Although both Alberto Contador and Chris Froome are coming to the Vuelta a España after suffering injuries during the Tour de France and needing to recover from fractures before training, Nairo Quintana is clear that he expects both to be strong challengers for the overall.
The Colombian rider will parallel with Alejandro Valverde as leader of the Movistar team, and expects that both of his rivals will give them plenty of competition in the three weeks ahead.
“I count Contador in: if he’s come to the race, it’s probably because he feels competitive,” said the Giro d’Italia winner on Friday. “The same goes for Froome, who had the Tour written down as his biggest goal of the season and had to focus on the Vuelta after his abandon.”
Both Contador and Froome have downplayed any suggestions that they are big favourites, with each rider trying to shift that title to others. Quintana is one who is pinpointed by many as a potential winner, but he too tries to shrug off some of the pressure.
“I’m coming here in good form – maybe not as good as I’d like, though. I only raced in Burgos after the Giro, and even though winning there was a nice boost of confidence, the beginning of the race might be a challenge for me, not having such a strong racing firm like others,” he said.
“I took sort of rest in Pamplona this week, yet I also did some intense training. However, the main work had been done in the months prior to the race, training in Colombia. We’ll see how we feel from tomorrow [Saturday] on.”
Quintana will share team leadership with Alejandro Valverde and is clear that he will abide by what the race decides. He’d like to win, of course, completing a rare Giro-Vuelta double in the same season, but pledges to dedicate himself to his team-mate if circumstances deem that necessary.
“We’ve got two leaders and we will fight so the title stays within the team. The race will make things clear: should Alejandro do better, we will help him out, and if it’s the other way around, the team as well as him will all race for me,” he said.
“The only important thing is seeing Movistar win, no matter if it’s him or myself. We’re team-mates, not rivals; this is a collective effort. It makes me really confident to have Alejandro by my side, plus such a strong squad.”
Quintana stunned when he finished second overall in his debut Tour de France in 2013, and underlined his excellent climbing ability once again when winning this year’s Giro d’Italia. He took stages 16 and 19 plus the best young rider classification, and beat second-placed Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) by two minutes 58 seconds.
He’s regarded by many as one of those most likely to take the red jersey, but is taking nothing for granted. “It’s going to be one of the strongest Vueltas in years, with all big stageracing names in. And that makes the race even more important and attractive,” he said, tipping Joaquim Rodriguez as another who could contend.
One plus for his chances is the amount of climbing in the race. “The route suits me well, but also does for the other favourites, since we all are pretty much accustomed to such mountains,” he said. “I did a recon of some stages, but it won’t be before the real racing when we know if it’s a really good parcours for me or not.”
Quintana and Valverde will be backed by a solid team comprising José Herrada, Javi Moreno, Adriano Malori, Andrey Amador, Imanol Erviti, Jonathan Castroviejo and Gorka Izagirre.
Valverde: “My only real goal at the moment is trying to win the Vuelta”
Quintana’s co-leader Valverde won the Vuelta in 2009, was second in 2006 and 2012 and placed third on two other occasions, namely 2013 and last year.
He was fourth in the recent Tour de France and believes he should be in good shape for this next major objective.
“I’ve got full motivation for this race, and also a great team around me. We’ve got Nairo, too, and we’ve got a good chance so the Movistar Team keeps the title. That’s our goal for the race,” he said.
“Should I be able to snatch some stage victories, it will be much better, but the priority for us is the GC.
“After the Tour and San Sebastián I didn’t enter any other competitions, but I think I recovered well after all efforts in July, with these three weeks of rest. I won’t know how I really stand before the race itself – it will tell us who our leader will be.”
However he suggests that he could end up in a supporting role. “I’m starting the race with the biggest expectations, but it’s obvious that Nairo is a stronger guarantee for this race, as he could prepare for it better,” he admitted. “Last year in the Tour, after misfortune with that mechanical, I already focused on helping him out, and if I had to do it again, it won’t be difficult for me.
“I’ve spent 11 years keeping all pressure of leading a squad on my shoulders, and not having it also makes me happy. There won’t be any problems with it – we two will get on.”
A strong rider and also rapid from a small bunch, Valverde is seen as a rider who could become world champion on home soil in September. He insists he’s not thinking about that race yet, though, saying everything will depend on how the Vuelta a España goes.
He said much is yet to be determined. “We don’t know if I’ll be contesting the win, helping Nairo out, fighting for stage wins… The same goes for the WorldTour ranking. Those are things you keep on your mind, but my only real goal at the moment is trying to win the Vuelta.”
Like Quintana, Valverde also refuses to rule out Froome and Contador as being amongst those who could win the race. He too believes they should have had enough time to get into good condition, and also that they have the experience and mental strength to contend.
He’s clear that the overall standard is very high. “The field of contenders is excellent. Purito comes in good form after preparing himself in the Tour, Nairo is also doing well, Froome and Alberto are willing to do well after suffering those crashes in the Tour.
“The organisers have gone for a spectacular route, an exciting one, and that’s always good for cycling. The last week will be especially hard and any day could decide the GC, but you can’t save energy for it: there are important stages right from the start.”