RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Tour de France begins July 4. The event is usually dominated by European bikers, but when the grueling three-week race ends in Paris, some pundits predict a Colombian will be wearing the winner's yellow jersey. From high in the Andes Mountains, reporter John Otis brings us the improbable story of cycling's new sensation.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: As Nairo Quintana trains on a twisting mountain road, Colombian children cheer him on. When he stops to drink water, he's surrounded by fans who take souvenir photos. Quintana first peddled to glory in 2013. Riding in his first Tour de France when he was just 23, he came in second.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: It was the highest-ever finish for a Latin American. Addressing Quintana, an ecstatic Colombian race announcer shouted, the whole world bows down before you.
Last year, Quintana became the first Latin American to win the Giro D'Italia, cycling's second most important road race. Growing up, there were few signs Quintana would become an elite athlete. He was raised on a farm 10,000 feet high in the Andes near the village of Combita. As a toddler, he nearly died from a bad case of diarrhea. Rather than sports, he used his free time to help his father, Luis Quintana, who raised cows and sold fruit and vegetables.
LUIS QUINTANA: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: Luis Quintana says his son would wake up at 2 a.m. to help with the chores. He took up biking to get to his high school. The return trip was a 10-mile uphill slog.
L. QUINTANA: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: His father says Quintana grew so strong that he sometimes attached a cable to his sister's bike and hauled her up the mountain with him. Soon he was winning local races on a secondhand clunker.
NAIRO QUINTANA: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: "You could earn up to $50 per race," Quintana tells me. "There were two races per week, so that's $100. I would use the money to pay for new parts for my bike." The pint-sized Quintana weighs just 130 pounds, but he has a monster cardiovascular system, so says Jenaro Leguizamo, a Colombian sports trainer.
JENARO LEGUIZAMO: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: Leguizamo once tested Quintana's VO2 max, which shows how efficiently athletes use oxygen and is a key performance indicator.
LEGUIZAMO: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: He says Quintana's VO2 max was better than any of today's top cyclists. In fact, it matched that of Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France seven times before he was caught for doping. It also helps that Quintana grew up in a country with a strong network of cycling clubs and teams. In addition, Colombia is home to Latin America's oldest multi-stage bike race, with mountain passes far higher than those in the Tour de France. Colombia is the only Latin American nation that consistently produces world-class bike racers. One of the most famous and gutsy was Luis Herrera.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Luis Herrera crashed on this descent. His eye is absolutely streaming with blood, and he's still ahead on the road. Now, can this courageous Colombian survive to the finish?
OTIS: In 1985, Herrera hung on to win this mountain stage of the Tour de France, inspiring a generation of Colombian cyclists. That's a role Quintana now fills. While following him in a taxi, we pull up beside a junior cyclist, 16-year-old Danilo Ardila. He's pedaling hard to catch up to Quintana.
DANILO ARDILA: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: "He's an example," Ardila says. "Everyone who rides a bike wants to be like him." For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Combita, Colombia.
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