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Tour de France Preview: The Case for Nairo

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Can Q be the A in the TdF? Click and find out!

Don Nairo on the loose
Don Nairo on the loose
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

We are previewing the minor jerseys like jersey previews, but for the Yellow our 2016 Podium Cafe Tour de France coverage will go one favored rider at a time and try to make the case for them winning. Sometimes we will succeed. Other times, well, you can only make so many cases for one prize. I'm going first with my Colombian hero, Nairo Quintana.

The Basics

Name: Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas

Birth: Feb 4, 1990 in Combita, Colombia (altitude 2825 meters), age 26

Team: Movistar, still undecided but Andrey Amador, Winner Anacona, Jonathan Castroviejo, Imanol Erviti, Jesus Herrada, Jon and Gorka Izagirre, Dani Moreno, Alejandro Valverde and Francisco Ventoso

The Numbers

Past TdF GC Placement: two starts, second both times

Stage Victories: one, in 2013 to Mt Semnoz

Other Jerseys: Best Young Rider 2x, King of the Mountains (2013)

Other Grand Tours: Won 2014 Giro d'Italia, fourth in 2015 Vuelta a Espana

Quintana in 2013 dots Agence Zoom

Climbing Ability

Nairo Quintana is probably the best pure climber at the Tour de France. I say probably because it's a subjective assessment, and I'm not sure people even agree on what that description means. But the conventional wisdom is that the highest mountains is where the Boyacense earns his paycheck. Young Quintana burst onto the European scene as a teenager, riding for a local amateur outfit, but hanging with a variety of seasoned pros at the Urkiola Igoera, won that day by Igor Anton, just 36" ahead of Quintana (among others). The next year, with the stronger Colombia es Passion team behind him, he won the Tour de l'Avenir, whose podium ceremony serves as a debutante ball for future grand tour climbers. Not everyone goes on to confirm their pedigree, but the results simply never stopped coming. KOM jersey in the Volta a Catalunya at 21. At 22 he won the Vuelta a Murcia, the Route du Sud, and his first attention-getting win at the Giro dell'Emilia. At 23 he was second in the Tour, putting a mild scare into Chris Froome on Alpe d'Huez.

In other words, he has always been a climber.

Quintana in Romandie ITT Alain Grosclaude

Time Trialling

Oh, remember a couple sentences ago when I mentioned the Tour de l'Avenir? He won the time trial as well as the key climbing stage. He was somewhat infamously disparaged by a couple dingbat Americans for winning the Vuelta al Pais Vasco in 2013 after taking second in the time trial after Tony Martin. But he'd scored some major successes in uphill time trials before (Col d'Eze) and since (Cima Grappa).

Time after time he's shown competence in the ITT, with the exception of the 2014 Vuelta where he crashed out of the race lead and eventually DNF'd. He can do this. Maybe not stage winning, but he can keep himself in contention, maybe even move up.

Analysis

From the above, and probably your own memory, you can tell that Quintana possesses the requisite skills -- against the watch and going uphill -- as well as the help of a powerful team (albeit one that can't stop caring about Alejandro Valverde a bit too much). He generally handles the bike well and is no more likely to fall off than anyone else. Really, this assessment comes down to whether he can put it all together.

Quintana's youth is exciting -- he's only now just reached ineligibility for the maillot blanc -- and he's five years younger than Froome, but that same youth will be a liability until he figures out how to ride a perfect race, or until Froome gets out of his way.The latter isn't about to happen til, who knows when, so he really needs to do the former.

The three data points on that score are the 2014 Vuelta, where he was locked in a war with Froome and Contador, lost concentration, and crashed out; the 2014 Giro, where he slowly worked his way up to a dominating win; and the 2015 Tour. Regarding the latter, Quintana missed a split in Zeeland and lost 1.28, plus a few other handfuls of seconds, before the Pyrenees where he conceded another minute-plus, and found himself 3.09 in arrears early in week 2. From there, Quintana whittled his deficit down to 1.12, thanks to two strong efforts in the Alps at the end, as well as Quintana preventing any more time losses beforehand. In theory he just needed one more day in the Alps to recoup all his losses and take the maillot jaune. [Obviously Froome knew exactly how much time he had in hand, however, so this is just a theory.]

Quintana in Colombia Eitan Abramovich

So, to win this year's Tour, Quintana needs three factors in his favor: enough mountains, time trials that don't cause a big problem, and a manageable set of stages in the opening week.

Opening week: Hm... there are no rides along the North Sea, no cobblestones, no obvious ways for Quintana to mess up. The stages tend to be lumpy affairs, including stage 2 and a mid-mountain trip to Le Lioran on stage 5 before the Pyrenees begin on stage 7. Quintana seems smart enough to learn from his mistakes, and with the Tour not setting any traps, plus an experienced team at hand, I wouldn't count on him having major problems again, with luck.

Time trials: Not unlike last year, the Tour have tipped things a bit in Quintana's direction, to blunt Froome's advantage. The flattish time trial happens on Stage 13, and includes a couple climbing blocks among its manageable 37km. The other time trial happens on stage 18, and 11 of the 17km are uphill. Taken together, I'm guessing Froome can put a minute or more into Quintana, but probably less than two minutes.

The Climbs: Last year's Tour was billed as having seven major mountain stages, but three of them finished headed downhill or with modest climbs where there was little chance for the yellow jersey battle to take place. For the four real targets, Froome won the first, the second (at Plateau de Beille) was a draw, and Quintana won modestly, the decisively on the last two. This year, of the three Pyrenean stages, one is a classic MTF, another is a classic Pyrenees day but ending with a downhill, and the third (the first one) is tough to call, with a climb over the Col d'Aspin and a very short descent to the line. Then you have Mont Ventoux. Then four Alps stages (two MTFs and two ending downhill), and a fifth uphill ITT. If Quintana takes his form up slowly to a third year peak, he'll certainly have more room to go on the attack than he did in 2015.

Quintana takes second

Verdict: Can He Win?

Betting Odds: 21/10

My call: Definitely. All he has to do is learn his lesson about how to survive week 1, which I'm sure he's had plenty of help with, and hang in on the first ITT, then hit his peak form in time for Mont Ventoux and beyond. Is he my pick to win? I'm not sure yet, but by Friday he certainly could be.