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Photo: James Startt

Nairo Quintana sends a message to his rivals at le Tour de la Provence

Nairo Quintana showed the world that he's not to be underestimated at last week's le Tour de la Provence. Quintana's stage win and overall victory are a sign that he's meshing well with new team Arkéa-Samsic.

Nairo Quintana is back.

The Colombian superstar sent a message to rivals and doubters alike over the weekend with an emphatic stage victory and overall victory at the Tour de Provence.

OK, it’s only February. And, yes, the win was hardly against a world-class field. Yet for Quintana, who’s struggled to match his earlier winning GC chops during the past few seasons, the stage-win and overall crown was an important marker.

“It’s with great satisfaction to win here,” Quintana said Sunday. “That’s what we all wanted. This opens a new era at Arkéa-Samsic.”

The GC and stage-win victories are the first for Quintana with his new team Arkéa-Samsic since his high-profile exit from his longtime home at Movistar at the end of 2019. And it’s his first stage-race victory since 2017, when he won Tirreno-Adriatico.

The importance of the weekend’s performances cannot be understated for Quintana, once hailed as Colombia’s first Tour de France winner.

Le Tour de la Provence was Quintana’s first race with Arkéa-Samsic. Photo: James Startt

The mood was jubilant inside the Arkéa-Samsic bus. The second-tier team made a big bet on Quintana, bringing him on, along with Winner Anacona and his brother, Dayer, in a three-year deal. Its French roots means the team will be racing in all the major French races, including Paris-Nice, Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour.

In fact, with many of his compatriots racing at the Colombia Tour this month, Quintana wanted to give his new bosses a top performance at the four-day Provence race on “home roads” in France for his new sponsors.

Arkéa-Samsic sport director Yvon Ledanois said Quintana is determined to defy the naysayers who suggest the best years are behind the Colombian climber.

“I was practically his first DS with Movistar so I know Nairo well,” Ledanois said. “Nairo is Nairo. He is a champion and someone with a lot of ambition who is very professional. I think it got to the point where it was important for him to change teams.”

Over the past few seasons, there were grumblings from all sides that Quintana was not happy at Movistar. After finishing second to Tom Dumoulin in the 2017 Giro, Quintana’s faltered in grand tours while others have stepped up. Although he won stages at the 2018 and 2019 editions of the Tour, he finished 12th, 10th and eighth, respectively, in the past three Tours.

Despite turning pro with the Spanish WorldTour team and winning the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, and finishing three times on the Tour podium, in Movistar colors, everyone agreed it was time for a change.

“Nairo comes with a lot of ambition and he knows that here he has full freedom, which is important for him. It is something he never had before,” Ledanois said. “In some ways, Nairo is the same Nairo I knew when he started out. But he is not the same. He has won the Giro. He has won the Vuelta. The man is the same, but he has big goals and I have no doubt that he will have great results with Arkea-Samsic.”

The Colombian, who turned 30 earlier this month, was keen to show his new bosses they made the right choice. Even new teammate Nacer Bouhanni, another rider who’s struggled the past few seasons, was in on the party, with a win in stage 1.

Quintana dropped everyone on Mont Ventoux to win stage 3. Photo: James Startt

“The whole team came together to make this happen,” Quintana said. “Having a good team dynamic paid off. Things are going in the right direction. This victory is for everyone.”

Whether the February high keeps rolling into the heart of the season remains to be seen.

Quintana looked sharp and fit during Saturday’s climbing finale up Mont Ventoux, with the finish line Chalet Reynard.

The real tests will come later this season, when he will race Paris-Nice, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and the Giro di Sicilia.

“I’m in good shape, and I can hope for good things in the next races,” he said. “I’m encouraged to work even harder and it’s a good start to my season.”

With Egan Bernal and a new generation of Colombian riders starting to make their presence felt, Quintana’s victory seemed to serve as a reminder to everyone that he’s still here.

— James Startt contributed to this report