Think back for a minute. It’s May 2014. More specifically, it’s the 26th of May, 2014. Rigoberto Urán leads the Giro d’Italia as it rests for a day at the Passo del Tonale. He has a minute and three seconds on Cadel Evans, who in his final full season led the race for four days before capitulating in the final week. In third place is Rafał Majka, a minute fifty behind. In fourth is Fabio Aru, who had just won the mountain finish on Montecampione, now sitting two minutes and twenty-four seconds in arrears. And who’s in fifth? That would be Nairo Quintana. He’s two minutes and forty seconds down, having suffered with illness early in the second week. Urán owes his pink jersey to a masterful display on the stage twelve individual time-trial, but he’s done well enough in the mountains to be well in contention to hold his jersey through the tough final week.
The next day, Urán lost four minutes after Quintana’s attack and went on to lose the race by three, but he stayed glued to Quintana’s wheel on the tough mountain finishes at Rifugio Panarotta and Monte Zoncolan. This came a year after he rode to second behind the dominant Nibali in the seemingly almost-forgotten (cough, Santambrogio, cough, Di Luca, cough) 2013 Giro. He left Trieste in 2014 with two Giro podium finishes under his belt, at the age of twenty-seven. Progression to victories looked likely, but illness stole a podium position at that year’s Vuelta, and the 2015 Giro saw him crack on Madonna Di Campiglio. In 2016, he lost out in his former domain of the time-trial. By the start of this year’s Tour, he hadn’t seriously contended for a Grand Tour in three years, starting the race so far under the radar as to hardly make a blip, at 400/1 for overall victory.
Now, on the second rest day, he is less than half a minute from the yellow jersey thanks to a generally flawless ride. On his weakest day, the first mountain stage to La Planche des Belles Filles, he lost merely six seconds to Chris Froome, and since then he has been glued to the Briton’s wheel, whenever he hasn’t been ahead of it. On the way, he took a narrow stage win in Chambéry, using his comparatively excellent sprint to take ten bonus seconds in the GC bunch’s kick to the line. He’s gone from strength to strength since, narrowly outdone by Bardet on Peyragudes, but proving cannier in Rodez, in addition to being the only man capable of following Bardet’s attack on the Col du Peyra Taillade on stage fifteen. So how far can Urán go, in what looks like his best ever chance for success in the Tour de France?
My personal feeling about this is that he is very likely to finish second. The Colombian hasn’t performed very well in time-trials in recent years — since finishing second in the 2014 Vuelta’s time-trial, he hasn’t secured a top ten finish in a TT against World Tour opposition, and it is this stat that is most pessimistic for his chances. However, the talent for testing is there. It’s surely something that doesn’t go away completely, so with more at stake now than ever in the Colombian’s career, I think he can put out a time-trial to match his rivals on Saturday.
What about the climbs then? With the Galibier and Izoard still to come, predicting any results can be a dangerous game, but Urán is not one to fade in the final week. In his 2013 Giro, he moved up in the final week, and in 2014, he was the second-best of the GC contenders. It’s my opinion that he will not be dropped by anyone on the climbs. Can he then move up in the mountains? He’s given a chanceless ride so far, but an unaggressive one, making one attack on the descent to Foix, but no moves before or since, save following accelerations from Bardet and Froome. There’s a danger, in these final two mountain stages, of the four best climbers in the race - Froome, Bardet, Aru and Urán - marking each other out, as they have so far. There has been nowhere to make a race-defining attack, nowhere to kill off rivals, because nobody has really shown enough weakness to exploit. If that happens over the next three days, Urán is unlikely to lose out on a podium position with a time-trial to come, but also unlikely to win. My prediction at the minute is that he loses no time to Froome in the upcoming mountains, but a little in the TT, enough to beat Bardet and Aru. The yellow jersey won’t come to Colombia, however.
You knew that already, anyway. Urán winning falls under the umbrella of “that guy? Winning? Really?” and nothing he can do this week will change that. He’s never been a big, international star making mountain attacks, but someone who accumulates and chips away to a good result — incidentally, a style of riding of which I approve highly — so in plying that trade, Urán can get himself to a good position here. It’s not really a great surprise, not really an out-of-nowhere result, but more a relief that a good Grand Tour rider is back to his best after a couple of years in the three-week wilderness.
Rigoberto Urán is Back? Good to hear it.