“I would have liked to raced the Tour again this year, but the team wants me to go to the Giro. The one who pays has the final say.”
Thus spoke Nairo Quintana just a couple of days ago after it was revealed the 24-year-old Colombian would not be racing the Tour de France.
Because Alejandro Valverde had been chosen to lead them in July.
Well, because, as the Movistar team from which the pair hail had no leader for the Giro, for perfectly (I stress perfectly) obvious reasons, the team management had decided to send the guy who came second in last year’s Tour to Italy in May.
All clear? No? Not to me either.
“Personally,” opined Movistar general manager Eusebio Unzue, “I don’t think taking Nairo to the Tour with his age, plus the pressure of improving last year’s result, is interesting for his future.
“I prefer to keep him growing into the formation period he’s still in and let him know the Giro, because we think it’s an extremely interesting race for him to progress on so many aspects, and where he will enjoy full leadership in a Grand Tour for the first time.”
But after Alejandro busted a tire on Stage 13 in last year’s race and lost a whopping ten minutes-plus on the stage and on the GC, it was the Tour debutant Nairo Quintana upon whom the Movistar leadership duties fell. And the youngster did not buckle.
In fact, he grabbed that bag of responsibility with a steely grip and set about putting in the only real challenge that the eventual winner Chris Froome faced all Tour.
Let me remind you what happened once Alejandro’s assault on the podium went flat and Nairo took to the hills.
On Stage 15 to Ventoux Quintana attacked Froome and dropped the pack, taking the Briton with him, though he was eventually dropped before the line as Froome won.
That took the Colombian to sixth on the GC. Not bad, not bad at all. A debutant of lesser caliber would have been thrilled at that and might look to cement his place, maybe go for a top five.
Not Quintana though.
Stage 18 took the peloton over l’Alpe d’Huez twice and took Quntana from sixth on the GC to third, after he finished fourth on the stage. And then on Stage 20, sensing he was flying and getting better and better in the hills, he attacked and beat Joaquim Rodriguez and Froome for the stage win – his first ever in the Tour, on his debut (this is worth repeating) and into second on the overall, where he ended up in Paris.
Oh yeah, and he won the King of the Mountains competition, and the Best Young Rider competition. It was the best debut since Jan Ulrich in 1996.
He finished 4.20 down on Froome. Valverde finished over 15 minutes behind.
Now, let’s grant Alejandro 10 minutes for that flat tire, and Quintana still emerges as a more natural Tour rider. And let us not forget to take another minute or three off of Valverde in lieu if his wealth of Tour experience.
Conclusion? Quintana is not only the most dangerous threat to Froome’s dominance from within the Movistar team, he is the most dangerous threat within the entire peloton.
Unzue says Quntana has a better chance to win the Giro than to beat Froome, but the Colombian himself said something that makes me, for one, think it is the elder, Spanish rider who has the ear of the team hierarchy and bears more than a sliver of responsibility in the decision.
“It’s a decision that also takes into consideration the interests of the sponsors and Valverde,” said Quintana.
Jealousy on Valverde’s part? At 33 he knows, as a rider who is not 100% suited to Grand Tours (he’s never ridden the Giro, by the way), he has little realistic chance of any higher than fifth place – and that is if everything goes swimmingly.
Quintana, on the other hand – one badly timed mechanical or an off-day for Froome – could win it.
It is a travesty that Quintana is out. He supplied us with the most exciting Tour debut in years, and it harked back to the days of young, hungry riders coming along and upsetting the status quo with their verve and raw ability.
Certainly, most young riders do need protecting, but when a guy like Quintana comes along, give him his fill. Let the boy ride!
The 2014 Tour de France will be a less thrilling spectacle without him.