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Commentary: We should embrace Quintana’s double attempt

Andrew Hood breaks down Nairo Quintana's Giro-Tour plans, which come on the heels of his strong performance at the Volta a Valenciana.

In case you missed it over the weekend, Nairo Quintana sent a shot across the bow to put his rivals on notice.

It was like a warm knife cutting through butter as Quintana blitzed the Volta a Valenciana in Saturday’s decisive mountain stage. Sure, it was against a soft field, with none of the major GC stars squaring off against him, but those 4 kilometers up Mas de la Costa should be seen in the context of “aquí estoy, a por todos!” — “I am here, bring it on!”

If you haven’t seen it, watch it here:

Quintana’s dazzling debut continues his impressive stage-race streak: since January 2016, he has either won or finished on the podium of every stage race he’s started. Sunday’s win marks his 13th GC stage race victory since 2012. King-tana, indeed.

The Valenciana raid also sets the tone for the season’s most unlikely and improbable challenge: the elusive Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double.

There is no doubt that Quintana is one of the peloton’s most tenacious riders, but his intentions of taking on one of cycling’s most esteemed feats — remember, only seven riders have achieved the Giro-Tour double feat, with Marco Pantani the last to do so in 1998 — has been largely met with ridicule, skepticism, and even vexation. The double? Really?

Some see it as a ploy to take pressure off himself against the inevitability of losing (again) to Sky’s Chris Froome at the Tour de France. Others laugh it off as delusional at best or arrogant at worst, insisting the double can only be achieved in modern cycling by a diet that includes menu items much more nutritional than simple pan y agua. And some even take it as some sort of a bad joke, as if Movistar and Quintana are somehow rubbing it in everyone’s noses to even consider something that conventional wisdom says in today’s highly calibrated, highly controlled peloton is untenable.

But if there’s a rider who is audacious enough and credible enough to have a real shot at the modern Giro-Tour double, it’s Quintana. What was the best race day of 2016? When Quintana caught out Froome — with help from Alberto Contador — on the road to Formigal during last year’s Vuelta a España. It’s that innate ability to disrupt expectations and rip apart the spreadsheet playbook that opened the door for Quintana to win a race that Froome all but certainly had within his grasp.

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Here’s what he told La Gazzetta dello Sport last week: “The decision comes from the heart. I won the Giro [in 2014], and since it is the centenary edition, it’s my way of honoring the significance of such a big race that gave me my first important victory. With the Tour, we still have some unfinished business, and that is the ultimate goal, so we chose the Giro with the heart and the Tour for obligation.”

And it’s that mix of pluck and old-school grinta that should be celebrated. Why? Because in today’s metronomic and sometimes robotic peloton, there is less room for spontaneity, for authenticity, and for the real drama and audacity that makes cycling such a great sport in the first place. In his double attempt, Quintana is paying homage to cycling’s intrepid past while also adding a modern accent.

For Quintana to even dare attempt the double speaks volumes about his ambition, self-confidence, and courage. The easy and predictable thing to do would be to stick to what works best and put the Tour de France at the center of his calendar. After all, it’s the only major objective that so far eluded him during his otherwise unblemished assault of the peloton. To take on the double, he is risking losing both.

But in their attempt at the double, Movistar and Quintana are not simply blindly throwing darts at the wall and hoping that one sticks. Instead, the team believes that Quintana realistically has a shot at winning the Giro and will still have the reserves to seriously challenge for the Tour. There are 33 days between the two grand tours, a window that some say is too narrow to fully recover between what are the two hardest stage races of the season, but with Quintana, Movistar can dare to play the contrarian.

When I spoke with Movistar sport director and Quintana confidant José Luis Arrieta last month at the Santos Tour Down Under, the Spaniard said the team has data that suggests the double is feasible.

“We believe racing the Giro will not handicap his chances for the Tour,” Arrieta said. “Last year, he rode the Tour and won the Vuelta, so riding two grand tours at a high level is within his capabilities. Taking the data from Alejandro [Valverde] last year, we saw he was almost better during the Tour after riding the Giro. So we have some data to help us believe that you can do both the Giro and Tour in good condition, that you can be competitive in the Giro, and later be just as strong in the Tour.”

The last to seriously challenge for the double was Contador in 2015, and everyone saw what happened there. A heavy crash and a tougher-than-expected GC fight pushed him to his limit. Despite winning his second Giro pink jersey, he was spent by the Tour — riding to a pride-saving fifth — and never posed a serious challenge for the win. Froome also saw this too, and is prudently steering clear of any talk of a double as he takes on the serious business of winning his fourth yellow jersey.

Movistar also realizes time is on its side. Quintana turned 27 on Saturday, while Froome turns 32 in May. In a certain sense, the Spanish-registered squad has nothing to lose in the double attempt and much to gain. The double attempt will assure title sponsor Movistar plenty of media exposure across both Europe and the important South American market, and Quintana knows he will have several more chances at a traditional Tour approach that won’t include the Giro. So why not?

The Giro’s 100th edition is a special one, and Quintana is revealing his depth of character by paying respects to the race that secured his reputation in 2014 — when he became the first Colombian to win the Italian grand tour — even at the risk of not winning either the Giro or the Tour.

Quintana will certainly need a few things to go his way. The longer time trial kilometers at the Giro will present a handicap, but there are plenty of long climbing stages to drop the likes of Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Geraint Thomas (Sky), or Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing). His biggest challenge will come from the Italian tandem of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain – Merida) and Fabio Aru (Astana), two riders he’s confident he can beat.

And this year’s unconventional Tour route might also play into Quintana’s hands. Froome proved cagey in last year’s near-perfect Tour victory, but Quintana vows he’s learned from his mistakes. Movistar has the depth to bring strong teams for both races, but ultimately, it will likely take another “Froomigal” coup or perhaps a rare bad day for Froome for Quintana to have a serious chance at the yellow jersey.

But as the saying goes, it’s only impossible until someone does it. I will be cheering Quintana in his attempt, and may the best man win.