Don’t write Nairo Quintana off yet

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The third stage of the Tour de La Provence offered some familiar scenes, albeit in a different palette: the petite form of Nairo Quintana – in red and black, rather than sky blue – launching a stinging attack off the front of a peloton. In doing so, he powered to a demonstrative stage win and eventual GC title in his debut race for Arkéa-Samsic.

Quintana has been a force in the mountains for as long as he’s been in the WorldTour, so it wasn’t necessarily surprising to see him producing a powerful performance on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. What was a surprise, however, was the way that he won, because it was a stunning rebuttal of all the criticism that’s been directed his way for the last couple of years.

Since his breakthrough performance in the 2013 Tour de France, where a 23-year-old Quintana rode his way to second overall, the youth classification, the KOM jersey and a stage win, the Colombian has been touted as a future Tour champion and the disruptive force that could break Team Sky/Ineos’ stranglehold on the race. In cycling’s biggest showcase, he hasn’t delivered on that promise – he’s finished second overall twice, and third once – which has meant that despite his excellent palmares he’s frequently been written off as on the decline.

That’s not exactly fair, though: after all, he’s a dual Grand Tour winner, and has only finished outside the top 10 of a Grand Tour once since 2013. He’s won stages at the Tour as recently as 2019, and landed on a Grand Tour podium as recently as 2017. He’s been really good for a really long time, and for the last couple of years racing at Movistar he was successful in spite of the fact that his team at times seemed to be actively undermining him.

Nairo Quintana’s final win in Movistar colours came on stage 2 of the 2019 Vuelta a España, courtesy of a brilliant late solo attack.

Nonetheless, when Quintana announced that he was leaving Movistar – eventually signing with the Arkéa-Samsic squad – there were plenty of punters that were quick to dismiss Quintana as a fading star on a second-rate squad.

And at face value, Arkéa-Samsic seemed an incongruous destination. The team’s marquee signing of the previous season, André Greipel, failed to fire; the team’s GC rider Warren Barguil had joined the squad after a spectacular falling out with Sunweb in 2017, and spent the last two years failing to recapture the magic of his 2016 season. In short, Arkéa-Samsic was in a holding pattern, and existed in a plodding purgatory of unspectacular results – seven mostly minor wins in two seasons – and nothing much more to show for themselves than that.

And then, along came Quintana, and a flurry of signings to support him.

When the team optimistically applied to join the WorldTour in 2020 they were knocked back thanks to their lack of points, but with a revived line-up and Quintana at their head, this wasn’t the disaster it might have seemed. Arkéa-Samsic was, after all, assured of a Tour de France berth, giving Quintana an internally-unopposed chance to complete his triptych of Grand Tour wins. What remained to be seen, however, was how the Spanish-speaking Quintana would fit in at one of the most French teams in the sport.

A month into the 2020 season, Arkéa-Samsic has been surprisingly solid, and its riders seem to have gelled. The team had been written off by many as a last-chance saloon; instead, they have become the team of the second-chance. French enfant terrible, Nacer Bouhanni, fresh off an increasingly miserable tenure at Cofidis, has notched up two wins already, including the first stage in Provence, where the combative Frenchman was embraced by the dainty Colombian Quintana in celebration. Warren Barguil, riding in the jersey of French National Champion, has matured sufficiently to ride for a team objective rather than his own result. Nairo Quintana has remembered how to dance away from a bike race again.

Nacer Bouhanni and Warren Barguil celebrate Bouhanni’s stage win at the Tour de la Provence.

On the climb up Mont Ventoux, Arkéa-Samsic delivered a tactical masterclass that underlined a burgeoning self-belief. The team massed to the front of the peloton as Ventoux loomed ahead, with Barguil and Quintana’s compatriot Winner Anacona ratcheting up the pace, stringing the peloton out behind them.

At 7.2 km to the stage finish, Anacona pulled to the side, and in the same instant, Quintana took flight, surging once, glancing back, and surging again. Jumbo-Visma climber Sepp Kuss was the only rider able to follow the acceleration, and that lasted all of 100 metres. By the finish line, Quintana had put 1:20 into his rivals, despite an organised chase behind him. It was, to quote Thibaut Pinot at the stage finish, “imperial”.

Since Saturday’s result, more has been made of Quintana’s time up the climb than the victory itself. Some have breathlessly claimed that it’s the fastest ascent of Mont Ventoux in history – which it is, sort of, but the race finished at Chalet Reynard, halfway up the climb and before it exits the tree-line. Quintana was perfectly set up by his team, alone off the front and didn’t have to play any tactical games – he could just concentrate on punching out a lazy 6.8 W/kg for the duration of his move.

It was an awe-inspiring physical performance, but to whittle it down to the numbers alone is to understate its symbolic importance.

As Quintana crossed the line, he sat up, crossed himself, and pointed to his jersey. His face seldom reveals much, but you could sense that the result was an important moment for the rider and his team. After the race, the veteran rider Maxime Bouet said that in his four seasons with Arkéa-Samsic, “it’s the first time we have ridden so well – no mistakes, perfect positioning, great solidarity.” Quintana’s ride was a shot across the bows of his rivals and naysayers, but it was built on the faultless work of a team that had already been dismissed by many.

“I hope this victory is the beginning of a golden era at Arkea Samsic,” Quintana said, dedicating his win to his team manager Emmanuel Hubert. “This is more than a team – it’s like I’ve found a family here.”

A smiling Quintana crosses the line as winner of the Tour de La Provence, the day after his stage-win.

Tour de La Provence isn’t a major race, to be clear, and it’s only February. There’s plenty of time for the wheels to fall off – half a season of potential crashes and injuries and sickness and peaks and troughs in form. But winding through the cedar and lavender of Provence, in the dusty light on the slopes of one of cycling’s great climbs, Quintana didn’t look like a second-rate GC rider on a second-rate team. He looked imperial.

Arkéa-Samsic, too, worked harmoniously. They had an objective, and they achieved it, flawlessly, without white-anting Quintana’s ambition. After a season marked by Movistar infighting, that must be refreshing – and a good omen for the Colombian icon now leading this scrappy French team.

“He’s one of cycling’s greats,” Emmanuel Hubert said on the weekend. “And he’s still around 15% short of top form. There’s more to come.”

Based on the weekend’s results, a Nairo Quintana that’s 15% better than that is a frightening prospect for those he’ll line up against in July.

Maybe it’s not time to write him off just yet.

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