Nairo Quintana is set to celebrate overall victory at the Giro d'Italia in Trieste on Sunday and become the first ever Colombian to win the Corsa Rosa, yet he seemed as calm, as quiet and as composed as ever after reaching the finish of stage 20 to Monte Zoncolan.
Quintana always listens attentively to questions during his daily press conference as race leader. He responds calmly in Spanish, revealing his inner thoughts and emotions in every answer while also not being afraid to point out if he thinks a question is off the mark.
He reached the finish at the summit of the Zoncolan in the same time as Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and so cemented his overall race lead on his compatriot at 3:07. Fabio Aru (Astana) lost 16 seconds and so is set to finish 4:04 behind Quintana should all go incident-free for the top three riders on the final stage.
While most of the riders suffered on the double-digit gradient of the Zoncolan, Quintana again appeared sphinx-like, with his jersey zipped up and little emotion or pain showing on his face. He has worn the same poker face throughout the Giro d'Italia, clearly knowing he had a winning hand thanks to his superior climbing ability and strong team.
"Perhaps I didn't suffer because I'm better than the others, I think we saw that yesterday," he said with pride and without a blink of the eye in the press conference after the Zoncolan stage.
"Obviously, as I've said all along, I’m not in perfect shape. During the stage, the [sinus] congestion made be feel ill, as did the effort too. I actually suffer as much as everyone else because I’m a human being like everyone else. My legs hurt, but I managed the pain well, and perhaps looked tranquil, but inside I felt the pain."
Quintana insisted that his ear and throat problems had affected his race and admitted that he had a bad moment on the descent of the Gavia on stage 16, when teammate Gorka Izaguirre shoved food down his throat to ensure he had the energy for the Stelvio and the final climb to Val Martello.
However, he quickly dismissed a provocative question, when it was suggested he would win by an hour if he was ever at 100 per cent.
"That's impossible. I don’t know what's going through your mind. I’m not from another planet," he said.
"I'm a good climber and things have gone well for me in the conditions I’ve had. But there are other riders who are strong and more mature than I am. We have to keep working, hammering away every day, to try to equal them and surpass them. Winning isn’t as easy as you are suggesting."
Targeting the Tour de France in 2015
Quintana is still only 24 but seems wise beyond his years. The Movistar team hesitated before deciding that he should target the Giro d'Italia instead of the Tour de France in 2014. After finishing second in the 2013 Tour, going back this year seemed a logical choice. But winning the Giro d'Italia has given Quintana a crash course in Grand Tour riding and team leadership.
"It was a pretty difficult decision for (team manager) Eusebio Unzue. But it was perhaps the best decision we could take," Quintana explained.
"I’ve learned a great deal here, about a lot of things: how to ride in different conditions, how to ride when I was a bit ill, and now how to ride in the maglia rosa. All this has taught me a lot, including knowing how to lead the team in this type of race, over three weeks, is very important. I’ve learned a lot and I’m very grateful to the Giro d’Italia."
"Life pushed me and continues to push me. I’ve grown up pretty quickly with the help of those around me, I’ve learned a lot and taken some giant steps. Compared to four years ago, there’s no comparison. Lots of things have changed. I feel like I'm a man, capable of doing great things in cycling, putting on a show for the fans who follow me. I hope Nairo Quintana will be around for a long time."
He confirmed he now feels ready to target the Tour e France in 2015 and perhaps even target a rare Giro and Tour double.
"I know that next year, I’ll ride the Tour. I don’t know if there will be the possibility of doing Giro and Tour. We’ll look at it, and see if I can do well in both."
"I think I'm fortunate that when I turned pro, I joined the right team, with a great teacher and connoisseur of cycling in Eusebio, he has taught many champions how to be successful. We talk a lot, he teaches me a lot and that keeps me calm. When you have the legs, too, that makes things even easier."
Quintana has proved he is the strongest rider in this year's Giro d'Italia but his rivals have not forgotten what happened on the descent of the Stelvio. All the polemics and allegations gave him extra motivation.
"The day over the Stelvio was a spectacular stage but a lot of people wanted to ignore that and just talk about the polemics," he said.
"That motivated me for the time trial, it motivated me to do better, to gain time. I think everyone saw I had a great time trial and I demonstrated who I am, and I'll continue to show it."
Proud to be the first Colombian Giro d'Italia winner
Quintana is the first Colombian to win the Giro d'Italia and so now leads the new generation of Colombian riders emerging more and more at the highest level of professional cycling. He is proud to be Colombian and proud of his simple upbringing.
"We’ve shown our ability since we came to Europe about three years ago," he said.
"This new generation started winning stages, then important races and we showed ourselves. This year we're at a new level. Last year I was second in the Tour - better than any other Colombian, and my friend Rigoberto (Uran) was second in the Giro. Perhaps because of natural (physiological) reasons or for whatever other reason, we’ve done well. There are also other Colombian kids coming up behind us who are very strong, who will have a future in European teams and races."
Hundreds of Colombian fans have rushed to the Giro d'Italia to cheer Quintana to victory. He is rightly proud of his origins.
"I don’t come from a lost little village in Colombia. We don’t live in the forest. You should come and see Colombia," he said with national pride when asked about his journey from Colombia to the top step of the Giro d'Italia podium.
"We don’t lack anything in respect to anywhere else. I’m very proud of my country. I've secured this wonderful victory and been successful, I feel very happy, and I know the Colombians are even happier and proud to have someone representing them at a world level, and I’m happy to do it, too."