Like Nairo, Marco Tulio Suesca is a native of Tunja and a cyclist, although younger. He travelled to Europe in the spring of 2016 to compete with the Colombian team Manzana Postobón and, before the journey, he called Nairo to go out and train.
Suesca was after some words of advice and Nairo, who likes to talk, regaled him with them. He had to earn other riders’ respect, harness his inner strength, never let himself be dominated. Otherwise he would never be anyone.
Narrating the episode is Luis Fernando Saldarriaga, the Postobón director, who cannot hold back a smile: it was the very message – that he was a warrior, not a modest farmer – that he had given Nairo in 2010, the week before the Tour de l’Avenir, which Quintana won.
The talent that Saldarriaga saw in Nairo dazzled him but, in those days, he explained to his young charge how success in cycling takes more than raw talent: it demands hierarchy and leadership.
There was no point in defying the peloton with open aggression, he told Nairo. Better to use his head and turn to his benefit the peculiar need in Europeans, Russians, Americans and Australians, to feel superior to people who are different from them, and even to bully them.
Best feign the sort of humility and submission they expect from an indio in the international peloton. “‘Look uncomfortable, wary,’ I told him. ‘Hide your head behind the bars. They’ll think you’re a nobody. Give them the whole show, let them swallow it whole, then hit them.’
“It was after that,” says Saldarriaga, that precocious purveyor of kidology and the warrior spirit, “that Nairo created his mask of humility.”
Nairo giggles freely. He is imagining himself with a head of long, anarchic hair, either standing on end, or braided into dozens of narrow plaits like the tourists on the beaches at Cartagena de Indias.
The laughter only intensifies when you ask him about the distance between the mask and the real him. And, surprisingly, the man who might win the Tour admits: “Yes, my shyness could be a mask. And, yes, I think that inside me there may be a monster.”
He can’t hold back his amusement. “Inside me there is something – yes, I think so – of a predator.”
In Tunja, where Nairo Quintana was born and lives, you only have to raise your arms and your hands touch the sky. Take the Bucaramanga road and climb towards the Alto del Sote and, exiting a curve on the left-hand side you will see a house that is also a mural: Nairo in pink, dancing on the pedals, Nairo in polka dots, Nairo celebrating.
It is the house where Nairo Quintana spent his childhood with his parents Eloísa and Luis, and his siblings Nelly, Willinton, Leidy and Dayer.
We are 3,200 metres above sea level, in the cold Andean tundra. A chrome-coloured truck speeds past. Jorge Velosa sings La cucharita on the radio.
Aged 16, Nairo set off one evening with his bike on his back, boarded a bus and headed for Venezuela to race. “I travelled alone to Cúcuta, 12 hours away, then a team car took me across the border to San Cristóbal.” All without permission from his school, the Alejandro de Humboldt Technical College, where he was in the penultimate year of his studies.
“The day after Nairo had gone, his father Don Luis came to school,” says Leonardo Cárdenas, the social science teacher who remembers the young Nairo as deliberate, curious, quiet, sensitive, and thoughtful, rather than active.
“The headmaster at the time said no, he wouldn’t give him permission to go. Don Luis replied: ‘Too late, Nairo’s already there.’
Nairo was as obstinate as his father, who refused the doctor’s request to amputate a leg after an accident and, despite the pain, showed them that they were wrong, and that he would recover.
When Nairo came back, the PE teacher gave him a fail and the principal punished him by ordering him to make a speech, asking his classmates to forgive him.
Nairo told them about his adventure: how he had fought with five Venezuelan riders who had clashed with him in the race, and came off best. “He was no fool,” Cárdenas remembers. “He never let anyone get one over on him: he was never bullied. He was well-mannered, but he wasn’t a coward. He was noble.”
If he hadn’t become a cyclist, he would have been a soldier in the Colombian army like his green-eyed elder brother Willinton, who fought the guerrillas in Caquetá and admires his brother who is a champion.
“Nairo is a born general, a good leader, an excellent strategist. He thinks deeply. He makes plans. It is part of his success. He’d have been an excellent soldier,” says Willinton, who is noticeably reticent in voicing opinions about other matters.
According to Nairo, the martial gene and the taste for military zeal and order shared by his family and all the inhabitants of his homeland, Boyacá – farming stock, the people of the ruana – can be traced directly to the liberator, Simón Bolívar, and the troops who defeated the Spanish royalists decisively at Pantano de Vargas and Puente de Boyacá, near Nairo’s beloved Tunja.
“The Tour is the same thing,” says Nairo. “It suits me to turn it into a battle. We have had the genetics of fighters, organisers and tacticians in our blood for more than 200 years. And in daily life we have strategies for lots of good things, and lots of bad ones too.”
“So, during the race, in a key moment, if we can’t hear the director’s instructions, I strategise and manoeuvre the team. I know something of Bolívar’s battles, not a great deal, but I have an instinctive sense of what to do.”
This is an edited extract from issue 63 of Rouleur, published in June 2016.