Can Nairo Quintana win the Tour De France?

Two time grand tour winner but yet to add the Grande Boucle to his palamares. Time is slowly running out for the diminutive Colombian, will he ever win the most prestigious cycling race of all time? Or will he unfortunately fall into cycling’s forgotten greats…

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(Written in September 2016, post Vuelta victory)

In his recent La Vuelta a Espana victory, Quintana looked to dominate the competition, beating Froome by over a minute, affirming he is still a serious grand tour contender for the next few year’s to come. However, this is La Vuelta, a race that many riders use as preparation for the season-ending World Championships; it isn’t exactly the cycling pinnacle that the Tour De France has become. Does Quintana really possess the qualities to win on the most prestigious stage of all?

What Quintana demonstrated in La Vuelta was that he was leagues ahead of the other GC contenders in terms of his climbing ability. Not only would he put time into his rivals on the steep summit finishes of Northern Spain, he would crack them to a point where they even struggled to finish the race themselves. To say that he had a lack of opposition in this year’s edition would be an injustice to the Colombian; with riders such as Froome, Contador and Chaves, he was really racing against some of the best in the business.

 Boasting two grand tour victories (Giro D’italia 2014 and La Vuelta a Espana 2016) and three Tour De France podiums, Quintana is currently one of the most accomplished grand tour riders currently in the pro peloton. Only behind Contador in terms of his array of grand tour accolades, one would think that Quintana has more than enough ability to clinch a Tour De France title; after all he has already won both other grand tours, races which are often described as being a lot tougher than the Tour De France itself.

 But this has never seemed to come to fruition for the diminutive Colombian, three podium positions, a white jersey and a king of the mountains jersey are all he’s got to show for his record in the French tour. There are multiple reasons as to why this could possibly be the case, reasons that mean Quintana is unlikely to ever score a victory in the grandest race on the calendar.

The Tour de France: They do things differently here…

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The Tour De France is a giant media event, one of the biggest opportunities for advertisers to promote their brands across the globe. As a result of this it draws copious amounts of media attention and has rightfully become the most popular race on the annual cycling calendar. Even those that don’t follow the sport of cycling have heard of the Tour De France, it’s the one time of the year where our beloved sport gets thrusted into the main sporting spotlight.

As one can imagine this brings immense pressure to both team management and the riders themselves, they must all be at their best come early July every year. The cycling season, for almost every rider, is geared around this French race; riders aiming to hit their peak form for the three week summer event. Due to this, those that line up with GC ambitions are usually performing to the best of their abilities, and with ten or so riders eyeing up that overall win, the competition is extremely fierce.

 Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the other two grand tours on the calendar, the Giro is held during Easter time around the month a May and is regularly targeted by those riders that don’t think they have the form and abilities to score a victory in the Tour De France come the Summer.

The same can also be said for La Vuelta, a race during the late Summer months, it usually attracts those riders looking for redemption after a reasonably disappointing Tour De France. With many riders also using it as preparation for the World Championships, many come to the event not on peak fitness, leaving the title open for those opportunistic riders that grab a little time here and there (throwback to Juan Jose Cobo’s victory in the race back in 2011).

What these two races also have over the Tour is climbing kilometers; arguably La Vuelta has some of the most toughest and grueling ramps the peloton will face all year. The Giro on the other hand has numerous long and unrelenting slogs across Alpine terrain, hairpins being an extremely common sight in the Italian race. It is not a surprise therefore that Quintana has managed to take victories in both of these events, after all he is one of the purest climbers we have seen for a generation.

TT Kryptonite

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 However, the climbs aren’t what necessarily define a Tour, the time trials are usually a pivotal point within the three week long race. A collected total of around 50km alone against the clock, the eventual winner of a Tour De France is usually one that can also time trial. Five time winner Miguel Indurain is perfect testament to this, conserving his energies on the mountain stages he would simply mark his nearest rivals, then when the ITT came he would obliterate the opposition and subsequently take the title.

 Whilst Quintana’s TT ability isn’t too bad, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Regularly finishing minutes down to the stronger GC time trialists such as Froome and Contador, he is at a real disadvantage for a race with lots of time trial kilometers. For Quintana to have a chance at taking a tour title he really needs to improve in his ability against the clock. He is slowly beginning to show signs of this, but with time rapidly running out and more youthful GC riders coming up through the ranks, Quintana has a very limited time span in which to take his elusive tour victory.

 With his ever present rival of Froome looking to dominate the tour for the next few years, Quintana may just get a chance if the organisers deem it time to mix up the route to favour the purer climbers more; after all they can’t have a Brit continually winning their home event.

With such large French talent starting to blossom, Romain Bardet and Pierre Roger Latour, organisers may favour a much more mountainous route in the years to come. If his climbing performances in La Vuelta are anything to go by, Quintana should dominate in such a route.

The Snake in Quintana’s Garden

Another point to consider regarding Quintana’s chance at taking a Tour title is his team-mate and co team leader, Alejandro Valverde. Both ride for the Spanish team of Movistar, a team more willing to spread their forces behind two team leaders in a grand tour rather than one. In a team sense this is a reasonably effective tactic, they have a fall back plan in case one of their leaders falls behind.

However this is extremely destructive for Quintana’s Tour ambitions. Team Sky have demonstrated over the past few years that to win the Tour takes the effort of an entirely devoted team, Froome would not have managed to win his three TDF titles without the heroic efforts of his fellow teammates.

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Movistar are always eager to chase other prizes, stage wins and a points competition for Valverde are regularly on their mind when the grand tours come around. Their efforts are split and this can sometimes lead to Quintana becoming isolated when the race becomes tough.

Whilst they are pleasing their Spanish sponsors by gifting their home rider of Valverde all the spoils, they are busying themselves with fruitless and meaningless victories. They need to begin looking at the bigger picture, adopt a Team Sky approach and put all other eight teammates to the constant service of Quintana.

 Tours are not won alone, especially during the modern era of the sport. The reliance in a team is just as strong as in sports such as football; without teammates, a rider is going to struggle to do anything of worth. Movistar must band fully behind Quintana if he is to ever win a Tour De France.

Luck of the draw…

In such long races like the grand tours, the common misconception is that there will be numerous large mountain stages that decide the eventual winner. However, as this year’s Vuelta and many other grand tours have shown, this is simply not the case. The race can change in an instant and it’s usually a relatively tame looking stage that will produce the biggest GC upsets.

Stage 15 of this year’s Vuelta is a prime example of such a stage, Quintana attacking from the stage start alongside Contador, taking an impressive two minutes from Chris Froome come the end of the day. It is likely that such a stage could define a tour in year’s to come, it only takes one crosswind, one crash, or one unsuspecting small rise to decimate a peloton and hand an unlikely time advantage to those lucky enough to traverse such obstructions.

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If Quintana can hone his cunning and tactical racing mind, then he may be able to use such events to propel himself to the top spot of the TDF podium. With so many riders capable of winning a Tour De France in today’s peloton, Quintana can no longer just rely on his impressive climbing ability to win him the race. It’s often a game of luck and sometimes the winners can be just as surprised as you or I when they take the prestigious title.

Time is of the essence

 It may seem a little bit of an anti-climax to conclude that it is basically luck that Quintana needs if he is to win a Tour De France; but there’s only so much preparation a rider can do for the event, eventually the winner is often decided by result of one small error from their nearest rival.

In my own, ‘humble’, opinion Quintana definitely has the ability to take a Tour De France, he even has a reasonable few chances left to do so; at only 26 years old he has at least six Tours left in him. All he needs is for one of these to have a slightly altered route, maybe a lack of strong time trialling opposition, or simply for his nearest rivals to just experience a week of horrendously bad luck.

A win in the French tour would complete Quintana, he would go down in history as the first Colombian to not only win a Tour De France, but the first Colombian to complete the historic triple; a feat achieved by only six other riders in history. Quintana would sit alongside the greats of Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Felice Gimondi in cycling’s hall of fame.

If this isn’t motivation enough for Quintana I do not know what is. I simply cannot picture Quintana retiring without the most prestigious win of all on his palamares; so in answer to the question of whether it is possible for the Colombian, yes, yes it definitely is…

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Nairo Quintana on stage twenty of the 2015 Tour de France

What do you think about Quintana’s chances? Will he ever win the Tour or will Froome forever beat him into second place? Feel free to leave a comment down below…