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Throwback Thursday: Nairo Quintana and how he inspired a nation

All eyes will be on Quintana this season as fans hope 'NairoMan' can return to his climbing best at the Tour de France.

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Nairo Quintana is probably the greatest climber of his generation.

And at his best, Colombian is simply unstoppable in the high mountains. Such talent won him the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, and if it were not for his own Movistar team in 2019, he may well have won the Tour de France.

Also read in Throwback Thursday:

VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt have been covering European cycling since the 1990s. And for this week’s Throwback Thursday, they reflect on “Nairoman” and how he inspired an entire nation.

When did you realize that Nairo Quintana was something special?

Since his breakout 2013 Tour, Quintana is always the center of the media. (James Startt/VeloNews)

James Startt: Well anyone that wins the Tour de l’Avenir as a U23 is someone special. But I guess for me, it was that magical 2013 Tour de France. I mean he won the best young rider award, the best climber award, and finished second overall. All of that came at the beginning of the Sky dynasty. They were so dominant, first with Wiggins then with Froome. You could see that Sky had the money and the horsepower to simply crush the next decade. But Nairo gave us hope. When he is on he is so good that it is possible to imagine that he could triumph over Sky singlehandedly. And he came close a couple of times.

Andrew Hood: The first time I heard about Quintana was when he joined Movistar his first season. Rumors going around the team bus were how this little Colombian rider was staying with and even dropping Alejandro Valverde on pre-season training camps in Spain.

His incredible backstory started coming out, and Quintana quickly proved that he was just as strong in character as he was in climbing ability. The legend of “NairoMan” dates back well before he arrived in Europe, and he soon helped usher in a new generation of Colombian riders that continues to play out in today’s peloton.

What has been your standout moment with Quintana?

Quintana on the march in the 2019 Tour de France. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Hood: I truly realized how big Quintana was back home in Colombia in the aftermath of the 2013 Tour. Valverde crashed out that Tour, and Quintana bravely stepped into the void. By winning a stage, finishing second, and claiming the white and polka-dot climber’s jersey, Quintana pretty much equaled what all of Colombian cycling had done up to that point.

I was struck when I watched a live broadcast of Quintana’s reception when he returned home to Colombia. I tuned into a live feed out of curiosity, and at first, it was just a few cars trailing behind Quintana as his entourage worked its way from the airport to the president’s palace in Bogotá. Then the crowds started to build. Dozens and then quite literally a caravan of people trailed behind him. Once he hit the city center, fans mobbed Quintana along both sides of the road. Colombia had its new national hero.

Startt: Well, to be honest, one of the moments that stands out the most is the moment that “could’ve” and “should’ve” been. I’m thinking about that stage in the 2019 Tour de France where he soloed to victory over the Galibier into Valloire. Unfortunately, Movistar, his own team, led the chase.

It was really one of those unexplainable moments in the sport because without his own team chasing he could very well have taken over the yellow jersey and won the Tour. I mean there were only two days of racing left in the Alps, and Quintana could easily have kept the jersey. But instead, his own team led the chase for much of the stage!

Was it because they really hoped to set things up for Mikel  Landa or Alejandro Valverde? Was it because they knew he was going to the French Arkea team the following season? Who knows?! But then Movistar is a team that has never been accused of having brilliant race tactics, and they really won the Gold Brick Award on this day.

If I was Quintana I would have been very pissed. It certainly was an unfitting send-off to a rider that had brought so much to the team.

Do you have any personal stories or anecdotes from interactions with Quintana?

Quintana, shown here in the 2018 Tour, always delivered some magic. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Startt: I have to be honest, no. That would be Hoody’s domain. Nairo appears pretty introverted and then there is the fact that we don’t really have a common language and for much of his career, he was with the Movistar team, which is notorious for having little interest in the international press.

But I always loved his story, that of growing up in this mountain town in Colombia. Tunja is at about 3,000 meters elevation and he had to ride his bike up and down the mountain to get to school. And from there he went on to win the Giro and the Vuelta. That’s just pretty epic in my books.

Hood: After the 2013 Tour, Movistar arranged for me to visit Quintana in a hotel lobby ahead of the start of the Vuelta a Burgos a few weeks after his big Tour impression.

Quintana opened up and offered a heart-warming interview about his youth, his arrival to cycling, and what it meant for him to ride for Colombia. He’s since become a very big star, but he remains authentic to his core beliefs and loyal to those who supported him from the beginning.

Will he be able to return to his soaring heights of before? Who knows? Quintana gave Colombians someone to cheer for, and he’s always riding with a nation of supporters following his every move.