As Nairo Quintana won the last mountain stage in this year's Tour de France, he earned the polka dot jersey, secured the white jersey, and managed a second place in the GC. In doing so, he had the best showing of any Colombian at the Tour. Ever. No small feat for a rider who is only 23 years old, and competing in his first Tour. And all this happened on Colombian independence day no less.
Now that Quintana has become the focus for many who follow the sport, we should take a closer look at who Quintana is, and how he came up through the sport. This is significant, since his life has been an interesting one that manages to shed a light on many other Colombians who, like him, have dedicated their lives to this sport.
Quintana's parents watch stage 20 in their native town of Combita.
On February 4, 1990, the Colombian department of Boyacá celebrated the first of ten stages of the Vuelta de la Juventud with great enthusiasm (the Vuelta de la Juventud is country's premiere U-23 stage race, whose past winners include Alvaro Mejia, Oliverio Rincon, Mauricio Ardila, Fabio Duarte, Sergio Henao, Mauricio Soler and Carlos Betancur). But on that day, Boyacá—a place where cycling is loved and has always flourished—was also unknowingly celebrating the birth of yet another in a long line of great cyclists born in that central Colombian department: Nairo Alexánder Quintana Rojas.
Like so many other great cyclists from Colombia, and from Boyacá in particular, Quintana's parents are peasants, who raised him in what the newspaper El Espectador referred to as "precariously difficult economic conditions". And yet, like with so many others in Colombia, it was that economic reality that brought a bicycle into Quintana's life. His family lived in the settlement* of La Concepcion (near the town of Combita), but the nearest school was 9 miles (16 kilometers) away.
The walk to school was treacherous, and often left a young Nairo absolutely exhausted due to the difficulty of the terrain. There was a bus that could take him there, but with four siblings, there was no money for him to use public transportation of any kind. So the young man's family had to save up, and his father bought a used mountain bike for the equivalent of $30. Nairo treasured the bike, and slowly began to daydream during his rides to school. Every time he rode the bike, he pictured himself racing, and winning a stage that always ended on a mountaintop (which was actually his home), after a lengthy 8% climb. Once there, his parents were always there to greet him when he arrived, but instead of awarding him a yellow or polka dot jersey, he once told a Colombian newspaper, they always put a ruana on him (a Colombian garment similar to a Mexican poncho, but made of thick wool) to shield him from the cold temperatures that are common throughout Boyacá.
Having said all this, it should be said that Quintana's upbringing can best be qualified as being typical of a working family in the countryside by Colombian standards. One that didn't allow for many luxuries, but also one that didn't see a young Nairo in need of food or shelter. So the portrayal of the Quintana family as being a desperately poor one is not necesseraly accurate. As such, his upbringing must be kept within the context of rural Colombia. He was loved and encouraged by a family that worked hard for what they had, and was never in need of the basic things that any working family can provide.
Matt Rendell speaks about Quintana after his accomplishments at the Tour
Despite the fact that Nairo grew up in Boyaca, he never knew much about cycling, and had no heroes in the sport. He knew nothing about Colombian riders or the country's history in the sport, until he joined his first team. Even then, the likelihood of becoming a professional seemed distant. His family, made a living by selling fruit out of truck in the town of Tunja, and eventually bought a small shop where they also sold grains. Going to a university was not in his future, so Nairo settled on going into the Colombian army. His decisions were not those of a person in desperate conditions, but rather those of a pragmatic young man who wanted to make a living for himself.
As he began to race more, he often found it hard to pay his race fees. But his father, being very industrious, came up with a plan. He'd ask race organizers to let Nairo race without paying, telling them that once his son had won the race, they'd pay the entry fee. It was a strange, and oddly confident plan. And it worked, as Nairo won most of the races he entered. This attitude was examplary of the way in which the Quintana family handled itself. Never shy about working hard to provide, Nairo's siblings all learned how to work on cars, fix bikes, work in farms and even drive taxis to make a living. In fact, Nairo's brother and him began to drive at ten years old, so that they could drive taxis at night to earn money, in hopes of not being seen by the authorities. No one in the family shied away from work.
*The use of the word "settlement" may seem unusual, but I've found no better word to translate the Colombian term "vereda", which refers to a very small grouping of homes, often in rugged terrain, outside a town which is itself very small.
Tour de l'Avenir
In 2009, Quintana signed his first professional contract with a team funded by his home department's government called Boyacá Es Para Vivirla. This team, it's funding and structure, is roughly parallel to that of the Governacion Antioquia team, for which Sergio Henao (pronounced Eh-nah-Oh, not "Hey Now") raced for two years ago during the Tour of Utah. Nairo then spent two years in the Colombia Es Pasion team, before being signed by Movistar, as a result of his overall victory at the Tour de l'Avenir in 2010 (where he also won two stages).
Something to keep in mind when you see Uran, Henao and Quintana racing, particularly when you see Quintana and Henao going at it, as they did in the Basque country. They are roommates in Pamplona. Chores are shared, and I was told by Uran that if they are all home together, one does the cooking, while the two others do the dishes afterward. They originally lived in the apartment where Mauricio Soler resided after he first moved to Spain. They now live in an apartment that belongs to Rigoberto, with Nairo and Sergio paying rent (Update: From the time when this was originally written, it seems like Rigoberto has moved out, at least part time, but he still owns the apartment). Similarly all the Team Colombia riders (Leonardo Duque excluded), live in shared apartments in northern Italy.
At this point, it's worth mentioning that team Colombia Es Pasion (and 4-72 as the team is called in its current incarnation) is were both Nairo Quintana and Sergio Henao developed as riders. Also of importance is the fact that 4-72 / Colombia Es Pasion is the only team in Colombia to have its own internal biological passport, since the UCI does not require Colombian teams to participate in their program. Colombia Es Pasion, including the time when Nairo was in the team, has always spent a significant amount of its budget on this program, including random testing of its riders performed by Colsanitas , to ensure that they raced clean. More importantly, the team did this to make sure that if European teams wanted any of their riders, they could prove to them that they were in fact racing clean (credit here should be given to Ignacio Velez , former team manager, who insisted on this measure, with great foresight about his riders' futures). No small feat for a team that had to buy its own bikes, components, tires etc. It's through this team that Sergio Henao, Nairo Quintana, Fabio Duarte, and many other of Colombia's great hopes went through. Additionally, that team remains the only one in Colombia to use power for training and/or racing (credit on this regard goes in full to Luis Fernando Saldarriaga, easily the most successful Colombian DS right now). If you want to learn more about Saldarriaga and his teams, click here.
At any rate, even before the Spanish team came calling, Quintana's life changed dramatically as a result of his victory in France. This is particularly true when one takes into account his humble beginnings.
Quintana is welcomed back home after winning the Tour de l'Avenir
Quintana and his team are welcomed at the airport in Bogota after the Tour de l'Avenir
After his victory in France, the Colombian president called Nairo in his hotel, telling him he was setting an amazing example for all Colombians, and thanking him for putting Colombia in such a positive light in Europe. For his part, Quintana told the president that his victory belonged to all of Colombia, and that he was proud to represent an entire nation while climbing through the French mountains.
This sentiment, that his victory belonged to the entire nation, is one he repeated later, while being honored at the presidential palace in Bogota. There he said that he felt unbelievable happiness while raising his arms at the final presentation on the podium. Because of that emotion, he said, he cried knowing that his victory was for all of Colombia. As he recounted that emotional moment in front of the president, the press and his parents, it became obvious that his way of speaking is typical of someone with his upbringing. Proper, humble and overly respectful, all in a way that I have honestly never seen in any English speaker (those who have traveled throughout Colombia probably know exactly what I mean).
Having said that, Nairo is not afraid to speak honestly, and address difficult issues that have already come up during his time in Europe. As a matter of fact, he speaks about these matters more openly than many other Colombian cyclists from the past, who experienced similar attitudes while racing in Europe.
Giving it right back
On the subject of being treated poorly during the Tour d l'Avenir as a result of being Colombian, Quintana spoke openly to the online magazine Solo Ciclismo. Below is an excerpt of
Some thirty years ago, Colombian cyclists were viewed in a disdainful way within the European peloton. How was the team treated in this occasion [Tour de l'Avenir 2010]?
The same. Things have not changed. This time we had problems with the French, the Australians and also Americans during the race, but we never allowed ourselves to be humiliated as they clearly wished had been the case. They didn't want us to be in the front of the peloton, they "brake-checked" us, they yelled at us, treated us badly, but we took them on and gave it right back. One day, a French rider grabbed Jarlinson Pantano's bike by the handlebar and threw him off his bike. So in retaliation, I went over and pushed this French rider into a ditch. In the end, however, it was him [the French rider] who asked us for forgiveness. At the end of that stage, the directors had to mediate the situation, so we wouldn't have any more problems. As the days went by, things calmed down. They saw that we were the strongest, and they learned to respect us.
Has the team received any type of help in a psychological sense, in order to handle the stress and moments of anxiety that come with moments like that in such a big race?
Yes! In the team we have a psychologist, who has worked with us on this matter. We have even seem movies to help us work through this, and help raise our self esteem. This way we won't feel inferior to them. We are not only from a small country, but we are also physically smaller, and that puts us at a disadvantage with people who are much taller and, as if that weren't enough, are also racists.
If anyone reading Quintana's account of the Tour de l'Avenir in 2010 doubts his assertion regarding these events taking place as a result of him and his teammates being Colombian, I would urge them to please read the interview I did with Andy Hampsten. In it, Andy speaks about this issue [racism and prejudicial treatment of Colombians] very openly, and his memories echo the very sentiments that Quintana outlined above.
Quintana is awarded a medal of honor by Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos after winning the Tour de l'Avenir. In return, Quintana awarded the president a yellow jersey, complete with a podium-style ceremony where they both held their hands up in a sign of victory.
This is not Nairo Quintana, it's Juan Molano. So why post this picture? Because if you look closely at his jersey, you'll see Nairo's name in green. That's because Nairo has used some of his earnings in Europe to sponsor the team that first signed him. Because of that, the team is now called Boyaca-Nairo Quintana.
After his victory in France, Quintana was received as a hero, not just by the president, but also those from his native Boyacá. He and other teammates from the surrounding areas took a day-long trip in a chiva bus, as they took part in multiple parades, ceremonies and musical presentations, culminating in several parties in their honor. Still, the bike that Quintana used during the Tour de l'Avenir (which was promised to him as a prize from the team) was stolen after the race in the town of Tunja. The bike, which would be expensive anywhere in the world, but even more so in Colombia, was never recovered.
Back in Europe
In 2013, Quintana finds himself racing in Europe with Movistar for the second year. In 2012, he won the Vuelta a Murcia. Despite his young age and relative lack of experience, the native of Boyacá has voiced concern about not being allowed to race in the Giro or the Tour in 2012. It was apparently with that sadness in mind, while also knowing the significance of Morzine to Colombia's cycling history (Herrera, Parra, Rodriguez and Botero all took stage victories there), that Quintana attacked near the top of the Col de Joux Plane last year at the Critérium du Dauphiné. He took the stage. Similarly, the 23 year old seems to be making a clear statement about his eligibility for the Tour de France this year, a race he's always dreamed of competing in.
With his win at the Tour of the Basque country earlier this year, Quintana earned his chance to take on the Tour. But not before his abilities were questioned by US commentators, who somehow believed the winner of the Tour d l'Avenir had come "out of nowhere".
Putting that commentary aside, I now want to share one last video with you. It's one that may seem a bit unusual, but this sort of thing is commonly done in Colombia. Shortly after Quintana's win at the Tour d l'Avenir, a small local TV station had Nairo's parents and sister record a congratulatory message for him. The t-shirts they are wearing bare the team sponsor's logos (of course), but also the phrase "I also have the shirt on", which is a way of saying that they too are wearing the leader's jersey that Nairo won (in spanish, the word for shirt and jersey are the same). Even if you don't speak Spanish, you may enjoy this video, as you'll see the loving, shy and proper way that his parents speak, in contrast to the off-the-cuff and upbeat tone of his sister. This is typical in places like Boyaca, where modern sensibilities are slowly making their way to younger generations.
Also worth noting, particularly for those who speak spanish but are not Colombian:
1. Nairo's sister is called "Leidy", a phonetic spelling of sorts, of the English word "lady" but more importantly part of what Princess Diana was referred to in the spanish-speaking press, Lady-D. I can't say for sure that this is the reason why Nairo's parents named Leidy this way, but it's often been the case, including the actor Leidy Tavares, from the brutally tragic movie Vendedora de Rosas.
2. Nairo's sister lovingly refers to him as "negrito" in this video. Though this may sound like a derogatory term (as it translates roughly to "little black" or "blackie"), I assure you that it's not. I can remember perfectly that my American girlfriend in high school was horrified to hear my mother call my brother this very name around our house. For sociological reasons that would take too long to explain, I can assure you that this is a loving term of endearment, sometimes bestowed upon Colombians who are merely brown, sometimes darker than others, or sometimes black. Whatever the case, it's never derogatory, as you can tell by the way in which Leidy uses it about her older brother.
Lastly, you may enjoy this post , about the unusual circumstances under which Nairo's brother, a fellow cyclist, ending up serving as a police officer in Colombia.