Due to the cancelation of last week’s Colombia Tour 2.1, we have a host of features, interviews, photo galleries, and other stories to celebrate Colombian cycling as part of “Colombia Week.”
This story appeared in the July 2016 issue of VeloNews magazine.
At the end of the 2015 Tour de France, after three weeks and 3,000 kilometers of intense racing, it all came down to the 21 switchbacks of cycling’s most famous climb. A new rivalry was reaching its apogee: Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana were locked in an intense duel for the yellow jersey on l’Alpe d’Huez.
The two riders from two different worlds were separated by just 2:38. Africa’s first Tour winner, Froome only had to hang on to win his second maillot jaune. Quintana, the fearless Colombian climber, wanted South America’s first.
- Welcome to Colombia Week
- VeloNews story of the decade: Colombian cycling rises
- Iván Sosa: The shadow poised to step out from behind Egan Bernal
Their styles, backgrounds, and personalities couldn’t be more contrasting. The prototypical modern racer, Froome was educated at private school and then molded to physical perfection by Sky’s computer-generated training program. Quintana, by contrast, was born in the shadow of the Andes into poverty. He had clawed his way to the top of the peloton on pure talent and raw ambition.
Sharing the same mental fortitude and physical blessings, the two men converged on cycling’s greatest climb in front of 400,000 screaming witnesses.
Quintana’s opening salvo came before the first switchback. A second surge came moments later, distancing Alberto Contador. After each effort, Sky teammates Richie Porte and Wout Poels reeled in Quintana, but Froome was put on the ropes.
“It’s not a pleasant feeling, believe me,” Froome says about the pain Quintana can inflict. “You know he’s going to attack, and you know it’s going to hurt.”
With Movistar’s Winner Anacona waiting higher on the mountain, the team sent Alejandro Valverde on the attack, and the trap was set. Quintana eased next to Froome as if to say, “Here it comes. Can you follow me?” He catapulted a third time, and the elastic snapped. Ten seconds grew to 20, then to 45, and finally more than a minute. Froome was weathering a barrage unlike any he had seen before.
Quintana kept pouring it on, squeezing tremendous power from his 5-feet-6, 130-pound frame. Froome was reduced to a mess of wobbling shoulders, elbows, and knees.
It took 39 minutes and 22 seconds for the tiny Colombian to cross the line (the 14th fastest time in Tour history and the only rider in the post-biological passport era to make the top 20), but in the end he simply ran out of road. Froome held on to the lead by just 1:12. There was no stage win (that went to Frenchman Thibaut Pinot), no yellow jersey, but no regrets, either.
Ever the disruptor, Quintana is re-writing the rulebook of modern racing. With his unorthodox background in cycling, his immense talent, and his ambition to be the best, he’s primed to once again challenge Froome at the 2016 race. Only a handful of pure climbers have won the Tour. This audacious Colombian seems to have destiny on his side.
“Nairo is the best pure talent I’ve seen in 25 years,” says three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond. “He could be the Eddy Merckx of South America.”
Myth becomes legend
A cyclists’ home helps define him, both physically and spiritually, and Quintana’s journey to last summer’s battle on the Alpe is unlike any in the peloton. Much of his background is cloaked in mystery and misconception, and separating myth from reality requires some scrutiny. This much we know: Quintana was raised in a two-story adobe home his father built in a village called Vereda La Concepción, perched above Cómbita, the region’s main city, along the sub-tropical edge of the Colombian Andes. At nearly 10,000 feet, it’s so far off the grid you can’t even find it on Google Maps. Some journalists have painted a picture of Third World misery, but Quintana says that’s far from the truth.
“I don’t come from some lost little village in the mountains. We don’t live in the jungle,” he said after winning the 2014 Giro. “We were never rich, but we never were for want of something. That’s the ignorance of people who do not know what exists on the other side of the world.”
Quintana’s parents raised their five children with dignity on a small land holding. His father sold vegetables in local markets, and his mother ran a strict, Catholic household, making sure her five children all graduated high school. In the stratified Colombian society, the rich live in the valleys, and the poor on the upper slopes. In today’s peloton where pros seek out altitude camps at Tenerife and Mount Etna, Quintana’s birthplace is his first marginal gain.
“Where Nairo can cause the most damage is on the long, steep climbs,” Movistar trainer Mikel Zabala said in a Canal+ documentary. “That’s where his power-to-weight ratio gives him a huge difference to the others. Living at altitude his whole life gives him a huge advantage.”
Without giving away his secrets, Movistar suggests Quintana’s sustained power output to be around 6.4 to 6.5 watts per kilogram. And in Europe, where the highest climbs top out at about 8,750 feet, that’s still well below where Quintana was born and raised.
Those close to Quintana say he learned at an early age to stand his ground, an important lesson for a small cyclist in a peloton overflowing with testosterone. During one race early in his debut season, a big classic specialist was grappling with Quintana for position. Quintana responded by punching him in the gut. Team Movistar director Eusebio Unzué laughs at such stories, and says it’s the kind of mental and physical fortitude that Quintana needed to overcome the hurdles of his childhood.
“He has the mindset of a big champion,” Unzué says. “I have never seen a rider so confident in himself as Nairo.”
Another popular myth of the Quintana origin story is that he rode a clunky, second-hand mountain bike up and down a 15-kilometer pass to school every day because his family was too poor to afford bus tickets. The part about the mountain bike, the pass, and the school is true. But he chose to ride his bike so the bus fare could be used for other things.
As a scrawny 12-year-old, hefting a backpack full of books and wearing cut-off jeans and sneakers, he made the daily 20-mile round-trip over the equivalent of a second category climb and would occasionally link up with groups of trim cyclists donning Lycra and riding carbon fiber frames. Quintana quickly discovered that the bicycle served as a great equalizer in life.
“I would never get dropped,” Quintana recalls with a smile. “One day, when I beat them to the top of the climb, I went home and told my father I wanted to become a cyclist.”
In a family where every peso counted, Quintana’s quest to race his bike became a family affair: His father saved $40 to buy a second-hand, steel-frame road bike with drop handlebars. His mother stitched together a patchwork of clothing to resemble a racing jersey. His sister gave earnings from her work as a nanny to help him buy better tires. Years later, the first thing he did with his first major prize money from a European race was to buy his mother a washing machine.
With the pragmatism of his rural upbringing, the bicycle was a tool to create a better life. It soon became an extension of his identity. On the bike, he was no longer little “Nairito” but big, bad Quintana. He could smash everyone.
“For me, cycling is a passion that has given me a good life, and because of that I enjoy it even more,” Quintana explains. “At first, it was almost an obligation, and I didn’t have fun. Only later did I really enjoy it, and slowly it went from being an obligation to my passion.”
At 18, Quintana caught his first big break when he joined the local semi-pro team called Boyacá Es Para Vivirla (Boyacá is for enjoying it). The team gave him his first carbon fiber frame, an Orbea with racing wheels. That opened the door to Europe, and he earned a spot on the Colombian national team to race the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir, a seminal step in Quintana’s trajectory.
That year’s Avenir start list was riddled with names that came out of the legendary “Class of 1990.” Taylor Phinney and John Degenkolb won stages, with Michael Matthews and Romain Bardet also racing. Andrew Talansky was second, but Quintana smashed the final two mountain stages to secure the overall. Everyone was blown away by the unheralded Colombian.
Esteban Chaves, Orica’s Colombian climber, was roommates with Quintana at the race. “He was very determined to win,” says Chaves, who won the race in 2011. “We were all very proud to show that we could race against the Europeans.”
It was during that stage race that another tale of the Quintana legend would be written. The European riders were pushing and elbowing the Colombians in the peloton, brake-checking them in corners, and pulling on their jerseys to get them out of the way. Some riders even spat on them and cursed them as “fucking Indians.” Quintana took matters into his own hands and drove one of the most vocal bullies into a ditch. After that, everyone gave the Colombians more space.
A star is born
Quintana’s otherworldly results have transformed him into Colombia’s top sports celebrity. He’s made three trips to Colombia’s presidential palace, and has surpassed Real Madrid striker James Rodríguez in terms of national popularity.
Cycling fans might see an extraordinary climber, but for Colombians, Quintana is a transcendent figure. In a culturally diverse nation, Colombia boasts 48 million inhabitants. They range from indigenous peoples in the Andes and the Amazon, to descendants of ex-slaves and caribeños along the coasts, and urban European descendants in the cities. Quintana’s rise is akin to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball.
“Nairo is a hero of the people,” explains Matt Rendell, a cycling journalist and Quintana confidante. “Nairo represents the rural memory of a modern nation. He is self-reliant, a self-starter, confident, but also vulnerable. In many ways, he embodies the diversity of a modern Colombia.”
Quintana’s rise also parallels Colombia’s political and economic revival, following decades of political turmoil and cocaine-fueled violence. Quintana personifies modern Colombia and has emerged as an icon of a peaceful, robust nation.
“Nairo is the idol of Colombia,” Chaves says. “For me, he is the best of what Colombia is today.”
By his own admission, Quintana has struggled to come to terms with his unexpected and sudden fame, but he is finding a way to put his high-profile status to use. He is collaborating with NGOs — one to promote infant health and another to combat violence against women — and he’s backing a cycling development team. He’s also a budding entrepreneur and is working with associates to build his name and image into a brand across Colombia and the rest of Latin America.
As remarkable as Quintana’s life has been, he almost didn’t survive infancy. He was born sickly, malnourished, and underweight. In the rural, agricultural mountain communities of Colombia, locals believe in a condition called “tiento de difunto.” Translated as “touched by a corpse,” it’s a belief that if a pregnant mother touches a dying person, the death spirit can be passed on to the unborn infant.
Knowing of this condition is essential to understanding the Quintana narrative. Fearing for their son’s life, his parents brought him to a local curandero, a type of shaman or healer, who used local herbs and natural medicines to revive their baby.
In an interview with the Spanish daily El País in 2013, Quintana elaborated. “These are diseases that do not occur everywhere in the world, but that doesn’t mean they are not real. My parents had to really fight to save me, to resuscitate me, or even revive me, because there were days when they said I was a cadaver.”
A chase for yellow
In the fall of 2015, in the shadow of the Spanish Pyrenees, Quintana gathered with his Movistar squad at team headquarters to map out the 2016 season. It’s all about one goal: the yellow jersey. Enzué says Quintana thinks of nothing else.
“You can see details in his vision, his ambition, how he carries himself,” Unzué says. “You see that he is not a normal rider.”
Now 61, with his floppy bangs still hanging low over his forehead, Unzué is the Phil Jackson of Spanish cycling. He won one Tour with Pedro Delgado and five with Miguel Indurain. He’s been in and around the elite peloton for more than 30 years, but admits he’s never seen anything like Quintana.
“On equal conditions, Nairo is the world’s best climber,” Unzue said.
To win the Tour takes more than a good motor. It also requires bike-handling skills, determination, ambition, and a strong character. Quintana has it all.
When team captain Valverde lost 10 minutes in the first week of the 2013 Tour, Quintana was thrust into the leadership role. Movistar sport director and ex-pro José Luís Arrieta, who’s emerged as Quintana’s righthand man, was taken aback by how well his pupil handled the situation. Within days, Quintana attacked up Mont Ventoux, with Froome eventually taking the win. Pushed beyond his limits, Quintana finished second. He collapsed into the arms of a soigneur on top of cycling’s most famous mountain.
“He was a Tour rookie riding like he’d done 10 Tours,” Arrieta says. “Most riders would have cracked under the pressure. But he handled it as if it was just any other bike race.”
In 2014, Unzué convinced Quintana it was better to race the Giro d’Italia to win than to face off against a superior Froome at the Tour and likely lose. Quintana accepted the challenge. He overcame a blizzard on the Stelvio and a bout of bronchitis in the first week to become the first Colombian to win the Italian grand tour.
Quintana looks back at the 2015 season with mixed feelings. In his mind, he “lost” the Tour in the opening road stage, when a tempest blew off the North Atlantic in the transition stage across the dykes of Holland. A late crash split the bunch, and Quintana was caught out. He lost 1:28 to Froome. Nearly three weeks later, that would be 16 seconds more than his losing margin in Paris.
“The most important thing is to avoid a setback like last year,” Quintana says. “The Tour would have ended differently [last year] if we hadn’t had that bad luck.”
More importantly, Quintana discovered how to successfully attack Froome. To get to the Brit, Quintana knows that he needs to get past Sky’s support team of Poels, Thomas, and likely Mikel Landa. Quintana tweaked his training to emphasize short, intense efforts. The strategy is to put Sky’s lieutenants in the red, thus isolating Froome. It worked on l’Alpe d’Huez last year, and Movistar believes Quintana can do it again.
But Movistar’s all-in bet for the mountains could expose Quintana’s soft underbelly. Movistar has multiple climbers, but it lacks Sky’s brawny trio of Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, and the versatile Geraint Thomas, who can control the flats. Quintana’s top rouleur, Adriano Malori, may never race again after suffering head injuries during a crash at the 2016 Tour de San Luís.
Movistar signed Portuguese time trialist Nelson Oliveira to help. But even with Jonathan Castroviejo and classics strongman Imanol Erviti by his side, Quintana’s flank is open in the crosswinds. Movistar knows that Sky will attack this weakness.
The Tour’s time trials will also test Quintana, who traditionally loses time to Froome in the race against the clock. The first 37-kilometer time trial comes after the Pyrenees and Mont Ventoux, which could fatigue Froome. The second time trial, a 17-kilometer climbing course to Megève, will simply suit the strongest rider in the race.
The Tour’s final week is laden with three consecutive summit finales, as well as the climb up the Joux-Plane into Morzine. Quintana won a stage of the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné on this route.
“We know that Froome will have the advantage in the time trials,” Unzué says. “Nairo is a climber. So our tactic is pretty simple: We protect him and then let him attack.”
By late May 2016 Quintana sounded confident with his Tour ambitions. He will line up with 32 days of racing in his legs, about the same as his principal rivals. He also won the Tour of Romandie, which has been a bellwether for Tour de France success. Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins, and Froome all won the Swiss race en route to winning the Tour. Quintana saw that as a good sign.
“Let’s hope the myth remains true, and that my dream of winning the Tour can come true,” Quintana says. “I know what’s working for me, and I don’t pay too much attention to the others. The goal is to arrive in top condition for the Tour.”
The rider that shows up at Mont-Saint-Michel for the 2016 Tour de France is dramatically different than the shy rookie who took the peloton by storm in 2013. Last winter, he started using a new personal hashtag on social media, #sueñoamarillo (yellow-jersey dream), and it perfectly sums up his mindset and aspirations. An entire nation shares his dream, and he doesn’t want to let them down.
When the infant Nairo was fighting for his life, the healer told his parents that if he survived he would go on to achieve great things.
“I think after the way I suffered so much as a baby, maybe God gave me another chance to do something good, to excel in something,” Quintana told El País. “Here I am.”