Nairo!, or The Tour de France Gets Its Russell Westbrook

Nairo Quintana is the second-youngest rider in the peloton at the Tour de France, and the race's most fascinating unknown.
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If you’ve watched any European-based cycling stage races, you’ve seen them. Their train of black jerseys is unbroken at the front of the peloton. Team Sky won the Tour De France last year in such emphatic fashion that it became more procession than contest. The lifelessness of the march was exacerbated by the absence from the field of Andy Schleck, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador, three climbers who could have smashed the Sky wagon on difficult climbs. With a team composed of strong domestiques, Sky protected their leader and eventual winner Bradley Wiggins so effectively that any challenges were dealt with so efficiently that Wiggo didn’t have to do much besides hammer the time trials. Which is cool and all if you’re winning, but for the other 189 riders in the race, and the millions who watched at home, this was boring at best and deeply antithetical to the soul of the Tour at worst. People have died in this race; the legacy of the three-week painfest is of brave individuals battling with the outer edges of performance and wits, not tall mods hiding behind their climby friends. It’s supposed to be exciting.

A year later, and with the Tour de France underway as of Saturday, Team Murdoch is back together and aiming to repeat with a different champion. Chris Froome supported Wiggins last year in the high mountains and took second place himself, even looking stronger for most of the race. The course in 2013 is more climber-friendly than the 2012 course, which was as heavy on time trials as any Grand Tour this decade. This suits Froome, a steady and instinctual climber. Belarusian train engine Vasil Kiryienka and rising Tasmanian all-arounder Richie Porte will look out for Froome, but the team isn’t as strong as 2012’s impenetrable squad. Which is mostly a good thing.

The Colombian duo of Rigoberto Uran Uran and Sergio Henao rode the Giro D’Italia and will probably target September’s Vuelta A Espana instead of hanging around for the Tour. Most notably, there is no Chris Froome level replacement for Froome as a helper. Porte is fast and tough, but he’s probably inferior to 2013 Uran Uran or 2012 Froome. They will still enter as the strongest team, and the one with the best chance of putting their leader on the podium in Paris. But bike racing is tricky business and the peloton has seen this movie before.

No matter how well Team Sky inoculates the peloton, this year’s race will almost certainly be more fun than the last. The route is much more suited to climbers, and there is a stable of teams suited to launching their heads of state to top ten placings. The aforementioned Contador and Rodriguez will be Froome’s biggest challengers for the Maillot Jaune because their strengths line up well with the Englishman’s weaknesses and vice versa. Neither have the team support to match Sky’s horses, and the two may have to work together to break through. Outside of those three, not many would seem to fit the pedigree of Grand Tour winner. American teams BMC and Garmin-Sharp will bring strong squads, but both are between outright leaders at the moment. Andy Schleck is having a Henry Skrimshander season, but appears to have gotten over his shaken confidence well enough to come into the Tour a dangerous outsider who could shake up certain stages and play a role in the General Classification without placing too high. Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Michal Kwiatkowski, Michele Scarponi, Igor Anton, Jakob Fuglsang, Thibaut Pinot and Bauke Mollema are all nice guys with cool names. They aren’t of a class that can challenge Froome and Co.

But there is one outsider who might be good enough to reign chaos on the plans of Contador, Froome, Rodriguez and everyone else in the race. Nairo Quintana is the only South American in the peloton and the second youngest rider on the startlist. He’s also fascinating: cycling’s Russell Westbrook, a young, ferocious athlete who came up to the top of his sport rapidly and challenges hierarchical notions of positionality. Quintana has only been on Spanish powerhouse Movistar for two seasons as a pro and he’s already won four stage races, including this year’s Vuelta A Pais Vasco.

That most recent victory is perhaps most indicative of his scorched-earth abilities, in that the field he beat included Henao, Porte, Contador, and teammate Rui Costa. He isn’t likely to lead his team at this year’s tour, but the biggest race of them all isn’t immune to unravelling and disorder. Quintana and Costa will nominally be in charge of looking after the 33-year-old Alejandro Valverde. But should he lose any time before the mountains, the two young guns will be let loose. And we should hope this happens. For all we know about all these racers, there is one thing great, fascinating unknown attached to Quintana. It’s this: nobody really knows how good he can be.

***

Nairo has been set loose sparingly on Movistar. They are a prominent team that’s built to accrue wins in stage races and Grand Tours; young dudes traditionally have to pull the sled for the Names for a minute. When chosen to lead his team, Quintana tends to win with consistency. Sky are on the record as scared of him. There’s a reason for this.

The Westbrookian mold-busting aspect of Quintana is his ability to ride a competitive time trial. The stereotype of Colombian riders is not unlike the stereotype surrounding East African runners: all endurance, no pop. Climbers are roughly equivalent to distance runners, and the most prominent Colombian cyclists, current and historical, have been chiefly notable for their climbing abilities. In the last stage of that Pais Vasco victory, a time trial, Quintana finished behind only ITT world champion Tony Martin, and thrashed a lot of the riders who will be leading their teams at the Tour. The ability to race against the clock is, in this case, somewhat similar to when Russell Westbrook figured out how to shoot a jumper. This multidimensionality is surprising only its speed.

Most riders tune up for the Tour at either the Tour De Suisse or the Criterium Du Dauphine. These stage races are the last chance to check on a rival’s form, work on your time trial aero position or work on sprint lead-outs before the big one. Perhaps the weirdest thing about Quintana’s dream 2013 season is that he has only raced once since April, when he won the Pais Vasco. A lot of bike racing happens in those early summer months, and some of it might have happened for Quintana. Instead, he sat out all of it to train at altitude back in Colombia.

This can only mean one thing: Movistar are grooming Quintana to win the Tour. Valverde is a smokescreen, Costa is merely a super-domestique. Team management are fully aware of the seismic potential within Quintana and are prepared to open him up and say “Fly!” Like a one-man plague of locusts, the little Colombian will blast off on every mountain stage and leave a trail of broken and defeated Sky wheelmen in his wake. Or, anyway, he could ride really well.

Unfortunately, this fantasy probably dies unfulfilled, at least this year. Quintana typifies everything wonderful about cycling, but will at least start out as a loyal servant, still paying dues and taking bullets and awaiting a turn. Still, the Tour is long and prone to weirdness. A timely breakaway or crash could push Quintana to the tip of the spear. He’s sharp enough to do something if he winds up there.

Of course, Quintana is also young and inexperienced. But there is a feeling of imminence around Nairo. If any opportunities arise, he will be there to pounce. Guessing at Tour outcomes is a losing proposition, and the entropy of a long and impossibly difficult race could give us any number of improbable outcomes. But it seems safe, at the very least, to say this: once the race gets to Paris and champagne pours, Nairo Quintana won’t be a secret anymore.


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