Nairo Quintana may prove to be the thorn in Chris Froome's side over the next few years. The pair will no doubt come up against each other at the Tour de France for several years and while both grew up outside of Europes cycling cultures, they couldn't be more different. This exclusive interview with Cycle Sport magazine took place in Pamplona just ahead of the Giro d'Italia
It could sound a little crazy, but many people in Colombia believe it was foretold that Nairo Quintana was going to be a cyclist when his mother Eloisa went into labour. He was born on the 4th of February of 1990. That same day, under a cycling environment in the city of Tunja, Nairo was born in the hospital of San Rafael. Four streets away from the first prologue stage of La Vuelta de la Juventud. A star was born.
For Nairo Quintana’s parents Luis and Eloisa, it wasn’t a rosy and beautiful parenthood with their son. As soon as Nairo was born, the bad luck struck. He regularly got sick and nobody knew why. His little eyes were drying and the innumerable visits to many doctors waiting for answers and solutions were all in vain. Unfortunately, no one could help them.
Quintana talks candidly about this period in his life: “The doctors and many people told my parents that I had many illness problems and difficulties when I was a little boy. Some of them told my family I was going to die”, admitted the Movistar Team cyclist.
“I had constant diarrhoeas and high fever and it couldn’t be stopped while I was a toddler. My parents desperately tried every single doctor but they couldn’t help me.
“The proper medicines given to me by the doctors didn’t work at all in my body. It was thanks to the homemade medicines made by my family which kept me going.
“One day my mother was walking on the streets with me in the pram and a woman approached her and told her: I know your problem with your son.
“This woman told my mother that I had the illness of “tentado de difunto” (The temptation of the deceased).
“Apparently, my mother was touched on her tummy, while she was pregnant with me, by a man who was an undertaker of a woman who died in our neighbourhood. This person prepared the body of this deceased woman before funeral.
“This was a belief of very bad luck in Colombia, and this man passed the bad luck to my mother and me.
“This woman strongly believed in the power of the non-pharmaceutical drugs. She told my mother to give me healing herbs with boiling water. She told my mother, I will get better. She was right indeed.
“The herbs worked immediately in my system and the diarrhoeas and high fever disappeared”.
Soon after Mr and Mrs Quintana had another health scare with their son. This time, little Nairo developed breathing problems at the age of 10.
“I inherited these breathing problems because my grandmother, grandfather and my father had breathing problems too”, confessed Quintana.
“I had a very uncomfortable cough which provoked breathing problems. I had blood coming from my mouth and I was choking all the time.
“My parents again were running between doctors. We followed a therapy prepared by the doctors but once again, thanks to the natural herbs I got better. I remember this very well because that was the time I started riding my father’s old bike.
“My mother proudly tells everybody that the reason these breathing problems disappeared from my body was thanks to a typical Colombian dish she gave me when I was sick. This dish is called sanchocho de pollo – chicken stew!” He laughs as he tells us.
Quintana comes from a very humble and hard working family of farmers. Nairo’s parents raised him together with his sister Nelly Esperanza, Lady Jazmin and brothers Willington Alfredo and Dayer Uverney who had recently started his first pedal revolutions into the professional scene.
It could easily be said that Quintana’s relationship with the bicycle wasn’t because he loved it. It was because he needed it to go to school and for selling vegetables and fruits. His parents couldn’t afford the fee for the school bus for their children, so a fearless 10 year old boy was riding in his bicycle 16 kilometres uphill and downhill each way, with his brothers and sisters, to his local school Escuela de Barragán. That was probably the time of groundwork for Nairo Quintana the professional cyclist.
In those days there wasn’t much money in their home, and the entire family worked together on the farm at their home in La vereda de La Concepción, Alto de El Moran in Boyacá.
“We didn’t have a lot of money. My parents worked extremely hard for many hours to support us and the bicycle became an important utensil to help them in our shop and farm”, he proudly confessed.
“We weren’t swimming in money but we didn’t live in poverty as it has been exaggerated in reports in the past. We did have a house, food and most importantly we are a very strong united family.
“From an early age, my parents gave us duties and we learnt the meaning of responsibility. We shared the work. Someone was cooking, another one feeding the animals and working the land on our farm.
“I wasn’t aware or thinking to be a cyclist. I needed the bike to go to school and help around my house. Many children in Colombia have to sacrifice their childhood to help their parents in many duties. I used to sell fruits and vegetables in different villages with my bike.
“When we came back from school, we worked in my parent’s little shop and at the same time were doing the homework, washing the clothes, cooking dinner and cleaning.
“Later at night, I used to go to the farm to look after the hens, rabbits, pigs and cows. I love to be with the animals.
“When I was 16 years old, I used to drive my father’s Renault car and was working as a taxi driver with my oldest brother Willington Alfredo, at night time to raise money for the family so my father can rest at home.
“My father worked more hours than any other man in the region. I think I have the combative and fighting spirit of my father. Since I was a little boy, he told me to learn to suffer and to sacrifice myself to reach targets.
“He did work a lot to raise us. This is the mentality I adopt when I am riding now. There aren’t high mountains to climb for me. When I am riding, I am thinking about my parent’s sacrifices, it makes me stronger.
“Sometimes things have been really hard for all of us because of bad luck. My father suffered an accident at the age of 8. He was in a truck which overturned. Since then he had 14 operations on his spinal column. My father limps when he is walking now and is quite fragile.
Quintana himself was involved in an accident when he was out riding on his own. Crashing is common for a cyclist, but his was particularly serious. “A taxi hit me when I was 15. I was in a coma in the hospital for five days. I was very lucky to survive.
“Thinking about the past helps me to realise how hard everybody worked in my home so I can be where I am now”.
Luis Quintana used to watch his son in action, riding to school and delivering fruit and vegetables on his old, heavy mountain bike. Flying along on climbs of eight per cent or more, Luis was the first person who spotted his son’s potential and so did something about it.
He decided to go to a bike shop in Tunja and spend 300,000 Colombian pesos (about £100), on a racing bike and see if Nairo could make a career as a cyclist. Once he had the bike he took him to the local cycling club, Deportivo Ediciones Mar de Tunja.
His father’s drive lead him in to an argument with the teachers of his son’s school. He took Nairo to Venezuela to participate in La Vuelta de la Juventud in the city of San Cristobal without permission and his son missed classes for almost a week.
“I have to confess that I started to follow cycling a little bit on the radio and television.” Quintana said. “I decided to give it a go but with no dreams to one day be a professional cyclist. It was just for fun.
“My father bought the bicycle because he knew I needed a better one, and I liked to keep up with my friends.
“My father wasn’t the typical Colombian man who loves football. My father always had the passion for cycling. When he was a young man, he used to go to watch all the competitions.
“One of the famous stages of La Vuelta de Colombia passes by Tunja because of the climb. He was waiting for the cyclists going through our town. When my father was a teenager working, he was carrying his radio to listen to Radio Caracol or RCN Radio to keep updated about the news of the Colombia Tour, or any competitions.
“My father was a great help because thanks to his advice I am where I am. In the early days, he was like my agent, and the man who supported me all the time. My little brother Dayer who is now riding with the amateurs in Spain used to go with us too.
“I remember one day, my cycling club was invited to participate in the La Vuelta de la Juventud in the city of San Cristobal and they decided to take me to compete when I was 17 years old. I missed classes for a week!
“On my return, I sent my father to the school as a shield so I could avoid punishment from the teachers. He fought with the teachers and he tried to explain to them that I almost won it, as I finished second.
“Those hard days, transformed my dad as a shrewd manager. In those days, it was compulsory to pay around £10 to the organizers to compete in the different races in the cadet level.
“My father used to negotiate with the organizers to avoid paying the fee before the start of the race because sometimes we didn’t have the money. My father told them, the fee will be paid at the end of the event because my boy will be among the first three!
“The truth was my father was right most of the time and we always paid the fees at the end of the races.
“It is fair to also mention the local Sport Council representatives Jaime Poveda and Rusperth de La Chagua who helped me out in my first days as a cyclist.”
By the age of 19, all of Quintana senior’s hard work, and Nairo’s talent, paid off when he signed for Boyacá es para Vivirla, a UCI Continental team, in 2009.
Quintana, revealed that with the first salary of £650 he received he bought a washing machine for his mother so she no longer had to hand wash everything.
“That was the moment that changed my life”, said Quintana. “I worked really hard to help my parents and my family since I was a little boy. I was nobody in cycling as not many people knew about me. All of a sudden I signed for the best team in my region and perhaps the best team in that moment in Colombia.
“I knew in that moment that I completed my first step in cycling. When I signed my professional contract, I realised my father wasn’t crazy.
“I was aware that moment was my opportunity. It was not easy to achieve that because there were a lot of muchachos – young guys – also fighting for their opportunity.
“Boyacá es para Vivirla´s Directeur Sportif and former Spanish pro cycling Vicente Belda was the man who signed me. I am grateful for the rest of my days to him. His decision to sign me changed my life.
“I was so happy that when I did a (lab) test during the pre season, they all thought it was all wrong because my results were so good. They were forced to do it again. Three times.
“In 2009 I got my first taste in European UCI races. I won the Comunidad de Madrid tour (under-23) and I participated in the Circuito Montañes, Clasica de Ordicia and the Circuito de Getxo where I finished 36 seconds behind the winner Igor Anton”.
As a result of his impressive first year results, Quintana signed for the South American team Colombia, and continued to improve, winning the Tour de l’Avenir, beating Andrew Talansky and his compatriot Jarlinson Pantano.
And after two years with Colombia he signed for Movistar
As a rider Nairo Quintana describes himself as a ‘rider of intuition.’ “You can be a calculator, a brave rider, or an attacker. In my case, I think I am a cyclist of sensations when I am on the bike.
“I do follow my intuition and my heart. Obviously, I do follow the instruction of my coaches, managers and team mates and even the new technologies when you are using them.
“So far, my heart has lead me to the right decisions most of the time. That includes signing for Movistar. I made the right choice without doubts.
“They are flexible with my timetable over the year. I can go to Colombia to visit my family, but at the same time I train in the altitude of Los Andes in my home.
“To be honest moving to Spain has not been a problem. I have adapted to the cold weather of Pamplona. In 2009, I was here for a month of training and then I would go home for another three months.
“I am here on my own when I am in Spain because I want to focus working on my training. My wife and the rest of the family are in Colombia. The only person who is with me is my youngest brother Dayer who is with the amateur team Lizarte”.
Quintana remains keen to see other South American ‘muchachos’ following in his footsteps. But despite the current crop of riders that include Rigoberto Uran, Carlos Betancur and Sergio Henao, Quintana is worried about the next generation. “In my days as an amateur cyclist, there were many young guys fighting for an opportunity, but there weren’t many serious teams and that is why the competition was so high.
“There used to be a lot of races around Colombia, so there were a lot of opportunities for young cyclists like me. Unfortunately now there aren’t even the 20 percent of the races that there was in the past. That is tragic.
“I think part of the problem has been financial, but the organizers are the people to blame, even though Colombia is enjoying an incredible moment in cycling right now.
“Right now we have a good bunch of guys around but I am scared about the new generation. It is important to have more competitions for the young prospects. I know that because not long ago I was one of them”.
After making history and taking the Giro d’Italia by storm, Spanish sports daily newspaper Diario Marca splashed on their front page: “El Emperador Quintana”.
The sick little boy who rode a heavy bike to sell fruit and vegetables, had pedalled a long way.