At the start of the Giro d’Italia in Ireland, when Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue was asked to compare Nairo Quintana to a champion from the past, his choice was a surprising one. "I’ve never known a rider with so much character," Unzue enthused. "In that sense, he’s like Bernard Hinault."
Quintana’s quiet demeanour seems the polar opposite to Hinault’s outsized personality, but on Thursday morning in Sarnonico, he displayed one of the Badger’s defining characteristics – defiance.
Just as the team managers of the Giro were gathering in a front yard on Via Battistini to argue the toss over the controversial attack on the descent of the Stelvio that helped Quintana move into the overall lead, the Colombian was riding calmly to sign on for his first day in the maglia rosa with pink accoutrements that would have made even Mario Cipollini wince.
Quintana had pink shorts, pink helmet, pink-rimmed glasses, pink gloves, pink bar tape and, of course, the pink jersey as he made his way on stage for the maglia rosa’s first daily obligation – releasing a net full of pink balloons to the strains of Van Halen’s "Jump" – and he proceeded to line up on the front row of the peloton alongside the other jersey wearers.
There were rumours that riders had refused to shake Quintana’s hand on the start line, believing that he had deliberately taken advantage of the confusion on the descent of the Stelvio and attacked when most of the pink jersey group understood the race had been temporarily neutralised. Quintana, of course, went on to more than double that advantage with his forcing on the final climb to Val Martello, when his rivals were scrambling to limit the damage.
"They are riders who can’t accept defeat. Many came to shake my hand, from the same teams who are arguing, because they know what really happened," Quintana said. "The riders on those teams came to shake my hands, and their directeurs sportifs continue to make a polemic when they don’t know what really happened."
Eusebio Unzue could be seen animatedly defending Quintana and Movistar’s position during the impromptu meeting of team managers before the start, but the association of teams, the AIGCP, later announced that it had requested the race jury to dock 55 seconds from Quintana. The UCI, however, denied the request, and in his post-stage press conference in Vittorio Veneto, Quintana was quietly indignant that it had ever come to that.
"Really, I don’t know if what they are saying is a joke," he said. "It makes me laugh, because in reality everyone present and everyone who watches on TV knows what really happened. It’s not like I went down the Stelvio in a car or on a motorbike. I came down on a bike on the same roads everyone else came down and then I climbed well afterwards.
"If I’d come down in a car, or taken a short cut and they wanted to take two minutes off me, then I’d agree with that, but I did the same route as everyone else and I won. I don’t know why they would want to take time off me."
Quintana safely negotiated his first day in pink on the road to Vittorio Veneto on stage 17, and he remains 1:41 clear of Rigoberto Uran and 3:21 up on Cadel Evans in the overall standings. With two tough mountain stages and a mountain time trial remaining, he appeared unconcerned by the prospect of an alliance forming against him, pointing out that he, too, has plenty of friends in the bunch.
"I have confidence in my team. There are still nine of us, in perfect shape," Quintana said. "And I have good friends in the peloton who can be my allies. I get on well with people."
In his own quiet way, Quintana dismissed the notion that he needs to put on a show at Rifugio Panarotta, Cima Grappa and the Zoncolan in order to prove that he truly merits the maglia rosa on his back.
"I think I have already shown that I have the means to be where I am," he said. "Perhaps if I have a good day, I’ll continue to show myself, but I’m not a rider who is riding at the limit to be where I am. I’m not dragging myself along the road!" One senses that the Badger might have approved.