PARIS (Reuters) – Watch and learn – that was the directive Nairo Quintana received when he was included in his Movistar team’sTour de France roster.
The diminutive, swarthy-faced Colombian climber did more than just that on his Tour debut, surpassing expectations with a brilliant three-week display to secure second place overall.
Quintana, 23, reached the Champs Elysees in Paris having won a stage and claimed both white and polka-dot jerseys for the best young rider and the best climber.
On Saturday, he won the 20th stage at the top of Semnoz after a final 11-km ascent – nothing intimidating for a rider who would descend 16 kilometers every day to go to school on a 20-kilo mountain bike.
“And I had to come back every evening,” he says with a smile.
He caught the eye of Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue when, aged 20, he won the Tour de l’Avenir – the most prestigious young riders’ race.
Unzue was looking for Colombian riders for his Spain-based team.
“Finding a Colombian rider who climbs well is easy,” said Unzue, referring to the ‘Beetles’, the Colombian climbers of the 1980s.
“But finding one who climbs well and who is also a good time-trialist is more rare.”
Quintana, however, is not just a physically talented rider. He is also a clever one.
“The other thing that struck me is his character,” said Unzue.
“He’s got a lot of self-confidence and he analyses a race very well. When you listen to him debrief his day, you understand right away that he is not just a fast rider.”
Quintana showed during the Tour that he is a fast learner.
Starting the race with the task of helping team leader Alejandro Valverde secure a podium finish, the Colombian found himself thrust into the role of leader after the Spaniard lost considerable time on a flat stage following a mechanical problem.
“Everybody in the team believed in me. Everyone helped me, especially psychologically, to achieve this. At 23, I was not prepared for that,” he said on Saturday, sobbing between sentences.
“When they asked me if I was up for it (after Valverde’s hopes were dashed), I said ‘yes, sure, I’m ready to be team leader but I hope you will forgive me if my legs don’t respond at some point’.”
His legs responded well as Quintana finished second behind Tour champion Chris Froome of Britain in the stage finishing up the iconic Mont Ventoux, although he briefly lost consciousness after crossing the line.
That day, he probably attacked too early. On Saturday, he showed that he had learned his lesson, waiting for Froome to attack on the slopes of the Semnoz before countering him in the final kilometer to take the stage.
The win capped years of hard work, Quintana said, still shaking his head in disbelief.
“I worked very hard and I had the support of my parents, my team. A year ago, when I turned professional, it was difficult to imagine that I would be here today,” he said.
“As a kid I didn’t dream this could happen to me. I was taking things on a daily basis.”
Quintana has emulated compatriot Luis Herrera, who won the King of the Mountains title in 1985 and 1987, but he is setting his sights higher than the polka dot jersey.
“These performances give me a lot of confidence for the following years. In 2015 I could be gunning for yellow. I will continue to work every day to achieve that,” he said.