When the 2016 Tour de France route was presented last October and Morzine was revealed as the site of the mountainous denouement on the penultimate day, it had the feel of a portent for Nairo Quintana. It’s certainly not enshrined in the nation’s cycling lore like Alpe d’Huez is for the Dutch, but Morzine has been an auspicious sort of a place for Colombian riders over the years all the same.
Quintana’s first ever WorldTour victory came in the Alpine town during the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné, when he became the first and last rider to escape the clutches of Team Sky on a mountain finale of consequence that summer by dancing his way clear of the Col de Joux Plane and then extending his advantage on the descent to the finish.
Then a callow 22-year-old, Quintana’s answers in the press conference afterwards were brief and softly-spoken. “I actually didn’t know the last climb but I saw it in the road book and I knew it would be good for me,” he offered quietly before taking his leave. A glance at the history books might have told him the same thing.
Luis Herrera beat Bernard Hinault to the summit of nearby Morzine-Avoriaz at the 1985 Tour, after all, and then Fabio Parra soloed over the Col du Corbier to win in Morzine itself three years later. In 2000, meanwhile, Santiago Botero bludgeoned his way clear on the Col de Joux Plane to become the third Colombian to win in Morzine at the Tour.
In the four years since that afternoon at the Dauphiné, Quintana has gone on to emulate and then surpass the accomplishments of his forebears from the 1980s. Twice second overall at the Tour, and winner of 2014 Giro d’Italia, the Movistar man has already achieved more than any other Colombian rider at world level, though in truth, he is not so much in competition with his country’s cycling past as he is complementing it. In winning at Morzine that day – or, indeed, in claiming the polka dot jersey at the Tour the following year – Quintana was simultaneously continuing a tradition and placing his own, modern stamp upon it.
Even now, five years into his professional career and four years into his tenure at the very upper reaches of the sport, Quintana continues to brook comparison with the Colombia's golden generation of the 1980s, and in particular, the two men who were the nation's best performers at the Tour in that era, Herrera and Parra.
Herrera was, by some distance, the most popular Colombian athlete of the decade, and, by consensus, the outstanding climber of the era, but his brilliance on the high mountain passes was repeatedly undone by ruinous time trialling and poor positioning in the peloton. Although he won the Vuelta a España in 1987, he would never manage better than fifth overall at the Tour.
Parra was a rather less flamboyant figure, even if his two Tour stage wins came as a result of lengthy raids in the mountains, but he seemed better suited than Herrera to the specific demands of European cycling. Indeed, while Herrera remained with Colombian teams his entire career, Parra left Café de Colombia for Kelme in 1988, and went on to become the first South American to finish on the podium of the Tour that same year, a feat not repeated until Quintana’s debut in 2013.
For journalist and broadcaster Matt Rendell, author of the excellent Kings of the Mountains, the definitive English-language study of Colombian cycling, Quintana has points of intersection with both Parra and Herrera. Like Parra, he is a native of the highland region of Boyaca, yet his background is of the same rural stock as Herrera, who hailed from a peasant farmer family in Fusagasugá, in the mountains south of Bogota.
“He resembles Herrera in the sense that people love him and they call him by his first name. It’s commonplace in Colombia to say ‘Parra is Parra, but Lucho is Lucho.’ Parra was always known by his surname whereas Lucho was really loved. And Nairo is called simply by his first name, there’s no need ever to say ‘Quintana,’” Rendell says.
“In that sense he’s similar to Lucho, but then as a rider he’s more similar to Parra, who was more of an all-rounder and could defend himself in a time trial. In a sense, it’s almost as if he rolls the best of both into a tiny, tiny physique.”
Echoes of style but a different context
Yet for all the echoes of Herrera and Parra, it is worth underlining that Quintana operates in a rather different context to his predecessors, who were very much outsiders in an emphatically Europe-centric sport. While the Colombians of the 1980s were welcomed by some as a symbol of cycling’s burgeoning globalisation – Tour co-organiser Felix Levitan was one notable champion of their cause – many of their contemporaries were rather less enamoured by their entry.
“There would have been a feeling among certain riders that having these Colombians doing well would have been demeaning,” Rendell notes. In short, occasional mountain raids and stints in the polka dot jersey were tolerated, but some of the patrons of peloton at that time were loath to allow the arrivals from the New World climb too far up the hierarchy.
The glass ceiling was also in some respects a self-imposed one. Colombia developed an indigenous cycling culture in the twentieth century that thrived largely in isolation from the hub of Continental Europe. It produced riders who essentially competed what was in many respects a different version of cycling to that practised by their European counterparts, which would in turn prove both a strength and a limitation on reaching the Old Continent.
Come the 1990s, meanwhile, when local sponsorship was diverted towards the resurgent football scene, the impetus ebbed away from Colombian cycling, though the supply line to Europe remained in place. Almost like a case study from Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, the best Colombians from the generation that followed Herrera and Parra now found themselves riding largely in the service of European or North American leaders, rather than heading their own teams.
Since the turn of the decade, Quintana has broken that particular mould with apparent ease, winning the Tour de l’Avenir in 2010 – the first of three Colombian winners in recent years – and then rapidly rising up the ranks at Movistar to become the outright leader of the WorldTour’s number one ranked squad.
It would be tempting to ascribe Quintana’s apparently seamless transition to the increasing globalisation of cycling in the 21st century, but in many respects, the Colombian domestic scene seems to exist in as similar a vacuum as ever. The ongoing Vuelta a Colombia, for instance, features one Oscar Sevilla, whose implication in Operacion Puerto has rendered him unemployable by European teams for the bones of a decade.
Instead, Quintana appears to have succeeded in part because of how swiftly he was exposed to racing outside of his own country as an under-23 rider, both with the national team and the progressive Colombia Es Pasión outfit. “There’s a kind of gulf between the Colombian domestic scene and international cycling, and Nairo doesn’t have a huge amount of experience of racing in Colombia,” Rendell says.
“In 2009, he already had great results riding against really good Spanish climbers at things like Subida Urkiola. And it was a very forward-thinking, holistic, scientific set-up at Colombia Es Pasión. Sports psychology and a lot of those areas of ‘marginal gains’ were very well covered within the team. Though it was 100 percent Colombian, it wasn’t representative of the rest of the Colombian scene. And they got no results at all in Colombia.”
To that end, Quintana, much like his fellow Colombia Es Pasión alumnus, Orica-GreenEdge’s Esteban Chaves, is what might be termed a mid-Atlantic rider. He has many of the traditional traits of the Colombian cyclist – as Sky would put it, he is an ‘altitude native’ – but he is not solely “of” Colombian cycling, given that so much of his formative experience was picked up on European roads.
Straddling two continents is nothing new for Colombian riders, but whereas riders like Chepe Gonzalez in the 1990s would speak of essentially having to seek “permission” to go home in between long blocks of racing in Europe, Quintana returns to Boyaca for six weeks during his Tour build-up apparently with the full blessing of his Movistar team.
That, however, is perhaps more a reflection of Quintana’s standing at Movistar than an indication of a wholesale change in the approach of European teams to the question of managing homesick Colombian riders. In short, Quintana's level of performance is so high that he can call the shots on a major European team – still a rare privilege for a Colombian rider, even in the current era.
“I think even now there’s a problem for a Colombian rider in a Spanish team,” Rendell says. “But Nairo is simply so good, that there was no question of the team saying, ‘You’d better stop doing it your way and do it our way instead,’ because his way was working and has continued to work. And the other thing is that Nairo is fairly headstrong: it’s his way or no way.”
The Joux Plane
Quintana’s – relative – freedom to follow his own beat came about in no small part thanks to his remarkable level of performance in 2012, his first season at Movistar. The year began with a victory at the Vuelta a Murcia and concluded with a startling cameo at the Vuelta a España in the service of Alejandro Valverde, but in hindsight, his stage victory at the Dauphiné on a balmy afternoon in Morzine had the feel of a calling card.
In keeping with the tenor of the week, Team Sky had led all the way up the hors catégorie Col de Joux Plane in support of Bradley Wiggins, but four kilometres from the summit, as the gradient pitched up towards 10%, Quintana unfurled a long acceleration, steadily increasing the intensity, and their stranglehold was broken.
If building a 20-second lead before the summit offered proof of Quintana’s credentials as a climber, then defiantly holding that same advantage all the way down the sinuous 12-kilometre drop into Morzine hinted at some rarer qualities still. Cadel Evans, the reigning Tour champion, tried and failed to bridge across, and Sky’s train could make no inroads either. Quintana, it seemed, was the complete package.
Quintana has placed second overall in his two Tour appearances to date, in 2013 and 2015, finishing behind Chris Froome both times. On each occasion, he appeared markedly stronger than the Sky man in the race’s dying days, only to run out of road on the final mountain stage.
This time around, the Tour’s trek over the Joux Plane on July 23, by way of the Col des Aravis, Col de la Colombière and Col de la Ramaz, seems tailor-made for Quintana. There would be a certain romance were Colombia’s first Tour win to be sealed in Morzine, where Parra and Herrera triumphed before him, but it seems only apt, too, that Quintana can reach for inspiration from his own, more recent back catalogue. For all the similarities, he operates in a radically different context to his antecedents from the 1980s.
I know the last col will be the Joux Plane, and if the yellow dream must be played out there, even on the descent, then so much the better for me,” Quintana told Procycling recently. “I won a stage of the Dauphiné there in 2012, and I’m ready to do it again.”