The pint-size Colombian climber has a good shot at pulling off one of cycling’s hardest feats
On Friday, Colombian Nairo Quintana began his quest to win both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same season. If he succeeds, he will join a legendary list of seven racers to have accomplished the feat, including Miguel Indurain (’92 and ’93), Bernard Hinault (’82 and ’85), and Eddy Merckx (’70 and ’72). The last cyclist to master the Giro-Tour double was Marco Pantani, who did it almost two decades ago in 1998.
There are endless reasons why Quintana should not succeed.
The Giro course is harder than it’s ever been, as organizers have worked to craft a race that can produce drama the way the Tour de France does not. This year’s route includes almost 70 kilometers of time trialing in two separate stages, which works against Quintana’s climbing strengths.
The level of competition at the Giro also continues to rise as teams with depth, like Sky, target the race, and training specificity allows more riders to peak their fitness at the precise right moment. This year, Grand Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali will be on the start line at the Giro. If Quintana does win, he'll face a scrum of the best riders on the planet at the Tour, including Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Richie Porte, and Fabio Aru, all of whom will be fresher and well rested.
Timing is probably the biggest challenge, with only a month between the end of the Giro and the start of the Tour. That doesn’t allow much of a window for recovery yet is likely too long a span to maintain a peak.
It’s obviously a monumental ask for any rider to win both the Giro and Tour in a single season. And yet, if there’s anyone who can do it right now, Quintana is the man.
For one, he’s young (just 27) and at the height of his strengths—or still on the way up. By contrast, his major competitors, the 32-year-old Froome, 32-year-old Nibali, and 34-year-old Contador, are presumably starting to age out and slow down. Quintana also has the Grand Tour experience, having won both the Giro (2014) and the Vuelta (2016) and racked up three podiums at the Tour. Quintana’s Movistar team is one of the strongest in the peloton, second only to perhaps Sky, and the resurgent Alejandro Valverde, who has won just about everything in the early season this year, should take a lot of pressure off his Colombian teammate at the Tour. And Quintana has proven he’s ready, with a barnstorming early season in which he’s easily won the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Valencia. He put an exclamation point on his form last week with a commanding mountaintop stage win at the Vuelta a Asturias.
Here’s the other thing: Quintana is the only racer in the past four years who has been able to challenge Froome’s dominance at the Tour. True, he hasn’t won yet. But over the last three editions of the French race that he’s tried, Quintana has attacked and distanced himself from Froome and the rest of the peloton. It’s clear that when he’s climbing his best, the Colombian is basically unrivaled. This winter I spent a few weeks touring in Colombia, including a visit to Quintana’s hometown, and the brazen mountains and seemingly endless climbs are instructive for understanding why Quintana—and many of his countrymen —are such incredible climbers. These guys have grown up at altitudes higher than most European peaks and are training on climbs that make the Alps look like anthills. Add to that the fact that Team Sky has been beset by scandals all season and looks shakier than it has since its inception, and you have the recipe for Quintana’s success.
I admit it will take a lot of stars aligning and some luck for Quintana to pull off the double. But the truth is, I hope he does. Cycling, which is in the doldrums because of all the scandals and public mistrust, needs some excitement and charisma. It needs big personalities like Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish. And it needs big feats, such as Greg Van Avermaet winning or podiuming at almost every cobbled classic this season. It’s exciting and galvanizing when racers work hard and prevail. So, I applaud Quintana for even trying the double (as I applauded Contador in 2015). Even if he doesn’t succeed (as Contador did not), I admire the audacity to attempt it. And if I had to bet on anyone in the peloton who could pull it off right now, it would be Quintana.
Venga Colombia! Venga Quintana!