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BOURG-D’OISANS, France (VN) — Spanish sport director Eusebio Unzué has seen a lot in his decades in the sport, from Pedro Delgado to Miguel Indurain to Alejandro Valverde, but he admits he’s never quite seen anything like Nairo Quintana.
The Movistar boss said team brass knew Quintana was a gem when they signed him in 2012, but he never expected the Colombian’s debut Tour to turn out as well as it has.
“It’s a surprise for us how well his doing. For us, his qualities were unquestionable. We’ve known that for a long time,” Unzué told VeloNews. “What was in question was his ability to stay strong for three weeks. The day-by-day recovery and how well he’s done is even a surprise for us.”
Without question, Quintana is the revelation of this year’s Tour.
The 23-year-old came into this Tour as an outsider for the top 10, with the top goals of winning the best young rider jersey and helping team captain Alejandro Valverde onto the overall podium. Valverde, however, lost 10 minutes in the crosswinds in northern France, and the team turned to its pint-sized Colombian.
Quintana had already revealed signs of having great legs when he attacked across the Pyrénées in the race’s second weekend. After losing time in the first time trial, he bounced back in the second, hillier race against the clock, and then surged ahead of the Belkin tandem of Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam, and Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) on l’Alpe d’Huez on Thursday to slip into third overall.
He already has a lock on the white jersey, and now Quintana wants to secure a spot on the final podium as well. With just 21 seconds separating Quintana from second-place Alberto Contador (Saxo), it remains to be seen on which step he will stand in Paris.
“We have to be content to move up to the podium position,” Quintana said. “The team has done a great job supporting me, from the riders, the sport directors, to the massage therapists, the mechanics, and even the cook, everyone has been backing me and giving me their confidence. We hope to now at least defend what we have up to now.”
Up to now, Quintana has exceeded the team’s wildest expectations, yet the Colombian seems to be taking it all in stride. Double stage winner Rui Costa, who is his roommate during this Tour, said Quintana isn’t losing any sleep over the Tour success.
“I see him all the time, and he’s very calm. He’s motivated to race,” Costa said. “Nairo is very young, but he’s taking things well. We can be content with how things have gone.”
If Quintana defends third on the race’s final day in the Alps on Saturday, he will tie Fabio Parra’s 1988 ride as the best South American result in Tour history. If he can leap over Contador, who has proven vulnerable in the Alps, Quintana will register the best ever Tour showing for Latin America — a result that would truly cap the comeback of the escarabajos.
“We are dreaming now about the podium, which he has within reach now,” Unzué said. “If we have the opportunity to improve even more in the general, of course we will take it, but right now, it’s important to maintain our position.”
How far can Quintana go?
Unzué said his young pupil would only get better with age.
“We are seeing Nairo entering a new generation of riders,” Unzué said. “He is still quite young, at 23 years, so his body will only grow stronger in the coming years.
“He has tremendous quality. … We already saw that in the first moments. He can climb, he races smart, he knows how to stay out of the wind, and move in the bunch. It’s too much to say about a young rider that they will someday win a Tour, but we have already seen in this Tour that he has the quality to be a grand tour rider. He has tremendous heart, and is not afraid to attack. We shall see.”