BRUSSELS (VN) — Rigoberto Urán never expected to be in the hunt for the gold medal when he lined up at the Olympic road race last month in London. And he certainly never expected to be caught up in the middle of an intense post-race Twitter-storm, when just about everyone and their uncle assumed the Colombian sold the gold medal to eventual winner Alexander Vinokourov.
Urán, however, vehemently insists there was no deal. Speaking to VeloNews, the Colombian climber said it was simply a matter of strength at the end of a grueling, difficult Olympic road race and a question of assuring himself a spot on the final podium.
“No, no, no,” Urán said shaking his head when asked if there was a deal. “What I am going to do? Sell my own country? When we made the finale, it was clear to everyone that Vinokourov was stronger in the sprint than me.”
The 25-year-old Sky rider — racing this week for Colombia at the world road championships in the Netherlands — looks back on the eventful day with pride.
Not even considered a contender for a medal in London, Urán rode into the winning breakaway on a day when just about everyone expected a bunch sprint. And when the race hit crunch time, Urán quickly did the calculus. With riders such as Philippe Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde in the group, he knew he would never win a medal if it stayed together to the line on the Mall.
“With 10km to go, I decided it was best to attack and see what would happen,” Urán said. “The group was very big and there were some fast people in the group. So if I waited until the end, it would have been very complicated. Vinokourov came with me and, in the sprint, he was simply stronger than me.”
Or was he? The aging Vinokourov, racing in his last major international event before retirement, was just as much a surprise as Urán was to surge clear of the 30-rider breakaway group late in the race. Vinokourov was smart enough to sniff out the opportunity presented by the opportunistic Urán, who took his chance with 10km to go. The pack hesitated and that’s all the rope Urán and Vinokourov needed. The pair collaborated and held a tenuous eight-second lead when they hit the red kite.
There was little time for cat-and-mouse. The pack was breathing down their necks and that’s when Urán made his fateful look back that later caused so much hullabaloo.
With Vinokourov just off his right side, Urán oddly looked over his left shoulder. The glance back seemed so out of place and so awkward that many took it as a clumsy attempt to cover up that a deal had been made to give away the race.
Urán says no way. He claims he was looking over his shoulder, not to check Vinokourov’s position, but rather to see how far back the chasers were. With no race radio at the Olympic road race, Urán said he simply wanted assure that they were going to make it to the line with a medal in his pocket.
“I looked back, because the group was coming pretty close, six, seven seconds, I wanted to assure myself of a medal and I wanted to make sure we were going to make it,” Urán explained. “It’s better to have one bird in the hand than two flying away.”
Of course, it was that look over his shoulder that opened the door for the savvy Vinokourov, who shot clear to claim a swansong gold medal. Urán didn’t have much to counter and coasted across the line to take silver.
It didn’t take long before the peanut gallery started chiming in, however. Bets were on for how much Urán might have made from selling the gold to the well-funded Vinokourov. Fifty grand? A hundred grand? Even more?
Urán got wind of some of the comments flying around on blogs and in Twitter-sphere, but now he just laughs and shakes his head in exasperation.
“People are going to speak. It’s a sport where everyone in the world has a right to make their opinion and everyone can say what they think. There are a lot of people saying things that are not what they appear to be,” Urán said. “I knew it would be difficult against Vinokourov because he’s a much better sprinter than me.”
It is not the first time suspicion has surrounded a Vinokourov Olympic result. In the 2000 Games, the Kazakh rode into the winning breakaway with his German T-Mobile teammates Jan Ulrich and Andreas Klöden. Curiously, Vinokourov appeared strongest of the three, but after a forceful chat from his German trade teammates, the Kazakh backed off and Ulrich jumped. On the finish straight, Vinokourov sat behind Klöden until Ulrich crossed the line and then easily dropped him for silver.
The brouhaha over the London finale hasn’t spoiled what was a jubilant day, not only for Urán, but for Colombia as well. The silver medal is one of less than 20 medals Colombian athletes have won in the nation’s Olympic history.
“It was a surprise for everyone. It was a very flat course; it was a course for sprinters. There was a breakaway and I took advantage of the situation and I came away with a silver medal,” Urán said. “I didn’t count on this medal and in fact I wasn’t even sure to go to the Olympics because the course favored the sprinters so much, so to get this medal was very important,” he said. “In normal conditions, it would have been a sprint, but the race became difficult and I could take advantage of the situation and I am very happy with the medal.”
Urán said the news was “big” back in Colombian and that his supporters celebrated the silver medal as if it were a victory. Only in the Olympics does being second mean so much. While Colombia celebrated, Urán just kept on racing.
He was at the Clásica San Sebastián a week later, where Vinokuorov rode one last time to show off his Olympic gold medal. Then Urán went straight into the Vuelta a Burgos and the Vuelta a España, where he helped Sky captain Chris Froome ride to fourth overall.
After racing the worlds this week, Urán will ride the Giro di Lombardia before heading home to Medellín. The party will have to wait.
“My medal was big news back home. It was very beautiful,” he said. “There was a big party, just without me. I will have to make a celebration when I get home.”