Nairo Quintana was flying in Tour de la Provence Stage 3, attacking with 4km remaining on the summit finish of Montagne de Lure, distancing a valiant Julian Alaphilippe to secure not just the stage, but also the GC win. The final stage featured the only long climb of this year’s Tour de La Provence, with the riders facing 13.4 km of 6.5% after a rolling 152km beforehand.
Montagne de Lure has been used twice before in Paris Nice, in 2009 and 2013. In 2009 Contador set the record time for the climb at 33:51 doing 6.20 w/kg facing a fairly stiff headwind. In 2013 Richie Porte rode it in 34:45 at around 5.75 w/kg. In today’s stage they used the same climb but with a slightly different start – the 2022 version is shorter (13,32 km, 6.58%) vs 2009 and 2013 (13.8 km, 6.40%).
A breakaway established itself with the unfamiliar sight of Luke Rowe, free to get some hard kilometres in the legs with Carapaz out with Covid, and perhaps so he could offer some support (even just of the moral kind) to Ganna on the final climb.
As it was the Queen stage, teams fought very hard for front position before the sole mountain test, especially French teams Groupama-FDJ (working for Michael Storer, who already lost a lot of time in previous stages), Arkea-Samsic (for Nairo Quintana) and TotalEnergies (for Pierre Latour, starting only a dozen seconds behind Ganna in the general classification). The world champion Julian Alaphilippe even rode into a ditch at the side of the road and nearly crashed in the hectic run-in to the base, somehow saving himself from crashing.
Groupama-FDJ paced at the front in the first part of the Montagne de Lure, which was not too steep at around 5-6% gradient. Frenchman Bruno Armiral did a long turn, presumably for Michael Storer in fourth wheel, but began to lose steam and no other team’s offered up a domestique to increase the pace with around 6km remaining.
The last survivor of the day’s breakaway Romain Combaud rode really impressively up the climb after dropping his breakaway companions, whilst Total Energies paced steadily (without reducing the group size at all). At this moment the peloton was still large, with around 30 riders remaining. Even 88 kilogram leader of the general classification Filippo Ganna was holding on, perhaps the motivation behind Quick-Step sending to the front Louis Verveake to increase the pace for Julian Alaphilippe’s GC win, also bringing back Combaud with 4.7km remaining.
Before the stage it was clear that the strongest climbers would attack with around 4 kilometres to go, when the climb was at its steepest, with extended sections of 7% and also because Quintana could not wait any longer if he wanted to take back the 32 seconds he needed on GC to Alaphilippe. Just like Arkea must have drawn it up in the bus before the stage, Maxime Bouet launched Nairo Quintana with a short powerful pull that split the group in two, taking Alaphilippe and Sosa by surprise, with Quintana attacking from his wheel 4.4 kilometers to go.
Alaphilippe sprinted across the gap, the only rider able to (briefly) follow the rampaging Nairoman. Ivan Sosa had been caught off guard and began to chase with Ghebreigzabhier of Trek-Segafredo on his wheel, leaving his teammate Skjelmose Jensen behind for a time. Alaphilippe even pulled and worked with Quintana, a dubious move but perhaps a bluff of strength, hoping that Quintana would not attack him again. Quintana was not fooled. One kilometre later Quintana surged again, dropping Alaphilippe and entering into full-gas time trial mode. It looked like Quintana was once again back to his incredible February 2020 form, where he destroyed everyone in the Tour de la Provence mountain top finish to Chalet Reynard (6,67w/kg for 28:12).
Later Ivan Sosa caught Alaphilippe, who seemed to have gone over his limit, quickly dropping the World Champion to chase Quintana. The Trek-Segafredo mountain train with Eritrean Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier and 50 kg Kenny Elissonde later followed suit, with talented 21-year-old Mattias Skjelmose Jensen and Matteo Jorgenson of Movistar in their wheels, catching Alaphilippe who could barely hold onto them. Alaphilippe also had teammate Ilan van Wilder in the group, who, in a domestique role, showed one of his best climbing performances ever, pacing this group hard for Alaphilippe and even catching Sosa before the finish.
Regardless, there was nothing the group behind could do with Quintana in this sort of form, who danced away to win the stage in dominant fashion and take more than enough time to take the GC too – his 48th and 49th pro victories of his career. The Colombian before this race said he wants to podium Tour de France this year, something implausible based on his form of most of 2021, but on Montagne de Lure he has given some hope to Colombian fans that perhaps he is back to his best.
Skjelmose Jensen finished second, beating everyone in the uphill drag, easily the most impressive climbing performance of the 21-year-old Danes career yet. This ensured that he took enough bonus seconds to step onto the podium on GC, ahead of Matteo Jorgenson who finished 3rd on stage, passing his teammate Ivan Sosa just before the line, who had chased the stage win instead of helping the young American all-rounder.
Filippo Ganna lost the leader’s jersey, but the 88-kilogram-heavy Italian fought with all his heart and finished 12th on this hard mountain, losing to an in-form Quintana only +1:21, who is about half his weight. Initially, Ganna looked like he had preserved 7th position in the GC but later news came out that he had been disqualified for an illegal bike change by the side of the road before the final climb started. The issue with Ganna’s bike change was that it came from the side of the road, rather than the car, as normal bike changes are done.
So how good was Quintana’s performance, relative to his previous bests and other climbing performances so far in this early season? Compared to Quintana’s previous bests, such as in February of 2020 in Tour des Alpes-Maritimes et du Var and Tour de la Provence, it does not look like Quintana’s best level across the whole climb, the 6.06w/kg for 33 minutes being below the level of his Chalet Reynard destruction (data by @naichacacycling):
However the average w/kg for this climb does not tell the full story, as it was a climb in two parts. Before Quintana’s attack, whilst Armirail, Vervaeke and Total paced, the w/kg in the draft and light tailwind was 5.75w/kg with a moderate VAM of 1499 (metres of altitude gain per hour).
It is hard to know exactly what w/kg Quintana did in the final 4km, but he certainly lifted the pace significantly compared to the early pacing. Our estimations are that he did 6.55 w/kg for 9:55, whilst also having to surge multiple times to distance Alaphilippe.
Even if this was not the best Quintana we have ever seen, it is, in our view, the top climbing performance of the season so far, even above Vlasov in Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. The gap Quintana created of 37 seconds was very large within just 4km, especially given that both Quick-Step and Trek Segafredo used domestiques to chase him back and the gradients were not particularly severe.
Quintana is set to cross paths with Roglic, Vlasov and Gaudu in Paris-Nice next month. Hopefully we see a fierce battle on the summit finish to Col de Turini between the big stars, with some more watts for us to analyse then.