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Aérogramme Day 19: Colombian Passion

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In The Shadow of Colombia

The passion mounts every morning next to the Movistar team bus as wave-flagging Colombian fans await the appearance of their apparent Messiah, Nairo Quintana. A few meters away, another Colombian stands discreetly. “Nairo is virtually God back home,” says Gilberto Chocce (pictured above).

Chocce is no come-and-go fan at bicycle races. He is in many ways the reference for Colombian cycling in Europe. “The first time I came to Europe was in 1980, to accompany a group of Colombian journalists to the Tour de L’Avenir. Then I came to the Tour in 1985 and have been coming ever since. I’ve seen all of the great Colombians come to the Tour de France. Lucho Herrera, Fabio Parra, you name it!”

Words & images: James Startt
From: La Toussuire, France

The 63-year old, who now lives in the southern French town of Montpellier, spends much of the year helping the Colombian Continental team, Manzana-Postobon. Year after year, young up-and-coming Colombian cyclists come to Europe, hoping to attract the attention of a major professional team. Chocce has helped generations of his countryman adapt to life in Europe and find races that will give the the needed visibility.

Only a couple of years ago, one of those aspiring hopefuls was a certain Nairo Quintana, and Chocce played a key role when Quintana went onto win the prestigious Tour de L’Avenir, in 2010, a victory that assured Quintana’s passage to the professional ranks. Although he no longer works with Quintana, Chocce says, “We still talk from time to time on the telephone. At the races it is often too crazy, but he gives me a little pat on the shoulder when he sees me.”

For decades, Colombia has been a hotbed for cycling. Well before the likes of Herrera and Parra came to Europe in the mid-1980’s to challenge champions like Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond in the Tour de France, Colombians craved cycling. “After World War II, the 1948 Olympic road race champion, José Beyaert, started the Vuelta a Colombia, and it’s been tremendously popular ever since. The race unites the country, really. We don’t have the means to broadcast it everywhere by television, so everybody is listening for the latest information by radio.”

Chocce says that, while Parra and Herrera, were national heroes, he thinks that Quintana’s popularity is even greater, as a result of the social media boom.

And here at the Tour, Quintana’s popularity continues to rise. “There is a huge group that came to support him from Colombia and then there are all of the Colombian nationals living in Europe. Many of them are coming every day, just to get a glimpse of him.”

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Will the support be enough to propel the 25-year old past Great Britain’s Christopher Froome in the final days of the Tour de France? Chocce is doubtful. “You know the difference between Herrera and Nario is that Herrera would attack and attack. But Nairo is more calculated. He’ll attack and then see. If he has a hope of doing something, he will have a better chance today. But he won’t risk his second-place standing. He is happy to be second in the Tour de France.”

Today’s mountainous stage from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to the ski resort La Toussuire, is considered the more difficult of the final two stages in the Alps. While Quintana spent most of the day in the leader’s group, he did unleash a strong attack on the final five kilometers of the stage. It was enough to drop Froome, but it was not sufficient to catch the eventual stage winner, Vicenzo Nibali. And while he did gain 30 seconds on Froome, he still has a two minute 38-second deficit. If he has any hope of capturing the yellow jersey, he will have to attack well before the final climb up the mythic Alpe d’Huez, on tomorrow’s final stage in the Alps.

Check in daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.