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Words by: Klaus | cyclinginquisition.com
Days before the Tour de France started, Nairo Quintana was asked by the press about the likelihood of winning the race at some point during his career. He answered modestly, speaking in the soft voice common among those from Colombia’s department of Boyacá.
“Well, I think it’s possible but I don’t want to be a dreamer and get emotional about the matter. I have to keep my head on straight because I’m young and still have lots to learn. I hope that one day I’ll be there, fighting to win the Tour.”
His humility was not part of some PR strategy, nor a personal plan to remain poised in the face of the monumental challenges ahead. Rather, it was a reflection of who Nairo Quintana really is and how he responds to pressure. Viewers of the 100th Tour de France will have picked up on this aspect of the young Colombian’s personality, as Quintana’s expression remained implacable throughout the race’s toughest stages. He was perfectly poised during his early breakaway and eventual defeat up to Ax-3 Domaines.
And his facial expression remained equally unchanged when victory eluded him once more, on stage 15, Chris Froome beating him to the line on Mont Ventoux. As each of these stages unfolded, however, something was becoming abundantly clear – Nairo Quintana was proving himself one of the most talented climbers in the world. For a man of 23, racing his first Tour de France, this was some achievement.
Photo: Gilberto Chocce, 4-72 Colombia
Colombia is Passion
Quintana’s first Tour stage win eventually came on stage 20, to Annecy-Semnoz. In dropping Chris Froome and Joaquim Rodríguez on the last ramps of the final climb, the native of Cómbita further cemented his lead in the young rider’s competition. At the same time, he secured the polka dot jersey, moved up one place in the general classification and ensured his first appearance at the Tour de France would become Colombia’s most successful showing in its already impressive history at the race. And all of this happened on 20th July, the anniversary of Colombia’s independence.
The significance of the date was not lost on Nairo Quintana in the last metres of the stage; finally, his facial expression changed. He smiled broadly, cried, and was overcome with emotion. As he crossed the line he raised his hands, locking them into a heart symbol above his head. The sign was in homage to his former amateur team, and hence all of Colombia, since it referenced Colombia Es Pasion (Colombia Means Passion), the logo adopted by the Colombian government in its bid to improve the nation’s image abroad. Part of that effort had been the establishment of the amateur team in which Quintana had come to prominence before joining Movistar, and for whom he won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2010. He spent the morning of stage 20 with the team’s latest crop of youngsters ahead of their appearance at this year’s edition of the race.
Photo: Joe Hall
Back home in Cómbita
If Quintana remained composed during the race, taking on the team’s leadership as he out-climbed some of the sport’s luminaries, things back in his home town of Cómbita were quite different. For most stages, people gathered in the town square to watch the race on a large outdoor screen, his parents taking pride of place in the front row. The crowd roared with emotion, Nairo’s father, Luis, waved his arms, prayed out loud, and was often brought to tears. Next to him sat Nairo’s mother Eloisa. In stark contrast to the displays of emotion surrounding her, the matriarch of the Quintana family sat still, hands folded, looking at the screen intently, her facial expression locked in a serious gaze. It was a look audiences around the world would become familiar with during this year’s Tour de France.
As Nairo crossed the line on stage 20, the crowd in Cómbita’s central square erupted, the fireworks bursting into the sky. And it was at that moment that both Quintana’s parents were overcome with emotion, no doubt remembering the sickly child they once thought would not live past the age of two. Troubled by bouts of severe colic, his coughing fits and respiratory issues caused him to nearly choke to death on his own blood. More recently, Quintana had been in coma for five days, after he was struck by a taxi while training near the city of Tunja. Given all this, his parents’ reaction was understandable.
Photo: Gilberto Chocce
A new era
As if the recent accomplishments of Rigoberto Uran, Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur weren’t enough, Quintana’s awe-inspiring ride at this year’s Tour proves Colombian cycling is back in a big way. More impressive still is the fact that many more of his countrymen are waiting in the wings for their turn to shine.
I ask Ignacio Velez, strategic and business advisor to Team 4-72—Colombia (as Colombia Es Pasion is now called), about his hopes for the future. He’s known Quintana throughout his entire cycling career and the two remain close friends. “In our team,” he says, “we are building a new generation of escarabajos [Colombia’s climbers are known as ‘beetles’ due to their punchy style] that will grow with the most strict ethical standards. They will help build a better Colombia with their pedalstrokes, which in the end benefits a country that has suffered so much.”
And with that, Velez once again displays the beautiful dichotomy that makes Colombians what they are. Thoughtful, measured but full of passion and emotion. An intoxicating mix that will no doubt make Nairo Quintana a favourite among riders and fans alike.
Photo: Gilberto Chocce
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