Colombia’s reputation for world-class cyclists is almost an accident of its topography. In the Andes, thousands of feet above sea level in terrain filled with steep climbs, the body is forced to process oxygen differently. It’s why cyclists from all over the world attend altitude camps, hoping to increase their endurance performance. But for Nairo Quintana, the Colombian cyclist setting the Tour de France ablaze, long rides and big climbs were just a simple fact of his childhood in Boyacá, a rural farm region 10 thousand feet above sea level. Since his family couldn’t afford to the 50 cents it cost to put him on the bus to school, he rode instead – close to ten miles a day – on a second-hand mountain bike.
His parents couldn’t have known it then, but Quintana would go on to become the top hill-climber in professional cycling, and the pride of Colombia – a cyclist whose modest upbringing, indigenous features, and humble demeanor are inspiring a whole new generation and social class.
It wasn’t long before Nairo discovered that he had a natural ability for cycling. On his way to school he’d encounter many cyclists –professionals and amateurs –with whom he’d informally compete. “I beat everyone without much struggle,” he said once in an interview with Pregunta Yamid. “When I began to win I liked it. I felt like I had an aptitude for the sport and began to compete in professional races.”
Given Colombia’s storied connection to cycling, Nairo soon attracted the attention of many coaches. By the time he’d finished high school, he’d already won several competitions in his country and signed his first contract: he would represent Colombia with the team “Boyacá es para vivirla” in Spain.
In 2010, at the age of 20, he led the “Café de Colombia” team and won the Tour de l’Avenir, the most important competition for beginner cyclists.
With oxygen consumption double the amount of a normal person, Nairo seems from another planet.
His impressive performances brought the attention of elite teams, and in 2012 – the year he won 12 European competitions – the Movistar Team signed him on the condition that he pass several medical and physical tests. The experts in charge of the testing repeated their tests several times in order to confirm what they were observing; Nairo’s mind and body were at par with that of a highly experienced cyclist.
At 5 foot 5 inches and just 128 pounds, Quintana may be tiny. But on the inside, that small-framed body is a well-oiled and powerful machine.
A cyclist is considered really good when he can generate between 5.5 to 6 watts per kilogram (2.2 pounds) on cliffs. Producing 6.4 and 6.5 watts, Nairo seems from another planet. His cycling capacity combined with his light weight make him an unrivaled climber.
Also out of this world is his maximum level of oxygen consumption: at 90 milliliters for each kilogram, it’s double the amount of a normal person. In short, he’s a remarkable physiological machine, which has earned him the nickname “Naironman” from sports commentators around the world.
This year, 25 year-old Nairo is one of the favorites to win the Tour de France. With a course that is 2,271 miles long (divided in 12 stages), it is the most important bicycle competition on earth. He’s considered an escarabajo, a slang term attached to Colombian cyclists because of their climbing ability. “They can climb anything” explains El Pais’s Spanish cycling journalist Carlos Arribas.
But the competition he faces isn’t easy – he’s the only competitor who has never won the tournament.
Whatever the outcome, we’ll be cheering for the quiet Nairo, hoping he’ll grab headlines like Lucho Herrera once did 30 years ago, when he crashed during the second stage of the Tour and still won, blood streaming down his face.