

That quandary is perhaps what prompted Unzué to convince Quintana to race the 2014 Giro to win. Buoyed by a close call in the 2015 Tour, Quintana and Movistar come into this year’s race perhaps a touch over-confident. Sky and Froome took it to Movistar right from the start. After not attacking in the Pyrénées, Quintana had nothing left in the tank to challenge Froome in the Alps, but stubbornly held on for third overall.

In what’s a testament to Quintana’s determination and ambition, he bounced back for the Vuelta and won, thanks in large part to the tactical coup on the road to Formigal.

So what to do in 2017? Perhaps admitting that Froome is looking invincible, Unzué confirmed last week that Quintana might race the Giro again for the race’s centenary as part of a Giro-Tour double attempt. That is a challenge that most riders take on after they’ve won a few yellow jerseys, but Quintana might do it despite the risk simply because Froome, if he is as healthy and strong as he was in 2016, might be untouchable.

A non-traditional Tour de France route for 2017, however, gives Unzué pause.

“This year’s Tour de France is a race without a script,” Unzué explained. “The key days are not so obvious, so it will be an interesting spectacle. It will oblige everyone to improvise more, and it will be a less predictable Tour than other years.”

With Froome at the top of his powers, Unzué is taking the long view. He can afford to do so because he has a commitment from Movistar for three more years, so he’s confident that Quintana will become South America’s first Tour de France winner … sooner or later.

“With Nairo, we have the luxury that he simply keeps improving as a grand tour rider,” Unzué said. “He keeps growing, and he won his second grand tour. What we want to do next year is have five, six or seven key riders who can be with Nairo and bring them together through the major goals of the season.”