TRIESTE, Italy (VN) — Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is a “complete man” after making history by becoming the first Colombian to win the Giro d’Italia.
The 24-year-old overcame a brutal Giro marked by nasty weather and even harder mountains, and beat back a field of experienced veterans and ambitious up-and-comers to claim the first of what most expect will be many grand tour victories.
“It wasn’t easy to win this Giro. I was struggling with some health issues, and I was not even close to my maximum possibilities,” Quintana said. “To win this Giro fills me with pride. This victory makes me a complete man.”
Quintana was the five-star favorite when the Giro started in Belfast, but he was hobbled in the first week, first with a nasty crash in stage 6, and then with a minor chest infection that prompted doctors to quietly put him on antibiotics.
After struggling through the decisive 42.2-kilometer time trial at Barolo in stage 12, Quintana gave up 2:41 to Urán, and was languishing in sixth at 3:29 back. Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo), who won two stages, said Quintana’s troubled first half didn’t convince him: “After 10 days into the Giro, I really didn’t see him as a winner, but it just goes to show that these races are won in the final week.”
Quintana found his legs at the right time, scraping back seconds here and there before winning two stages, including an emotional victory in Friday’s climbing time trial at Monte Grappa that quieted the critics who suggested that his maglia rosa was unjustified after the controversial Gavia-Stelvio stage to Val Martello on Tuesday.
“I was never at my full capacity during this Giro, but I was able to respond in the important stages in the final week,” he said. “I wanted to demonstrate that I was strongest rider even if I was not at my best.”
Quintana revealed that his worst moment came on the wet, cold, and dangerous descent off the snow-bound Gavia in stage 16. He missed retrieving his rain jacket, and Movistar teammate Gorka Izaguirre had to shove food into the mouth of a near-hypothermic Quintana on the descent.
“That was the worst crisis for me in the Giro. I was cold and wet, but Gorka really helped me through,” he said. “His support was essential to allow me to go ahead and win that stage.”
Little did Quintana know that the Giro was about to descend into chaos when race organizers botched the call to guide the peloton off the upper reaches of the snowy and wet Stelvio under motorcycle pacing with red flags.
Quintana and Izaguirre were among six riders who pulled clear off the Stelvio descent. Most of the peloton assumed the descent was going to be neutralized, but a confusing message transmitted over race radio as the peloton neared the snowy summit at 2,700 meters simply resulted in chaos.
Quintana and the others, which included Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar), hit the base of the Stelvio with about a 1:30 gap on the chasing leaders, including overnight leader Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
The race jury never acted to stop the leading riders when they hit the valley floor, and Quintana went on to win the stage, claiming the pink jersey for good. He rode straight into a maelstrom.
Urán saw his 2:40 lead turn into a 1:41 deficit as Quintana took 4:11 on the stage. His rivals cried foul, and questioned the legitimacy of his pink jersey. Teams wanted to eliminate the time differences taken the stage, but the UCI said that was impossible.
“People couldn’t see with open eyes what happened that day on the Stelvio. Instead, they only saw polemic,” Quintana said. “That experience hurt me, and made me stronger in the [Monte Grappa] time trial to demonstrate that I was strongest.”
The stoic Quintana responded with his legs, winning Monte Grappa against the clock last Friday, and defended against attacks in the mountains on both Thursday and Saturday. Movistar surrounded Quintana and delivered him safely to the bottom of the key climbs. Even at less than 100 percent, Quintana proved his quality.
“The class does not disappear overnight,” he said. “I had the support of the team. Even Saturday, we had all nine of us riding to the base of the Zoncolan, where they positioned me perfectly for the climb.”
Quintana was hopeful that his victory at Monte Grappa — taking 1:26 on Urán — would remove any doubt from the validity of his Giro victory.
“Nairo was strongest in the mountains. Even when he was sick, he was able to match the attacks. The only time he didn’t go was when [Fabio] Aru attacked [in stage 15], but he didn’t need to follow that move at the time,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué. “Nairo showed his true character, and proved to everyone he is the worthy winner.”
Controversy aside, the Giro victory confirms Quintana’s credentials as a major grand tour candidate. Not only is he unmatched in the climbs, he can defend well in the time trials.
Movistar is sticking to its plan of not sending Quintana to the Tour de France this year, a decision that will set the stage for a major showdown in the 2015 Tour with Chris Froome (Sky), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
Quintana has come a long way in a very short time. In 2010, he won the Tour de l’Avenir, an indicator of his promise, beating back the likes of Andrew Talansky (Garmin) and Wilco Kelderman (Belkin). After turning pro with Movistar in 2012, Quintana’s Tour debut last summer went better than he could have imagined, with a stage win, the King of the Mountains and best young rider jerseys, and second overall to Froome.
“I have learned very fast, and I am still learning. With this Giro victory, I have made a big step forward,” Quintana said. “There is no comparing to where I was four years [ago]. I feel like a complete man now.”
Quintana’s amazing trajectory will only get a boost with his Giro win.
How far can he go? After winning the Giro, there’s only one step that’s higher: the Tour.
Movistar will bring him to the Tour in 2015, with nothing holding him back.
“He’s already proven he can win the Giro, and that he can be competitive in grand tours,” said Unzué, who was Miguel Indurain’s sport director in the go-go 1990s. “That means there is only one natural conclusion; that he can win the Tour.”
Just one? Unzué laughed, “Let’s start with one, and we’ll see what happens.”