Interest in Nairo Quintana is once again on the rise (for obvious reasons). As such, I decided to speak with Carlos Zúmer, a Spanish journalist and writer whose account of Quintana's life (in Spanish) was just released by the California Nonfiction imprint. Speaking with Zúmer further reveals just how contrived and erroneous part of the the Quintana myth—as it's been portrayed by some in the press–really is. His book reveals a far more complex, but no less interesting or impressive rider. One with a strong work ethic, and the ability to be calculating in the heat of competition.
What prompted you to write a book about Nairo Quintana?
Certainly the outcome of the 2013 Tour de France, as it became clear that within was a powerful story involving his country, Colombia, a historical aspect of cycling, and
also the resurgence of Colombian cyclists on the road. It's an intriguing phenomenon. The wealth of information I found about Nairo came after this realization, in the process of writing the book.
Were you at all surprised by your findings in the process of writing the book?
Yes, several times.
For example, the fact that Nairo really not shy at all, as many say he is. At least not in the sense that, we usually understand shyness in people like him.
Matt Rendell spoke of the tremendous ambition and determination of Colombian peasants and farmers, as well as their fierce introspection.
Another things that surprised me was how extremely thought out and tactical Quintana is. His every move is calculated, and amazing development for a rider as young as he is.
photo: velo news
Beyond Nairo, did you find anything about Colombia and Colombian cycling general that surprised you?
Absolutely. The strong family ties and almost tribal sense that Colombians have. They are always helping each other, keeping each other company, and always missing their home. But also their deep connection and sense of being Colombian as an all-encompassing identity. These riders are Colombian first, they are escarabajos, and secondly they are riders for Movistar, Sky or Omega Pharma. But always Colombians first. But there's also this beautiful history of a country that has had an intense love affair with cycling for more than fifty years, which is absolutely unique in all of Latin America.
What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of Nairo Quintana as a person?
Undoubtedly, the perceived poverty that many thing he was raised in, which has been greatly exaggerated.
Contrary to popular belief, Nairo didn't become a cyclist due to necessity, but rather because of circumstance.
Drawing a parallel, in the context of Boyacá, the Quintana family is like any lower-middle class family in Spain or Europe. They are a working family with no frills, but also one that never worried about survival.
How do you his upbringing impacted him as a cyclist?
There's the determination that comes from being born into a farming, peasant family, whch I mentioned before. That upbringing has shaped him in many ways, and has made him be a hard worker, and extremely determined as well. His rural upbringing likely prepared him for the hard work, and suffering that is inherent in the sport. Interestingly, that very childhood also made him into a generally happy and very grounded person. So it's worth saying that he's a modest person, with a modest outlook on life, and a very proper and straight way of doing things.
Do you feel that you now understand both Colombia and Nairo more than you did before starting the book?
I have to admit that I didn't know a whole lot about Colombian cycling when I started researching the book.
Part of that is a matter of timing. I was born in 1988, so my cycling "childhood and adolescence" were spent during the time when Colombian cycling began to wane in Europe, with the exception of Santiago Botero. So Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra were in the past for me, and it was not until men like Uran and Quintana that I was really able to sort of connect with Colombian cycling as we know it today.
You are from Spain and you live there. How have Spanish fans received Nairo, being that he's in a Spanish team? Though he appears to get along with Valverde, there must surely be some tension over leadership of a team that is so historically grounded in the Spanish tradition.
I would say that fans tread him and welcome him as a Spaniard more or less. During
the last Tour de France, it was clearly that the team was behind him. And clearly matters are helped by the fact that he's an incredibly strong climber, and that he helps Valverde when called upon to do so. Additionally, there's a certain cultural proximity between Spain and Colombia that is far more pronounced than it might be with a French or Italian rider. So here, Nairo is loved. At the moment, it's true that Eusebio Unzue has "split" them up, Nairo and Valverde, sending them to different grand tours. What remains to be seen, of course, would be how the Spanish fans would react to an open duel between the two of them, which we may never see.
If you could change one aspect about the way people think of Nairo Quintana through your book, what would it be?
That he should be taken very seriously. Nairo is an absolute star, and he's earned all that he's accomplished. People should forget where he came from and the supposed meekness. They should put aside all cultural notions they may have, including that of limiting Colombian riders to being pure climbers who can do little else. Nairo is the present and the future of cycling, I really believe that.
1. And now, if you'll forgive the absolutely drastic change of both subject and tone, I'd like to share the following video with you, which features
the band the Broom Wagons (made up of Tinkoff-Saxo's Matti Breschel, Anders Lund and Christopher Juul-Jensen) playing a Kings of Leon song (via Rouleur).
2. I used to pretend I was a cyclist while playing football/soccer? Yes I did.