Notes from the Cómbita Desk

Doug Pensinger

A look inside the biggest new story in cycling

[I'm back! Work hell. Oh, and tomorrow I'll be on the bike for pretty much the whole day. Then immobilized. Just in time for the Clasica!]

By now, if you've been swept up in Nairomania, you have tracked down his story. If you haven't, go here. Much as I love watching the kid, I haven't the inclination to redo what Cycling Inquisition has already done rather well. Let's run through some news and perspectives on cycling's latest revelation.

Victory for Colombia: Not being remotely Colombian, it's been a little hard to say that I know what they're going through down there, but there are plenty of hints that it's every bit as awesome as you would think. Here's El Tiempo editorializing:

Así es Nairo, el introvertido, el hombre que nos hizo erizar la piel, que logró sacarnos unas lágrimas y que nos hizo sentir otra vez orgullosos.

Translation (gnomed): "So Nairo, the introvert, the man who made us goosebumps, tears that managed to get us and make us feel proud again." There were lots of goosebumps. Want some? Go here.

Quintana has made no secret of his love for his home country -- something that often seems thrust upon cyclists from outside, given the utterly "mondialized" existence in which they live. There have been Colombian flags, well wishes between France and Latin America, and Colombian officials materializing in France. He mentioned something I suspected, that "getting the mountains jersey was important for Colombians."

It's tempting to think, ahhh, he's a mature kid, he's with Movistar, he belongs to the world now. Not so fast.... he lives in Pamplona with countrymen Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran. They first bunked in the Pamplona home of Mauricio Soler -- the rider Quintana singled out in his post-Tour speech, someone who we fans are at pains to remember since he was with us so briefly, but whom Quintana keeps in his thoughts. Theirs is a pretty small world.

I don't know what will happen when Quintana returns home; I assume he has a few days in the Netherlands and Belgium, picking up checks, before he can take a vacation. It will be fun to follow the Colombian press when that happens.

Looking Ahead: Quintana suggested to El Tiempo that he considers himself a couple years away from a Tour de France win. This is a diplomatic assessment on several fronts: respect for the sport and all its nuance (descending, time trials, etc.), and respect for his team, which isn't likely to make him their Tour captain next year, at age 24. Until Alejandro Valverde steps aside, the humble Quintana will accept his role, I'd guess. Never mind that, says El Tiempo, he's ready to be a team leader now. Oh really? I'd put a slightly finer point on it: he's ready to be a protected rider. There's no question guys at Movistar will ride for him, he's too good to leave unprotected.

But Movistar have been around a long time, with riders who've paid a lot of dues to that squad. You don't just saunter in from overseas and take the helm of Movistar. You wait for that to be decided by the management, or on the road. Not there yet. I think his teammates see a kid who needs some polishing before he's ready to show them the way. I think management see a special talent, someone who can be a big star, as long as they don't do anything stupid like burying him with pressures of leadership before he's ready. Valverde is 33, he can be the team talisman for another season or two. Like Junior Soprano, to draw off the heat. There's no hurry. [Unless Sky Money is being set aside for the kid.]

What We Talk About When We Talk About Nairo: Why does some random kid rocketing up the Tour de France GC deserve so much attention? I can think of a few reasons. And a few cautions. First, the cautions:

  • Just because he's young doesn't mean he's underdeveloped. Andy Hampsten was a brilliant young climber who won the white jersey, finished fourth in his debut, and went on to ... finish fourth again. Probably a better comp is Andy Schleck, who finished second in white and only won a Tour on a post-race legal arrangement, something I continually have to remind myself about. There are lots of maillot blancs who don't go on to win. In Schleck's case, he needed to get better in his all-around skills -- bike handling, time trialing -- and really hasn't. Sound familiar?
  • Chris Froome is 28. That means the guy who just beat Quintana has another 4-5 years of prime riding left. My guess is, he'll be focused laser-like on the Tour.
  • Some recent runners-up: Denis Menchov, Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden, Ivan Basso... nah, I can't go on. The 2000s kind of sucked.
  • Maybe it's better to say that Quintana, as currently constituted, has some meh-ness in the ITT and might have to rely on the Sastre strategy, pouncing on a Tour which was light on comparable challengers or a course like this year's which was a tad light on flat time trial moments.

That's about all I can think of on the negative side. So let's turn to what a lot of us are experiencing in the way of unbridled enthusiasm. What is it exactly that makes him so interesting?

  • Youth -- lots of us get sucked in by the promise of youth. This is doubly so in cycling, where "youth" is often associated with "clean," or at least since "old" carries a presumption of cheating, then young is a break from that misery. In Quintana's case, the youth is something to get excited about. His first grand tour was the 2012 Vuelta, and it's axiomatic that until you've got a Vuelta in your legs, you are clearly undeveloped. Now he's got one, plus a Tour. In terms of pure strength, all else being equal, we can assume his development is still on the upswing.
  • Youth as purity -- Not to turn this into a romantic poetry exercise, but part of the allure with Quintana is the sense that he might just represent the clean future. Obviously there's nobody in cycling who you'd stake your life on being clean, Q included. And it's a reverse-conceit of sorts to say "oh, he's Colombian, he's been shielded from the corruption in Europe." [coughSantiagoBoterocough] But there's no sign of anything troubling, and again, there's at least generally a greater hope that the younger guys are coming up in an atmosphere which doesn't pull them into doping like the fucking Death Star tractor beam.
  • Personality -- Again, not a complete explanation for what makes young Nairo so awesome, but certainly a contributing factor. I wouldn't stake my life on him not being a jerk -- he's technically a complete stranger to me -- but all appearances from our distant perch show him to be a really nice kid from a solid family and with an ultra-cool backstory. His weeping, cheering parents, to whom he seems so close and speaks of with such charm (the dad in me is tearing up a bit), are part of the allure. He's often cited his dad's injuries from an old car accident as spurring him on to be a cyclist and a winning one, to honor his father's loss of physical fitness. (Niagara Falls) His fealty to Colombian cycling and maybe even its history is part of the charm -- Colombian cycling being an almost mystical force in cycling to fans who remember the 80s. His personal story as a farm kid from an Andean dreamscape makes him an outsider, in a very cool way. On the professional side, he speaks properly of his teammates and behaves on the podium in a demure way, as well as like he can't believe he's not dreaming. Again, I don't know the guy, but all signs are that he's the kind of person we will never regret cheering for.
  • Riding Style -- for me, this is the real reason to talk of Quintana, to hitch our fan hopes to him. We've talked in the past of the "pure climber," another angle on the mythical Colombian story from the past. Some of cycling's most colorful characters (in terms of riding exploits) are the pure climbers -- the Angels and Eagles and so forth. Pure climbers have been hard to identify in the ultra-doped era of the most recent generation, and the ones we thought might fit the bill didn't often succeed (paging Jose Rujano...). I'm sure if we stopped here and tried to pin down the definition of a "pure climber," it might go on for a while. Do you have to suck at time trials? If so, should we be celebrating this?
  • For now, I guess it'll do to say that pure climbers are the guys who excel consistently in the major mountain Tour/Giro/Vuelta stages. What "pure climbers" have succeeded recently? Contador, though there's some clouding around his career. Sastre got his Tour. Joaquim Rodriguez has come ever so close. Andy Schleck. Wanna know what all of these guys have in common? They've all launched the kind of attacks that make fans -- all of us -- go crazy. That brilliant 2011 Tour featured Schleck and Contador taking turns at long solo attacks on Evans, some of the best racing in years. Contador, more generally, is the friskiest rider of his generation. Sastre of course won his Tour with a solo on the Alpe. Purito's feats are a tad less dramatic and mostly absent from the Tour, but the quality is there.
  • Is Quintana that guy? I think we got our answer in the final week. He won the penultimate stage solo with a brilliant attack. He dusted Purito for second on the Alpe d'Huez crit, with only Riblon surviving from the break to take the stage. A couple longer attempts earlier on proved too long, but he can work on that, and anyway in the Pyrenees he was still riding for Valverde, not himself. Only on Ventoux could you say he got truly beat. He finished second, 29" down to the guy in yellow. For a lot of guys, that sort of performance would be the pinnacle of their career. Maybe when he's honed on yellow his tactics will become more conservative, but I doubt it. When sharks smell blood, they act. It's instinct.
  • Lastly, what Quintana did this year was elevate the maillot a pois, for which we should all be grateful. The demise of the competition has been told many times, but I think we can start talking of a possible resurgence. Quintana represents exactly what the jersey was supposed to mean, and did mean back in the 80s (Luis Herrera, Bernard Hinault, Steven Rooks, Robert Millar, Lucien Van Impe, etc.). Thomas Voeckler won last year -- a likeable effort if not from a classic "climber," and before that Samuel Sanchez. That was a start. This year was the moment when the competition got real again. The history of Colombians in the jersey spurred on Quintana a bit, and it's possible that this unique incentive goes away and doesn't get replicated by the other major contenders. But the scoring system and a tough Tour route tilted the KOM back toward the top guys, and hopefully that will turn into a trend.

I'm not going to carry on like this all year, and people here can feel free to buck the NAIRO FOR PRESIDENT sentiment sweeping the blogosphere if they want. But he's the reason I enjoyed this Tour, him and some very fun tactical racing, and I suppose a lack of distaste for Froome, who seems like a fine and deserving bloke. I've spent a few moments savoring Young Nairo's rise and dreaming about where it will go. I won't let such thoughts operate to the exclusion of contemplating all the other rising stars, including guys who may catch and pass Quintana before we knew what happened. The future for Q and his classmates is not written down anywhere. But it looks... well, I don't know exactly, except that thanks to the last three weeks, it looks a lot more fun.

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