Nairo Quintana admitted after Thursday's Giro d'Italia time trial to Barolo that his suffering stemmed from problems with his breathing and not his legs, but isn't giving up on winning the grand tour .
The Movistar climber's difficulty in the testing time trial suggested that his form is not as good as last year's, which helped him to shine at the Tour de France and claim second place overall.
Many were questioning the Colombian's preparations ahead of the Italian grand tour, not least because he opted not to race for more than five weeks but instead remained in South America for altitude training.
Of course, this approach served Quintana well twelve months ago but the early signs were not good as the pre-race favourite struggled. The injury sustained in the mass pile-up at Montecassino made life difficult but adding to that, pollen allergy was an even greater concern.
Despite battling through to a creditable 13th place in the time trial, he lost 2:41 minutes to new race leader and fellow Colombian Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma–QuickStep) and the deficit, now 3:29 overall, could well be too much for Quintana to haul back.
"It was a long time trial and I tried to hang in there as best I could," Quintana said afterwards. "I wasn't as good as I had hoped. I had some problems with my breathing, not with my legs. I hope to recuperate in the coming days because the hardest days are still to come."
It was obvious that the technical time trial had taken a heavy toll on the Movistar man as he coughed repeatedly while bent over his handlebars at the finish. He was then pushed towards the team car and was still struggling with his breathing when speaking to the press just moments later in an improvised mixed zone.
Sitting in a small chair, he admitted that illness had severely hampered his performances in the time trial but refused to give up the Giro title.
"I couldn't breath well, it really affected me, and you notice that against your rivals who are in perfect condition," Quintana said. "I am taking some antibiotics at the moment, but I hope I get through it, and I can be at my best for the decisive days - the idea is to still fight for this Giro."
The Colombian was most people's favourite for this year's Giro after his impressive Tour de France last July but Quintana has not made the expected impact yet.
Time trials are not his strongest suit – even though he performed impressively at Chorges in last year's Tour - but the expert climber also failed to provide the necessary spark on the Giro's first real mountain stage from Carpegna to Montecopiolo last weekend.
"Things haven't gone as well as I had hoped so far," Quintana admitted, and he will know full-well that catching Uran might well be a bridge too far.
However, the 24-year-old knows that the terrain from now on is almost exclusively suited for climbers, with two summit finishes at Oropa and Montecampione – where the legendary Marco Pantani used to thrive – coming up at the weekend.
After that, heading into the third and final week, the riders face the Gavia, Stelvio and Zoncolan, before a mountain time trial to Monte Grappa. If Quintana recovers to full fitness, he might still have a chance to pull himself back into contention.
"Now we are going into the mountains and the idea is to try to make up some time," Quintana said. "The hardest part of the Giro is still to come, so let's hope I can recover my health for the final week."
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