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The Hardmen: Nairo Quintana

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Stage 16 of the 2014 Giro was where Nairo Quintana showed what he was made of. Not a flat kilometre in sight, every one ridden in rain, sleet, snow or fog.

Words:
Photographs: Offside / IPP

Colombia produces great grimpeurs. It must be something in the water, or the coffee, or the air. Actually, it’s probably in the non-air, busily not existing in all those high Andean passes. Lucho Herrera infiltrated the European peloton back in the 1980s and started to pull on a lot of dotty jumpers.

 

Other Colombians followed, and the peloton had a fight on its hands in the mountains. Who were these guys, and why were they so good at going uphill? And why did they always come off, going downhill?

 

Colombia has a lot of kids on bicycles, good weather and plenty of altitude. Nairo Quintana, now Colombia’s undisputed Cycling superstar, commuted to school on a bike, over bad roads and a 3,200m pass. Respect.

 

He won the Tour de L’Avenir, the amateurs’ Tour de France, at the age of twenty. At twenty three, in his first Tour de France, he was second to Chris Froome in Paris. It was the best placing in the Tour for any Colombian, ever. This was Big.

 

Back home, kids were eschewing the bus for a bike by the thousands. The following year he won the Giro d’Italia.

 

Quintana didn’t waste time before the descent to stop and pull on a rain cape; he just descended like an ox, dropped his breakaway companions and soloed to the mountaintop finish

 

In 2015 the Tour de France was going to use part of the route of Paris–Roubaix. To prepare properly, Nairo toed the rainy Belgian start lines of E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen, to feel the cobbles at race speed. He was out of his comfort zone, but he wasn’t put off. In fact, the wee little Colombian seemed to like it:

 

I feel good in this country, I enjoyed it and I think I’ll come back … In the future, I’d certainly like to come back and do Paris–Roubaix, even though it’s obviously not a race that suits me … My sensations on the cobbles were pretty normal. Sure, it was something different but I felt very good on them.

 

A grimpeur who wants to race Paris–Roubaix is not your average grimpeur. And Quintana thrives when the weather goes to hell too. Professional Cyclists, skinny bunch that they are, don’t always handle wet and cold all that well.

 

But it brings out the best in some. Vincenzo Nibali, from Sicily, mind, is one such rider, and Nairo Quintana is most definitely another.

 

We saw proof of this on Stage 16 of the 2014 Giro: rain in the valleys, sleet on the slopes and a full-on blizzard up on the mountain passes. The race went over the Gavia and the Stelvio and finished on the Val Martello.

This stage was a grimpeur’s delight; not a flat kilometre to be seen, three huge climbs but two huge descents, every kilometre ridden in rain, sleet, snow or fog.

 

Descending a cold mountain at race speed in soaking-wet kit: it is the worst. Everyone needs to experience it once. To do it twice in one stage? Leave that to the professionals.

 

Riding up in the sleet and snow looks hardcore, as we see in many classic Cycling photos. Not so many great images of wintry descents, are there? The photographers can’t even hold their cameras to their faces.

 

In 2014 confusion over a possibly neutralised dangerous descent helped Quintana get into the maglia rosa. Communications between race officials, directeurs sportifs and riders became muddled as the race approached the final snowy descent of the day.

 

Some thought it was neutralised, and some did not. Some stopped and put on extra layers, some didn’t. And it could be that the Giro’s race officials should not have been using Twitter as their main communication method. After all, Twitter lacks the hand and arm gestures required for Italians to communicate properly.

The fact of the matter is: Quintana didn’t waste time before the descent to stop and pull on a rain cape like even a certain big-eared Italian grimpeurino would have; he just descended like an ox, dropped his breakaway companions and soloed to the mountaintop finish.

 

The climbing and descending of multiple wet, snowy Dolomite climbs, dropping whoever is still with him: that put Nairo in the maglia rosa. So apparently when you’re Colombian and you are somehow a great descender as well, then you win Grand Tours. A fact that Nairo confirmed with his 2016 Vuelta title.

 

Unless he’s bluffing (and he does have a good poker face), Quintana gives the solid impression that riding through rain, sleet and snow bothers him very little. It is just like riding to school, right?

 

Extracted from The Hardmen: Legends of the Cycling Gods, by The Velominati, out on June 1 (Pursuit Books £12.99)

 

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