Every few years, a country or region produces a stellar crop of cyclists and this year, it seems we have a full-on Latin revolution on our hands! I’m talking about a return to the days of Kelme, Café de Colombia, and Lucho Herrera – yes, it’s the rise of the Colombians.
One of the benefits of no longer being a spring chicken is that I have fond memories of watching some great Colombian riders in their heyday. I’d sit awestruck as I watched those pure climbers dance their way up the tarmac ribbons in the Alps and Pyrenees with a style and flair I could only dream of. As much as I loved the ferocity of the big sprinters of the time and admired the all-round strength of the big GC contenders, for me the climbers were other-worldly (in a good way) and symbolised everything that I personally wanted to get out of cycling. Back then, I would set out to ride every hill that I could find in Shropshire, and although the Long Mynd is not quite the Tourmalet, it was the influence of these pure climbers that dragged me over it and hooked me on cycling.
The early part of this season has already involved some significant Colombian action and you only have to look at our Rider of the Month nominations from last week to see how Carlos Betancur, Sergio Henao, and Nairo Quintana have been in rude form of late. However, to get a true sense of the depth of Colombian talent, you just need to look at the start lists of the Giro. There are 15 Colombians taking part – that’s three times as many riders as Great Britain is fielding – and only Spain, the Netherlands and, of course, Italy have more riders in the race. Now you all know that I cannot be relied on for expert opinion, so to find out a bit more I’ve asked someone who knows a lot about South American cycling, our own Jack Sargeant.
Ant: So Jack, what’s behind this sudden resurgence of Colombian riders?
Jack: While there’s no doubt the riders who’ve recently ridden off the production line are a talented bunch. It isn’t necessarily a mark of a sudden shift or improvement in Colombian cycling in general. Unlike riders in previous generations, many of the current crop have had advantages that have made it easier for them to make the jump into professional cycling in Europe. For example, Sergio Henao and Nairo Quintana – alongside a sizeable chunk of other Colombian riders now racing in Europe – both rode for the Colombia es Pasión-Café de Colombia squad, founded in 2006. It has served as a great vehicle to develop and showcase young talent and therefore it’s been easier for big teams like Sky and Movistar to spot the most exciting riders. The recent advent of the Pro Continental Colombia-Coldeportes team, one of the wild-cards riding at this year’s Giro, will hopefully have the same effect, and ensure that the recent spike of Colombians in the pro peloton isn’t just that.
Ant: What is it that makes Colombians so prolific in the mountains? Is it purely just a result of their native terrain, or are they genetically better suited to climbing?
Jack: Cycling is a hugely popular sport in Colombia, obviously making the pool from which the best riders can be picked even bigger. Beyond that, the mountainous terrain inevitably helps the better climbers excel. Whether there’s a genetic benefit, I have no idea, though it’s certainly true to say that the vast majority of the best Colombian cyclists have shared the small, slight build seen on Lucho Herrera as he danced his way to victory in the 1987 Vuelta a España, a trend that continues with the latest Colombians in the peloton.
Ant: Some of the current crop seem more rounded than the riders of old. Is there a chance that we could see another Colombian grand tour winner soon?
Jack: I certainly hope so! Herrera has recently spoken about the resurgence of the pure climber, which is something to keep an eye on, as riders like Rigoberto Uran are sometimes let down by their lack of time trialling skills. However, there are some good all-rounders lurking too. On his way to winning the Vuelta al País Vasco this season, Quintana finished runner-up on the decisive 24km time trial – second only to world TT champion Tony Martin. If he can reproduce that kind of performance in the grand tours, I’m almost certain he’ll win one in the future.
Ant: We’ve pointed out some great riders already, in Quintana, Henao, and Betancur, but who else should we be looking out for as the Giro hits the slopes?
Jack: Particularly exciting is the leader of the Colombia team, Fabio Duarte. He’s an excellent all-rounder and raced on the track before winning the under-23 World Championship road race in 2008. Hopefully, his fifth overall at the Tour of California last season is a glimpse of things to come. Elsewhere, his teammate Darwin Atapuma is as quick as his name is brilliant, while Jarlinson Pantano is also a strong climber. Both of these riders finished in the top ten of the Tour de l’Avenir in 2010. The winner of that race? A certain Mr Nairo Quintana.
Ant: And finally, what is it about Colombians and hair? Is that genetic too, or does Carlos Valderrama cut their hair?
Jack: I’m afraid Valderrama’s attempts at cultivating voluminous perms among the Colombians led to some helmet-related issues. By the looks of things, they’ve come to a group decision that the mullet is always best. Quite right too.
Well, there you have it – keep your eyes peeled for the flying mullets of the Colombians as the Giro moves into the high mountains later this month. Who’ll give me odds that a Colombian is standing on a step of the final podium in Brescia on 26 May?!
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Thanks, lads – a fun piece with some great info!
In addition to Duarte, Betancur also took silver the following year in the U23 class. And I can also remember Victor Hugo Pena, who remains the only Colombian rider to have worn the yellow jersey at the Tour (in 2003, in support of you-know-who) and also went on to finish in the top 10 at the Giro.