Get out the popcorn — the next few days of racing in France are going to be very good.
Nairo Quintana and Egan Bernal are poised for a high-altitude clash this weekend at Paris-Nice. The summit finale at Col de Turini (15.3km at 7.2 percent) on Saturday should crown this year’s Race to the Sun.
It won’t be the first time that Quintana and Bernal will square off, and it certainly won’t be the last, but the looming battle will certainly provide a thrilling hint of what looks to be a growing rivalry between Colombia’s established superstar and its most promising apprentice.
The opening stages of Paris-Nice have been a race of attrition following brutal racing conditions in heavy winds. Quintana and Bernal both survived, and the Colombian pair is set to headline what could be the most gripping mountain contest on a European climb so far this season.
“There have been some big favorites eliminated, but we’ve saved the day, and we’re close to the other big favorites,” Quintana said. “The most important moments are the time trial and the Turini.”
Over the past several days, Team Sky has been helping to drive the echelons in the crosswinds across northern France. Bernal has shown a deft touch at staying upright in the fray that saw scores of dangerous crashes and several big-name abandons.
“A ride like that from Egan is just pure class,” said Sky teammate Luke Rowe following a tough stage buffeted by winds. “I was trying to explain to him this morning about how to get back into an echelon and how to ride, and then he goes and smashes it. You’ve either got it or you haven’t, and he’s certainly got it … class.”
The echelons caught out several GC favorites, including defending champion Marc Soler (Movistar), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott). Though he’s lost a few seconds, Quintana has held firm and went into Thursday’s TT just eight seconds behind Bernal and 19 behind overnight race leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky).
To set up Saturday’s stage, both Bernal and Quintana have to get there first with their GC options intact. Sky’s Kwiatkowski carried the leader’s jersey into Thursday’s 25.5km individual time trial and could defend against the Colombians. No matter what happens in the GC, Saturday’s major summit finale should see Bernal and Quintana fighting for at least the stage win, if not more.
Could this be the beginning of a budding rivalry? There’s nothing to suggest that there’s any “mal rollo” or bad feeling between them. Bernal speaks highly of Quintana while Quintana has publicly stated he’s been impressed with Bernal’s progress. Both are born winners with freakish innate talent. Each won the Tour de l’Avenir before catapulting into the pro ranks. Both have surpassed expectations in the respective opening years of their careers.
What makes the Turini summit so interesting is the undercurrent of the long-running rivalry between Sky and Movistar, and Quintana’s unbridled ambition to remain Colombia’s leading rider. Quintana desperately wants to become the first South American to win the Tour de France.
And after falling short in the Tour de France, some have quietly wondered if Quintana might not have a yellow jersey in his legs. Some see Bernal, backed by the might of Team Sky, as Colombia’s best hope to win its first Tour title.
Since his debut in 2012, Quintana has emerged as a national hero for a resurgent Colombia. Dubbed “KingTana” and “Super Nairo” by his fans, Quintana’s been the most successful rider in a new generation of Colombian riders who are proudly representing a vibrant and thriving nation.
The only rider who rivals Quintana in Colombia is the wildly popular and charismatic Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First). The veteran was among the first of this new wave of Colombians to hit Europe more than a decade ago, and he’s been both a mentor and rival to Quintana over the years.
Bernal is poised, however, to possibly eclipse Quintana. Backed by the budget and experience of Team Sky, Bernal is universally hailed as the next big thing in cycling.
Of course, Quintana has nothing to prove to anyone. He’s won two grand tours and several of Europe’s most important stage races. In terms of palmares, Quintana is light years ahead of Bernal.
What Quintana likes to do is impose himself on a race and send messages to his rivals. In 2015 Quintana famously attacked Alberto Contador in the snow up Terminillo to win Tirreno-Adriatico. The fact that there’s no major summit in this year’s Tirreno course was a key factor for Quintana to race Paris-Nice instead.
Will Quintana want to send a similar message to Bernal?
That’s why this weekend’s summit finish at Col de Turini in the Alpes Maritimes should be so interesting.
Quintana is coming off a relatively lackluster season, at least by his standards, while Bernal was the revelation of 2018. It’s natural that the two are bound to cross swords now and in the future.
Teammates don’t doubt Quintana. Speaking to the Spanish daily MARCA, Andrey Amador said the Colombian remains as resolute and ambitious as ever.
“Nairo is not getting stuck. Although he had a rough year, he’s still young and he still has a lot to give,” Amador said. “His win in Colombia proved he’s fine.”
Bernal and Quintana have already battled a few times in spectacular fashion. Bernal beat back Quintana to win the Oro y Paz race in Colombia to herald his arrival with Team Sky in 2018. Bernal was ahead of Quintana on GC (and behind Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde) when he crashed out of the final stage at the Volta a Catalunya last spring. Quintana got his revenge last month at the Colombia 2.1 race when he dropped Bernal and everyone else to win the queen stage at Alto de Palmas. That was Quintana’s way of saying, “I am still the king.” Bernal will certainly be nipping at his heels this weekend.
Unfortunately, this could be the pair’s last face-off this spring. Bernal will race Catalunya and Tour of the Alps before headlining at the Giro d’Italia, while Quintana is heading to Itzulia Basque Country and the Ardennes before the Tour de Suisse and the Tour.
So don’t miss it. Paris-Nice represents the next major showdown in a growing rivalry between “KingTana” and the prince-in-waiting Bernal.