Nairo Quintana (Movistar) returns to Europe with a vengeance. After winning the Giro d’Italia, and skipping the Tour de France, the Colombian is now setting his sights on the Vuelta a España.
The 24-year-old has been cooling his jets high in the Andes, after receiving a hero’s welcome following his dramatic Giro victory, a first for a Colombian rider. Instead of fretting over missing the Tour on team orders, Quintana has instead put everything into his preparation to the win the Vuelta, which is barely two weeks away.
Despite a stellar start list, Quintana will enter the 69th edition of the Spanish grand tour as one of the five-star favorites. Only Chris Froome (Sky), who beat him at the 2013 Tour, has potential to be at Quintana’s level. But the Briton’s form remains untested after hand injuries forced him out of the Tour de France on stage 5.
Speaking to the La Vanguardia newspaper in Colombia, Quintana made his ambitions for the Vuelta very plain.
“The most important thing is that with a good preparation, I can achieve a good level of fitness,” Quintana told the newspaper. “If I have a good head on my shoulders, I can win the Vuelta.”
If Quintana does win the Vuelta, he would become the first since Alberto Contador in 2008 to win the Giro and Vuelta in one season.
Quintana returns to Europe to race the Vuelta a Burgos (August 13-17) in his final warm-up before the Spanish tour starts in Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain on August 23. He won Burgos last year following his breakout Tour before returning to Colombia.
This year, the Burgos tour marks his European return for the second half of the 2014 season that will include the Vuelta as well as the world championships in northern Spain on September 28.
Like any race he starts these days, Quintana will be a favorite to win the five-day race across the plains of northern Spain, with one choice mountain stage in the Sierra de la Demanda and a final-day time trial.
If there was any doubt about Quintana’s Vuelta intentions, he revealed just how serious he was about it back in May. In the days following his dramatic Giro victory, instead of heading to the beach or immediately returning to Colombia, he stayed on for several days to inspect a few key stages and climbs in Spain.
“I always try to figure out the most important and demanding stages. I followed the training program to try to arrive in the best possible form for a race that’s very important for [Movistar],” Quintana said.
“I haven’t seen all the stages, but it’s clear that the last week is going to be very mountainous and very demanding. Like any race, we’re going to have to work hard.”
One cannot help but wonder what was going through Quintana’s mind as he watched the Tour unfold. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) won with relative ease, especially following the early exits of Froome and Contador. Movistar decided to take Quintana to the Giro, yet teammate Alejandro Valverde couldn’t muster much of a challenge, and Nibali steam-rolled to the yellow jersey.
Movistar’s decision to sideline Quintana for the Tour was controversial, but if that bothered him, it didn’t show, as he promptly won the Giro. The Tour was meant to be Valverde’s last hurrah before Quintana’s return to France next year.
Quintana was diplomatic when queried about the Tour.
“I would have liked to have raced, but it was a decision that worked out for the better,” Quintana said. “Now we can see that we’ve won the Giro, and right now, I am content with that. I won’t think about it anymore.”
Quintana was the revelation of 2013, winning a stage, the king of the mountain and white jerseys, as well as finishing second, the best GC result by a Colombian in Tour history.
He continues to make history, becoming the first Colombian to win the Giro in May. In many ways, this Vuelta seems like another stepping-stone toward his destiny with the Tour.
“I think next year, and for many years to come, I will be at the Tour, with a lot of motivation to do well, and to do as well as I can, which is what everyone wants,” Quintana said.
“The Tour is both a personal goal and a sporting goal, but I have to have maximum respect for my rivals and work even harder,” he continued. “I had a good moment, and I will stay with this mentality of reaching the podium of this great race.”