The year is 2006… it’s a Monday, 7:20am. The young Nairo Quintana is packing school books into his backpack and having finished his aguapanela he waves goodbye to his large family and leaves home. To save on bus fare he gets on his heavy steel bike and starts down the 10 mile-long descent towards his school in Arcabuco. A few hours later he does the same route but climbing this time.
Sometimes his sister accompanies him, and being the good big brother he is, he pulls her bike attached to a piece of rope. He quickly gets hot although open spaces and chilly winds continue to weather his face. On the way he stops by the local water spring that comes directly from the side of the mountain. After a quick rest, he relentlessly works his way up until he arrives home, sweaty, breathing heavily, but with 4,000 pesos saved.
Weeks pass and young Nairo starts arriving home earlier and earlier, not far behind the bus. Then one day, while riding on his bike, a few cyclists from a local club overtake Nairo on their expensive, ultra-light bikes. A few minutes later, hearing some noise from behind, the cyclists look back and there it is, the sphinx-like face of the schoolboy they passed. Excited, Nairo tells his father of his achievement. And an idea is born.
Now the day is 20 July, 2013, a Saturday morning. Nairo is in a small hotel in the French Alps. His roommate is already up. They can hear the buzz from the reporters outside their door. The Colombian Movistar team walk downstairs to stock up on energy from pasta, cheese, rice puddings and other high-calorie foods. Today is the big day, the penultimate, decisive stage of Tour de France. Nairo is third in the general classification with many contenders breathing down his neck. Whether he can hold on to his third place position is the question on everyone’s lips. If so, he will have equalled the best Colombian performance in the Tour ever.
On the same day, 9,000 km away, it’s a cold, drizzly and windy morning in the sleepy village of Arcabuco, in the mountainous department of Boyacá. It’s a bank holiday as today Colombia celebrates its Independence Day. Nairo’s former school is closed. All is quiet, apart from the main square. Crowds of local people wearing traditional ruanas (Colombian ponchos) are glued to a massive Movistar screen where their compatriot is racing, hidden in the big mass of riders in a colorful mosaic of t-shirts. The atmosphere is tense, people are biting their nails. The crowd becomes animated only when the commentator mentions Nairo’s name.
There’s an electrifying buzz of expectation. Quintana’s face looking up with slightly open mouth offers no clues as to whether he’s suffering or feeling strong. Suddenly another racer named Rodriguez from Spain attacks the leader, named Froome, and straight after him goes Nairo and passes both of them. There’s no one else. Nairo looks like he’s got the podium sorted. Then with 1km to go, Froome attacks, but Nairo responds and counter attacks.
Nobody, not even Froome, has an answer to that. The main square in Arcabuco erupts in joy. Nairo is flying like a bird set free from his cage, riding for Colombia on its day of glory. The Boyacense rides himself into position as winner of the stage and second in general classification, in the best ever performance by a South American. Quintana also takes the white jersey for the best young rider and the polka-dot one for the best climber, in his first ever Tour at the age of 23! His achievement is difficult to grasp. The people in his hometown continue to watch post-race features and interviews, but within minutes the screen is turned off and people start to go about their daily life. It feels colder again as the wind hurtles down the streets.
It’s Sunday, 1 June, 2014. A solitary finca by the side of the main road. Similar weather to ten months ago. The crowd outside is much bigger, though. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is even there. No wonder. Today Nairo the first South American in history to win the Giro d’Italia. Nairo Quintana’s progression in the cycling world is unprecedented. What’s next? The biggest prize in the sport – the crown of the Tour de France? Maybe in 2015.
Colombians love Nairo for his spirit, his kind-heartedness, and the fact that his is a real rags-to-riches story. To help his family out with money, a 16-year old Nairo used to work as a night taxi driver. Why at night? Partly because of school but also to avoid police checks as he didn’t have a driving license.
Another Nairo trait is something that Colombians call “malicia indigena.” It’s a calculated attitude of being clever to get what you want in this tough world.Confronted by journalists who asked why he didn’t take a turn fighting the headwind when he broke off with the Spaniard Rodriguez on the penultimate stage of Tour 2013, Nairo bluntly said that Rodriguez was more interested in the success of the escape and so he just took advantage of the situation.)
Finally, living in a developing country with its deficiencies and challenges, like many compatriots Nairo has developed the spirit of resourcefulness, combating problems of daily life with home-made, makeshift solutions. While modern cyclists from the West seems to be overly dependent on sophisticated power output meters and heart-rate monitors, Nairo just follows his intuition as he knows his body very well.
True champions have a potent mix of exceptional talent and the right attitude. And as the coach of his cycling team recently confessed, he hasn’t seen another cyclist with as much character as Nairo since the days of Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of the Tour de France in the 1980s.
By Arek Peryt