Two days ago, Nairo Quintana took the maglia rosa from his compatriot Rigoberto Urán. Here Klaus of Cycling Inquisition writes about the differing stories of these two riders, and their role in Colombian cycling’s recent renaissance. Photos by Beardy McBeard, who has been documenting the Giro d’Italia on Rapha’s Instagram feed.
In the mid 80s, Colombian playgrounds like the one at my school were replete with children’s voices angrily arguing over two men: Lucho Herrera or Fabio Parra. From the point of view of a child, it seemed as though the world was perfectly divided on the matter. You couldn’t have it both ways, though many tried. You had to pick one.
How lucky we were to have two Colombian riders to cheer for and feel an affinity to. Men whose talents we could argue about as we picked our favorite, but also ones we could invoke as we pretended to be them during our recess football matches. Yes, you read that right. During our fifteen-minute matches, each of which had the importance of a World Cup final, we would each pick a player that we were pretending to be. As cycling’s importance rose in our country, many of us began to pretend to be famed cyclists as we played football. Sociologists throughout the country are probably still trying to unpack the meaning in the convoluted childhood logic behind pretending to be a cyclist while you play football. In retrospect, the many cyclists we had to choose from (there were, after all, many other Colombian riders to pick from) was indicative of the wealth of cycling talent that the country had at the time. Today, as Rigoberto Urán and Nairo Quintana stand as credible contenders in the Giro d’Italia, I can’t help but think about the discussions that are likely happening in playgrounds all over Colombia once again.
Urán and Quintana’s rise to the top level of the sport in Europe came in drastically different ways. Urán, urged in part by his drive and need to provide for a family that was left without a father figure early on, got a chance to race professionally in Europe whe he was still a teenager, and took it. He never competed in his native country’s storied races, choosing instead to race in Italy, as he learned the local language and customs with help from a local family who more or less adopted him. Far from the quick and disorienting European trips that men from the Café De Colombia team took during the 1980s, Urán’s willingness to acclimate as much as possible when in Europe is indicative of a changing trend in Colombian cycling. So is his strong belief in what he’s capable of, choosing to leave Team Sky to be an outright captain at Omega Pharma–Quick Step. It was a sizable decision, and one that Nairo Quintana may very well have to take at some point.
Like Urán, Quintana is wise beyond his years, as shown in his stoic demeanor and calculated racing style. Three years Urán’s junior, Quintana developed as a rider in the prolific Colombia Es Pasión team, along with men like Fabio Duarte, Sergio Henao and Darwin Atapuma. Team director Luis Fernando Saldarriaga spotted Quintana’s physical ability early on, but also noted that his personality and instincts were perfectly suited to becoming a leader. The team worked with him accordingly, providing the services of a sports psychologist, along with mental exercises to help concentration skills develop. Additionally, the team taught Quintana how to train and race with a power meter, a seemingly small matter which is anything but, when you consider that no other team in Colombia (even to this day) uses power meters in any capacity.
As such, it could be said that if Urán is in part a self-made man, Quintana’s story is one of a cooperative struggle, even to the point that Colombia Es Pasión provided Movistar with all his internal blood testing values, and went as far as negotiating his contract with the Spanish team. This in no way negates Quintana’s raw talent, or the personal traits that his team director spotted early on in his career, but speaks volumes about the close-knit qualities that make Colombian cycling unique.
As you look closely at both riders, it becomes clear that both stories, both men, and both trajectories are quintessentially Colombian. And luckily, many others like Urán and Quintana are waiting in the wings, giving future Colombian children even more choices to argue over during recess. At least I hope that’s the case, since the arguments that ensue are indicative of a country that loves the sport, one in which cycling is part of the collective consciousness. One capable of producing riders with distinct, but equally impressive approaches to cycling and life. May we Colombians always be so lucky as to have riders like these to argue over.
Italy is known for the passion of its racing fans and to witness the support of the ‘tifosi’ is an experience for both supporters and the athletes alike. As with any race, the home advantage is always with the homegrown riders. From being pushed on the climbs to the loudest claps and cheers of ‘vai vai’ and ‘forza’, these things should not be underestimated in a sport where even the smallest mental lift can make all the difference.