LYON, France (VN) — Nairo Quintana sat on the steps of the Movistar bus Saturday morning, answering questions before a wall of microphones.
His voice was so soft that the journalists kept leaning in closer and closer to hear what the pint-sized Colombian had to say about the tremendous turn of misfortune for his Spanish-registered squad.
“We will see what happens now,” the 23-year-old said in a whisper. “I am very young. This is only my first Tour. I will try my best, but I came first to get to know the race.”
The team was still trying to wrap its head around “Black Friday,” which saw team captain Alejandro Valverde skitter out of contention after getting caught out in stage 13 across the windy plains of central France.
Valverde started Friday’s stage second overall. After breaking a rear wheel and getting caught out in the echelons, he started Saturday 16th at 12:10. Rui Costa dropped to 18th and the team lost its grip on the team classification.
The team’s Tour, which had been unfolding like a dream, became a nightmare.
“Cycling can be cruel sometimes,” said Movistar sport director José Luis Jaimerena. “Alejandro doesn’t deserve this. He was right where he needed to be, and was in the best position ever at this point of the Tour. All we can do is turn the page. We will have Nairo.”
Though the team is still fuming about the turn of events, Valverde and Movistar now vow to ride to support the untested Quintana, who suddenly has become their best-placed rider in eighth at 5:18 back.
“I can never win in this Tour. Something always seems to happen,” Valverde said. “We’ll keep fighting. I was in ideal position, but now we will ride for Nairo to see how far he can go.”
Quintana is already making a strong first impression in his Tour debut, going on the attack in the Pyrénées, gaining and then losing the white jersey after giving up time in the time trial against heavy winds in Brittany.
Quintana came to help Valverde. Now he’s the team captain.
“I am going to keep doing my thing. I don’t want to change,” said the winner of the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir. “I know people are taking more notice of me, but I am trying to handle it well.”
The team is loath to put too much pressure on its young diamond in the rough, but they’re quietly hoping his natural ambition will push him higher up the GC.
“We cannot ask too much from Nairo. We cannot put [more] pressure on him than what he already has. He’s doing very well, and he’s already proven he’s one of the best climbers in the race, but it’s his first Tour,” said Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “We will rethink our strategy, but the final week is difficult. There are a lot of mountains to come.”
For Quintana, he hopes to take advantage of the opening, aim for the while jersey, and perhaps even dream about the podium.
With the final week loaded with brutal climbs, Quintana, who already has proven to be one of the most resilient climbers in the race, could well move up into podium contention.
Up next is Sunday’s stage up Mont Ventoux, holy ground for climbers.
“It’s a mythical mountain. It’s very important for us climbers,” Quintana said. “We are hoping to recover some of the time I lost in the time trial. I am going to position myself ahead in the race.”
Quintana is part of a new generation of Colombian riders making a big impression in Europe.
In May, Rigoberto Urán (Sky) rode to second at the Giro d’Italia while Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) won the best young rider’s jersey en route to fifth overall.
After winning the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) and racing the Ardennes classics, Quintana returned to Colombia to train and prepare for the Tour. He did not race again until the start in Corsica.
So far, he’s been riding gangbusters on the climbs, attacking over the Col de Pailhères in the stage to Ax-3 Domaines and then battering race leader Chris Froome (Sky) when the Kenya-born rider was isolated without teammates.
In a final week laden with mountains, Quintana could well be the big surprise of this Tour.