July 02, 2015

UTRECHT, The Netherlands (AP) Nairo Quintana comes back to the Tour de France unwilling to settle for second place.

The Colombian climbing specialist made himself a contender at his first and only Tour in 2013 by finishing runner-up to Chris Froome. The following year, his Movistar team made the surprising decision to sit their new star out of the 2014 Tour in a long-term plan to build up Quintana's mental toughness to tackle cycling's grandest tour.

Now, at 25, Quintana feels he is ready to become Latin America's first Tour winner in its 102nd edition.

''When I arrived at the Tour two years ago, I came with a different mentality. I was much calmer, more relaxed,'' Quintana told The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday.

''Alejandro (Valverde) carried the major part of the responsibility. And, well, now the responsibility is on me, and I have to carry it all myself. I have been preparing very hard and preparing myself for this moment. Now that it has arrived, we hope things go well.''

Since his breakout in 2013, Quintana has hit highs and lows. He lived up to the hype by winning the 2014 Giro d'Italia before watching Valverde lead Movistar with a fourth-place finish at the Tour. Well rested, he entered the Spanish Vuelta as the favorite, only for his shot at a grand tour double to be dashed by a broken shoulder.

He has since worked back to full fitness, and won Italy's week-long Tirreno-Adriatico in March.

The wait to see if he can improve on his runner-up finish two years ago has been worth it. Quintana said he's ready to lead the team.

''Everything is going well. After two years, I have done a very good job. The sensations are very positive, and the important thing is that I have a strong team to accompany me,'' he said.

''We wanted me to have more experience to face the Tour as a solid leader, and that's why I needed to compete in another type of similar races, and to know how to handle a team, and handle myself, so I could mature. And I have the experience now, and this is the moment to race the Tour.''

The three-week Tour culminating in Paris starts on Saturday with an individual time trial around Utrecht. Quintana said he feels at home in this Dutch city with, fittingly enough, more bicycles than cars on its streets.

He doesn't shy from accepting the tag as one of the favorites. He likes the route, which favors climbers, with seven mountain stages, including five summit finishes in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Given the quality of the field, which includes previous winners Froome, Alberto Contador, and Vincenzo Nibali, Quintana pointed to the penultimate stage at Alpe d'Huez, with its 21 curves to the summit, as decisive.

''The Alpe d'Huez draws my attention for the greats who have won there,'' he said. ''The last week in the Alps will make the difference and determine the podium. Nibali and Contador will be the most dangerous, they are in great shape. And Froome also. Those three are very important.''

Born in the town of Combita at an altitude of 3,000 meters (9,800 feet), Quintana biked 16 kilometers (10 miles) every day to school. Little did he know that he was training to be the best rider of a gifted group of Colombian cyclists who are rekindling the sport in his mountainous country.

''It was something that was going to happen with time, and this new generation and people who are coming behind us,'' he said. ''There is good cycling in Colombia now. It's a challenge for Colombians, and for me personally.''

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