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Ride like the pros: Nairo Quintana

Craig Cunningham
17 May 2017

We scrutinise the favourite for the 2017 Giro d'Italia, the tiny Colombian climber Nairo Quintana

Coming in at 1.66m (5ft 5in) and weighing only 58kg (9.1st), Nairo Quintana is one of the smallest riders in the pro peloton. The Colombian will likely be Chris Froome’s main rival for the Maillot Jaune at the Tour de France later this summer and is presently sitting second in the Giro d'Italia, as he aims to do the double. Having finished second at the Tour in 2013 and 2015, then third in 2016, the climber will be looking to be on the top step for the first time in Paris come July.

While Quintana is a climbing specialist, the Colombian’s handling of his bike in descents, flats and bunches is something that we can learn bundles from as well.

Defeat fear

What? As a youngster, the small Colombian was twice knocked off his bike. When he was 16, he was struck by a car on his way to school and lost consciousness. Two years later, he was hit by a taxi and fell into a coma for five days.

But the man known as the Scarab (small/strong legs) didn’t give up, and was training again as soon as he could walk. 

How? Not everyone can just get back on their bike straight after a crash like that, it takes mental strength. Sports Psychologist Julie Emmerman says, ‘If you can deal with the feeling that you’re feeling in the moment, it’s so much easier.

'If you can realise it’s just a feeling and not indulge in it, you can stay on top of it.’

Techniques like positive self-talk, thought-stopping and visualisation can all be useful in developing mental strength.

Eat simply

What? ‘One should always eat very simply,’ Movistar coach Mikel Zabala told us.

‘At Movistar, riders’ diets are completely individualised. The basics are pasta and rice, which are found in everything but then you need to find a balance between meat and fish,’ the coach explained.

But don’t be afraid to supplement with post-ride protein shakes. ‘Protein is necessary for tough training when muscle fatigue occurs and it prevents the loss of muscle mass,’ Zabala added.

How? Eating simply doesn’t need to be boring, you just need to be creative in the kitchen – something which can be a joy in itself.

We recommend checking out Team Sky chef Henrik Orre’s cook book, Velochef (£35, rapha.cc), which has a host of delicious recipes ranging from mid-ride rice cakes to a cycling-friendly spicy chicken casserole.

Build your fighting spirit 

What? In the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir, Quintana spoke out about the horrible treatment he and his team received team because they were Colombian.

‘They didn’t want us to be in the front of the peloton, they “brake-checked” us, they yelled at us, treated us badly,’ he said.

‘One day, a French rider grabbed Jarlinson Pantano’s bike and threw him off.’ Much like his mental battles with Froome on the slopes of the Alps, Quintana gave as good as he got.

‘We took them on and gave it right back,’ he later admitted.

How? We don’t suggest you manhandle other riders or their bikes but it is important build and maintain self-confidence and mental fortitude to take on challenges.

‘We have a psychologist, who has worked with us on this matter and [we were shown] movies to help us work through this, and help raise our self esteem,’ Quintana revealed.

Not everyone has access to their own shrink, but inspirational videos and CDs are widely available – see mindmotivations.com/shop/ultimate-cyclist for one popular example.

Train at Altitude

What? Quintana was born in Combita, Boyaca, in the Andean region of Colombia, where the air is thinner than Donald Trump’s hair. Quintana and his fellow Colombians use this to their advantage – Movistar coach Zabala told us, ‘What sets him apart and gives him his edge is that he grew up and lives in Colombia, and his parents come from a place higher than 9,800ft (3,000m).’

Zabala is sure this gives Quintana the edge. ‘At the end of a long Tour de France mountain stage, at high altitudes with everyone getting tired, that can make a difference.’

He might have a point, as across all three Grand Tours, Colombia has amassed a substantial 18 King of the Mountain wins.

How? Unfortunately, the UK’s average elevation peaks around 165m compared to Colombia’s 593m, which means the only altitude training most of us get is turbo training in the attic.

However, this doesn’t have to be the case. With flights from London to Nîmes (120km from Mont Ventoux) costing as little as £17 (see skyscanner.net) you could be getting in some high-rise training in no time.

Hopefully, you’ll see an increase in power as the thin air teases more red blood cells into your bloodstream.

Ice cold recovery

What? Using specially designed high-tech trousers filled with ice, Quintana and co enhanced their recovery at last year’s Tour de France, making sure they were fresh for the next day.

Teammate Alex Dowsett told us, ‘We’ll get into these after a stage for about 15 minutes before we reach the next hotel.’

And by doing so they help constrict blood vessels forcing the body to drain lactic acid and other toxins from the muscles more quickly. 

How? Unfortunately we aren’t all lucky enough to have specially designed ice trousers like Señor Quintana, but most of us do have a good old-fashioned tub that we can fill with freezing cold water.

The trick behind ice baths is that you shouldn’t stay in them too long – 5-10 minutes max, if you can handle it. These aren’t the easiest or most enjoyable thing to do but they’ll lead to a speedier recovery after a long ride, and you won’t wake up so stiff you can’t stand.

Commute by bike

What? As a child, Quintana made the 10-mile journey to and from school every day on a second-hand mountain bike.

‘I come from a small village in Boyaca that’s 3,000m above sea level. Every morning, I rode to school down in the valley 16km away. And in the evenings you had to climb back up home,’ he said in 2010.

After tackling an 8% gradient on the ride home, he would be greeted by his family, an image that would soon be replicated for him as a pro, when they’d meet him as he won stage after stage of mountain-top finishes.

Those early days riding to school have helped turn Quintana into one of the best climbers of this generation.

How? By biking to work, not only do you save money and help the planet, you build and maintain a solid base level of fitness.

It’s tricky to fit the training miles in around a full-time job, but by implementing an extra loop into your ride home, you turn a routine commute into something that’s both enjoyable and productive.

‘You may have to tweak your route to find suitable stretches of road but many typical workouts can easily be ticked off on your rides home,’ the chaps at British Cycling told us.

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