Behind the cool and calm exterior of Movistar's enigmatic team leader - from the people who see him beyond the peloton
When Nairo Quintana crossed the finish line at the summit of the hors catégorie Finhaut-Emosson climb, the vicious conclusion to the 17th stage of this 103rd Tour de France, his expression remained inscrutable.
His eyes, concealed behind mirrored lenses, and his features, undisturbed, betrayed no sense of emotion. Only Quintana’s head, briefly bowed, gave away the fact that he even he must have known that his challenge for overall victory had effectively ended.
It says much for the Colombian, winner of the 2014 Giro d’Italia, and triumphant this year at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie, that even in his deepest distress, physical and emotional, he remains a staunch leader. Little knowledge of the real Nairo Quintana can be gained from the outside.
What, then, is he really like? A star even in a cycling nation whose heroes have left an indelible mark on the sport, a young father to a young family, the son of peasant farmers risen to international stardom. Being Nairo Quintana cannot be easy. The insights of those who have seen Quintana beyond the peloton, therefore, are fascinating.
Roman Arnold, the founder of Canyon Bikes, supplier to Katusha and to Quintana’s Movistar team, has observed the Colombian at close quarters.
Arnold is no stranger to the world of professional cycling. While Quintana was still finding his way into the professional ranks, Canyon’s machines had already been ridden to World Championship glory by Cadel Evans and to world number one status by Philippe Gilbert.
It would be fair then to describe the German, a racer since childhood and the head of an international business, as not easily impressed. Yet something about Quintana’s demeanour convinced him that the young man had the necessary strength of character to win the biggest prizes in the sport.
Victory at the 2014 Giro followed and Arnold was greatly impressed by the leadership qualities seemingly at odds with Quintana’s diminutive stature.
“He may be small, but he has an inner greatness that is admirable,” Arnold tells RoadCyclingUK. “I got the chance to see him after he won the Giro, and his behavior towards his team members was full of gratitude, respect and appreciation.”
Such qualities go far in a sport as demanding as professional cycling, where a team-mate is required to sacrifice his ambition, as well as the last scintilla of energy, in service of his leader.
“He didn’t see the Giro as his victory alone, but as a shared accomplishment of the team. That is something which marks out a real leader”
“He didn’t see the Giro as his victory alone, but as a shared accomplishment of the team,” Arnold continues. “That is something which marks out a real leader.”
To see Quintana with his team-mates is to gain the measure of the man. He is quiet, but authoritative; humble, but in control; able to share a joke, but not much given to fooling around.
Given that Movistar is also home to Alejandro Valverde, whose palmares includes victories in some of the greatest races in the sport, Grand Tours and Monument Classics among them, Quintana’s assumption of leadership is quite something.
Rider meet author
Matt Rendell, author of Kings of the Mountains: How Colombia’s Cycling Heroes Changed Their Nation’s History, is an expert on Colombian cycling and has followed Quintana closely since 2011, when the young Boyacan was a member of Café de Colombia-Colombia Es Pasion team, and dining in close proximity to the Leopard-Trek team on the eve of the GP Miguel Indurain.
While his young team-mates, including Jarlinson Pantano, the winner last week of the Tour’s 15th stage, were star struck by the presence of the Schleck brothers, Quintana showed precisely no interest. Rendell remembers the young man as quiet and courteous; easy to talk to but very much his own man, and clearly not in awe of the more accomplished members of the dining hall.
“He was markedly different to everyone else,” Rendell recalls. “The fact that [2010 Tour de France winner] Andy Schleck was on the next table had no influence on him. I took that as a sense of self-worth; of predestination, or in any case of having his own thing going; his own life.”
Rendell attributes Quintana’s self-possession to his background and his career development: the child of farmers from Colombia’s mountainous Boyaca province, and the purest of climbers forced to broker his own opportunities outside of the structures of track-focused departmental bodies.
“The starting point was that he wasn’t the product of a team structure, but did his own thing. I interpreted that as being typical of the Boyaca peasantry – small farmers – who’ve always been ripped off by white, university educated, legally astute urbanites. Nairo is a very astute judge of character, in my view, and I think that comes from his personal circumstance and the peasant culture.”
The result is that Quintana is very much his own man. Rendell says. Latterly the rider has become aware of the Colombian climbing heritage to which he is heir, but has largely ploughed his own furrow. He was close to Mauricio Soler, a stage winner of the Tour de France whose career was ended by a crash at the 2011 Tour de Suisse, and to Jose Cayetano Sarmiento, winner of the so-called Baby Giro in 2009, a friend since childhood, but never a direct competitor, owing to an age gap of two years.
“I think Nairo is like those Greek heroes, born fully formed, in a cycling sense, at least”
Despite his admiration for Quintana, Rendell fears that his current career trajectory, far from making him the finished product, is making him “unfinished”. He thinks that such a determined a focus on time-trialing to become a complete general classification rider is unnecessary for such a gifted climber, and counterproductive. Quintana’s once fast and fluent cadence is slowing, he believes.
“I don’t know how much he’s improved since 2012,” Rendell says.
“If you think of the Vuelta in 2012, and the stage at Cuitu Negro, when Nairo was a tiny little kid, a first year pro, and there were four of them riding together: Purito [Joaquim Rodriguez], Contador, Valverde and Nairo, and Nairo attacked and drew Contador with him…”
He pauses, then adds with a laugh: “I think Nairo is like those Greek heroes, born fully formed, in a cycling sense, at least.”
Three major victories this season, and podium finishes at the Tour de San Luis and Pais Vasco, suggest that Quintana continues to progress, but Rendell is right to also reference the career of a Colombian whose star has waned: Rigoberto Uran.
Still only 29, Uran seemed destined for greatness when he joined Team Sky in 2011, but two podium finishes at the Giro d’Italia have been the peak of his achievements thus far; admirable, but already eclipsed by Quintana.
The younger man, now 26, might do well to consider his countryman’s career trajectory. While Quintana rolled out in Normandy among the favourites for the 2016 Tour, Uran raced for Cannondale-Drapac at the Tour of Poland, where he finished 43rd on GC.
The Scottish connection
Endura founder Jim McFarlane, like Quintana, is a man who has shaped his own destiny, steering a cycle clothing business from a kitchen table in Scotland to the WorldTour as supplier to Movistar. McFarlane was immediately impressed by the Colombian’s calmness and maturity.
“You don’t see that much messing around from Nairo,” McFarlane says. “The environment in which I see him is where there’s a job to be done, and he’s very much focused on doing the job; he takes control, rather than be guided through it. A lot of riders are given orders and herded around; he likes to be proactive and on top of things.”
Such professionalism is grist to Endura’s mill. McFarlane sought the relationship with Movistar to drive forward product development. Supplying the world’s number one ranked cycling team has paid dividends, but even among world class athletes, Quintana is a perfectionist.
McFarlane chuckles at the memory of their first meeting at the Mercedes F1 wind tunnel in Brackley, home to Simon Smart’s development of Endura’s Drag2Zero Aerosuit. Quintana arrived with several pairs of bib shorts and a ruler, believing he had found asymmetry in the pads.
“I’ve still got pictures on my phone of him smiling because we agreed that they were within half-a-millimetre. That wasn’t antagonistic: he had in his mind that there was asymmetry in some of the pads, and at that level [millimetres].
“I’d heard of other riders with tight tolerance expectations in other teams, so it wasn’t a surprise, but he wants to understand exactly what equipment he’s using and where there might be margins for improvement. He’s exacting, but he doesn’t require change to make a point, only when he thinks things can be improved. We encourage that.”
“Quintana is the strongest climber [Movistar team manager] Eusebio Unzué has seen, for his age. I’m sure that hasn’t changed in the last two weeks”
If all of this makes Quintana sound difficult or demanding, McFarlane flags up another side to the Colombian’s character: a gentle demeanour most obvious when he is with his young family.
“I saw him at the Tour last year, and he had his wife and his baby with him and was absolutely enraptured at being reunited after three weeks. It was clear that was where his focus was, and that was how he spent the evening. He’s very self confident and doesn’t feel he has to play someone else’s role.”
When the role is standing up to some of the biggest names in the peloton, however, Quintana does not shrink. McFarlane recalls watching television footage of the Colombian sharing a frank exchange of views with one of the heavyweights of the Spring Classics, who received “short shrift” from the diminutive climber.
While this year’s Tour campaign will not yield victory for Quintana, McFarlane does not expect a change of focus at Movistar, while conceding that such decisions are the domain of the team’s vastly experienced general manager, Eusebio Unzué.
“Eusebio has experience from the days that Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain were in the team, and he’s been very forthright, saying that Quintana is the strongest climber he’s seen, for his age. I’m sure that hasn’t changed in the last two weeks.”
McFarlane adds that in elite sport, maintaining the perfect physical balance is tricky; something Chris Froome struggled with at last year’s Tour, where he suffered in the final week under the attack of Quintana before sealing overall victory. Froome has learned and grown stronger, focusing this week on his form in the Tour’s third week, and McFarlane argues that Quintana is likely to do the same.
The A team
Alex Dowsett is now riding his fourth season as a team-mate to Quintana and has seen the Colombian’s stock rise since the pair raced the Tour of Britain together in 2013.
Interestingly, Dowsett, a former Team Sky rider, says Quintana’s career trajectory has been similar to that of of the Colombian’s chief rival at the Tour – Chris Froome.
“The first year I was with Nairo was 2013, when we raced the Tour of Britain together, where he crashed, got up, carried on, and I could tell he was made of strong stuff,” says Dowsett.
“The first year I was with Nairo was 2013, when we raced the Tour of Britain together, where he crashed, got up, carried on, and I could tell he was made of strong stuff”
“Now he seems like a different Nairo to the one I rode alongside in 2013. Back then, he was just one of the riders – a very good one, and with lots of potential – but one of the riders. Now he’s the clear cut leader and there to be delivered to the line.
“It’s probably similar to Froome. In my first two years with Sky, I was very much on the ‘B’ programme of races with Chris. That was the year he got on the podium at the Vuelta  and went from the ‘B’ programme to being looked after on the ‘A’ team for Grand Tours.
“He’s not the Chris Froome I was racing alongside in 2011. He’s a very different bike rider now. That’s what these guys have to do: not just step up physically, but step up mentally as a rider and as a leader.”
There is another element to Quintana’s leadership, however, which Dowsett ascribes to the prevailing culture at Movistar: that away from the bike, all riders are equal.
The Spanish team does not believe in special treatment, regardless of the talent involved. Quintana may have grown into the leader’s role, but elsewhere things are very much as they were.
“At the dinner table, nothing’s different,” Dowsett says. “You laugh and you joke. That’s the good thing about Movistar: there’s no neo pro, no top dog in the team. There doesn’t seem to be any egos, but once we get on the road, Nairo and [Alejandro] Valverde become the leaders and we become the dogsbodies, if you like. That’s our role, and as a domestique sometimes all you want is a pat on the back.”
When it comes to races against the clock, Dowsett is a bona fide star: a Grand Tour stage winner, former hour record holder, and five-time British champion. When fortune is against him (Dowsett missed the Giro this year in cruel circumstances after requiring collarbone surgery), the team redoubles its encouragement. Quintana, suffering now in the Tour and clearly below his best, is likely to receive all the support he needs, according to Dowsett.
“It’s a position he hasn’t really been in, where he’s not quite perhaps where he’d want to be, but he’s got to take it day-by-day and try to deliver the best performance each day, and see what comes of it. That’s where the team around him, not just riders on road but all the staff, are so good.”
Nairo Quintana’s 2016 Tour de France campaign has hardly unfolded as he would have liked, but those who write him off do so at their peril. A Grand Tour winner at the age of 24, Quintana is the most accomplished of a golden generation of Colombian cycling talent which includes, among several others, Esteban Chaves (Orica), the Henao cousins (Team Sky) and his Movistar team-mate Carlos Betancur. At 26, Quintana’s best years as a Grand Tour rider lie ahead.
We will learn more of his character in the immediate future. The Tour’s remaining Alpine stages, concluding with a stage to Morzine via the Col de Joux Plane, a climb on which he first claimed a seat at cycling’s top table by winning at the 2012 Criterium du Dauphiné, will show how much fight he has left.
Quintana will continue to learn and to fine-tune his preparation for cycling’s greatest race. He contested just seven races prior to this year’s Tour, and while winning three and finishing on the final podium in two more suggested a perfect build-up, hindsight (a wonderful thing), suggests a busier programme might have delivered more when it mattered most. With the aforementioned wins in Romandie, Catalunya, and at the Route du Sud, it has hardly been a forgettable season, despite the disappointments thus far at the Tour.
Those around Quintana continue to believe in him. The road to Paris is unforgiving, especially when a competitor as formidable as Chris Froome is in control, but rather than abandon the habits of a lifetime, the Colombian is likely to remain calm, considered, confident and gracious. His time will come.
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