Nairo Quintana, Colombia's Cycling Hero

Nairo Quintana, who grew up in a poor village in the Andes, has a chance to become Colombia's first Tour de France champion.

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Jul 3 2015, 2:05pm

EPA/JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BOTT

Nairo Quintana got his first bicycle when he was 15 years old. It was red, and it was heavy—an old steel mountain bike with fat tires. His father, Luis, bought it for him at a second hand store for $70, which was a monumental expense for the family. Luis was a disabled campesino who farmed potatoes and ran a roadside grocery stand. From the time he was six, Nairo had been helping his dad, whose pelvis had been crushed in a childhood car crash. Nairo delivered milk and lifted heavy boxes of produce. When the Quintanas went to markets in the neighboring villages, Nairo sometimes woke at 4 a.m. to help his father bake bread.

They lived in a village called Combita high in the Colombian Andes, in a verdant farm region known as Boyaca. Luis saved up a year to buy Nairo the bike. He bought it partly out of gratitude, and partly for practical reasons. The bus to Nairo's school, 10 miles away and 3,000 feet below their hilltop home in Combita, cost 25 cents each way.

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In some ways, it was a miracle that Nairo was even alive. At age two, he fell sick with a serious fever. His parents believed that someone who'd touched a dead person had, in turn, touched Nairo thereby infecting him with an illness. For a year, the boy had constant diarrhea; he vomited and could not sleep. No doctor could help him. The Quintanas went to Our Lady of Miracles, a gold-domed church in Boyaca's capitol, Tunja, and prayed. Finally, they called in a faith healer who gave Quintana herbs. He recovered. He was a bone-thin kid, with a sharp, narrow nose and intent brown eyes, and he was never athletic. He hated gym class, but he milked the family cows; he fed the chickens. "I was happy to buy him the bike," says his dad.

On that first day with the bike, Nairo rode home from the thrift store in Tunja—12 or 13 miles, over a quiet back road that swooped through the green hills where potato farmers tilled the soil on steep slopes using plows drawn by horses. It was only the third or fourth time he'd ever been on a bike. "I fell a lot," he says. "I got bruises. There was blood on my shins."

Eventually, though, he got to the last stretch, which was lined with pine and eucalyptus trees, and for the last kilometer, was as steep as anything in the Tour de France. Quintana remembers standing up out of the saddle and sprinting the last bit to parents' modest adobe home, 10,000 feet above sea level. He stepped into the house, winded, flushed, sweating. "He was so happy," his mother, Eloisa, says. "and I was proud of him."

Imagine how she feels now: Nairo Quintana, now 25 and still diminutive at 5'5," 130 pounds, is probably the top hill climber in professional cycling. And as many experts see it, he is the man to beat at this year's Tour de France, which starts in Utrecht, in The Netherlands, on July 4, and spends the next three weeks rolling over a particularly hilly and cobblestone-ridden course, even for the Tour. "Quintana's my favorite," says Jonathan Vaughters, the manager for Colorado-based Team Cannondale-Garmin. "A lot of people say he'll get crushed on the cobbles--that he's a little guy and he'll just bounce around. But he's relaxed on the bike; he knows how to use his body as a shock absorber. And he has no fear. When everyone's out there pushing and shoving and rubbing handlebars, he doesn't back down."

Residents of Combita, Colombia celebrate Nairo Quintana's Giro d'Italia victory. EPA/LEONARDO MUNOZ.

Quintana did not race last year's Tour de France. But in his rookie Tour in 2013, he finished second and dazzled in the race's last competitive stage, which ended with a steep seven-mile climb up a ski hill called Le Semnoz. With a kilometer to go, Quintanta was in a lead pack of three, along with Joaquim Rodriguez and the Tour's eventual winner, Chris Froome.

Froome surged, building up a lead of maybe five yards. It seemed like the race might be over, but then Quintana found one last drop of gas in the tank. He reeled Froome in, bit by bit, fighting, like a man climbing a rope, and then he just kept driving, so that Froome could only waggle his head in stunned exhaustion as sweat dripped from nose.

Who was this guy? Three months earlier, at a race through Spain's Basque country, one commentator, Steve Schlanger of Universal Sports, proclaimed Quintana a freak who "came out of nowhere." It was a stupid comment, and not merely because it carried baseless intimations that Quintana was doping. Colombia has a long and deep connection to cycling. It's boasted its own multi-stage tour, the Vuelta de Colombia, since 1951, and in the early days hundreds of thousands turned out to watch as the riders toiled over some of the world's hilliest terrain, through remote villages that had never once seen a car.

Soccer has surpassed cycling as Colombia's national sport. Still, in Bogota today, it's easy to find middle-aged men who grow almost weepy, reminiscing about how in 1985 Colombian rider Lucho Herrera crashed during the second stage of the Tour de France, then resumed pedaling and won the stage with blood streaming from his face. In 1987, Herrera captured the Vuelta de Espana, which is along with the Tour and the Giro d'Italia, one of the world's three biggest bike races.

But Colombia's golden age of cycling is long gone, and the memories are tinged with pain. Since the 1960s, a long-running civil war between the leftist guerrilla group FARC (which is one of the world's largest drug cartels) and the Colombian government along with paramilitary forces, has led to civil unrest and economic stagnation. Colombia's problems famously peaked in the late eighties and early nineties, with the rise of drug lord Pablo Escobar. There was still scant money to fund cycling teams, and Colombia's riders became almost invisible on the European circuit.

But then in 2010, Quintana emerged, making his first splash in France, where he won the Tour de L'Avenir, an under-23 stage race whose winners have 12 times gone on to prevail in the Tour de France. Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, received the cyclist at his palace in Bogota. He promised to give Quintana a new house and draped a medal around his neck before a swarm of TV helicopters and motorcycle police shadowed the cyclist home to Boyaca, two hours northeast of Bogota.

The victory came at a bright moment for Colombia. Santos was just beginning to negotiate a peace settlement with FARC, and to many Colombians, Quintana seemed a symbol of the new hope. "We saw him," says Ana Vivas, a spokesperson for the Colombian Cycling Federation, "as a phoenix rising from the ashes."

In 2013, Quintana' stage victory on Semnoz happened to fall on July 20, Colombia's independence day, and Alfredo Castro, the commentator for Bogota-based Caracol Radio, set aside all restraint as the race ended. "Let joyfulness sound and let my country burst with happiness," he said before addressing Quintana directly. "America lays at your feet. The world lays at your feet. Paris awaits you–The Champs-Elysees! You've come from the campos of Boyaca to the Champs-Elysees. Thank you, brother. Thank you, brother. Thank you, Nairo. Thank you, son of the land. Thank you, peasant. Thank you, Don Luis [Nairo's father] for giving us this son."

Last year, when Quintana won the Giro d'Italia and thereby earned a pink race jersey, the sales of pink ponchos skyrocketed in Colombia. And now, as the world's best cyclists make their way to Utrecht, Colombia stands troubling and pivotal juncture.

For the past 30 months, FARC and the Colombian government have been engaged in peace talks in Havana, hoping to build a postwar Colombia in which drug trade would cease as FARC lay down its arms and shared political power. A resolution seemed near last December, when FARC promised to maintain a unilateral ceasefire, but then in April FARC guerillas broke that promise, attacking the Colombian military in a remote western Colombia village called La Esperanza, or Hope, and killing 10 soldiers.

President Santos responded by ordering aerial assaults and the fighting has sparked on ever since. FARC is now on a campaign to sabotage Colombia's oil and electricity infrastructure, and on June 29, FARC rebels bombed the Tansandino oil pipeline in southern Colombia, causing over 10,000 barrels of crude to spill into rivers and streams and leaving 150,000 Colombians without water.

A recent headline on Foreign Policy's website blared, "Colombia's Peace Talks are on the Brink of Failure." But still hope dies hard. "We are working on building a new Colombia," Santos wrote via email. "We are working on opening a new, exciting chapter in our history. And if Nairo won the Tour de France, it would be a great triumph and a big celebration for us. What could be a better symbol of our hopeful future than having a Colombian athlete at the top of the podium in the world's most prestigious bicycle competition?"

Quintana with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. EPA/Maurico Dueñas Castañeda.

Nairo Quintana now rides for Movistar, a Spanish team named after its sponsor, a Madrid-based cell phone company. He earns at least $1 million a year and resides part time in Monaco. Still, he lives very simply. He never inhabited the fancy home Santos gave him, opting instead for a series of unimpressive Tunja apartments, and friends say that his only remotely lavish possession is a late model Toyota 4 x 4. He does not endorse any products in Colombia and he has leveraged his celebrity only once—in 2013, when he voiced support for Colombia's farmers as they waged a nationwide strike, pressing a resistant Santos for aid. "When you bring a sack of potatoes to the market, you have to cry," he told reporters. "You won't even make the money you need to pay for transportation. My family lost some of our land years ago, so we had to leave the potato business."

Quintana's father still makes him milk the cows when he returns to Combita. He has had the same girlfriend for nine years, a neighbor named Paola Hernandez. They began dating when he was 16 and she was 13, and today Hernandez handles Quintana's finances and frequently trails him in the 4 x4 as he trains, making sure to buckle their infant daughter, Mariana, into her car seat. Hernandez, it is rumored, despises the media. "She hates how they say his family was poor," a childhood neighbor, Sandra Rojas, said recently. "She gets very mad."

In May 2014, when I started working on this story, it looked like access would be crimped. "For the moment he's not giving interviews," Movistar's press office wrote. It soon became clear that no one had ever interviewed Quintana at length. Colombia's premier newsweekly, La Semana, was shut out in its attempts, and Spanish journalist Carlos Zumer says that when he reported his e-book, Nairo, last year, Quintana went quiet—and reneged his promise of an interview—when he learned that Zumer would earn royalties. ("A book to be sold for money!" Zumer says, recounting his rejection. "Unacceptable.")

In late 2014, though, Quintana relented, and sat for a long talk with El Tejedor de Progreso, the house organ of a cement and gravel company. He answered his interlocutor's softball questions with overweening sweetness:

Q: Are there any dishes from Boyaca that seduce you?

A: Anything that includes country chicken because it's an animal that has a really good flavor.

Q: What would be your message for your countrymen?

A: I want them to receive a very special message from Nairo. May they have a merry Christmas and a prosperous new year filled with peace and happiness.

In February, Quintana's Movistar publicist, Juan Pablo Molinero, was genial over the phone. "Just tell me," he said when I called. "What do you need?"

What my editors wanted was some glimpse of Quintana's spare idyll in Boyaca. Could he show me his cattle and his chickens and the long winding highway he rode to school every morning, racing the bus drivers? And could Molinero somehow convince Quintana to care about scoring stateside publicity?

No, he could not. Quintana did not care. He just blew off his publicist's emails, prompting Molinero to send me a bleak warning: "I am afraid you travel to Tunja and after 15 minutes of interview he says it is over."

****

I saw Quintana a few days later, though, at Colombia's national championships, which took place in the country's second city, Medellin. We crossed paths in the lobby of our hotel just before race time, when he emerged from the elevator wheeling a white bicycle, the top bar of which bore a little typed name tag reading NAIRO QUINTANA. Without saying anything, he bent to the carpet and spun the rear wheel, eyeballing it solemnly, checking for mechanical tics. His focus was total; he was a soldier going to war.

On the Movistar bus to the start line, Quintana was the team comedian, standing and wriggling his behind at one point, to demonstrate exactly why women love skinny cyclists. But when the talk turned to race strategy, his manner was grave. "If there are eight riders in the breakaway pack," he said, "we have to send just one ahead. We have to attack wisely."

His voice was surprisingly deep, throaty and whispery, and it struck me that he'd been serious about life for a long time—as a little kid at the grocery stand, and then later, at 15, when he first raced, on a cheap $150 road bike, in street clothes, against kids in full Lycra kits. He was good even then, remembers an early coach, Luis Fernando Saldarriaga. "He wouldn't win, but he'd finish second or fourth," Saldarriaga says. "He had strength, and also peace of mind, having been raised in the country with no distractions. And he knew just when to attack. That was instinct for him."

Before he turned 16, Quintana landed on a local team, Boyaca es Para Vivirla, who canvassed door to door for funds. Then, when he traveled to France for the Tour de l'Avenir in 2010, he was reportedly subject to racist attacks. "It was the first year Colombians were back in Europe," says Ignacio Velez, a Colombian businessman who coordinated the trip, "and the French team was very aggressive." They called the dark-skinned Quintana a "fucking Indian," Velez says, and shoved one of his teammates to the pavement, prompting the rider to remount, catch up, and slug the Frenchman in the face. "It was Nairo's first tour," Velez says, "but he didn't care. He was confident, and one night he came to my hotel room, very shy, and said, 'Coach, it is me who will win the Tour de l'Avenir.'"

Quintana has twice come close to dying on his bike. Once, when he was 16, he lost consciousness when a car struck him on the way to school. When he was 18 he was T-boned by a taxi in Tunja. He went into a coma for five days as his family gathered at Our Lady of Miracles, praying. After each crash, he resumed training as soon as he could walk.

At the national championships, after Quintana climbed out of the bus and onto his bike, admirers circled him so thickly that he could barely pedal. Police officers had to hold him aloft, clutching his shoulders, lest he fall over on his way to the start.

The race itself was a sacrifice mission, though. Quintana's younger brother, Dayer—22 and also a Movistar rider—led over much of the 117-mile course, and so Quintana stayed back, leading the peloton, restraining it, trying to facilitate Dayer's first big win. About 10 kilometers from the finish, just before Dayer was blitzed by a fast-moving pack, Nairo crashed. When he crashed again with just a few meters to go, he wounded his elbow. He didn't finish, and he appeared in public just once after the race. He stood in the aisle of the parked Movistar bus and moved toward the driver's wheel, so his white bandage was for a moment visible through the bus's black tinted windows. The crowds surged, chanting, "Nairo! Nairo! Nairo! Nairo!" He signed a few t-shirts shoved in through a slit in the window. Then over the next three days, he rode home to Boyaca, 450 miles over two spines of the Andes.

Quintana in the 2013 Tour de France. EPA/Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda.

I went to Boyaca that same week and traveled first to Combita. Quintana's parents no longer run the grocery there, but they live beside it, in the same adobe house, now slightly expanded. As I arrived, his father, Luis, pulled up in a small silver Chevrolet Sprint packed with six people. "I can't talk now," he shouted. "I'm taking this woman to the hospital."

He was a short, blustery man with wild silver hair and a cragged, weatherbeaten face, and he wore a gray poncho and high rubber boots, a getup that resonates machismo in the Boyaca countryside. He explained that his current gig was transporting locals to Tunja for 40 cents each way. "I'm in a hurry," he said. But he was smiling and he could not help but brag a little about his son as the car idled and the sick woman waited. "We raised him with discipline," he said. "Discipline! When he started doing sports, we made him do his training routine. We didn't allow him to leave the house at night."

"But did he ever sneak out?" I asked.

"Never, not once," said his mother, Eloisa. "Nairo always obeyed. He was a good boy." She sat in the front seat, dressed for church in a maroon pant suit. Her voice was very quiet, almost a murmur, and when she shook my hand, her fingers were limp in my palm.

After the car sped away, I lingered at the grocery store, which had been expanded thanks to Nairo's winnings. It is now an enclosed structure, with a concrete pad for parking out front. It is also a makeshift shrine to the cyclist. A pink banner welcomes visitors to "The House of Nairo Quintana" and features a cartoon drawing of Nairo carving a potato whose curling peel closely resembles the spiral-shaped Giro d'Italia trophy. In the parking area, beneath a small shelter made of dull pink two-by-fours, visitors can buy various Quintana souvenirs—keychains, for instance, and statuettes of white mules bearing pink terra cotta baskets emblazoned "Nairo."

It was a sunny day, and the store's current manager, Sandra Rojas, sat outside, greeting neighbors, as they trundled toward the store, bearing fresh buckets of milk, which Rojas would in turn sell to a distributor. "Nairo still plays like a little kid," Rojas said. "When he came home last time, he was shooting us with a squirt gun."

Rojas' friend, Lucila Hernandez, came by and likewise remembered Quintana as a fun guy. "At the fruit stand," she said, "if he had a bad orange, he would throw it at you. But then he'd give you a good orange for free. I remember when he and Paola started out," Hernandez added, referring to Quintana's girlfriend, who is also her cousin. "They'd talk at the bus stop for an hour sometimes. Then after that they were always hiding behind walls. I could see them hugging and kissing. It was a romance."

Quintana's apartment sits on a quiet residential street beside a huge shopping mall IN TUNJA, which has a population of 180,000. I located the place when I landed, then spent the next several days wandering the city's streets, savoring the whitewashed colonial churches and the vast, slate-floored town square where a looming statue of Colombia's liberator, Simon Bolivar sits amid a swirl of pigeons. Green hills loom in the near distance, and in winding alleyways vendors sell bootleg DVDs and almojabanas, which are fritters made from corn flour and cheese.

Finally I arranged an audience with Quintana himself. The plan was that I'd meet him outside his apartment one morning at 8 and then follow him in a car as he breezed through a light workout of 30-odd miles. I waited on the sidewalk with one of his training partners, a little known pro named Nestor Garcia and a Tunja policeman who is tasked daily with escorting Quintana. ("If I don't go," the cop explained, "gawkers stop in the road. Traffic jams form around him.")

Quintana appeared at 8:30, wearing pink bicycle cleats. He laughed at the jokes I told in broken Spanish and insisted that we pose for a snap together. Then he rode, smooth as water flowing over the gentle hills of Highway 55, his slender hips swaying each time he rose to stand on the pedals.

When we got to a roadside cafe, the two riders sat down for coffee, and Quintana called me to join them. With regards to the farmers' strike, he said, "My family are peasants, and so am I, and in a strike like that, where the army and police are involved, fighting the farmers, there is sometimes internal conflict in families: Many of the people in the army are also the sons of peasants. My brother is in the army, you know."

He spoke of his father with great admiration. "My father had a traffic accident when he was seven years old," he said. "He broke his legs and his pelvis, and he had many surgeries after that. He was challenged to do his work, but nothing stopped him. He used to say to us kids, 'You guys are young. Why do you get tired? Why do you not do things well? Look at me. I'm limp. My body is all messed up, and I'm still working.' That has been an example of life for us."

I asked if he felt different from other cyclists, being a Colombian of indigenous descent. "No," he said, "I don't feel different in the peloton, or in cycling. All over the world, I am respected for what I have done. Wherever I go, I feel like a normal person, not less and not more than other people, and where I live in Monaco, there are more people from all over the world than there are people from that area.

"I'm losing my identity as a peasant from Boyaca. I know this; I'm traveling all over the world to races. But I have not forgotten the countryside. I have some cattle here and I have someone who takes care of them, and when I'm finished with competitive cycling I will return to my roots. This is my region. This is where I am from, and this is where I would like to be."

A few days later, I went back to Combita. Nairo's dad was away in Tunja, but his mother was there, and carrying an empty steel bucket. She did not have much time, she said. The cows needed milking. "But I will answer your questions," she said. Her manner was polite and dutiful. She stood still and waited for me to talk. I was very aware that I was intruding. So I scrambled, and desperately, gracelessly, I read from a list in my notebook.

What year did your the bank take your land back?"

"Around 2002."

"How many surgeries did your husband have?"

"About 15, I think."

"Do you have any childhood photos of Nairo?"

"No, they were all stolen by the carpenters who renovated the house."

With every question and answer, I felt more depraved. I understood why Quintana avoids the press, and I realized that some stories cannot be reduced to fact. I left.

A couple days later, though, as I was riding along in the passenger seat of a car, I happened to pass Quintana out on Highway 55. We drew even to him on a slight downhill and I opened the window, so my hair whipped in the wind, and I shouted his name: "Nairo!"

Quintana smiled in recognition. Then we pulled ahead. I watched in the mirror as he rolled down into the trough of the hill and and started to climb. He was light on the pedals, and small, and yet his body was powerful somehow, tensile. He stood up out of the saddle and danced up the next hill with ease, like it was nothing, like he could conquer the world.