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Giro d'Italia: Nairo Quintana has potential to be golden boy

By Steven Beacom

Those in the know say he will be the next big thing in cycling. The one to watch. A rider to rip up the scripts of others and write his own story of sporting greatness.

He's a fearless climber with an attacking style and last year he made an explosive impact at his first Tour de France.

He's a 24-year-old Colombian and he's here in Northern Ireland.

His name? Nairo Quintana, the favourite to triumph in the 2014 Giro d'Italia.

Asked about the tag, he matter of factly replied through an interpreter: "I am happy to be a favourite even though it carries disadvantages."

Speaking to this determined character you get the impression he'll be able to deal with those disadvantages, be it extra pressure or greater responsibility.

Why so sure? Well, he's already dealt with worse coming from a poor upbringing in a place called La Concepcion.

The nearest school was nine miles away. The young Quintana walked to and from his education every day. It was a dangerous and exhausting journey which led to a family decision that changed the boy's life.

They saved up and bought him a second hand mountain bike for $30. It became Nairo's pride and joy. As he rode to school he would dream about winning big races.

He never thought it would become a reality because his family could not afford race fees for even the smallest of meetings until his father asked organisers to let his son race, declaring he would pay the fees from the prize money his boy would accumulate.

The plan worked. The more Quintana raced the more he won and in 2009 he was snapped up by a professional team.

He's been rapidly improving ever since and moved to a new level with his outstanding performances in the 2013 Tour de France.

He outshone his team leader Alejandro Valverde and came second overall behind Great Britain's Chris Froome, claiming both the young rider and king of the mountains jerseys in the process.

It was a startling effort. Froome may have won the Tour but Quintana won French approval and just about every heart in Colombia, which has evaded other champion cyclists down the years, including Rigoberto Urán, who will be one of Quintana's main threats for Giro glory.

The fantastic strides made in France have seen him go from team member to team leader... that's his status at the Giro – a sure sign that his bosses believe he can triumph – and probably for years to come.

His team is called Movistar... you would think they would be right at home when the peleton weaves its way past the Holywood Arches tonight then.

Like the vast majority of the 198 riders competing in this year's Giro, Quintana has never been to Northern Ireland. Then again he's never ridden the Giro before.

Quintana's strength will show on the mountain road stretches in Italy later in the event. That's where he can make his talent count and the opposition suffer.

In the first three days in Northern Ireland, where sprinters will come to the fore, his aim is quite simply to stay out of trouble.

He says: "The plan is not to lose the Giro here.

"Then we can try and open up the gaps in the high mountain stages when the race gets back to Italy."

Last night as he waited to go on stage for the opening ceremony of the Giro at Belfast's City Hall I asked him how he felt he had become such a respected rider so quickly over the past 12 months, challenging for success in the biggest races on the planet.

"My natural make up," he stated.

"I have worked well day by day doing the right things. I have never been in a hurry. There are no secrets."

In the absence of household names such as Bradley Wiggins, Froome, Mark Cavendish and even our own world track champion Martyn Irvine, most of the spectators lining the routes from Belfast to Bushmills won't know too many of the competitors racing past them on two wheels.

Some will have heard of no nonsense Aussie Cadel Evans, the 2011 Tour de France victor, while the Irish contingent consisting Philip Deignan, Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche, son of the legendary Tour de France winner Stephen, will be familiar to others.

Nairo Quintana may mean very little, but in years to come should this Colombian fulfil his potential and become a cycling great, our young and old can always say they saw him ride in Northern Ireland in the 2014 Giro d'Italia.

Belfast Telegraph