Coming into this season, Nairo Quintana said that he was going to adopt a new approach to racing, and on Paris-Nice’s final stage through the hills in Nice’s back-country the Colombian gave the first indication of what that might be.
Often criticised for being overly cautious and sitting in the wheels, he rode in what could perhaps be described as Alberto Contador mode, attacking early, showing aggression and persistently pressing.
Although the Movistar leader didn’t manage to overturn his 46-second deficit on race leader Egan Bernal and eventually had to settle for second on GC, he gave his compatriot and Team Sky plenty to think about over the final 50 kilometres of a typically thrilling final Paris-Nice day.
Bernal, increasingly talked up as cycling’s next Grand Tour great, admitted he’d gone through “a difficult moment” when Quintana attacked and quickly got across to a group where three Movistar riders were waiting to help him.
“Going into the stage we didn’t know what to expect from Nairo, and when he attacked I just focused on the fact that I had a really strong team around me. I kept really calm all day and just believed in them,” said Bernal.
Bernal also offered praise to Quintana for his performance, and added: “I hope that he can win something nice this year. Nairo is a huge inspiration for a lot of guys in Colombia. He’s one of the most important riders that we have, the biggest rider in terms of the GC races. He’s also a really good friend. I talk to him a lot.”
Asked whether he sees himself as being the first Colombian winner of the Tour de France, Bernal suggested that Quintana was still the most likely rider from the South American country to achieve that accolade. “Nairo is looking really strong this year and I certainly don’t think about being the first Colombian Tour winner,” he said.
Paris-Nice was his second WorldTour stage race victory in Sky colours following his success at last year’s Tour of California, but it’s undoubtedly the biggest of his young career.
“To be honest I can’t believe yet that I’ve just won Paris-Nice. It’s incredible,” Bernal said. “It’s one of the biggest races in the world. This yellow jersey means a lot, and not just to me. I think for all of the guys in the peloton, the yellow jersey and the lion are a really big thing, so I’m really happy for myself and also for my team.
“We won the team prize, Michał [Kwiatkowski] was third, we won the points jersey and the white jersey, so it’s been a great week for us.”
But he played down any attempt to hype his chances at Grand Tours on the back of this latest triumph.
“I know Paris-Nice is a really big race and it’s very hard to win it, but it’s still just eight days and a Grand Tour is 21 days of full gas racing. Those races are on a very different level to races like Paris-Nice, Catalunya or the Dauphiné,” he said.
Looking ahead to the Giro, which will be his first Grand Tour as a leader, he commented: “I do want to do really well there, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to win, or finish in the top-three or the top-10. I might lose 10 or 20 minutes on any day.
“It’s so different going to a Grand Tour as a leader, you need to be up there every day. I will have a very good team around me, but I’m only 22 and still have a lot to learn.”
Inevitably, he also played down suggestions that he is a Tour de France winner in waiting.
“They’re so different to these one-week races. There are plenty of riders who have won one-week races but have never won a three-week race.”
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