TUNJA, Colombia (AFP) — The steep mountain road that hooked Colombia’s Nairo Quintana on cycling runs from his childhood home to his old school.
Now, the 25-year-old climbing specialist is back training on that same road as he seeks to become the first Latin American to win the Tour de France.
His competitors mostly train in Europe, but Quintana, who was runner-up in 2013, is betting on the cold, jagged terrain of his boyhood home in central Colombia to give him the edge in cycling’s most prestigious and grueling race.
Quintana learned to ride a bike in his home town of Boyaca and built his fearsome stamina riding the hilly 15 kilometers to school in the village of Arcabuco.
Being back among family, friends, and childhood mentors “gives me strength,” said Quintana, who rides for Spanish team Movistar.
“Nairooooo!” shouted an elated motorcyclist as he passed him on a recent six-hour training ride between Tunja, the city where Quintana lives when he is back in Colombia, and the small village of Velez.
That drew a loud whistle from the slight cyclist, who measures just five-foot-six and 130 pounds.
As Quintana zipped through Arcabuco, where he attended school, his first coach, Rusbel Achaguas, remembered his early promise.
“Right away you could see his good climbing, or as we say here in Colombia, that he was an escarabajo,” he told AFP, referring to the traditional name for Colombian cyclists.
“He was very passionate. He would get here early, ride through all the way to Moniquira [another town up the road] and turn back … although sometimes he arrived a little late for school.”
Quintana’s victories, which include the 2014 Giro d’Italia, “have brought a lot of happiness to us, his family, but also to the Boyaca region and all of Colombia,” said his father, Luis Quintana, a farmer.
Quintana senior recalled his son buying his first bike.
“It wasn’t for sports,” he said. “He bought it to get around. ‘Till then he hadn’t shown any interest in cycling, but soon someone said he looked like a cyclist, that he was going to be a very good cyclist.”
Quintana was 15 years old at the time. The bike “was used, but in good condition. It looked good, and I started riding it to school … and got hooked,” he said.
In a region with a passion for cycling — and an altitude of 6,562 feet above sea level — Quintana was soon overtaking hardcore riders, blowing past them and their fancy equipment with his school books on his back.
He remembers his principal at Alejandro de Humboldt Technical School worrying that he and his friends would take a spill on the narrow road to school, with its heavy traffic of trucks.
“He would get mad because he saw us going fast downhill … and he wanted to take away our bikes because it scared him,” Quintana said.
Former teachers remember his passion for dance and theater, as well as cycling — but less so for his studies.
“He was pretty quiet. … He was shy but very respectful,” recalled his language instructor, Flor Mireya Vargas, one of many teachers who cleaned up his wounds when he would crash his bike.
As Quintana seeks a groundbreaking Tour de France win this year, students at his old school will be allowed to watch.
Maybe, just maybe, the next Nairo Quintana is among them.