Category: Nairo Quintana

Roundtable: Five riders who need to win big in 2019

It is the new year, and with the Santos Tour Down Under right around the corner, the pro road season is nearly upon us. It is an exciting time for fans and riders alike, but it is also a time of increased pressure for top riders who are hungry for big victories. While Geraint Thomas and Alejandro Valverde celebrated huge successes in 2018, plenty of other up-and-comers and big stars stumbled. For some pros, 2019 will be a make-or-break year.

Here are five riders who need to win big this season.

Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo)

Richie Porte
Richie Porte has won plenty of yellow jerseys … except they have been in one-week races like Tour de Suisse. Can he step it up in 2019? Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: My new year’s resolution is to stop bagging on Richie Porte … But Richie needs to hold up his end of the bargain too. It feels like we have hyped up the Tasmanian for ages. He was fifth at the 2016 Tour and even back in 2010 he went top-10 a the Giro d’Italia. His wins have been tantalizing — Paris-Nice in 2015 and 2013, Tour de Romandie in 2017, and Tour de Suisse last year. But the time for one-week stage race wins has passed. At the very least, Porte needs to get on a grand tour podium in 2019.

First of all, he is 33 years old, so the window of opportunity is closing as he passes his physiological peak. Second, he is in his first year with Trek-Segafredo, a team that has been hungry for a true GC star since Alberto Contador retired at the end of 2017 (apologies to Bauke Mollema). Porte has already committed to race the Tour de France this year, and while I like that he is swinging for the fences, perhaps his best chance would actually be to carry that Tour form into the Vuelta for a run at the red jersey. If he can’t pull it off at either of those races, well, I’ll have plenty of takes on the VeloNews podcast, resolutions be damned.

Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin)

Marcel Kittel
Marcel Kittel won scads of Tour stages in 2017. 2018? Not so much. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Dane Cash, @danecash: 2018 did not go according to plan for Marcel Kittel. He came into his debut season with Katusha-Alpecin on the heels of a strong year — he won an impressive five Tour de France stages in 2017 — but Kittel did not manage a single stage victory at the Tour last summer. He didn’t have much success elsewhere on the calendar either. A pair of Tirreno-Adriatico stages were his only pro wins all season.

Kittel did not shy away from acknowledging the disappointment, but he could not put his finger on what was behind his down year. Medical tests did not point to any specific ailment. Whatever was holding him back, Kittel will hope to put it behind him, and quickly, this season. He will turn 31 in May, and young sprinting rivals Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) are getting better every year.

Fortunately for Kittel, he has some experience when it comes to bouncing back from an off year. He was the fastest sprinter on the planet in 2014, but struggled with illness in 2015 and did not even race a grand tour. He returned to winning ways the following season. That should give him reason to be optimistic that he can bounce back once again here in 2019.

Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates)

Was Fabio Aru’s Vuelta a España victory a fluke? He has yet to deliver since he defeated Tom Dumoulin in 2015. Photo: ©Mark Van Hecke | Getty Images

Chris Case, @chrisjustincase: There was a finite time — to be more specific, in 2015, during both the Giro d’Italia (where he was second) and the Vuelta a España (which he won) — when Fabio Aru was headed straight to the top of the Italian grand tour throne, dislodging Vincenzo Nibali from his perch. The Sardinian’s fight and grit were clear; big results seemed inevitable.

Then the staircase to that high perch crumbled. Aru has never really been the same rider since. Sure, he’s had his moments — a fifth place at the 2017 Tour de France among them — but he’s steadily dropped down every list of contenders preceding every subsequent grand tour. Now, when prognosticators put together their who-to-watch lists, he’s nearly an afterthought.

Over three years on since his sole grand tour triumph, Aru needs to have a big result in 2019. There were indications that dietary issues were holding him back last year. With those resolved, and a lighter schedule in the early season, Aru hopes to return to his former self. He has yet to confirm which grand tour(s) he will ride this year, but it appears increasingly likely that he will return to the Giro despite the presence of three individual time trials — he’s even stated that the Tour de France route fits him better. But his participation in the Tour is much less certain, especially given the presence of Dan Martin and new arrival Fernando Gaviria.

Perhaps what Aru needs more than a return to grand tour glory is simply to regain some confidence. If I was his team manager, I’d have him commit to putting in solid performances at a few early-season second-tier stage races: Algarve and Catalunya. Then, hit the Giro with the fire and determination that he once plastered all over his face.

Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data)

Mark Cavendish
Mark Cavendish’s quest to equal Eddy Merckx’s stage-win record in the Tour de France hit a stumbling block in 2018. Photo: ©Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Andrew Hood, @eurohoody: It’s not that Mark Cavendish needs a good season; he deserves one. The Manxman has had a rough ride since coming within a whisker of winning a second world title in Doha in 2016. Injuries, crashes, and illnesses have derailed the most lethal sprinting threat of his generation. One win in 2017 and one win in 2018. That’s not single digits — that’s one digit, as in one win per season for the past two years, hardly what everyone expects from the most prolific sprinter since Mario Cipollini ruled the straightaways.

At 33, Cavendish is bound to return to the fray in 2019, a contract year for him. People have written Cavendish off before, but it won’t be any easier getting closer to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins with the rise of more youthful legs in Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen. It’s now or never for Cavendish in 2019.

Nairo Quintana (Movistar)

Nairo Quintana
Can Nairo Quintana return to his winning ways in a grand tour. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Poor Nairo Quintana. No other grand tour star needs a big win in 2019 quite like Quintana. Since 2013, Quintana’s name has been included on the shortest lists of cycling’s top grand tour riders, and this past season, it really felt like Quintana’s place on these lists was simply out of courtesy. Tenth at the Tour. Eighth at the Vuelta. Those results are simply not good enough for a man who was, half a decade ago now, slated to be Chris Froome’s top rival. These days Quintana is in trouble of slipping down to a (gasp) second-tier grand tour contender, far behind the Yates brothers, Tom Dumoulin, and Geraint Thomas (he’s nowhere near Froome). What went wrong?

Quintana has a suitable excuse for not winning a grand tour in 2017; his team’s disastrous decision to have him race the Giro/Tour double was simply too hard. But what’s to blame for last year’s shortcoming? Movistar’s now ridiculous three-headed monster (Quintana, Valverde, Landa) strategy can’t take all the blame for Quintana’s bad legs. Quintana should forego the Tour and instead focus on the Giro and a head-to-head battle with Colombia’s new star, Egan Bernal. Nothing would pad Quintana’s confidence quite like beating the new kid.

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Quintana confirms season debut at San Juan

With an eye toward the Tour de France, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will kick-start his 2019 season in the Tour de San Juan (January 27-February 3) in Argentina.

Race officials confirmed Monday the two-time Tour runner-up will open his campaign in Argentina. It will be Quintana’s first start in the race after riding the now-defunct Tour de San Luis in Argentina on three occasions, including overall victory in 2014.

“The stages are ideal for the beginning of the season,” Quintana said. “The first goal is to train, but we’ll see if we can do something along the way.”

Quintana will be joined by South American teammates Richard Carapaz (Ecuador), Winner Anacona and Carlos Betancur (Colombia), and Eduardo Sepulveda (Argentina). Carlos Barbero of Spain is the only rider who doesn’t hail from Latin America for Movistar’s preliminary San Luis roster.

Quintana is also expected to race the Tour of Colombia in February before making his European debut at Paris-Nice. He’s indicated he’ll race the Tour of the Basque Country and perhaps some of the Ardennes classics before a return to the Tour de Suisse in June, where he won a stage and finished third on the podium in 2018.

The ultimate goal is the Tour and a defiant Quintana said his “sueño amarillo” to become South America’s first yellow jersey-winner is alive and well.

“I still think I have a Tour (de France) in my legs,” said Quintana, who is also racing the Vuelta a España. “The big goal for 2019 will be to pull off a big win.”

Other top riders for the San Juan tour include Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Emirates), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data).

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Movistar taps Quintana as sole leader for Tour

MADRID (AFP) — Colombian climber Nairo Quintana will lead Movistar at the 2019 Tour de France, Movistar’s manager Eusebio Unzué revealed Tuesday at a team presentation in Madrid.

During the 2018 Tour, Quintana — who has won both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana — was the team’s co-leader with world champion Alejandro Valverde and Spanish climber Mikel Landa. In 2019, Quintana will spearhead the team’s effort at the French grand tour.

Quintana was runner-up to Chris Froome in the Tour de France in 2013 and 2015. Now at his peak, the 28-year-old remains a true contender for a win in the sport’s greatest race.

“We will continue dreaming [of the Tour de France win], and we will continue to work for it,” said Quintana.

Unzué admitted last season’s tactics had failed and that backing the Colombian was the key to success in 2019.

“We want to concentrate our focus on Nairo on the Tour de France and the Vuelta too,” Unzué said at a presentation of the 2019 lineup in Madrid.

“The key objective for the team this year is to win a grand tour.”

The 38-year-old Valverde, who won the thrilling, mountainous world championships in Innsbruck this year, will race the Giro in May and the Vuelta in September, Unzué revealed.

Landa, recruited from Team Sky, will race the Giro in May and then back up Quintana in the Tour de France.

“We were always in there with a chance last season but somehow the strategy [of three leaders] fell short and we failed to meet our objectives.

“We had wonderful moments though with 27 wins, but had bad luck with Quintana and Landa not quite as good as we’d been hoping for,” Unzué said. “But that will all change this year.”

Movistar, the second most powerful team in professional cycling after Team Sky, renewed a deal to sponsor the Spanish outfit until 2021 just two days ago.

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Don’t expect many Giro-Tour double attempts in 2019

If 2018 was the year of the Giro-Tour double, this coming season likely won’t see many of the major grand tour stars take a shot at one of cycling’s most elusive achievements.

So far, Movistar’s Mikel Landa is the only top rider who’s hinted he might race both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in 2019. While race schedules are yet to be finalized, most of the other major GC riders in the peloton seem to be shying away from the heft of the double attempt in 2019.

Look no further than Team Sky. Tour champ Geraint Thomas and defending Giro winner Chris Froome have both strongly hinted that the Tour will be the center of their respective calendars. For both of those riders, the lure of the Tour is too much to resist.

“I definitely feels there’s unfinished business [at the Giro] but next year might be the wrong time,” Thomas told BBC this week. “Being at the Tour with the No. 1 on my back, it would be a shame to know I wouldn’t be at my best.”

Froome, who won the Giro in May and finished third at the Tour, also said he’s leaning toward an all-out push for the yellow jersey in what he hopes will be a record-tying fifth victory.

Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), who finished second in both the Giro and Tour in 2018, says he’s still undecided on how his calendar will shape up. The big Dutchman says the Giro route with its longer time trial kilometers suits him better than next year’s climb-heavy Tour route. However, many expect Dumoulin to tilt toward the Tour at the expense of the Giro.

Quintana, who fell short in a 2017 double attempt with second at the Giro and 12th at the Tour, has already confirmed he will not race the Giro in 2019.

“I want to be as fresh as possible for the Tour,” Quintana said this week from Colombia, “and the route with the high mountains really favors me. My dream of winning the Tour is still fully intact.”

Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) admitted he’d love to race next year’s Giro, but said the combination of sponsor demands and a climb-friendly Tour route means he’ll put July at the center of his 2019 calendar.

Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), one of only two active riders who has won all three grand tours (alongside Froome), is expected to make a full push for the Giro. He last tried the Giro-Tour double in 2016, when he won the Giro but was not a factor for the yellow jersey, in 30th overall.

Once considered too difficult to realistically confront both races in top form, the demanding Giro-Tour double has returned to fashion the past few seasons.

More major riders have taken up the challenge with varying success. Alberto Contador gave it a good run in 2015, winning the Giro before going fifth at the Tour. Quintana tried in 2017 with mixed results, finishing second to Dumoulin at the Giro before finishing a flat 12th at the Tour. Both of them said the hard effort at the Giro left them empty for the Tour.

So why did Froome and Dumoulin — the closest anyone’s come to pulling off the double in decades — fare so well in 2018? Soccer’s World Cup. Tour organizers bumped the race back a week later in July to limit overlapping the race with the popular soccer tournament.

This year’s Giro ended May 27 and the Tour started July 7 for a total of 40 days between. An additional week spaced out the two grand tours. That might not seem like much, but both Froome and Dumoulin said that full week of recovery was decisive to their commitment to the 2018 double attempt.

“That extra week was key to being able to race the Giro and still have a chance to recover for the Tour,” Froome told VeloNews in a recent interview. “That was the main reason why we decided to try the Giro. Without that week, there really isn’t enough time to have a chance to recover from that effort at the Giro.”

Dumoulin doesn’t expect any GC rider to realistically hope to fare well in both grand tours.

“Next year it’s going to be a week less so there will be only three and a half weeks,” Dumoulin said. “I think next year whoever wants to go for the challenge to do the Giro and Tour, that would be pretty impossible in my eyes.”

Next year’s Giro ends June 2 and the Tour starts July 6 with only 33 days in between, so don’t expect anyone racing to win the Giro to have a lot of firepower left in late July.

Next year’s Giro is expected to draw riders such as Nibali, Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and perhaps Egan Bernal (Sky). None of them are expected to race the Tour, and if they do, the yellow jersey wouldn’t be a realistic goal.

The mark left by Marco Pantani — who became the last rider to pull off the double in 1998 — looks safe for now.

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Podcast: Can Quintana deliver? Katie Compton interview

Welcome to the VeloNews cycling podcast, where we discuss the latest trends, news, and controversies in the world of cycling.

Our man in Europe Andrew Hood Skypes in to talk about what he learned at Movistar’s team camp. Plus, he remembers the late Paul Sherwen, who died unexpectedly Sunday night.

We discuss if Nairo Quintana can turn things around after a disappointing 2018 season, whether Mikel Landa is cut out to be an outright grand tour GC leader, and how Alejandro Valverde is handling the spotlight of being world champion.

Later in the program, we hear from Katie Compton on her “worst season yet” and ask her if she’ll be able to defend her national cyclocross championship title.

If you like what you hear, subscribe to the VeloNews podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play. Please give us a review and a rating, if you have time! Also, check out the VeloNews Fast Talk training podcast with Trevor Connor and the VeloNews tech podcast with Dan Cavallari.

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Quintana no fan of Movistar’s three-pronged Tour attack

Nairo Quintana, back in Colombia this month ahead of his gran fondo event, admitted he is no fan of Movistar’s three-pronged attack in the Tour de France.

The two-time Tour runner-up saw his leadership duties diluted in the 2018 Tour when Movistar also sent teammates Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde with protected status. The tactic delivered a stage win with Quintana and a top-10 with Landa, but it fell short of a podium push.

“I don’t like it, but [Movistar manager Eusebio] Unzué is convinced that it’s possible,” Quintana told French TV. “So that’s how it went.”

Movistar remains uncommitted on how it will tackle the 2019 Tour, a climb-heavy course that on paper should favor Quintana. Reigning world champion Valverde has hinted that he will not ride next year’s Tour, meaning that Movistar will likely bring Landa and Quintana as co-captains.

In a previous interview, Quintana also revealed his dissatisfaction with shared leadership, but the arrival of Landa in 2018 meant that the Colombian would no longer be the singular focus at Movistar.

Movistar officials say they will map out the 2019 racing calendar for all its major players later this month at a team training camp in Spain. Landa has also commented that he is expected to race the Tour with captain status and hinted he might take on the Giro as well. Quintana said he’s committed to racing the Tour as the singular focus of his season.

“The mountains in this year’s Tour favor us because of the high altitude,” he said. “That’s where I live and train, so I am accustomed to this altitude. My dreams of winning the Tour are fully intact. I’ve been close before, and it’s been a bit more bitter these past two years, but I still hope to win it.”

A stage victory in the Pyrénées — his first since his breakout 2013 Tour when he was second overall and won the best climber’s as well as best young rider’s jersey — took the edge off what was largely a GC disappointment for Quintana.

“We’ve had more brilliant years before,” Quintana said of 2018. “Even though we worked as hard as ever, things didn’t turn out as we had hoped in the important races. I was pretty good in the Tour de Suisse and other races and we ended up with a pretty decent season, but we’re hoping to be better next year.”

Quintana faces a bit of a career crossroads in 2019. Twice second to Chris Froome and once third at the Tour, he admits that he desperately wants to become South America’s first Tour winner. The rise of Egan Bernal on archrival Sky could complicate matters.

Quintana, 28, confirmed he will finish out his final year of his latest contract with Movistar, where he joined as a pro in 2012, but hinted there could be a change on the horizon.

“We are already looking to the future,” he said. “Now we are only thinking about having a great season with this team [Movistar] that has always treated me well.”

Quintana will debut his season at the Tour de San Juan before racing at the rebranded Tour Colombia 2.1, where he finished second last year to Bernal when the race was called “Oro y Paz.”

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Movistar to bring Landa, Quintana back to 2019 Tour

Movistar is bullish Mikel Landa will perform at maximum capacity in 2019 following a rough and tumble debut with the Spanish blues.

Landa expressed optimism he would be back at his best next season following a string of crashes that kept him from shining at his best during 2018.

“If this year didn’t work out, next year it will,” Landa said. “It was a complicated season, with the crash at the Tour, I was never at my best and after crashing at San Sebastián, it really cost me a lot to try to get back for the Vuelta and the worlds.”

The Basque star was hampered at the Tour following a heavy fall on the pavé. He crashed again just as he was hitting top form at Clásica de San Sebastián.

“It really wore me out and I needed to take a long break to recover physically and mentally,” he said. “I’ve learned you need to be patient in these complicated situations, and next year I hope to avoid troubles so I can do what I know I can.”

Landa joined Movistar this year with big expectations of top results on the bike and intrigue off the bike with teammate Nairo Quintana. The pair ended up riding professionally and even became friends. In races, both Landa and Quintana suffered. Quintana delivered a Tour stage win but could not follow the best in GC. Landa rode into the top 10 despite injuries to his back in a spill on the cobbles.

“Mikel was never himself during the Tour and when he finally started to feel better, the race was over,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzue. “Class doesn’t disappear in a day, and I’m sure Mikel will be better than ever when he’s healthy in 2019.”

Unzue said he will bring both Landa and Quintana back to the Tour, but said racing calendars are still not finalized.

“With both Mikel and Nairo we can aspire for the maximum. As we’ve seen, bad luck and crashes can dash even the best-laid plans,” he said. “Everyone knows Mikel is capable of doing special things. We expect to see that even more next season.”

Landa, who resisted offers from other teams and will fulfill the second year of his two-year deal with Movistar, said his priority will be the Tour.

“I want and have to go to the Tour,” he said. “We’ll see about the Giro or Vuelta.”

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Defiant Quintana says he’s not washed up

PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — Nairo Quintana says he’s not washed up yet. In fact, the Movistar climber laughs at critics who suggest that Quintana’s best days are behind him.

“The fire hasn’t burned out yet,” Quintana said. “I am still here and I am still fighting. You’ll have Nairo around for awhile yet.”

Quintana, 28, seems relieved to be pedaling into the off-season after what was a rough and tumble 2018. He won two big stages — one at the Tour de Suisse and another at the Tour de France — but fell well short of his target of challenging for the yellow jersey with a 10th-place finish. And perhaps it’s a reflection of Quintana’s stature and consistency in the peloton that anything short of the podium is considered a disappointment.

“I finished the year without realizing my objectives,” he admitted. “It’s frustrating but I was always there fighting. It’s obvious that it wasn’t the year we were hoping for.”

What happened? Quintana said it’s not for a lack of trying. Going into the Tour, he hit podiums in three of the four stage races he started.

“We tried some new stuff with training, and it didn’t work out,” he said. “We’re not entirely sure, but it’s pretty clear that we messed up.”

Movistar isn’t ready to give up on Quintana yet either. Even with the arrival of Mikel Landa in 2018, team management is backing Quintana for another push at the Tour next season. Racing schedules will be outlined in the coming weeks, but it’s already confirmed that Quintana will target the 2019 Tour.

“Nairo has been so consistent over the past several years that people really took notice when he was a bit off his best this season,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “Even with Nairo not at his best he managed to win that big stage in the Pyrénées. His class doesn’t disappear in a blink of an eye.”

Quintana admits that he hears the critics who say he lost his attacking style or that he cannot beat back the Sky machine.

“People often say no one attacks, but when Sky is at the front at a very high level, it’s very hard to make a difference,” he said. “When they go at their high rhythm, they know no one can attack them. It’s their big advantage.

“I am an attacking rider,” he continued. “Cycling today is so controlled and it’s often the rider who throws the first punch ends up losing. Everyone knows they can hold a certain level. It’s hard to break that control, so you need to be at the absolute best to do it.”

And that’s what confounds Quintana. He said during his approach to the Tour that he posted some of his best ever numbers in training. Once the Tour started, however, he fell flat. A crash didn’t help and Quintana was in the unfamiliar position of getting dropped in the high mountains.

“During tests this season, I had some of my best numbers ever in my career,” he said. “I just lacked that extra spark I needed on a few key days to be able to challenge for the podium.”

“It just makes me laugh. Because if you can’t, you can’t — it’s that simple,” he continued. “Why attack to help someone who just sucks the wheel their whole lives? We don’t know why, but I clearly wasn’t at my best.”

Quintana shrugged off suggestions he was unhappy at Movistar and emphasized he’s not thinking about switching teams just yet. He also downplayed the perceived rivalry with Landa.

“Of course I would like to be the solitary leader and have the entire team at my disposal, but that is not what the team wants,” he said. “Having two options can be a good thing. Look what happened at Sky this year at the Tour. People talked about tension between us, but in the end, we got along well and we are friends.”

“Froome might like to call me the favorite, but it’s Froome who is the [Tour] favorite,” he said. “I think Froome is very motivated to win a fifth Tour. He is the man to beat.”

And Egan Bernal? Any growing rivalry to be the top Colombian favorite? Quintana laughed again.

“Of course he will be a great rider but we still don’t know how well he will go as a grand tour leader,” Quintana said. “There is no problem. We hope that there are 50 more Egans and 50 more Nairos.”

That yellow jersey dream still burns bright inside Quintana even if some critics have already written him off.

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What happened to the Colombians at worlds?

Colombia lined up with its two-wheeled version of a “dream team” Sunday in Austria yet barely punched into the top-20 in UCI World Road Championships.

Far from the final podium, Colombia fell flat in a climber’s paradise that — at least on paper — suited the “escabarajos” perfectly. Nairo Quintana saved national pride with 15th at 1:21 back but that was far from where Colombia hoped to be in what was its best chance at the rainbow jersey in a generation.

“The rhythm was very high,” Quintana told in Austria. “The last climb was criminal and at this point of the race, the ‘clasicomanos’ [one-day specialists] held the advantage. We held on and did what we could and we defended ourselves.”

Quintana was the last man standing for the highly touted Colombian team that brought Sergio Henao (Sky) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First-Drapac) as pre-race leaders. Quintana and Miguel Ángel López (Astana) were also protected by an equally stellar support squad.

So what happened? Henao and Urán, arguably the two best one-day racers on the Colombian team, couldn’t match the fierce pace set on the last lap by France, Italy, and the Netherlands. López was already dropped from the elite group before the decisive accelerations.

Urán, second in the 2012 Olympic road race, and Henao both lost contact before the final “Hell” wall when France’s Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) opened up the race-breaking selection. That left Quintana, who has only won a single one-day race in his career with the 2012 Giro dell’Emilia, carrying the national colors.

The result was a letdown for Colombian fans hoping for their best chance at the rainbow stripes in a generation. Santiago Botero, who won the world time trial title in Zolder, is the only Colombian to win a rainbow jersey in the elite men’s races. Despite its long-running success, especially in stage races, Colombia has never won an elite men’s road race world championship medal.

The Colombian team was expected to make waves in Austria, but the cadre of climbers weren’t a factor at Innsbruck worlds. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

All four of Colombia’s riders came off a very hard and highly contested Vuelta a España, and that effort seemed to cost them during the challenging road worlds circuit. Urán and López, seventh and third respectively at the Vuelta, lacked their typical punch in the race. Henao, who was riding in support during the Vuelta, also struggled when he was expected to be one of Colombia’s best bets.

Urán was 33rd at 2:57 back, Henao 48th at 6:02 and López pulled off before the final lap — they were far from being the protagonists many expected at the start of the race.

“We had hoped that Sergio [Henao] could be there, as we had spoken about, to use his punch on the final climb,” Quintana said. “In the end, none of us had the strength.”

Quintana at least could celebrate the victory of professional teammate Alejandro Valverde. Quintana gave his Movistar “compañero” an emotional hug following Valverde’s moving victory Sunday.

“I am really happy for him,” Quintana said. “It was the dream he’s been chasing to fulfill. It will be a point of pride to see the rainbow jersey on our team next year.”

Colombia won’t have to wait long for another shot at the rainbow jersey, however. Fernando Gaviria, the ever-improving sprinter and classics rider, will be among the top favorites in Yorkshire in 2019.

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Who will lead Colombia at worlds?

With a climber-friendly world championships approaching, it’s only natural that the world’s best climbers will be among the favorites. That puts Colombia and its powerful eight-rider lineup for Austria move in great position for the rainbow jersey.

At first glance, the Colombian team looks like it should blast straight to its first elite men’s world title. With firepower in the form of Miguel Ángel López, Rigoberto Urán, Sergio Henao, and Nairo Quintana, what could possible go wrong?

That answer, of course, is a lot. If Colombia does not rally around one clear leader, the team could end up with nothing.

“We understand each other well,” Henao said during the Vuelta of his compatriots. “I don’t expect there to be any problems. The tactics will be decided once we are in Austria.”

Along with France, Italy and Spain, among a few others, Colombia will be among the top favorites in Austria in what should be a climber’s banquet. With more than 5,000 vertical meters on the elite men’s road course, coupled with the final climb featuring ramps as steep as 28 percent, worlds seems tailormade for the Colombians.

With Colombia’s stellar squad, the nation’s first real shot at the rainbow jersey in a generation will come down to how well the team is organized and how much the other riders are willing to sacrifice.

Henao insisted the team always rallies around each other for the common good in major international events.

“We know this is a big opportunity,” Henao said. “It’s important that we are honest with each other. That hasn’t been a problem in the past. Even though we are pros and ride for other teams during the seasons, we always ride together [during the worlds].”

Coming out of the Vuelta, López and Urán were looking sharpest. Henao was on domestique duty and seemed to be cagily hiding his form, yet he did not win a stage or do anything encouraging to provide a glimpse of his form. He insisted he was at the Vuelta to work and hone his fitness for Austria.

López and Urán both had pressure to perform in the GC. That could work against them as they might not be as fresh for Austria as some of their other rivals. Yet that also means they have the depth and base that only the Vuelta can deliver for such a demanding and explosive course like at Innsbruck.

“Of course we want to do well in the Vuelta — the whole team is working for that — but we’re also not forgetting the worlds,” Urán said during the Vuelta. “Leaders? We’ll talk about that later. The most important thing is that the legs are good and there is a good understanding between all of us.”

The worlds is a unique race. Tactics and teamwork are essential to control the race and put the designated leaders into position to win on the final decisive closing lap or two. While the Colombians are renowned for their climbing prowess, riding and working as a unified unit and putting aside ego and ambition will be challenge for the team. Just like all the favorites, the Colombians know they need to go in with a solid game plan.

So far, no one is willing to raise their hand to claim captaincy, at least not publicly. The team will gather in Austria next week to recon the course and put in some final training sessions ahead of the September 30 men’s road race.

“We know we will have a strong team and we will have many cards to play,” said López, who could emerge as the outright leader. “The most important thing is that we have someone in position to try to win during the most important part of the race.”

Everyone will be wondering what role Quintana will play. He was far from his sharpest in the Vuelta and has never won a major one-day race. Quintana’s only raced the elite worlds three times and only finished once, landing 68th in 2012.

“We’ll recover from the Vuelta and see where we are,” Quintana said. “We will have more time to consider tactics once everyone is in Austria.”

Despite a hint of intrigue, Colombia does bring some workers. Among them are Sebastian Henao (Sky), Winner Acacona (Movistar), Dani Martinez (EF-Drapac), and Rodrigo Contreras (EPM Scott), the latter the only rider not currently racing for a WorldTour team, though he is headed to Astana in 2019.

Notable missing names include Fernando Gaviria, the explosive sprinter who will get his chances at the rainbow jersey in the future on courses better suited to his capabilities. Also missing is Esteban Chaves, who is struggling with Epstein-Barr, as well as Egan Bernal, the phenomenal climber who is still recovering from facial surgery following his crash at the Clásica San Sebastián. Bernal could have done well in Austria but he has not raced since his crash.

Highly touted climber Ivan Sosa (Androni-Sidermec), who beat back López at the Vuelta a Burgos in August, will be among the favorites in the under-23 road race.

This will certainly be Colombia’s best chance to win its first rainbow jersey on the road. Santiago Botero claimed Colombia’s only elite men’s world title when he won the time trial in Zolder in 2002.

Urán holds the best international men’s road race achievement when he took second in the 2012 Olympic Road Race in London.

“Of course everyone wants to be the world champion,” Urán said. “The most important thing is that one of us Colombians is the one who wins.”

Read the full article at Who will lead Colombia at worlds? on