My friend Felipe, a proud Colombiano this week, tells me that the mountainous region 2014 Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana comes from is known for the quiet heartiness of its people who can come off as cold, aloof and unsmiling to those who don’t know them. These are also the characteristics of Brittany, in the north of France, where Bernard Hinault comes from, of County Waterford, in the south-east of Ireland, where Sean Kelly was born, and of Navarre, in the north of Spain, abutting the Basque territories, where Miguel Indurain learned to ride a bike.
It’s easy to look at Quintana and think he’s just a tiny, specialist climber, but there is something far more compelling about him than his ability to accelerate in the steeps. His team manager speaks of the strength of his character, and of course all the while he is burying the field on a 17% grade, he maintains the demeanor of a New York bus driver on his day off, stone faced and calm. This is not to say that the young Colombian will reach the heights of Hinault, Kelly or Indurain, only to say that he has qualities that indicate he has the potential to be great.
Just as unregulated capitalism trends toward monopoly, pro cycling trends toward legend. We are always looking to crown the next Merckx, the next Hinault, but what is refreshing, not only about Quintana, but also many of his cohort is their potential to win, to shake up the pro landscape and make the racing ever less predictable, like a radio ban or a snow-covered mountain top finish.
Quintana is just one of the new breed, a young rider ready to put the old guard, Evans, Basso, Scarponi, et. al., into the shade of their late careers. Three years ago, I would have predicted that any stage race with Alberto Contador in it could only have one winner, but Quintana’s Giro win is perhaps evidence that the entire sea has changed in the intervening seasons. Not only has Chris Froome become the preeminent stage racer in the world, but now Vincenzo Nibali, Quintana, Fabio Aru and Rigoberto Uran have joined the fray.
Similarly, it appeared that Mark Cavendish would easily sprint his way into all the record books, sweeping every flat race before him, but instead we have seen the rapid emergence of the young German, Marcel Kittle, and the fast Frenchman, Nacer Bouhani, not to mention Bouhani’s teammate Arnaud Démare, and Peter Sagan with his penchant for taking hectic sprint wins away from the pure sprinters.
Sometimes the magic of youth is not in its strength or its resilience, but in a simple lack of cynicism. For a sport with decades of deeply engrained cynicism behind it, this new breed of riders, this next generation, is fun to watch. Let’s not saddle them with the task of restoring credibility or of crafting new legends. Let’s just enjoy watching them ride and remember what it’s like when the unexpected happens. All of Colombia, not just my friend Felipe, are remembering right now.