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Look who’s back: Nairo Quintana starts season on a tear in road to Tour de France

Back from COVID, back to his best? 'Nairoman' blasts to consecutive GC victories at Provence, Tour du Var.

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It takes more than a bout of COVID to keep “Nairoman” down.

Nairo Quintana blasted back from a recent brush with coronavirus by stomping to GC victories at both the Tour de la Provence and Tour de Alpes Maritimes et du Var this month.

So is that it, the Colombian climbing king is back to his grand tour-conquering best?

It’s still a long way until Quintana and his Arkéa-Samsic crew collect for the Tour de France, but dominant stage wins and overall honors in successive weeks have gotten the climbing king off on the right foot.

“I’m in good shape, and when it’s like that I try to take advantage of it as much as possible,” Quintana said after his dazzling stage win Sunday.

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Quintana’s 30km descending solo Sunday and the storming summit victory atop Provence’s Montagne de Lure shows Quintana has more than shaken the COVID infection that struck him down in January and throws back to his Provence-Var double in 2020.

It’s a comeback that couldn’t be better timed.

Arkéa-Samsic is on a mission to amass the points needed for a bump up to the WorldTour in 2023 – so much so it’s willing to sacrifice an invite to the Giro d’Italia to get there. Paris-Nice, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a España are the center of Quintana and Co.’s road to the big dollar and bursting calendars of the top-tier, and it doesn’t want any distractions.

Also read: Arkéa-Samsic turns down Giro wildcard in WorldTour mission

“Everyone is focused on this WorldTour objective to obtain at the end of the season, and I feel that the group continues to progress year after year,” Quintana said. “I will now work for Paris-Nice in order to keep this form which is mine and have a good race.”

Pulling something special at Paris-Nice and the following Volta a Catalunya would hand Quintana his best run toward a grand tour in years.

His early-season tear in 2020 was torpedoed by the COVID shutdown before knee problems crippled his Tour de France tilt in the summer.

Double knee surgery in late 2020 left the Colombian a half-wheel back all through last year, and he flamed out early in the quest for the Tour’s KoM jersey. The once-prolific mountain-man missed a major score all season long.

So can Quintana return to GC contention in 2022 and help haul Arkéa-Samsic to the WorldTour?

The 2019 Vuelta was the last time Quintana hit a high over three weeks with a stage win and fourth overall at the Vuelta. Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič are now on the scene and grand tour racing isn’t the same as it was when Quintana climbed to the top in the middle of the last decade.

Skirmishing for stages at the Tour and Vuelta will likely mark Arkéa’s most realistic road to the WorldTour rather than a full GC assault.

Quintana’s next grand goal is Paris-Nice in early March, and the monster Bollène-Vésubie summit finish has his name written all over it.

Arkéa-Samsic chief Emmanuel Hubert and Quintana’s hordes of fans will be watching with relish.