Colombian Nairo Quintana displayed exactly why he has been tipped to become the next great climber to come out of the South American country with a remarkable performance during Saturday's eighth stage of the Tour de France in the Pyrenees. Quintana attacked from the peloton 36 kilometres from the finish on the ascent of the unclassified Col de Pailheres to reach the summit first, taking 25 points in the King of the Mountains competition and bagging a prize of 5,000 euros (US$ 6,400) to boot.
The 23-year-old may have struggled enough on the category-one climb up to the finish at Ax-Trois-Domaines to the extent that he eventually crossed the line 1min 45sec behind stage winner Chris Froome, but his time was still level with that of Alberto Contador. He now finds himself in the white jersey for the best young rider, 46 seconds clear of Garmin's Andrew Talansky, and his showing combined with an excellent ride by Alejandro Valverde - third on the day - to leave Movistar atop the team standings. "I thought I was going to win but the others were too strong. I didn't have any more energy at the end," he said, although his manager at the Spanish team, Eusebio Unzue, stated his belief that Quintana could have gone all the way. "Quintana was in great shape and could have gone on to win, but his attack sparked the other teams into action and Sky are looking really good," said Unzue.
Movistar's principal objective is to help Valverde's push in the general classification, but in Quintana they have a rider capable of winning both the white jersey and the polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains.
This is his first Tour de France and, when talking in Corsica prior to the start of the race, he insisted humbly that he was only here to help Valverde. Indeed, the first week was not exactly smooth going, and coming into Saturday's stage he had fallen on three successive days. Nevertheless, the first day in the mountains demonstrated that the 2010 winner of the Tour de l'Avenir has what it takes to emulate the successes of Colombian stars of the past, such as Lucho Herrera and Mauricio Soler. Herrera was King of the Mountains in five separate Grand Tours, including twice in the Tour de France in the 1980s, while Soler won the polka dot jersey in his first Tour in 2007. However, the 30-year-old has already been forced to give up the sport having never fully recovered from a fall at the 2011 Tour of Switzerland in which he fractured his skull.
"Lucho Herrera was a great climber but my real inspiration has been Mauricio Soler," says Quintana. "I'd like to tell him thanks. He's ill and I want to also offer my best wishes to him."
Soler would certainly approve of Quintana's ride on Saturday, when he showed that he should be taken seriously when he says that his ambition is to win one of the three Grand Tours. That would be a remarkable achievement for the fragile Quintana, who weighs in at just 59kg and who endured a difficult upbringing. Quintana comes from a humble background in the mountainous Boyaca region of Colombia, and was not expected to survive as a child when he suffered with a mysterious illness known as the 'tentado de difunto' which, it is said, can be transmitted to babies from the recently deceased. Those who survive are believed to be destined for a big future, although that did not look like being the case for Quintana when he was hit by a taxi at the age of 18 and spent five days in a coma. But he emerged from that setback too, and has gone on to hone the skills that he developed in the mountains of Boyaca, where he would cycle the 32km round trip to school every day, returning home via a climb that would not be out of place on the Tour de France.
Now he is based in the Spanish city of Pamplona, close to the Pyrenees - which is perhaps why he looked so at home on Saturday.