Nairo Quintana is just about everywhere you turn this week at the Tour Colombia, which has spent its first three days in the heart of his native Boyacá, amid the pastures and peaks of the Cordillera Oriental of the Andes.
His face adorns billboards for Movistar in Duitama and Tunja. At stage finishes, a stall bearing Quintana’s stylised “N” branding does a steady trade hawking his wares, including his own brand of coffee. The packaging depicts Quintana in the maglia rosa with the slogan: “When your legs get tired, you pedal with your heart.”
‘Pobre Antonio,’ a café on the outskirts of Paipa favoured by local cyclists, doubles as a shrine in Quintana’s honour. A collage of images of the local favourite in the window is tagged with the proud boast that the establishment bears his seal of approval: “We prepare our dishes with products from the fields of Boyacá, like Nairo Quintana says.”
In other words, Quintana could scarcely have asked for a more amenable place to start his second act as a Movistar rider after sitting out last season. His career looked to be over when he was deemed persona non grata among WorldTour teams following his positive tests for Tramadol on the 2022 Tour de France, but his old squad threw him an unexpected lifeline last Autumn.
Quintana surely hoped his return to Movistar marked a new chapter, but the loose ends from his time at Arkéa-Samsic haven’t yet been tied up. On Tuesday, it was reported that Quintana’s doctor Fredy Alexander Gonzales Torres would go on trial in Marseille for possible doping practices on the 2020 Tour de France.
Torres is accused of “possessing a substance or method that is prohibited for a sporting use without medical justification” and the Colombian faces a five-year prison sentence if convicted. The charges stem from a raid after stage 17 to the Col de la Loze, when French police searched Arkéa-Samsic team vehicles and the room shared by Quintana and his brother Dayer.
Racing at home offered Quintana a cocoon of sorts as the news broke. When he made his way through the mixed zone before the start in Paipa on Wednesday morning, local television and radio stations limited themselves to questions about the stage ahead, some addressing him with the honorific title of “campeón.”
Quintana eventually broke his silence on the matter when Spanish newspaper AS secured an audience at his hotel that evening. “I am really tired. What my head wants to think about now is enjoying things and being happy,” Quintana said. “Nothing worries me, everything is resolved, as you have been able to see.”
Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué had already downplayed the matter when contacted by El País: “I’m calm.” The feeling was echoed by directeur sportif Pablo Lastras when he spoke to Cyclingnews ahead of stage 3 on Thursday morning in Tunja: “It’s not affecting him, that’s all I can say. He’s just focused on the sporting side.”
That support from Movistar is an indication of how fully Quintana has been welcomed back into Unzué’s ‘Holy Family’ after their conscious uncoupling in 2019 and subsequent four years apart. The awkward end to his first spell at the team was documented unsparingly in the Netflix series about their 2019 season. The uncomfortable, joyless celebration with his teammates at the hotel after his victory at Valloire on that year’s Tour told its own doleful story.
“Five years have gone by now, so we have to forget about that,” Lastras told Cyclingnews. “We’re thinking about 2024 and the years ahead. His arrival is excellent for the team. It’s going to lift the level of all the riders. It’s going to lift the level of the directors. And above all, the team and the sponsors are gaining. It’s good for Movistar, Telefónica and all the sponsors to have Nairo.”
Even Quintana confessed to surprise at their reunion, but there was a logic to the team’s approach. Movistar endured a difficult 2023 campaign, their first without Alejandro Valverde, and their travails were compounded by Enric Mas’ crash and abandon on the opening day of the Tour de France in Bilbao. Quintana’s arrival offers a back-up option to Mas and a marketable name for Movistar in Latin America and beyond.
“We knew him, and he knew us,” Unzué said earlier this week. “A lot of the riders have changed and there are a lot of new faces, but the style and way of doing things on this team is still the same. It’s a family.”
There are some parallels between Quintana’s 2024 comeback and Valverde’s return to competition with Movistar in 2012 after his doping ban. Lastras, however, was reluctant to compare the cases, preferring instead to focus on how Quintana had changed during his years away from the team.
“Nairo had to adapt to different things over the last few years and I think that’s made him even better,” Lastras said. “He’s more mature, he has a fierce mentality. He’s a leader, he’s a winner. He’s a better Nairo.”
Quintana is scheduled to race the Giro d’Italia as Movistar’s sole leader before sharing the role with Mas at the Vuelta a España, but it remains to be seen if he can recapture anything like his old glories. He turned 34 last week, a decade has now passed since he became Colombia’s first Giro winner, and he has just spent a year away from the peloton. At this juncture, it’s difficult to imagine he can compete on Tadej Pogačar’s level in May.
“Nairo is an endurance rider and the more the days go by, the better his body responds,” Lastras said. “Of course, Pogačar and others have been on another level. Ten years ago, it was Froome and Nairo who were dominating. Now it’s Pogačar, [Remco] Evenepoel and those guys, but we’ll see how close Nairo can get to them.”
Quintana was equally unsure when he spoke to AS. “I have good numbers and good legs, but I don’t know how close and how soon I can get to their level,” he said. The Tour Colombia’s summit finish on the Alto del Vino on Saturday should offer some indications. Quintana added that his main goal for the 2024 season was “happiness.”
Regardless of the results and regardless of news from Marseille, Quintana’s popularity in Boyacá remains firmly intact. That kind of adulation can be cumbersome, but Quintana has learned how to manoeuvre with it. He’s had no other choice.
“There are various categories of sportspeople, and at the top is the category of legends. Nairo is a legend. He’s in that category,” Lastras said. “It’s very difficult to live with that success every day. I couldn’t do it.
“You go out on the street in your town, and everybody stops you, you go to the airport and it’s the same. I couldn’t do it, but Nairo can do it. The mental strength he has is fierce. Fierce.”