Few riders had a season debut as stunning as Colombian Nairo Quintana. With no less than five victories, the 30-year-old appeared born again with his new Arkea-Samsic team. And in races like the Tour de la Provence and Paris-Nice, Quintana’s climbing prowess reminded us of just why he remains one of the world’s best stage racers.
Like so many of the Colombian riders, he returned home during the coronavirus crisis and spent two months in quarantine. Now that he is back in full training mode, he is charting out his return to Europe and another assault on the Tour de France, the only grand tour he has yet to win.
“The return date is still up in the air, but we are working with Nairo to bring him back in the best timing possible, so that he benefits from the altitude as well as being at home with the family, for as long as possible,” Arkea-Samsic general manager Emmanuel Hubert told VeloNews on Wednesday. “But we also have to take into account the different rules that may be set in place by the Colombian or French government. We have to know more about the possible quarantine restrictions that could be put in place. But for this, we have to wait until June 15, when the French government is scheduled to make further announcements.”
“Right now, people coming from all countries out of Schengen borders must go into quarantine, but they are looking at each country closely to see which countries are the highest risk. The Colombians had about the same confinement as we did, pretty much the same dates. And if anything, it was even more strict. People, for example, could only go out on certain days to do their shopping. It was really very strict. But they had good results. So we can imagine that someone like Nairo will have an easier time returning to France.”
Hubert explains that the team is currently looking at bringing Quintana back to Europe in the third week of July, about a month before the start of the Tour de France. And he is currently scheduled to hone his Tour preparation with the Tour de l’Ain and the Critérium du Dauphiné before starting the Tour, in Nice, on August 26.
Hubert pulled off one of the biggest transfer coups of the year when he lured Quintana from the Movistar team to his own, modest French team. Some were skeptical, imagining Quintana was simply starting to decline. But he instantly proved them wrong, using virtually every climb to explode every race he was in as soon as he started racing in Europe. And in doing so he took his new team to its highest level ever.
“When I met Nairo I understood quickly that he was someone who needed affection and consideration, and I assured him that he would have a central place in the team and would be part of the project that was growing and he liked the challenge that it provided,” Hubert explains. “I think it took him a while to come to terms with leaving [Movistar]. He knew every member of the team, the staff, etc. And even if he knew that he needed to leave, well, you don’t necessarily know what you will find elsewhere. Once he made that change, though, we quickly saw the Nairo of old, the Nairo that can dynamite the Giro, the Tour de France, or the Vuelta.”
And while Hubert understands why some might be surprised with Quintana’s choice to move to Arkea, he insists that the team has to prepare for several seasons to shoulder a rider of his caliber. Already two years ago they hired Frenchman Warren Barguil after he won two stages in the 2017 Tour as well as the best climbers jersey. And while Barguil may not be on the same level with Quintana, the current French national champion is a perfect ally, especially in a race like the Tour.
“The Tour this year really favors a climber,” says Hubert. “And between Nairo and Warren, I think we can really destabilize the race. Warren is capable of going on the attack at really unexpected moments, and Nairo can simply climb as well as anybody. This year’s Tour may not have a lot of high mountains, but what we saw early this year was that as soon as the road climbs, Nairo made the difference. In addition, Quintana has the experience to play off of the big teams.”
Hubert says that Quintana has quickly come into his own in the family environment of this team that hails from Brittany in northwestern France offers. Unlike at Movistar where he was constantly sharing team leadership, at Arkea he is clearly the leader. And it is a position he revels in. “Although he appears on the outside to be someone that is not very expressive. The Nairo I have met is quite the opposite. He is a really sensitive person, someone who really pays attention to others. But he knows what he wants. And he is a total professional. He is very meticulous when it comes to all aspects of cycling, be it the material (equipment) or his diet.”
Hubert admits that plenty of details need to be worked out regarding Quintana’s return as well as the Tour in general, but he insists, “One thing is clear, he is more motivated than ever!”