This year’s Tour de France boasts the strongest group of contenders this decade. Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali split the last two Tours in dominant fashion. Alberto Contador, the greatest stage racer of his generation, hasn’t finished a Grand Tour lower than first in over a year. All three are highly decorated stars with strong teams, but they are all justifiably scared of one man: a 25-year old Colombian who’s only raced the Tour once.
Nairo Quintana has never led a team at the Tour until this season, and yet he has nearly the same odds as Froome to win the thing. If he does he will become the first South American ever to do so, and, after Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis had their titles stripped, only the third non-European. His countrymen have animated the Tour and won some of the biggest races in Europe for almost 40 years. But, crucially, none have yet earned the capstone of a yellow jersey. On Saturday, Quintana started the race as his country’s best hope in a long time.
The most famous moment in Colombian cycling history happened without anybody to witness it. At the 1985 Tour, Luis “Lucho” Herrera was descending the Croix de Chaubouret when he slipped out on a mud slick and smashed his head. None of the TV motorbikes up at the front of the race with Herrera caught it. He emerged dramatically on the run into Saint Étienne, with a deep ravine gouged into his head above his left eyebrow, since this was the pre-helmets era of cycling. Despite the blood streaming down his face, he managed to win the stage by almost a minute. He would go on to claim seventh place and the polka dot jersey.
Two years later, Herrera won the Vuelta a España, Spain’s spikier version of the Tour. His victory was the peak of the golden age of Colombian cycling. Both Postobón and Café de Colombia were racing in Europe, winning stages at huge races like the Critérium du Dauphiné, and dominating mountains classifications across the board. Riders who were successful abroad became celebrities at home.
Cycling is inextricably woven into Colombian culture, usually for better but occasionally for worse. Like most things in Colombia in the ‘80s, Pablo Escobar had his tentacles in cycling. Escobar’s first business was a bicycle shop. His younger brother Roberto was an avid cyclist who won a medal at the Pan American Games. They sponsored the Ositto Cycling Team at the 1980 Vuelta a Colombia. (Klaus Bellon of Alps & Andes has a fantastic interview with José Duarte, who made their frames.)
The M-19 guerrilla group dropped a press release in June 1984 congratulating the Café de Colombia team for winning the Dauphiné. Five months later, they seized the supreme court building and killed over 100 people and half the country’s supreme court justices. Cartels targeted cyclists as mules because of their fame and ease of travel at a time when Colombians were viewed with great skepticism. In his book, Laurent Fignon alleged that Lucho Herrera’s Café de Colombia team used the 1987 Vuelta to smuggle cocaine into Europe. Juan Carlos Castillo, who raced the Tour, got caught smuggling and was murdered in his car in 1993. Several other famous cyclists, including Alfonso Flórez, the first Colombian to wear the polka dot jersey at the Tour, were also killed.
Near the height of the violence, Quintana was born in Cómbita, 9,250 feet above sea level in the heart of the Colombian Andes. He has lashed out at the narrative that he and his family were destitute, but they still had to hustle. The Quintana brothers started driving taxis in the nearby city of Boyacá at age 10 to save money for school fees. His isolation was more geographic than financial, and he began to bike nine miles to and from the nearest school every day. Sometimes, he towed his younger siblings along on ropes behind him. This was not because the Quintanas were short on bus fare, but because he simply loved riding his bike.
As Quintana started racing, he won so frequently that organizers would let him pay his entry fees after the race from his winnings. His breakthrough came in 2010, when he won the prestigious French youth race, the Tour de l’Avenir. This was made considerably more difficult by his nationality.
Because of the reputation of their home country, Colombians have always been treated like shit by the European peloton. At the 1984 Dauphiné, Bernard Hinault rode up to Martín Ramírez and pretended to take a bump off his hand while shouting “Cocaine! Cocaine!” Ramírez yelled it right back at him, referencing the European peloton’s documented and nasty coke habit. Demand in rich countries drove the violence in Colombia, but antiquated colonial attitudes towards South Americans meant that all Hinault saw was a backwards brown person, unfit to race with him. Ramírez would go on to win the race.
At l’Avenir in 2010, European and American racers mocked Nairo Quintana and his teammates whenever they tried to do anything active. One French cyclist forced Jarlinson Pantano to crash. So Quintana went and pushed him into a ditch. Eventually, he says, “they saw that we were the strongest, and they learned to respect us.”
As Quintana has won bigger races, that respect has morphed into fear. At the 2012 Dauphiné, a Team Sky exec admitted he was afraid of Quintana. Despite the warning that Sky, Froome’s team, wouldn’t give him any room to get clear in the mountains, Quintana took the queen stage. Quintana entered the 2013 Tour as a domestique for Alejandro Valverde but was handed the reins in the second week and cruised to second place, a stage win, and both the young rider and King of the Mountains jerseys.
The next year, he went to the Giro d’Italia as team leader and won it, becoming the first Colombian to do so. Typically when a rider has to wear the leader’s jersey, he’ll wear his normal team gear and only replace the jersey. This is not what Quintana did at the Giro. Instead of rocking the pink jersey by itself, he wore pink shorts, pink socks, a pink helmet, pink bar tape, and pink-rimmed sunglasses. Quintana tends to be humble about himself, but he went full pink because he also knows how much his victory meant for Colombia, and he takes his role as national hero seriously.
Quintana’s achievements have made him the biggest cycling celebrity in a country hungry to recapture its decades-old glory days, and he’s using his platform to hack away at the problems that, while real, contribute disproportionately to Colombia’s reputation in the sport as a jungle backwater. He has been publicly campaigning for women’s rights and for increased gender equality in Colombian civil society, while also decrying sensationalist notions of Colombia as a war zone.
As for Quintana’s chances this month, there will likely never be a Tour parcours more suited to his talents. Nibali, Froome, and Contador are all better individual time trialists but there are only eight miles of individual time trialling, the fewest ever. After the first week of windy, lumpy terrain and a jaunt over Northern France’s infamous cobblestones, the Tour gets real mountainous real quick. According to director Christian Prudhomme, this is the first time the race has ever done four consecutive stages in the Alps.
Quintana has a decent record against the others, but what’s most exciting about him is that we probably haven’t glimpsed his ceiling yet. The top four contenders have circled around each other for two years and while this is the first time all four will square off in the same race, Quintana’s rivals are known quantities. Froome will stare at his power meter, Nibali will try some long-range hocus pocus, and Contador will dance off the pedals and hope he has the energy for the last week. Meanwhile, all we really know about Quintana as a Tour contender is that he’s rugged in altitude and weather and he gets stronger as the weeks tick by. Plus, his VO2 max is about 20 percent higher than most of the peloton. He lost a minute in the crosswinds on Stage 2, and a few precious seconds on Stages 1 and 3, but his race hasn’t started yet. When the race hits the mountains, those precious seconds stretch out into minute-wide gulfs. I still think he’ll win.
If he does, it would be something like winning a World Cup for Colombia, which has one of the strongest cycling cultures in the world. A win for Quintana would legitimize that culture in the eyes of the world, and open up more chances for young Colombians to enter the sport at a professional level. Riders from Latin America are stigmatized as dopers and amoral cheats by the cycling establishment; just yesterday, Vincenzo Nibali himself dropped a classic not-saying-just-saying about the validity of Quintana’s trip home to train at altitude rather than stay in Europe and race. Right after he won the Tour of the Basque Country in 2013, American TV commentators openly questioned his integrity and doubted he could be clean simply because they’d never heard of him. A win would make this ignorance seem silly and retrograde. There will be immense pressure on him to deliver that win for his country, his continent, and even for the rest of the world on the wrong side of European cycling’s wagon-circling.
Thankfully, he is a rock. Quintana has, according to a Movistar staffer, “a personality that’s so calm and quiet it’s almost spooky.” The spotlight of the Tour won’t rattle him. He’s paid his dues, trained for months, and scared the living shit out of everyone. Nairo Quintana could win the Tour de France, but he won’t be sneaking up on anyone for much longer.
Patrick Redford lives and writes in Oakland, Calif. Bug him on Twitter @patrickredford.