A tale of two Quintanas


Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Admittedly, I was a bit flattered so I agreed. A large publication that normally ignores cycling altogether wanted to speak to me about Nairo Quintana. This was for an article they were writing about the young man from Cómbita. The person I spoke to on the phone was incredibly knowledgeable about the sport, and primarily asked me questions about the Colombian mindset, cycling’s place in a nation’s heart, as well as climate and other subtleties that we Colombians sometimes forget are not self-evident to people around the world. I tried my best to answer all the questions thoroughly.

But then came an interesting question. One which I instantly realized was based on a failed but popular premise.

Why, the man asked, was Quintana so shy, so meek. Was this a result of his “very poor” upbringing? The question put Quintana’s mental fortitude and spirit in question, since it spanned beyond his apparent demeanor, and had implications about his style of racing. It was as though winning races was something that had happened toNairo, rather than something he had made happen. He was not an active participant on the matter, such was his meekness. He was merely a passenger, along for the ride, in stark contrast to how cycling champions are usually portrayed. Ruthless, strong, determined. Willing to go to any length for a win.  

So I corrected him. Not shy. Not meek. Like almost all of us Colombians, he's respectful. He's reserved and measured at times, but for a reason that ultimately furthers his cause. After all, are his actions meek?

As for this matter of Nairo having grown up “very poor”, I began to elaborate on the cultural and social differences that exist around this subject. A working family in rural Colombia lives differently than that of another country, and "poor" can sometimes have implications about a person's unwillingness to work in such a milieu. Class descriptions and delineations are not absolute across cultures, and context must be kept in mind. So despite my reservations about some aspects of cultural relativism, I began to delve into distinctly Boasian territory, likely to no avail.

I remembered how the European press so often portrayed men like Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra in the 1980s. Hapless and diminutive brown men with "indian" blood and quiet demeanors. They were scared of their own shadows, if you believed their accounts, and one French newspaper suggested that Herrera didn't celebrate a stage win by drinking champagne once due to his "indian roots". Perhaps he was afraid of the cork, or the bubbles trapped within frightened him? Articles in Winning magazine stated that both electricity and television were absolute oddities throughout the nation. Neither was true.

I can see how Quintana being cut from that same (imagined) cloth fits the ongoing narrative perfectly. Plurality and complexity, after all, can only complicate matters. Right?  So this makes for a better story. And because of that, some may find a contradiction between the Niro they read and hear about, and the one they see with their own eyes while watching races. And if that's the case, I wonder which Quintana people think they saw racing today at the Giro.