How good is he?
Crashing twice at last year's Vuelta a EspaÃ±a - the first midway through, and in the race lead; the second resulting in a fractured shoulder and out of the race - then, a month prior to the start of Tirreno-Adriatico, falling again at the Colombian road championships - and yep, on that right shoulder he busted five months previous - the flyweight Colombian could be completely forgiven for coming to Lido di Camaiore last Wednesday medium-rare, to use parlance familiar to Alberto Contador's favourite butcher.
That Wednesday May 11, in a 5.4 kilometre time test, unsurprisingly, he finished in 81st place, 21 seconds down on Movistar's Adriano Malori, the stage winner - equivalent to 14 rungs lower than Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), and 60 places shy of defending Tour de France champ Vincenzo Nibali, who rides for that-team-who-doesn't-derserve-to-be-in-the-WorldTour-but-is-anyway.
Luckily for Nairo Quintana, the next challenge was three days away; it allowed the prodigious 25-year-old to ease himself back into the swing of things, the swing of the WorldTour; 'the Race of the Two Seas' his first competitive foray outside South America for Season 2015. He was still an unknown quantity after Stage 4 to Castelraimondo, won by Woet Poels (formerly Etixx-Quick Step, now Team Sky), who also assumed the race lead over Rigoberto Uran (formerly Team Sky, now Etixx-Quick Step) by 17 seconds - inconspicuously ending the first mountain stage in the main group of favourites (albeit sans Nibali), 14 seconds behind Dutchman Poels.
We were yet to see the Quintana of old; the Quintana of the 2014 Giro; the Quintana that may well have won the 2014 Vuelta.
That came 24 hours later - on a day not unlike Stage 16 of the last year's Giro, a.k.a. 'Stelvio-gate', when he took the stage and race lead - as a blizzard blew into the Apennines of central Italy, casting its spell on the finishing climb of Monte Terminillo... And, just like 27 May 2014 en route to Val Martello, Quintana found his best form on the worst day: sensing anxiety (others, not his, though he did profit from Contador being so heavily marked - "Everybody had eyes on me today and I was unable to do much more, as there was nobody that wanted to pull at the front," the Spaniard said afterwards); sensing weakness (others, not his), he hit out, then again, and again, till the road behind him was devoid of those he was with only moments before. "I knew it was going to be very cold on the final climb. I was psychologically ready," he said post-stage, armed with a 39-second buffer to second-placed overall, Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), and 48 seconds ahead of Uran, third.
"I saw some tension in the group around me. I looked around, not at (Contador) in particular, and I saw people were looking at each other as if they were thinking about attacking. Yesterday, when we were looking at each other, the Sky rider (Poels) took advantage. Today, the pace dropped and I decided to give it a go." He mentioned the effects of his crash at the Vuelta were still with him, but as for Mother Nature, while others like Fabian Cancellara whined on Twitter about the inclement conditions, Quintana simply said: "In the end, when you are a leader, you have to have a strong head and legs, whatever the weather." Take that, Fabian...
The following day, the skies did not clear; more rain, more cold, more misery. A mostly flat parcours saw him tested just once by Contador and Oleg's Team of Misfits, whose efforts came to nought. As for the bookending time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto, the 10km, pancake flat out-and-back course could not have suited him less - yet such was his assuredness after his victory atop Terminillo, he insouciantly shrugged off any potential GC challenge, saying that "should everything go as I plan, without any incidents, it shouldn't be extremely hard for me to defend this jersey". Sure enough, everything went to plan - perhaps the only surprise being Mollema's notable improvement against the watch since a change of teams, ending the weeklong event just 18 seconds adrift of the Colombian - and, by consequence, out came the obligatory golden trident. "This victory was also needed for my morale: after the crash in the Vuelta a EspaÃ±a, I had spent a long period without living a moment of joy like today's, one for which you prepare yourself and spend so much time working hard," he said. "Now, I'll take some days of rest before the cobbled classics next week and then, PaÃs Vasco."
Yes, folks, you heard it right: Quintana, unlike any other budding Tour contender this year, has decided to test himself on the pavÃ©!
Nothing major like Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, mind you, but on March 25, three days after Sunday's Milano-Sanremo, he will pin on a number at the Dwars door Vlaanderen, last year won by defending Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick Step). Then another one-day race, the Gran Premio Miguel Indurain, before Pais Vasco (April 6-11) and the Ardennes triptych of Amstel, FlÃ¨che and LiÃ¨ge. Romandie, Suisse, TdF, and, pending all goes well en France, redemption will duly be sought at La Vuelta.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the camps of Tinkoff-Saxo, Team Sky and that team right now...
If Tirreno-Adriatico was he at 80 percent, expect to see a hors catégorie Nairo Quintana before too long, writes Anthony Tan.