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Weekend Takeaways: Is Nairo Quintana Back?

Plus, Julian Alaphilippe showed us that while he might be one of the world's greatest single-day riders, he simply isn't a stage-race GC contender

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While watching the Tour de la Provence this past weekend, it would have been easy to lose track of the year since Nairo Quintana appeared to wind back the clock by storming to the overall win over world champion Julian Alaphilippe at the Tour de la Provence.

This performance was reminiscent of ‘peak’ Quintana and had the cycling world full of excitement regarding a potential return to the front of the hardest climbing stages at grand tours.

But, no matter how dominant Quintana looked this past weekend, it is important to remember that it is only February, and in recent years he has flashed world-class performances early in the year, only to fade when the top tier contenders come out of winter hibernation at the bigger races down the road (it is important to remember that only two grand tour winners from the last five seasons have yet to actually race so far this season).

While Quintana was surging off the front, the ‘leader-in-the-clubhouse’ heading into the final climb, Julian Alaphilippe, was slipping helplessly through the field down the slopes below. Instead of hanging tight around a phalanx of support in the main group, his deeply-ingrained attacking nature forced him to attempt to match Quintana pedal stroke for pedal stroke, and ultimately likely cost him a real shot at getting his first career overall stage race victory. But in squandering a potential win at an early-season stage race, the world champion reminded us exactly why he is such a sensational and electric one-day racer.

Tour de la Provence Stage 3 Final Climb Race Notes

6km: Roughly halfway up the final climb, we can see that the pace in the main group, due to the riders spread out across the road, is rather pedestrian. This has allowed, Filippo Ganna, the GC leader heading into the stage (before his disqualification), to stay in the front group. If nobody raises the pace significantly in the next few kms, he will ride to the overall win.

5.8km: The QuickStep team of Julian Alaphilippe, who was in second place heading into the stage, goes to the front to increase the pace in an attempt to shake Ganna loose. In my opinion, this is a panic move, and we can see that the Arkea team of Quintana immediately jumps on the wheel of Louis Vervaeke. This means Vervaeke is acting as a sort of proxy teammate that is also allowing them to conserve the energy of their own teammates, while the rest of the field feels the pressure of the higher pace. In short, this is perfect for Quintana.

4.4km: And sure enough, just a few minutes later, Arkea blows the race up by going all-in to launch Quintana off the front. This rapid and violent increase throws the peloton into disarray and nearly everyone is dropped.

4.3km: While Quintana quickly builds a massive gap over the group, Alaphilippe explodes forward to bridge the gap. This looks impressive, but he has now left multiple teammates, not to mention a good portion of the Trek team, behind.

4.1km: Instead of simply sitting on Quintana’s wheel, Alaphilippe actually goes to the front to set the pace. Considering he has around a 30-second lead on Quintana coming into the stage and that all he needs to do at this point is stay with Quintana, this is completely insane. With Ganna now dropped, Alaphilippe has nothing to gain by driving the pace here and is committing GC malpractice by doing so.

3.4km: And sure enough, a little under a kilometer later, Quintana senses Alaphilippe has gone too deep and surges to create separation. Alaphilippe, who has been going anaerobic to stay with Quintana, blows up like an overinflated balloon, and we can see his pace visibly decrease the moment he loses Quintana’s wheel.

1.8km: While Alaphilippe continues his surging/slowing pacing style behind, Quintana powers away and is systematically building a gap that is large enough to deliver him the overall win.

1.6km: Alaphilippe is eventually caught by a train of three Trek riders plus Movistar’s Matteo Jorgensen, and a fellow QuickStep teammate. At this point, the gap to Quintana is small enough that Alaphilippe could still win the race. But, Alaphilippe has gone too deep attempting to stay with Quintana (and later Sosa), and doesn’t have enough left to execute his trademark final 300-meter kick that would allow him to close the gap to Quintana and gain valuable time bonus seconds.

Finish: Quintana crosses the finish line 37-seconds ahead of Mattias Skjelmose Jensen and Matteo Jorgensen, who were duking it out for the final overall podium spot. Alaphilippe, wounded by the constant surging, fades in the finale and rolls in 47-seconds behind Quintana, losing the overall win by 27-seconds.

Provence Final Weekend Takeaways:

1) Nairo Quintana looked great, even close to his best, but don’t count him fully back just yet.

Nairo Quintana wins stage 3 of the Tour de la Provence. Image: James Startt.
  • The controlled manner in which Quintana methodically launched an attack on the final climb of the final stage that netted him just enough time to win the overall was incredibly impressive. We’ve seen him attempt these types of attacks in recent seasons only to fall back to the group, but he went with serious power and intent on Sunday the fact that he was able to stick it to the finish shows that he has improved both physically and mentally over the off-season.
  • However, as I said after the first two stages, this doesn’t mean we should start penciling him in for a contender spot at the Tour de France. He has come out hot in recent years, only to fade as the stakes rise. This means that while he is able to achieve a high-level early in the season, his training isn’t dialed in enough to allow him to increase his performance level in line with the rest of the overall contenders as the season advances.
  • As evidence of this, according to wattage estimations, he averaged 6 watts per kilo for the 33-minute final climb and around 6.5 watts per kilo for the final 10 minutes. These are great numbers that would be good enough to win nearly any race at any level, but these numbers aren’t quite good enough to hang with the very best climbing performances we will see in the prime of the season. He is good now but will have to be even better come the Giro, Tour or Vuelta if he wants to win another grand tour against today’s best riders.

 2) Julian Alaphilippe proves yet again that while he is one of the most exciting one-day and stage hunting riders in the world, he is not a viable GC contender for any semi-serious multi-stage race.

Julian Alaphilippe on stage 3 of the Tour de la Provence. Image: James Startt.
  • Outside of the evidence that he has never won a stage race of any significance in his career, nowhere was this more clear than when Quintana attacked with 4.3km-to-go on the final climb and Alaphilippe inexplicably jumped on his wheel, instead of simply staying with the group, which included a teammate.
  • The split-second decision to go anaerobic on a summit finish instead of staying put to be paced to the overall win by the Trek trio, plus his own teammate, highlighted why Alaphilippe isn’t cut out for the GC game.
  • But, while this might be bad news to QuickStep management, this is good news for those of us who enjoy watching the Frenchman’s attacking style

3) Filippo Ganna might have been disqualified on the final stage of Provence for an illegal bike change, but his performance throughout the race proves that he might just be one of the most talented riders in the sport.

Filippo Ganna (left) on stage 3 of the Tour de la Provence. Image: James Startt.
  • He won the opening prologue by blowing every other rider out of the water, blew up the peloton in the crosswinds on stage 1, finished 3rd in a bunch sprint on stage 2, and held on impressively before being dropped on the final climb of stage 3.
  • While he gets typecast as a hulking time trial specialist at times, Ganna is proving that he is far more than that and could transition into a truly dominant rider over multiple disciplines in the years to come.
  • Unfortunately, this transformation could be difficult in execution since his Ineos team seems to prefer to use him as a windbreaker on the front rather than a protected rider.

4) Regarding the disqualification, it is baffling that a team as dialed-in as Ineos could make such a blatant mistake. It is common knowledge in the sport that a rider needs to take a bike change from the team car and that roadside bike changes are prohibited, yet Ineos still executed a pre-planned change from the side of the road.

  • They allegedly performed the bike change to give Ganna a lighter rim-brake bike before the final climb, but a data-focused team should know that a few extra grams won’t make a meaningful difference on a fairly shallow climb that is likely to be ridden almost entirely in a large group, and any gains certainly are nullified if they require performing a high-risk, illegal bike change.
  • Either this was the result of a complete internal meltdown, or they actually make a habit of it and simply don’t often get caught.

5) In addition to the bike-change fiasco, more questions remain for Ineos after this up-and-down past week.

  • They won two stages but failed to place a single rider within 5 minutes of Quintana on the final stage or a ride inside the top-30 on GC.
  • Considering they left the prologue with the top two spots in GC in such a short stage race, this has to be a disappointment.
  • Instead of consolidating behind their top two riders at the race, Ganna and Ethan Hayer, they used race-leader Ganna to blow up the race in the crosswinds on stage 1, which ejected their best option for the GC, Hayter, out of contention.
  • Considering how this ended up, it has to be asked (and I’m sure it is internally) if this was the correct strategy. After all, it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that the team actually arguably minimized its potential success at the race with these tactics.

6) Also, Richard Carapaz, who is supposed to lead the team at the Giro d’Italia, hasn’t looked particularly fit all season long and was forced to leave the race after a positive COVID test.

  • The team is claiming he is asymptomatic, but this is either a fib or Carapaz is simply lacking fitness, since he has gone backwards at nearly every time the pace has been lifted this season and looked particularly bad when he was dropped by his own team heading into the finish on stage 1 on Friday at Provence.
  • Whatever the reason for his struggles, he likely won’t be able to contend for overall victory at the Giro at this rate and would be much better served by changing his primary goal to the Tour de France (even though both he and the team seem insistent on him and the team racing the Giro), which would buy him vital time to get fully fit and healthy.

7) The fight for the final podium spot on Sunday highlighted two often overlooked but extremely talented young riders.

  • Trek’s 21-year-old Mattias Skjelmose Jensen put in an amazing ride to take 3rd place overall, while Movistar’s 22-year-old Matteo Jorgensen matched him pedal stroke for pedal stroke to the line only to finish 2 seconds off the podium.
  • These low-key, but highly impressive, performances highlight how the sport is in the midst of a surge of youth talent that exceeds the big-name talents like Tadej Pogačar and Remco Evenepoel.

8) While Movistar had a great race with Jorgensen, their Ivan Sosa GC reclamation effort is already hitting speed bumps.

  • The 24-year-old Colombian was a highly touted talent when he went to Ineos in 2019, but struggled at the British team and was never able to put everything together as a rider.
  • After coming over to Movistar in the off-season, some thought he might be able to find new life as a GC talent, but after finishing over 13 minutes back in the four-stage Tour de la Provence, a turnaround appears unlikely.