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Quintana’s 2016 homework: Time trials

Nairo Quintana is a perennial grand tour favorite, but he needs to improve his TT skills to contend for the 2016 Tour title.

In all the discussion following Monday’s Tour de France route announcement, names like Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Fabio Aru, and even Thibaut Pinot have been mentioned. So why has Colombian Nairo Quintana been largely disregarded?

Perhaps that’s because Froome and Pinot attended the route announcement in Paris, while Quintana did not.

Perhaps that’s because, unlike Froome and Contador, Quintana has never won the Tour. However, his track record at the race — a pair of second-place finishes — is staggering for a 25-year-old. Quintana is already a grand tour champion, winner of a difficult 2014 Giro d’Italia, and he rides for the strongest team in pro cycling over the past three years, based on WorldTour team rankings. There’s just one problem: He’s never been a formidable time trialist like Froome or Contador.

The diminutive Colombian climber — he stands at just 5 feet, 5 inches, and 128 pounds — shines in the mountains, but has yet to deliver a time trial at the Tour de France that demonstrates he can hold his own against Froome or Contador. While those men have won TT stages at the Tour, Quintana is still, for the moment, a pure climber, a specialist in power-to-weight, rather than pure power.

At the 2013 Tour, Quintana conceded 3:16 to Froome on the power-heavy 33km TT at Mont Saint-Michel on stage 11, and he lost 1:11 on the hilly 32km stage 17 TT from Embrun to Chorges, won by Froome.

At the 2015 Tour, Quintana held his own in the short, technical, 13.8km opening time trial in Utrecht, losing 11 seconds to Froome and 18 seconds to Vincenzo Nibali, best of the pre-race favorites. Quintana’s Movistar team then rode superbly in the 28km team time trial on stage 9 in Plumelec, conceding only four seconds to BMC Racing, and three seconds to Team Sky.

In 2016, however, there will be no team time trial. Instead, Quintana will face 54km alone in two individual races against the clock — a hilly, 37km course on stage 13, and a 17km uphill effort in the Alps, with its climbs of Domancy and Chozeaux, that will cater to Quintana’s strengths.

And it’s on the 2.5km-long Domancy climb, with its 9.4 percent average gradient, where Quintana could, finally, deliver a Tour de France time trial performance that puts him into yellow — or at least within striking distance. On his way to Giro victory in 2014, he won the stage 19 uphill time trial on the Cima Grappa.

The 2016 Tour will feature four summit finishes, one less than in 2015, but several stages that include a tough climb followed by a short, tricky technical descent to the finish line. In all, the 2016 Tour will include 28 high-categorized climbs, three more than the last two years. The final climbing stage could offer Quintana another chance to shine late in the Grande Boucle. In 2013, he won the final climbing stage, Annecy-Semnoz, and this year, he took 1:20 out of a clearly fatigued Froome on the final climb, l’Alpe d’Huez, on the penultimate stage.

But to have a shot at riding to win yellow in stage 20, Quintana will need a standout time trial in stage 13.

“With much of their 54 kilometers on uphill roads, the time trials will be decisive,” Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzué said. “The final time trial includes lots of mountains, a symbol of the whole race this year, finishing with a crucial stage with its end on the foot of the Joux Plane. There are many deceptive stages, not finishing with a climb, but set to be really spectacular.”

In announcing next year’s route, race director Christian Prudhomme acknowledged, “The Tour is always for the climbers.” Quintana has proven to be arguably the best pure climber in the sport. But he’ll need to refine his TT talents in order to challenge the likes of Froome and Contador for the yellow jersey.