Hero’s welcome waiting for Quintana in Colombia

The young Colombian became a national hero with his Tour de France performance

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BURGOS, Spain (VN) — In a hotel lobby on Spain’s northern meseta, no one pays much attention to a skinny, tanned young man dressed discreetly in a Movistar T-shirt.

Despite his petite statue, at 5-foot-5 and 125lbs, Nairo Quintana’s days of walking the street unrecognized are numbered.

As soon as he wraps up racing this week’s Vuelta a Burgos, which continues through Sunday, Quintana flies home to Colombia for the first time since the Tour de France.

Waiting for 23-year-old is a nation enraptured by his Tour exploits keen to welcome home its hero.

“There are a few big things planned when I go home,” Quintana told VeloNews in an interview. “What I am most forward looking to is seeing my family again.”

Among the few “big things” includes an audience with Colombia’s president, a big reception in Bogotá upon his arrival, as well as more festivities when arrives in his hometown of Cómbita, a small village of 9,000 inhabitants about 70 miles north of Bogotá. It might be a while before he can relax with family and friends.

Even before he left the South American nation in June ahead of the start of his first Tour, Quintana was already a well-known figure within the cycling community.

His victory at the Tour de l’Avenir earned him one visit with the nation’s president back in 2010. Success at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) in April raised his profile back home even higher.

But his phenomenal Tour debut, which included a stage victory, the King of the Mountains and Best Young Rider jerseys, and a second-place overall finish, electrified Colombia.

Cycling remains one of the top sports in the South American country, and Quintana is the latest in a long pedigree of Colombian cyclists that includes Fabio Parra and Luis Herrera from the first Colombian boom back in the 1980s.

Quintana’s second place is the best Tour result by a Colombian, bettering Parra’s third in 1988. That feat made Quintana a national hero.

“I realize there were a lot of people glued to the TV, watching the Tour,” Quintana continued. “When I won the stage at Semnoz, it was the same day as Colombia’s national holiday, so it was big news everywhere. I know people want to celebrate my success with me when I return to Colombia.”

Quintana’s Tour success has irrevocably changed his life. The son a fruit-seller from modest origins, he promises not to let the success go to his head.

“I am a simple person, I work hard. I know my career is just starting, and I must dedicate myself even more,” he said. “What’s most important to me is helping my family and friends. My success allows me to help them make their lives better, and that makes me very content.”

Quintana also told VeloNews he’s very close to finalizing a deal to stay with Movistar, which he joined in 2012 on a two-year neo-pro contract. While there is nothing official, it’s all but certain Quintana will stay with the Spanish outfit with a new contract that will see him take a dramatic pay increase, reportedly around 1 million euros per season.

Despite interest from other teams, Quintana said he wants to stay with Movistar.

“I feel comfortable on this team. It’s almost like family, and everyone works well together here,” he said. “They have supported me since I came to Europe. And they supported me during the Tour. I have no interest in going to a new team.”

Britain, worlds wait

His racing season isn’t over yet. After the Tour, Quintana hit some criteriums, raced to set up teammate Alejandro Valverde at the Clásica San Sebastián, and then cooled down from the Tour in his European home base in Pamplona, Spain.

This week, he’s racing the five-day Vuelta a Burgos. The mountainous parcours, especially Sunday’s two-climb finale up the Lagunas de Neila climb, is ideal for Quintana.

“We bring a strong team here, with four riders who can do well in the GC,” he said. “We will see how the race develops. I am more than happy to help my teammates win. I am still recovering from the effort of the Tour. I don’t know how my legs will react.”

Quintana is also steering clear of the Vuelta a España, but he said the Spanish tour was never part of his calendar. After his hero’s welcome in Colombia, he will return to Europe to finish off the season.

He has planned starts at the Tour of Britain and the world championships.

“I am still young, so racing the Tour was always part of the plan. Racing the Vuelta in the same season would be too much for me right now,” he said. “The worlds course is very good for Colombia. We have four riders who can do well there. It should be an exciting race.”

Those “four” include Quintana, Carlos Betancur, Sergio Henao, and Rigoberto Urán, with Fabio Duarte also an option.

From the sounds of it, Quintana is just getting started.

“My father always taught me if you’re going to do something, strive to be the best,” he said. “The Tour is a race for me. Maybe not next year, but the following, I hope to aspire to win.”

If Quintana does manage to become the first South American to win the Tour, you can bet there would be an even bigger fiesta than what he’ll receive next week.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.