Tuesday, May 27, 2014

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 to Nairo, 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.


Dazzled by the might of Uran and Quintana, some may be missing other important revelations in this year's Giro. Sebastian Henao is competing in his first grand tour, and is the best placed rider in Team Sky. He arrived with some of the best climbers today. Pantano, Chalapud and Duarte have also let their worth be known, as has Arredondo. And with all this talk of a "Colombian takeover," the impressive rise of Polish cycling could be missed by some. It shouldn't be.


  1. I find Quintana's personality refreshing. He is mature, modest, balanced. I imagine his background gives him a better perspective on life. Cycling is only sport, many in the world endure bigger challenges than climbing up the Stelvio.

    You can see his determination in his legs, his confidence in how he climbs. By comparison the bravado of other riders comes across as narcissistic and puerile. I wish more riders were like Quintana. Speak softly and let the legs do the talking.

  2. Klaus, your nuance is much appreciated as always. Pretty much anyone and everyone is going to have their go at speaking "for" Quintana, their comments charting the lines of race and class that all of the riders you profile have to navigate on a daily basis. Keep posting!

  3. Klaus, I´m glad they asked you and tryed to do some research before falling on the usual clichés, about race and class. You have been doing an excellent job in showing the world a different type of Colombia. I wish more people would come in here and read your posts.

  4. Grande Rigo, Grande Nairo-man. And anybody who's been paying attention should have had enough of the 'pobre campesino' routine (although the story about Rigo's dad gets me). Keep it up Klaus.

  5. Klaus, very insightful analysis and I couldnt agree more. Given the depth and special scope you bring to cycling and particularly the colombian one, I would like to see your opinion on the "issues" with today's stage. Cheers

  6. These cyclists being Colombian doesn't change my belief that they are also getting some sort of "help", if you understand what I'm saying.

    1. I believe that as a cycling fan, it's healthy to sometimes wonder, to ask questions, and to be inquisitive about this matter. My only concern is that blind disbelief comes from the same place that blind trust came from previously. Merely inverting the logic is of little value (not saying that's the case with your beliefs, just saying this as a general rule of thumb).

  7. Quintana meek? From my perspective this couldn't be further from truth. He strikes me as a man with very clear vision and strong will. He sets his objectives, keeps them always in his mind and does everything to fulfill them. He does not need anyone to force him to do so. I think he can be hard and uncompromising. He's a leader.
    This should not be mistaken with his general polite and humble demeanor. At least thats my opinion.

  8. And with all this talk of a "Colombian takeover," the impressive rise of Polish cycling could be missed by some. It shouldn't be.

    Very very smart.
    I was racing against Poles in '70-'80. What a hard, hard bunch they are. Great to see them back, I am looking forward for types like Schozda, Mytnik, Lang....

  9. Si le sacaron la piedra a Nairo, tengansen.

  10. Klaus - congratulations for such an excellent, well-written blog about this beautiful sport. Just a quick thing, you have a typo here: ".. some may find a contradiction between the Niro they read and hear about." It says "Niro" instead of "Nairo".

  11. Klaus: gracias por otro centrado y bien pensado post. Lo triste del tema es que muchos colombianos también caemos en los mismos clichés al referirnos a nuestros ciclistas y la prensa nacional no hace más que recordar los "humildes" comienzos de Nairo y Rigo...


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