A more mature Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will become the first of the four big Tour de France stars to begin his season when he starts the Tour de San Luis this afternoon in Argentina. Sky's Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) will embark their 2015 season in February.
"I have gained experience. In a few years, I learned a lot," Quintana said.
"Strategically, I'm stronger and I've worked on becoming a better leader. The experience of the 2013 Tour [finishing second to Froome], my victory in the Giro d'Italia last year, but also my abandonment at the Vuelta a España last September while in the lead made me more mature."
The 24-year-old Colombian is aiming for the Tour de France after winning the Giro d'Italia last year and skipping the Tour for the Vuelta. He begins his season as defending champion in the Tour de San Luis, January 19 to 25. He will continue in the Ruta del Sol, Tirreno-Adriatico, Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, País Vasco, the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de Suisse.
Froome and Contador begin their seasons in the Ruta del Sol on February 18. Italy's Nibali, the 2014 Tour winner, starts with the Dubai Tour on February 4.
Quintana explained that the last three years racing in the first division with team Movistar has brought him to a point where he is ready to take on his three major rivals in the Tour.
"I've gained experience in the Grand Tours," Quintana said. "I have confidence in my ability and I think I can play for the Tour title. Nothing will be easy against riders like Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, but also rising stars like Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot and Fabio Aru."
Froome explained earlier this month that he believes two-time winner, Spain's Contador will be his biggest rival for the Tour de France. Quintana agreed.
Froome and Contador both abandoned the 2014 Tour due to crashes before the race reached the high mountains. Contador returned to win the Vuelta, Froome finished second.
Barring accidents or change in plans, this year's Tour will be the first time that all four compete for the title.
"Clearly, I'm a climber, but they are too. In cycling today, I think that our strengths are very equal, the ability to suffer, endure three weeks and the pressure makes the difference," said Quintana.
"My advantage is that I can easily train at altitude. Where I live it is 2800 metres and the house of my parents at 3100. You kill two birds with one stone: I train at good altitude and I'm with family.
"I hope to be in the fight, but I do not know if I will win or not. I know it will not be easy."
Portrait photo by Chris Auld, racing shot by Graham Watson
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