With nine mountain stages and two uphill time-trials characterising this year’s Tour de France, Nairo Quintana has the destructive climbing skills and solid form to deny Chris Froome a third title.
Twice a runner-up in France – in 2013 and 2015 to Froome – this is all set up to be the year where the diminutive Colombian will prevail.
Quintana has demonstrated some scintillating early season form, winning the Volta a Catalunya in March and Tour de Romandie in May – a race that Froome finished in 38th.
The Swiss race is considered as a strong reference marker in deciding which rider goes on to win the Tour, with three of the last five winners lifting the title in Paris – Cadel Evans (2011), Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Froome (2013).
Quintana skipped the Criterium du Dauphine and Tour de Suisse to focus on altitude training back in Colombia as he bids to win his maiden Tour crown. He knows his preparation has to be absolutely spot on.
Ignore the talk of the apparent psychological advantage the Briton holds over him, he knows the mistakes he made 12 months ago and what is required to dethrone Froome.
Time-trialling remains the major asterisk when discussing his Tour ambitions; he was 57th in last year’s stage one but the two ITTs on this year’s route are hilly.
He has also finished first, sixth and second in his last three ITTs at the Route du Sud, Romandie and Tour of the Basque Country. Granted they are weaker fields than what the 26-year-old will encounter in France, but it doesn’t seem as much of a weakness as in previous years.
With that addressed, climbers like Quintana have every reason to be satisfied with the route and will be a significant threat to the 31-year-old Froome’s ambitions.
The reigning champion has branded this year’s race “a climber’s Tour”, so much is expected of the likes of Alberto Contador and Quintana who favour the punishing mountainous stages, sections of the race where huge time advantages can be gained as well as lost. The nine climbing days – starting with stage five at Le Falgoux on Wednesday – will offer many challenges and only the toughest riders will be able to navigate the many peaks and troughs that the route offers.
Regarded as the best pure climber in the world, Quintana developed his technique many years ago while cycling to school in Combita, the Northern Colombian town which has an altitude of 10,000 feet. And at 58kg – 13kg lighter than Froome – Quintana’s slender physique could give him the upper hand when meandering through France’s highest peaks.
One of the stages he’ll be targeting is Mout Ventoux, where the illustrious climb through Bedoin returns after a three-year absence.
With a gruelling 15.7km ascent to greet the riders at the end of this 184km stage, the Colombian will be bidding to showcase his stunning, nimble abilities in the mountains.
Should the race go down to the wire, Stage 20 from Megeve to Morzine is the final mountainous leg where Quintana could very well stamp his credentials as the first South American winner.
Strong support is needed, and he is blessed to be assisted by his superb Movistar team-mate Alejandro Valverde, who also finished on the podium last year. Valderde is now 36 and knows his own chance for Tour glory has passed so should be more tuned-in than ever in helping his colleague.
Quintana’s early season form suggests he could go one better this year, and with many demanding climbs to suit his strengths, expect the Colombian to be sporting the yellow jersey come July 24.
One of the great complexities of cycling is that it is an individual sport within that of a team framework. That is, in the case of the General Classification, eight riders helping one man get over the line as the No. 1.
In theory, only one gets the glory, the accolades and the adulation, the rest have to remain subservient. It’s what sets it apart from almost every other team sport. But as Astana prepare for the start of the Tour de France on Saturday, two individual members of their team immediately stand out: Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali.
The latter is a four-time Grand Tour winner and Le Tour champion two years ago; Aru is competing for the maillot jaune for the first time, however he is the one who will be assuming the role of Capitano; Nibali domestique – a term that translates as servant.
It makes for a curious and fascinating dynamic in arguably the race’s strongest overall team, especially as Nibali – in March told La Gazzetta dello Sport that Aru, six years his junior, “often gets upset and he’s short-tempered” and “never asks anything; he doesn’t consider you. He trusts other people.”
With Nibali believed to be on his way to proposed Bahrain-sponsored team at the end of the season, and Aru long earmarked as the future of the Astana there is a symbolic passing of the baton in play.
The question remains, though: can Nibali be a No. 2? Just four years ago a similar situation unfolded at Team Sky with clear tension between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome and, like Nibali, the more experience rider hinted at a lack of trust.
However, speaking to Sport360 on the eve of Le Tour, Aru insists his relationship with the man known as ‘Lo Squalo’ – the Shark – remains strong and there is a common goal bringing them together that goes beyond France, as he and his fellow Italian hunt gold as well as yellow, even using that all important word: trust.
“The relationship with Vincenzo is very good, we are good team-mates. You have to be professional both on and off the bike, even with our different characteristics,” he says. “I really respect Vincenzo as an athlete and a team-mate, and remember we will be competing together for Italy at the Olympics so this will be a good situation for us to work together with Rio in mind.
“Do I feel extra pressure as capitano? No, because I have raced the Giro and Vuelta and did well so it isn’t a huge step up for me. Secondly, I have Vincenzo with me. He has already won the Tour so I know I can trust on him as an important team-mate.”
Aru’s presence has been a long-time coming at this event. He’s certainly raced up the ranks since signing for Astana in 2012. A year after helping Nibali win the 2013 Giro d’Italia in his first Grand Tour, he took third place at the race and then served further notice of his talent with a fifth-place at the Vuelta a Espana later that year; Nibali capturing his Tour de France crown in between.
Since then he’s never been off the podium, finishing second in 2015 behind one of his idols Alberto Contador and claimed the Vuelta with a brilliant attack in the penultimate stage to topple Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands.
The time is now right for the Sardinian to have a crack at the Tour, although it’s not been a vintage year for the 25-year-old. He didn’t win a stage race in the spring and his only victory was in Stage 3 at the Criterium du Dauphine; a surprise given it was thought to favour the sprinters.
Aru, though, has brushed off his unremarkable form and lack of Tour miles. He does admit, however, that while physically ready, the extra attention and focus on the race will be a totally new experience.
“I am very motivated. I am really excited to participate in the Tour,” he adds. “I feel my preparation has been as good as it can be with my training camps in the Italian Alps so I’m looking forward to the start. It is another three-week race, another Grand Tour, something I have experience of with the Vuelta and the Giro.
“Each one has its own characteristics and different type of challenge for an athlete but if I can identify one aspect of the Tour which stands it out from the others it is the level and strength of the field, it is extremely high. Also, and I only know this from speaking to my team-mates, the media attention and pressure is that much higher.”
That strong field he speaks of is one of the most stacked for years: two-time winner Chris Froome, two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana, 2007 and 2009 champion Contador, Nibali – albeit in a reduced role (for now) – BMC’s dual attack of Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen plus the French contingent led by Thibau Pinot and Romain Bardet.
“It’s so difficult to mark out one rival as being stronger than the other: Contador, Froome, Quintana, (Joaquim) Rodriguez… there is no one in particular, they are all great riders. Also, the French riders like Pinot and Bardet, they have been competing very well,” he admits. “It’s practically impossible to call a favourite or predict the winner because you know most, if not all, of them will be out front for most of the race, fighting for the GC.”
The route for the 103rd Tour favours climbers like Aru with a return to the iconic Mount Ventoux, a visit to the Pyrenees, Andorra and the Alps.
Ventoux arrives during Stage 12 on Bastille Day and is followed by an individual time trial in the mountains – one of two ITTs – Aru feels could prove decisive.
“Some stages in the latter part of the race look particularly tough but the middle section of the race (Ventoux), will also be very important.” he says. “If I had to focus one specific part it would be the last four stages, particularly the climb at Stage 17 followed by the ITT the next day. This could decide the GC.”
As to how Aru will overcome such a deep and varied field to become the first debutant winner since Laurent Fignon in 1983, he said: “We will see step by step, stage by stage. It’s my first time at the Tour, I am trying to maintain a low profile. In Italy we say, “tenere i piedi per terra”, which is about keeping your feet on the ground, especially important when approaching a race of this gravitas.
“I will see how the race develops. But with so many great riders every single stage from 1-21 is important if you want to win the GC.”
It sounds like he’s been taking advice from someone.
Jaber conquered the 75km race in 1:38:21 ahead of his team-mates Nasser Al Mermari (1:38.23) and Ahmed Al Mansoori (1:38.23).
Aided by the UAE’s top rider Yousif Mirza, who is preparing to compete at the Rio Olympics this August, Jaber was thrilled to get the win amongst a peloton that featured the very best cyclists in the country.
“In our team meeting we knew that all the attention would be on staying with Yousif Mirza. So we decided to break free on the very first loop,” said Jaber.
“After that, we worked together as a team in front, while a handful of riders stayed behind as cover-up for our star rider.
“We were well prepared, we had a training camp in Portugal before this race, and we simply knew we could take on the best of the best riders here tonight.”
Mirza, who crossed the finish line in 16th place, was pleased with the tactical brilliance of his team.
“It was a well thought out strategy and all of our riders executed it to perfection. I am happy that we were able to achieve the gold medal together as a team,” said the 27-year-old Mirza, who is the leader of Al Nasr’s recently-formed professional cycling outfit.
In the hand-cycling category, Rashid Al Dhaheri took home the gold ahead of Bader Al Hosani and Abdullah Abdul Hamid.
Al Dhaheri broke away in the final 3km of the 22.6km race and clinched the win in 43 minutes and four seconds. Al Hosani and Abdul Hamid finishing clocked 43:07 and 43:08 respectively.