It wasn’t supposed to play out like this. Nairo Quintana had hoped for the grandest of comebacks at the Tour Colombia, but the Alto del Vino proved an obstacle too far after a year on the sidelines.
Quintana already looked to be under some duress with 20km or so of Saturday’s finishing climb still remaining, and he was distanced shortly before his wheels passed over a message of support that had been chalked on the road: “Nairo, we’re with you.”
The home fans, as ever, were with Quintana all the way to the summit, spilling out into the road as they roared their encouragement. The problem, however, was that Quintana wasn’t with the men who would decide this race. He was nowhere near them, in fact, eventually reaching the summit 6:46 down on stage winner Richard Carapaz (EF Education-EasyPost).
On crossing the line, Quintana soft-pedalled wordlessly towards the Movistar team bus, avoiding the waiting television cameras, though he later poked his head out the door to acknowledge the fans who were serenading him outside. It was left to Movistar directeur sportif Pablo Lastras to provide an explanation for Quintana’s subdued display.
“He had the flu, that’s what happened, nothing more,” Lastras told Cyclingnews in Sopó ahead of Sunday’s final stage. “It’s nothing to worry about. He felt a bit blocked from being at his full shape but it’s nothing alarming, nothing worrying.”
“In the evening, after the stage finished, he wasn’t well and he had some fever, but he’s able to start today, and he’s going to ride to help Ivan Sósa.”
Quintana’s role as a deluxe domestique on Sunday extended to handing Sósa his bike when his compatriot suffered a mechanical issue on the lower ramps of the Alto de Patios. Sósa entered Bogotá with the front group to move up to seventh overall, while Quintana rolled to the finish a further minute down.
Although Quintana ultimately completed the race in 21st place overall, a familiar chant followed him along Carrera 7 on Sunday afternoon as he drifted his way towards his team bus: “Nai-ro! Nai-ro! Nai-ro!” Before climbing aboard, Quintana paused and shyly acknowledged the acclaim.
This past week marked Quintana’s first stage race since he tested positive for Tramadol on the 2022 Tour de France, with his sole competitive outings in the intervening period coming in that autumn’s World Championships and the last two national championships.
It appeared his career had ended when he failed to secure a contract after parting company with Arkéa-Samsic, but Movistar surprisingly handed Quintana a way back in for the 2024 campaign. After a year out of competition, however, it seems fanciful to imagine the 34-year-old can compete for the Giro d’Italia podium against riders like Tadej Pogačar.
“It’s clear that a year without competition has cost him quite a bit, because cycling is all about changes of rhythm,” Quintana’s old coach Luis Fernando Saldarriaga told Cyclingnews in Bogotá on Sunday. “He has to get used to these changes of rhythm again, and that will take time.”
Quintana could have availed of the option to make his return to stage racing in a rather more subdued context. When his schedule for 2024 was first drawn up, he was slated to begin his campaign at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. But when the Colombian cycling federation belatedly confirmed the return of the Tour Colombia after a three-year hiatus, there was little prospect of Quintana missing out, regardless of his state of form.
“The original plan was for Nairo to start at the Volta Valenciana, but then this race was confirmed late – at the end of November, I think – so we quickly changed his calendar,” Lastras explained. “We had to have him here – for Nairo himself, for the country, for the brand, for the federation… He’s sort of the ambassador of the country. So he had to be here, and he wanted to be here.”
Quintana’s first European race of 2024 will come at O Gran Camiño later this month, with the Volta a Catalunya and Itzulia Basque Country also on his programme ahead of the Giro d’Italia. The competition will be of a higher level on Spanish roads, though the scrutiny will be rather less intense.
“Nairo puts a lot of pressure of himself racing here, but I think the great champions need to put pressure on themselves,” Lastras said. “They have to know how to manage it and Nairo knows how to do that, because he’s a winner.”