Saturday, July 20, 2013

Who is Nairo Quintana?

Quintana meets with riders from his old team 4-72, at the start of Stage 20 (Photo: Gilberto Chocce)

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 at 23 years of age, and during his first Tour. And on Colombian independence day, no less.

Quintana celebrates his stage win. The hand gesture? A heart, a reference to his old team, Colombia Es Pasion, now called 4-72—Colombia

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.

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)

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 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.

Matt Rendell speaks about Quintana after his accomplishments at the Tour

Curiously, Nairo never knew about cycling, and had no heroes in the sport. He knew nothing even about Colombian riders, until he joined his first team. Even then, the likelihood of becoming a professional seemed distant. His family, was of meager means, with his father selling fruit out of truck in the town of Tunja, and eventually owning a small shop. As such, studies were not in his future, and Nairo settled on going into the Colombian army, it was the only way he thought he'd make a living.

Sadly, there wasn't even money in Quintana's family 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, and they'd pay them after it was over, with the money he'd earn for winning. It was a strange, and oddly confident plan. But his father was right, and they always paid the race fees this way. This was just part of the way that the Quintana family has always gotten by. Nairo and his siblings all know how to work on cars, fix bikes, farm 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.

*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) are were both Nairo Quintana and Sergio Henao come from. Also of importance is the fact that 4-72 / Colombia Es Pasion is the only team in Colombia to have its own biological passport, since the UCI does not require Colombian teams to participate in the program. Colombia Es Pasion, including the time when both riders were there, 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.

Nairo Quintana wins stage 6 of the Critérium du Dauphiné

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 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.

Quintana and his parents meet Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos.

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:

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 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.

(Photo: Gilberto Chocce)


  1. you can't win if you don't finish.

    Nairo's win was in some of the nastiest weather conditions i have seen in years- and it comes as no surprise at all that there were two Colombians on the podium.
    all 75 riders who finished were exceptional.


  2. ¡Qué excelente trabajo! Espero que siga ampliando esta nota, así como también me gustaría leer la entrevista a Hampsten. Respeto en general a los ciclistas, pero Nairo, como en Jekyll y el señor Hyde, pasa extraordinariamente de la timidez que suaviza su voz y ralentiza sus palabras, a una controlada y armoniosa ambición. Siempre decente, siempre reconociendo a todos en su equipo, siempre parco. Hoy celebramos con Nairo, mañana con cualquier otro de ellos, y tampoco olvidamos a quienes casi dejan la vida sobre el pavimento como ese grande que es y seguirá siendo Soler, así ahora no compita. Soler ya se había ganado su derecho a la gloria (y la fortuna de una esposa que es ejemplo para cualquier ser humano del mundo). Y no olvidamos a los otros, cada nombre y apelativo de esos valientes lleva su propia música en nuestra memoria: Desde Efraim y Ramón, pasando por martin Emilio y Javier, Luis y Fabio, Alvaro y Oliverio, Santiago y Victor. Sé que es injusto no nombrarlos a todos, pero deben saber que algunos de nosotros recordamos sus nombres o los hemos leído alguna vez en las viejas revistas y periódicos. Deben saber que a falta de imaginarios héroes con capa, nosotros crecimos sabiendo que en cada esquina o en cada carretera podíamos encontrarnos a uno verdadero. Uno que hablaba con nuestra cadencia, uno respetuoso y trabajador, un héroe diminuto y a la vez gigante, como los que ha necesitado este país para que los rapaces y despiadados políticos y magnates no puedan terminar de destruirlo y venderlo.
    Norwell Calderón Rojas

    1. Bien interesante su comparacion de los ciclista con Jekyll y Hyde. Nunca lo pense asi, pero es verdad: eternamente respetuosos, per al mismo tiempo con garra y deseo de ganar.

  3. Hola Norwell,

    Ahi en este "post" tengo el enlace a la entrevista con Hampsten.

    Igualmente, he escrito en el blog bastante sobre todas las otras leyendas, incluyendo hasta entrevista con Ramon Hoyos, Cebollita, Martin Ramirez etc. Este año posiblemente puedi ir a Bogota, y tabien tendre entrevista con El Zipa.

  4. Great repeat post you cheat! We demand new material for the next post. Congrats to Nairo, Carlos and Henao. What a race, huh?

  5. And yet nobody raises their eyebrows when the 75 kg Tony Martin beats all the wiry climbers on a TT course with several steep pitches, especially considering he finished over 40 mins down on the GC. If this had been a flat, 50 km long TT, I too would have been surprised if Quintana had done as well as he did here. But ultimately the course suited him and he won fair and square

  6. Christian,

    I forgot to mention this. Yes, of course! Did Quintana beat Martin's time in a TT, yes he did. But did anyone who criticized Quintana look at the profile of the TT? Hardly your average time trial course, no? Remember when Henao beat Leipheimer in a TT at the Tour of Utah? It was an uphill time trial. Now.... Quintana can actually time trial fairly well. Well enough to beat Martin or Cancellara in a flat, prologue-style course? Hell no. Not even remotely close. But anyone who missed the profile, yet makes these claims is short sighted at best.

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  7. I've said this before (yes, during the Lance era) & I'll continue to go by this rule:

    There's no point in speculating any rider is doping until they test positive or admit to it.

    Speculation ruins the sport almost as much as doping does: all it does is diminish the relevance & entertainment value of someone's efforts. Unless Quintana tests positive or admits to it, let's just continue to celebrate his accomplishments.

    1. So, according to this view:

      Easy instructions

      1. Go to nearest playground or beach

      2. Dig hole in sand

      3. Insert head

      4. Repeat as necessary

    2. Not so....unless you have some amazing David Walsh like investigative journalism with which you mean to enlighten us all - and surely post LA it would be worth a fortune to you - then you should a- put you name next to accusations and b - know that without proper scientific analysis you - or anyone else for that matter - simply don't "know" who is or isn't doping. I for one after 20 years of watching the sport have also had plenty of dissapoinments watching the trials of the sport, but toxic "experts" in the internet peanut gallery are just about as bad as the dopers these days. LA was caught - and early on at that - by scientific analysis. It was the UCI that covered up those results. Yes testing could be better - but how many of those that now "know" whose doping were the very same people castig aspertions on Walsh and Co during the LA era....a lot I bet. they just think that their vanity of "won't get fooled again" is more important than "innocent until proven guilty". Why dont you just watch WWF instead, you obviously convinced cycling is fixed?

  8. Yes sir. Also, I told someone recently: assume the worst. If you do, and you can still enjoy it, good. Otherwise, this may not be for you. in the meantime, enjoy it.

  9. Es que no se les olvide que todo lo del pobre es robado.
    Que orgullo esta nueva generación de ciclistas, estoy volviendo a vivir los días en que veía a mi Papá pegado al radio oyendo las transmisiones en las épocas del Café de Colombia.

  10. this post gets me all emotional. your writing is excellent and the content is original. thx.

  11. What a fantastic article - it reminded me just why I love cycling so much!

  12. Not surprising there are racists from GB, US and Australia in peloton, especially that riders in "developed" countries usually don't come from middle class families either. Some of them are simple rednecks actually.


    1. he didn't mention great britain?!

  13. as an aussie im really sad that australian cyclists would be racist at all. yup i guess there are just some plain rednecks out there. Quintana is amazing, watching him and rodriguez crack froome on stage 18 was unbeleivable :)

    1. Agreed, this saddens me as well... especially with me being an Aussie from an Asian background. I cheer on a lot of Aussie cyclists just due to them being Aussie. I would have thought racing in Europe would teach them something about tolerance in the world. I guess that was a naive assumption :(

  14. Congrats to Quintana for today's stage win, capturing the white and KOM jerseys and securing 2nd over Contador. WELL DONE!

  15. Good article. The world welcomes the arrival of a new climbing king. Its official now.

  16. I hope my American countrymen have changed their stupid attitudes now that they can appreciate this young man's abilities. Chapeau, Quintana!

  17. Very Nice article!!

  18. Brilliantly written...thanks

  19. Absolutely, I have been impressed with this young man, and his role in cycling, not just for Columbia, but for the entire world. Here in the Caribbean, we have some very talented cyclists, and like many, did not have the opportunity to become great stars. I respect him for being humble, and yes he brings back the essence of why we love cycling so much. I myself am a climber, and many a times I project myself in any one of the hilly stages. Quintana just inspires me even more, and I expect even greater things from him in his budding career....long live cycling!!

    1. try this: (ColOmbia) it´s the rigth way to write our country name.

  20. Yo Vecino....Muchas Felicidades Negrito from a Gabacho in Nuevo Mexico/USA!!!! Very polite of you to just be Numero Dos this year in Le Tour, but we're looking forward to you being Numero Uno '14 !!!! Salud! and Salud to your Familia!!!!
    Village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
    If you come here to train for a day....we be 5000 Ft to 10,000 Ft....., I'll for sure cover your having a meal smothered with muy sabrosa red or green Nuevo Mexico grown chile. While being the legislated State Vegetable, it also is embodied in the legislated State Question: "Red or Green?"

  21. Mr Q made the tour hope he goes on to win overall. Breath of fresh air. Wouldn't play him at poker shows nothing during battle.
    Real Velo

  22. Mr Q made the tour hope he goes on to win overall. Breath of fresh air. Wouldn't play him at poker shows nothing during battle.
    Real Velo

  23. Klaus loving your blog. maybe we're more informal here in Mexico but i was suprised to find his folks didn't tutear.

  24. Brilliant!!! Thanks; as a Colombian I didn't even know that many things about our Naironman

  25. Awesome post Klaus! Easily the most amazing and heart warming story to come from the TdF in a long time.

  26. Nairo's Tour de France- amazing just amazing- had tears in my eyes watching him on the podium last night. Rather pleased about my fellow Brit Chris Frume's performance as well.

  27. I think Nairo and Froome showed us that it is very nice to have a humble attitude in a competitive environment and still win. That is valid not only for cycling.

  28. Great great summary of a great man's life (up to now)!


  29. After the first mountain stage in this years Tour, I saw him in action and searched about him and found this blog. Very well written and an inspiring story. In today's highly competitive world of cycling, if we can have people with such humble backgrounds, that's very inspirational. Go Quintana !!!

  30. A friend just sent me this article... about "the guy who placed between Froome and Purito in this year's TdF.
    Thanks for putting this out there.

  31. Great articles as always I found the following article published in the Spanish newspaper el País. I think it will be worth to translate it and put it in your blog.

  32. Great post, Klaus. It's not only Nairo who's humble and respectful, it's also you, Klaus. This blog is so different from all these articles in the newspapers and reports on television, at least hear in Europe. Thanks again!

  33. Interesting journal!
    I'm trying to translate it into mandarin :)
    But I believe that there's a mistake in the 18th paragraph below the picture of Juan Molano: "...Still, the bike that Quintano used during the Tour de l'Avenir ..."
    It should be "Quintana", right?

  34. Nairo KINGtana! Saludos desde Brasil!

  35. Bravo.... Seeing him win was the most exciting part of the tour!

  36. I'm a Colombian girl that loves biking and understand the sport. That said, seeing Quintana climb is amazing his style is perfect.
    I know that if he gets a good team he can win the Tour.
    All the best.


  37. leyendo estos comentarios me gustaria opinar un poco tambien hoy he visto a nairo Quintana subir en la ultima etapa de la vuelat a burgos y es spectacular la forma como pudo dejar colgado a nibali y a basso faltando un kilometro para la meta me hizo acordar a lucho herrea el jardinerito imparables cuando atacan en una subida

  38. great article and comments
    hope lots of people read it.

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