A Talk with the Greatest Colombian Cyclist Ever
From Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine.
A hundred miles northeast of Bogotá, in the high-altitude department of Boyacá, is the village of Cómbita, birthplace of the greatest Latin American cyclist ever, Nairo Quintana. This land of winding roads sits at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, and those roads climb even higher into the Andes. It is, as Quintana says, the incubator for Colombia’s top cyclists.
Quintana started riding a mountain bike to school as an 11-year-old. Then, in his teens, he competed in local and regional road races, before rising through the amateur ranks and onto the professional stage. As a racer for Movistar Team, in 2013 and 2015 he finished second at the Tour de France, and in 2014, he became the first Latin American to win the Giro D’Italia. Today, Quintana is widely viewed as one of the top cyclists in the world. The other top riders, including Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador, are 30, 31 and 33 respectively. Quintana is 26.
The Colombian from the high mountains is also famously reserved, often eschewing the media and interviews and remaining efficient in his responses. But Quintana loves his birthplace, and when approached to discuss Colombia’s affection for cycling, he agreed to a short interview. Working through a translator on the Movistar team, we spoke with Nairo about the spirit, culture and importance of cycling to the department of Boyacá, Colombia.
Q: Can you describe the difference between cycling in Colombia and Europe?
A: In Colombia, I bike a ton to prepare myself for the competitions in Europe. Then in Europe, I train only a few days and then go to the races. Europe is just about competition. It is all work. In Colombia, it’s a job that has a special prize — the prize of enjoying what I do every day.
I feel free in Colombia. I feel peaceful. In Europe, there are a lot of good roads and, of course, races. But in Colombia, I feel better. Boyacá, which is where I am from, is a place that always makes me happy when I am riding.
Q: What is the local cycling culture like in Boyacá?
A: We train a lot in groups. Some days are more relaxed and people go out more to get air and to go drink coffee. Other days are harder. But if you want to, you can easily put together a group of 20 people to ride, any day of the week.
Q: To help talented young Colombians, you work with Boyacá Raza de Campeones, a local development team, run by Próspero Chaparro, who directed you back in 2009. Why is working with this project important to you?
A: I have helped a group of young people and helped ensure the project would be economically feasible. They are now racing. I always try to help them because I want Colombia, and the boys in the place I am from, to have the opportunities that I had.
Q: Can Colombia produce more racers than it currently does?
A: Of course, the country can produce as many racers as it wants. But they are lacking support. That is why we have been helping these young guys who, with the right backing, can have an opportunity to grow and become great professionals.
Q: Why is there such a passion for cycling in Colombia?
A: There is passion for cycling in Boyacá because many great cyclists were born there. Almost all of the best in the country, including Fabio Parra, are from Boyacá. The effort and dedication that it takes, day in and day out, to be a cyclist — the people of Boyacá can identify with this sport from their daily jobs [working in the fields], and that is why people really like cycling.
Q: Is cycling continuing to grow?
A: Yes, it continues to grow, with more than just athletes. It has also grown a lot with the fans because Colombian cyclists have made headlines.
Q: Who are your heroes?
A: From cycling? Honestly, I am unusual, I suppose, in that I don’t have idols or role models, although I’ve always liked Fabio Parra and also Luis “Lucho” Herrera.
Q: And being a Colombian in the peloton — have you had any bad experiences related to that? Are Colombians now given respect?
A: I have heard a few comments, but you have to realize that they only show the ignorance and the limits of the people who make the comments. People who have been here can see how much our country has to offer, and I am always proud to say that I am Colombian.