Nairo Quintana (Arkéa Samsic) climbing to stage 3 victory and the overall title at the 2022 Tour de la Provence.

Nairo Quintana is laying the groundwork for a stellar summer

It is way too early to say, but… Nairo Quintana is on some blistering form right now, which bodes well for his Grand Tour goals.

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A resurgent Nairo Quintana has been on incredible form in the opening weeks of the 2022 season, showing early signs of top-tier condition in a year he’s targeting both Grand Tour success and promotion to WorldTour with his Arkéa Samsic team.

First, he snatched overall victory at the Tour de la Provence (2.Pro) with a mountaintop win on the final stage, then he headed to the coast for the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var (2.1), where he went on another final-stage crusade to take his second race winner’s jersey in as many Sundays.

Stage 3 of the short and sweet Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var featured three categorised climbs, including the Cat 2 Col de Saint Roch whose descent back towards the coast was a good three times longer than the 6.4% ascent – although it should be noted that this was one of those cruel profiles whose categorised climbs came after a couple of the unclassified variety, interrupted by only the shortest of descents.

The Colombian started the day on the same time as stage 2 winner Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) after coming up just short (unsurprisingly) in the two-up sprint for the spoils in Saturday’s attritional finale. With Wellens in the fetching golden hour-yellow leader’s jersey, a Quintana-shaped attack on the final stage was inevitable.

Descending to victory.

Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) was one of the most active riders on the 113 km stage, joining the early break on the Col d’Eze, and then going on the attack again, before a group finally got a gap on the second categorised climb. Not ready to call it a day, Pinot bridged to the leaders shortly before the whole race blew apart, at which point Quintana followed Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) in the hunt for the front of the race.

With a whittled-down Wellens group limiting its losses on the incline, Pinot, now solo, led the race over the Col de Saint Roch, but Quintana and Martin were close behind. It was on the descent where the Colombian made his winning move, bombing down the mountain’s winding road at a heart-in-mouth velocity and leaving his rivals helpless in his wake.

By the finish, which came after another couple of small climbs, Quintana had put a huge 1:21 into Martin, with a defiant Wellens coming home in the tiny chase group at 1:30. The stage win and the yellow jersey were his.

Quintana resplendent in the yellow jersey of the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var.

This early season form has got minds whirring with questions, prompted partly by the news that Arkéa Samsic have declined their automatic Giro d’Italia invite, which confirms that two-time Grand Tour winner Quintana will be targeting the Tour de France and Vuelta a España.

The big question: with two French yellow jerseys (figuratively at least; the Provence jersey is black) already in the bag this year, can Quintana finally win yellow in July?

The closest Quintana came to overall Tour victory was in 2015 when he fell 1:12 short of Chris Froome, taking the white jersey as consolation prize.

The answer is very likely no. 

Yes, he’s on blistering form, against decent fields, but this early season level is not unusual for Quintana. In fact, it’s almost a carbon copy of 2020: a stage win and overall victory at the very same races. His next display of awesome climbing prowess that year was on the last day of the WorldTour stage race Paris-Nice – which he’s also due to race in a few weeks – and which that year was run in eerie conditions just before the world shut down due to COVID-19.

He resumed his first season in Arkéa Samsic colours at the Mont Ventoux Challenge in August, then finished a close third overall behind Primož Roglič and Egan Bernal at the Tour de l’Ain.

After abandoning the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné citing knee pain, Quintana was not really expected to trouble the Tour’s GC podium that summer, but there was hope for individual stage success. Fourth on stage 4 and consistent climbing performance saw him step stage by stage into the top five overall, but things began to slip in the second week. A crash on stage 13 was the harbinger of what was to come, and sure enough, Quintana dropped off the pace on the Grand Colombier and ultimately finished the Tour 17th overall.

His best performances at the Tour de France – second in 2013 and 2015 – also came after decent spring campaigns, albeit a month or two down the line at races like Volta a Catalunya and Pais Vasco, both WorldTour.

If we’re to compare this year with past performances, before the perhaps anomalous pandemic year, 2014 comes pretty damn close. Just before turning 24, Quintana won overall in San Luis, then took second and the white jersey at Tirreno-Adriatico, before achieving two stage top-fives on the way to fifth overall in Catalunya. And then? He won the Giro d’Italia.

Quintana on his way to winning his favourite kind of time trial – straight up a bloody great mountain – on stage 19 of the 2014 Giro d’Italia.

Two years later, he had one of the best years of his career, starting strong in January and sustaining his level all the way through the Tour – third on GC – before climbing to overall victory at the Vuelta a España.

He’s started well almost every year since then, but things soured at Movistar and 2019 was his last year at WorldTour level. Stage wins have become the name of the game for Quintana, at least where Grand Tour racing is concerned (let’s just not mention the 2021 Tour where he attacked once or twice before fading away, and the best he could manage was sixth on the Andorra stage). However, with Arkéa Samsic now vying for WorldTeam status in 2023, he is their best bet for the GC, which is where the lion’s share of UCI points can be found.

Quintana’s biggest obstacle at the 2022 Tour de France, besides Tadej Pogačar et al., will be the 53 individual time trial kilometres. The bulk of them are reserved for the penultimate stage, but there’s a 13 km flat and technical test in Copenhagen to contend with on day one – Quintana lost 1:01 on a comparative stage 1 course at the 2015 Tour, notably the only ITT of the race. As for the first proper mountain, it doesn’t come until stage 7…

History tells us Quintana can and likely will perform among the best climbers in July, and that he may perform better still at the Vuelta.

But can he take yellow at the Tour? Maybe – if he can avoid losing too much time in the TT – he can wear yellow for a few days, but even with the form he’s building already, he’ll be hard-pushed to put enough time into his rivals to take it all the way. However, the tea leaves do suggest a decent top-10, maybe even top-five finish.

Besides, we’ve been here before. Never write off Nairo Quintana.

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