GIRONA, Spain (VN) — Victory in Wednesday’s climbing stage at the Volta a Catalunya confirmed yet again what many at Movistar already knew: Nairo Quintana is going places.
The pint-sized Colombian climber darted clear of Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and the top climbers Wednesday to win for the first time this season. With teammate Alejandro Valverde taking the leader’s jersey, Movistar scored the doblete to take the pole position in the seven-day Catalunya tour.
Valverde was magnanimous as the young Colombian escarabajo took the flowers in the first of two back-to-back summit finales in the Catalan Pyrénées.
“I would rather have him win than me,” Valverde said. “This will be a very important victory for him. Not only is he a rider who can win stages, but he’s also capable of winning a grand tour.”
Valverde knows Quintana well and the pair often room together while on the road. Valverde compared his young charge to the Sky duo of Wiggins and Chris Froome.
“We work well together,” Valverde said. “We spend a lot of time together. He’s going to be a big rider.”
The future is bright for the 23-year-old Quintana, who, at 5-foot-7, tips the scale at a featherweight 130 pounds. Honed on the long, 30-kilometer climbs in Colombia, Quintana can dance up the mountains with exasperating ease — at least he makes it look that way.
He grew up in Boyacá and turned pro in 2009. He raced with Café de Colombia in 2010 and 2011, and won the overall at the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir ahead of recent Paris-Nice runner-up Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp).
Movistar picked him up for 2012 and he quickly produced big-time results, including the overall titles at the Vuelta a Murcia and Route de Sud, as well as a stage at last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné and Giro dell’Emilia.
He also rode to 36th in his first grand tour, the Vuelta a España, where he was a key helper for Valverde, who ended up second to Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff).
Speaking to VeloNews, Quintana said he’s gladly taking more responsibility this year, with the goal of making his debut at the Tour de France.
“I will have more chances this year. I will be one of the secondary leaders. I will have more responsibility,” Quintana said. “Right now, we are talking about riding the Tour. Nothing is assured yet.”
The long lineage of Colombian climbers
Quintana is a key member of the new generation of Colombian escarabajos, as the wiry, determined climbers of South America are affectionately known.
The first wave of Colombians who came to Europe in the 1980s and 1990s earned the nickname “escarabajos,” because fans thought they looked like beetles as they spun their pedals up the mountain roads.
Sky riders Sergio Henao and Olympic silver medalist Rigoberto Urán are major players on the WorldTour today, and the Colombia-Coldeportes UCI Pro Continental team continues to progress. The Colombia squad will make its grand tour debut at the Giro d’Italia later this year.
“There is a second boom of cycling right now in Colombia. There are very good riders coming up. We have so many good riders right now and there are even better younger riders whom we have to bring to Europe,” said Quintana. “I am like one of the classic escarabajos. I still do not know if I will be a leader or a top helper. We shall see.”
Grooming a Tour contender
None other than Tour director Christian Prudhomme suggested Quintana could be a future Tour winner after watching him ride away from Wiggins and the Sky train in last year’s Dauphiné.
And Movistar management is carefully grooming Quintana to slip in the leadership role to ride alongside Valverde.
Along with Catalunya, one of Quintana’s major early season goals was Paris-Nice. He crashed, however, in stage 4 and lost more than three minutes to the favorites. He later rode to third on the final-stage Col d’Eze time trial.
Like many of the Colombians, Quintana’s main weak point is time trialing on the flats. He insists he’s working to improve against the clock, but said, “if you have enough advantage in the mountains, you can manage to defend in time trials.”
“I want to be a leader on this team and challenge for some big races. I believe that I am capable,” he said. “Whether I can some day race to win the Tour remains to be seen. First, I must go to the Tour to learn.”
Quintana has settled into the northern city of Pamplona, Spain, where the Movistar team is based. He shares an apartment with Henao and Urán and says he’s easing into the European lifestyle.
Despite the development of the Colombia team, Quintana said he’s happy for the time being with Movistar.
“I am very adapted. I like the team, there’s a strong human spirit. It’s like a family,” he said. “Right now I am comfortable here at Movistar. Colombia has good riders there and I wanted to look for my own path. I am very content here with this team.”
Quintana is still undecided whether he’ll race the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) or the Ardennes classics — a typical route for many Spanish Tour squads. Either way, the focus is preparing for his Tour debut.
“I am excited to race the Tour. It is the race that everyone knows in Colombia,” he said. “I am proud to be one of those escarabajos, the mythical Colombian climber who can tackle the long climbs. We train on climbs that are 40km long.”
If Quintana continues on his upward trajectory, the competition might soon be thankful that the European climbs are not quite that long.