NAIRO QUINTANA: The Quiet Champion

Words and Images: James Startt

Cycling champions, it’s said, come in all shapes and sizes. Some seem to overflow with assurance. Others seem driven by their own inner confidence. Nairo Quintana clearly fits into this latter category.

In some ways, Quintana’s meteoric rise in the sport of cycling reflects the soaring peaks of the Andes in his distant corner of Colombia. Seemingly effortlessly, he went from dropping classmates on the climb riding home from school, to winning the national under-23 road championship and the mountainous 2010 edition of the Tour de l’Avenir at age 20, and, as only a third-year professional, winning the 2014 Giro d’Italia. And somewhere in between, the 26-year-old climber has twice finished second in the world’s biggest bike race, the Tour de France.

On the bike, Quintana wears a deadpan expression. It’s virtually impossible for his competitors to sense when he is going to attack or when he might crack. And unlike those champions who project their daily life on social media, Quintana reveals very little about his personal life. “I’m not an actor, I’m a bike racer,” Quintana confided to Matt Rendell, his press officer on the Movistar team, when confronted with an overwhelming list of media requests at the season-opening Tour de San Luis this year.

And so it comes as no surprise that, after helping his brother Dayer secure victory in the Argentinian stage race, that Quintana quickly returned to Tunja, his hometown in Colombia, to prepare for a fourth season as a professional in Europe.

Tunja is situated on a high plateau on the eastern finger of the Andes that stretch through the rural department of Boyacá. It is far removed from the country’s big cities of Bogotá and Cali, and because the high altitude is unfavorable to the growth of the coca plant, the region has remained free of the drug wars so identified with this small South American country. It is here where Quintana grew up, and it is here he likes to return whenever he’s not racing. “It’s where I come to recharge my batteries,” he said. “You know, when you live at nearly 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) altitude, you have a different relationship with the mountains than most people.”

Quintana was good, very good, from the first day he turned professional, winning Spain’s Vuelta a Murcia only weeks into his first season and, a few months later, the toughest alpine stage of the prestigious Critérium du Dauphiné. He was so good in the Volta a Catalunya that same year that Alberto Contador rode up to tell him that it was only a matter of time before he’d be one of the best.

Quintana has been so good for so long, in fact, that already we only expect greatness from him. The 5-foot-five, 128-pound Colombian, however, understands that the sport of cycling is not so evident: “When I won the Giro I understood what I was capable of, that I could win a grand tour. But when I lost the Vuelta later that year I learned something else, that you can’t plan everything and you don’t always achieve your goals.”

Last year Quintana was heavily criticized throughout the Tour de France. Insiders claimed he was held in check by his own teammate Alejandro Valverde and that he was not sufficiently aggressive to destabilize the steady tempo set by Chris Froome’s Team Sky. Quintana did not succumb to the pressure. Revealing little, he waited instead for a moment when he saw a real opening. That moment, of course, came on the final stage in the Alps, where he came close to turning the tables on Froome on the mythic climb to L’Alpe d’Huez.

This year Quintana will return to the Tour in an effort to finally make it to the top step of the podium in Paris. This time he will be the sole leader on his Movistar team, as Valverde will focus on the Giro and work for Quintana at the Tour. The Colombian climber understands that the mountaintop finishes in the Pyrénées, on Mont Ventoux and in the Alps represent his biggest ally in an effort to upend Froome. But will they be sufficient? One thing is certain: Quintana won’t be offering us any clues.

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