Back in 2012 in the Critérium du Dauphiné, a crucial warm-up race for the Tour de France, Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins were seemingly unbeatable on all fronts, bar one. On the toughest mountain stage, Colombian Nairo Quintana, racing his first full year in Europe, managed to go clear and win – aged 22.
Fast forward three years and Quintana is widely tipped as the rider who will stop Sky in their tracks again – as well as all of cycling’s other top stage racers. Except this time, the 25-year-old is aiming to do it in a rather bigger arena: in the Tour de France itself.
A quietly spoken, diminutive figure with a Sphinx-like inexpressive face, Quintana is regularly named as one of the top four contenders for the maillot jaune this July – along with last year’s outright winner Vincenzo Nibali, Sky’s Chris Froome, who took the title in 2013, and Spanish favourite Alberto Contador, Tour champion in 2007 and 2009.
It’s an intimidating line-up and Quintana is realistic about his chances. “I know I’ve beaten them all on different occasions, and that gives me a big confidence boost, but it’s true that they’ve also beaten me,” he tells The Independent. “So that means every day it’s going to be a war.
“There’s a lot more names [of potential winners] out there, too – [Tejay] Van Garderen [fifth in the Tour last year], Thibaut Pinot [third], [Romain] Bardet [sixth]. It’s going to be a very hard, open race, and I don’t expect it’ll be decided right up until the last climb of the last week, on Alpe d’Huez [stage 20 of 21].”
A diminutively built, hugely gifted climber, the last time Quintana and the Tour tackled cycling’s most mythical mountain, in 2013, Froome – previously unmatchable in the mountains – lost over a minute to the Movistar rider, and Contador over two. Although Quintana did not win that year on Alpe d’Huez, he nonetheless finished second overall in his debut Tour de France, and captured a mountain stage two days later.
He also won both the Best Young Rider and King of the Mountains classifications, a double previously only achieved in a first Tour de France by all-time cycling great Eddy Merckx, in 1969. Quintana was the youngest King of the Mountains winner since the legendary Charly Gaul, another out-and-out climber, in 1955.
The little Colombian subsequently demolished the opposition in the 2014 Giro d’Italia to take his first Grand Tour title. Although he missed the Tour de France last summer, Quintana showed he was on a par with established greats this spring when he defeated Contador and Nibali in Italy’s second most difficult race, the Tirreno-Adriatico, easily beating them in a blizzard on the climb of Monte Terminillo climb. “That gave me a lot of confidence,” he says.
Those wins, combined with his runner-up spot in the 2013 Tour – “the difference with back then is that I have started to train a lot earlier in the off-season” – have made him a national hero in cycling-mad Colombia, but Quintana refuses to accept the label of standout contender for this July.
“I’m not a maximum favourite. Froome won the Critérium du Dauphiné this year easily, Nibali has won all three Grand Tours, and Alberto [Contador] has just won the Giro d’Italia,” he points out. “They’ve all won a lot more than me. But on the plus side, we’re all in similar shape right now. And the route this year in the Tour is exceptionally mountainous, which suits me well.”
In his most recent race against Contador last weekend in the Route du Sud, Contador only just managed to shake off the Colombian – and that was on a descent, not a climb.
Born almost 3,000 metres above sea level in the small Colombian town of Tunja to a family of smallholders and fruit and vegetable sellers, it’s fair to say to that climbing is in Quintana’s blood.
Every day as a teenager he would ride a mountainous 16 kilometres, totalling around 1,000 metres of climbing, to go to school. Ever since that age he has also shown that, like most top climbers, he is determinedly independent-minded.
As a teenager, he and his younger brother Dayer, now also a professional cyclist in the Spanish Movistar team, worked as all-night taxi drivers in Tunja – never during the day, though, because neither had a driving licence.
Racing since he came to Europe with the Movistar squad means Quintana is backed by one of cycling’s most well-established teams, with a history of successful Grand Tour racing that stretches back to multiple Tour victories with Miguel Indurain and Pedro Delgado in the 1980s and 1990s (under the names of previous sponsors Reynolds and Banesto). But there is little doubt that Quintana has the mental resources to handle the pressure alone should Sky try their classic tactic of isolating their rivals on the mountains. “He has,” as one Movistar staff member tells the magazine ProCycling, “a personality that’s so calm and quiet it’s almost spooky.”
His phlegmatic approach to life is not just apparent in cycling: as a baby he suffered “dead man’s disease”, a life-threatening condition which, according to Colombian folklore, is caused when a pregnant woman, in this case Quintana’s mother, is touched by somebody in recent contact with the dead. Asked about it now, he says with a shrug: “Every child gets sick once in a while”.
Equally, he says the Tour is something that motivates him strongly but he is not obsessed with victory. “If I can’t get it this year, I will have more opportunities.” Furthermore, racing alongside Alejandro Valverde, Movistar’s hugely experienced second leader, “is an advantage which no other team can have”.
Reaching the summit of stage racing so quickly could be a disadvantage – he has a lack of experience comparative to the more seasoned Froome, Nibali and Contador. But Quintana shows wisdom beyond his years when he says: “I’ve got some weak points, like everybody, but I’m not going to let anybody know what they are; I don’t want my rivals exploiting them.”
So far, in fact, it seems more likely that Quintana will be finding chinks in his enemies’ armour – and exploiting them to the full.Reuse content