Nairo Quintana stands and speaks. The effect is instant. Silence.
The Colombian is small in stature, but his presence makes up for any physical dimunition. There is little question who is boss among the riders of the Movistar team.
The occasion is a meeting of the team and its suppliers at a hotel in Pamplona. Endura founder Jim McFarlane has outlined the developments the team can expect to receive in 2016 and the Colombian has something to add. His voice is deep and aged; in short, entirely out of kilter with the body from which it emanates.
Some context: it is around 10 o’clock at night, after a meal eaten at a time in keeping with Iberian culture, and some of McFarlane’s words will have been lost in translation, despite the efforts of his assistant. But the Quintana effect is unmistakable.
It is not even the first example that day. Earlier, when the Colombian was fitted for his 2016 kit, the prevailing atmosphere among his team-mates changed, if not to serious, then to purposeful. After climbing into his skinsuit with a little assistance (a two-man job), and dipping into the time trial position, he was encouraged to give a thumbs-up, if the garment was to his liking. ‘Relief’ is pitching it too strong, but the mood relaxed as Quintana signalled his satisfaction.
There is an unspoken, but unmistakable understanding within the team that what is good for Quintana is good for all. Or, to put it more explicitly, he is the rider who will one day win the Tour de France for Movistar.
Quintana’s maturity is impressive to behold. He has a presence more befitting an older and more accomplished rider; a rider like Alejandro Valverde, for example. The relationship shared by Movistar’s reigning monarch and heir apparent is intriguing.
Valverde’s off-bike persona is laid back and friendly; a striking contrast with his aggression in competition. A simultaneous shout of ‘hombre’ rises from his team-mates as he enters the conference room set aside for Endura’s fitting duties, and while Quintana is equally likely to share a joke with his men, a different atmosphere surrounds him; more businesslike, somehow.
José Luis Laguía offers an interesting view on Quintana’s rapid ascension to the post of co-leader: that it has happened, if anything, too quickly.
Laguía is one of the guiding lights at Abarca Sports, who as a rider with Reynolds, the team’s first incarnation, won the King of the Mountains competition at La Vuelta a record five times. Even he is not oblivious to Quintana’s presence.
“Yes, he’s small, but have you seen what counts?” he asks. “His character.”
“In a process, that in my judgement, has perhaps even been too quick, he has become a leader. Perhaps he’s taken it on too quickly; it’s not normally like that. He creates a sense of security for the group, because he has decided that he is the boss. The thing that surprises you when you speak to him is just how calm he is and how that contrasts with the aggression he shows on the bike.”
Laguía believes that Valverde’s tolerance is evidence of the “special atmosphere” at Movistar, and that nowhere else could this dual leadership be entertained. There are wealthier teams in the WorldTour, he argues, but their riches cannot buy the unity shared by Quintana and his more decorated co-leader.
“In any other team, if there wasn’t the type of atmosphere that we have, they would already be separate. Here, it’s been very easy. They have to stay together until the point at which an incompatibility arises, and then they’ll go their separate ways.
“But in the meantime, no matter how much of a champion Nairo is, he can’t be abandoned to himself - not yet. Nairo still has much to learn, and it’s good that he is with older riders. In the difficult moments, it’s good that he has more experienced people around him, who know where to position him.”
Quintana is in precisely no need of positioning in his off-the-bike engagements. He is calm and authoritative, yet friendly and welcoming to his new team-mates. Other highly credible sources had told me of Quintana’s bearing, and of his attention to detail - Roman Arnold, Canyon Bikes founder, for one (see Rouleur #52) - and nothing I saw in Pamplona challenged this perception.
The Colombian is a focussed young man, well placed to reap the greatest prizes in the sport, should he decide to do so. He has already claimed the Giro, and the Tour will again be in his sights next year. It will take a champion of some pedigree to thwart him.