|Nairo Quintana wins stage 6 of the Critérium du Dauphiné|
Now that Quintana has won the Tour of the Basque country, I've updated this post. You can find the new version here.
Over the last year, Colombian cycling has enjoyed some amazingly important moments. Rigoberto Uran wore the white jersey at the Tour, and then won the same competition at this year's Giro. Sergio Henao's grand tour debut was equally impressive. As spectacular as these accomplishments were, this weekend's stage victory by Nairo Quintana underscored the fact that some Colombian riders have been receiving little press when compared to their compatriots who race for Team Sky.
Along with Quintana, there's Cayetano Sarmiento (Liquigas-Cannondale), who won the king of the mountains in the Dauphine over the weekend, Winner Anacona (Lampre) and the seemingly unstoppable force that is the young Carlos Betancur (Acqua & Sapone).
In an effort to shed some light on those Colombian riders who are receiving less press despite their impressive performances, I'll be writing posts about them, since their stories are often as interesting and impressive as their victories.
|Quintana poses for a picture with his first team, Boyacá Es Para Vivirla (which roughly translates to Boyaca is meant to be lived in, or enjoyed)|
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 difficult 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 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) away.
The trip to school was treacherous, and often left a young Nairo absolutely exhausted due to the difficulty of the terrain. 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). 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.
*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 raced last year 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). But 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.
|Quintana is welcomed back home by friends and family|
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 that interview:
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 and his parents meet Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos.|
Back in Europe
In 2012, Quintana finds himself racing in Europe with Movistar, and has already won the Vuelta a Murcia. Despite his young age and relative lack of experience, the native of Boyacá has already voiced concern about not being allowed to race in the Giro and, more than likely, being left out of the Tour roster as well. It was perhaps 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 this weekend.
Soon enough he'll have his chance to tackle a grand tour, and regardless of how he does at that race, I think he knows he'll always be welcomed back in La Concepcion. And if it's cold when he arrives, his parents will probably have his ruana ready for him, just as they did when he was a kid. ▇
This last video 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:
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.
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.