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Will ‘Rigo’ win South America’s first yellow jersey?

A rowdy band of Colombian journalists pressed in around the Cannondale-Drapac team bus after another stinking-hot, nail-biter of a stage. A forest of radio antennae, microphones, iPhones, and TV cameras corralled Rigoberto Urán as he cooled down post-stage on the rollers.

Urán is only 29 seconds out of the yellow jersey, and the building exuberance among the Colombian press corps is hard to rein in. Draped in sweat, Urán dug deep into his bag of cycling clichés to try to calm everyone down.

“Paris is still far away,” Urán shrugged. “We still have the Alps. Sky is strong, with Froome and Landa, we’ll have to see how they play their cards.”

None of that was having its desired effect. Journalists screamed into their microphones, doing their part to stoke a growing frenzy back home. Colombian fans lining the bus broke out in chant: Rigo! Rigo! Rigo!

Rigo fever has hit the Tour.

With less than a week to go in the Tour de France, Urán is closer to cycling’s holy grail than any Colombian has ever been before. Not even Nairo Quintana, twice second overall, has been this close to the maillot jaune this late in the Tour.

Everyone inside the Cannondale-Drapac bus is also trying to tamp down expectations. With a Tour wound so tight — the closest Tour in history, according to official statistics — it’s impossible to ordain a winner.

“It’s great what we’ve done, but you’ve got to keep your head cool in a race like this,” said ever-steady Cannondale-Drapac sport director Charly Wegelius. “There are so many things than can happen every day.”

And that’s exactly why everything could be stacking up in Urán’s favor. The leather-faced Urán has been professional long enough to know that cycling takes more than it gives. He also knows that he’s staring at an opportunity of a lifetime.

When someone asked about Paris, just a hint of a smile creased across his weathered lines.

“I am close,” Urán said. “We have to stay attentive. We still have the Alps. The most important thing is to stay up there.”

Rigoberto Uran
Colombian fans cheer their countrymen at the Tour de France. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

Can Uran become South America’s first Tour winner?

Sunday morning was busy at the Tour de France. Huge crowds piled into the stage 15 start town of Laissac-Sévérac over the Bastille Day weekend. Colombian fans that typically hover around the Movistar bus have started to migrate toward Cannondale-Drapac. It’s not quite Nairo-mania, but Rigo fever is spreading.

The team had a special guest. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, a big bike enthusiast and French aficionado, rode in the team car. The tall former politician gave the riders and staff a brief pep talk. “It only seems impossible until you do it,” he said.

That sense of possibility in the face of impossibility is spreading around the team and staff. Dylan Van Baarle, the big Dutch rouleur, said, “Urán is riding strong. He is racing on feel. He is definitely able to get on the podium.”

Nate Brown, a grand tour rookie, can’t believe his luck to be on a squad with real podium chances going into the final week. “We have a really good shot at winning this Tour. That is really exciting,” he said.

How did this happen? When the Tour de France rolled out of Düsseldorf more than two weeks ago, Urán didn’t even rate a one-star mention in L’Equipe.

In a Tour full of surprises, Urán’s rise is first among them.

Urán has never been a “Tour man.” A spindly climber and fast finisher in small groups, Urán was better suited for the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España. In 14 career grand tours, this is only his fourth Tour start. His best finish was a 23rd in 2011. Hardly enough to raise the pulses of the odds-makers.

Yet in what’s an atypical Tour route, here he is, knocking on the door of winning the yellow jersey. If a few things fall his way, Urán could become South America’s first Tour winner.

“I had good preparation coming into this Tour,” Urán explained. “Most importantly, I’ve had no real troubles since the race started. You can see how crashes are affecting nearly everyone.”

Behind the scenes, something was different. Cannondale-Drapac knew Urán was posting good numbers in training. The Mick Jagger of the peloton cut his hair. Urán was sleeker in every sense of the word. More focused, professional as ever, and at the end of his two-year deal. At the start of the Tour, the talk was all about hunting for stages. Urán’s 95th in the opening time trial at 1:03 back seemed to confirm that.

Urán’s incredible victory in stage 9 — when he won in a photo-finish riding with a broken rear derailleur — electrified everyone. It sent a bolt through the Cannondale bus. Urán is in it to win it.

“We are pleasantly surprised how things have gone,” Wegelius said. “We knew already from the fifth stage that he was in good shape. We’re talking about a quality rider here. It’s not a complete shot in the dark.”

Already with his victory, Urán joined some elite company, becoming the 11th Colombian to win a Tour stage. In 1988, Fabio Parra became the first Colombian to reach the Tour podium, with third behind Pedro Delgado and Steven Rooks. Quintana has twice been second, in 2013 and 2015. Only one Colombian has worn the yellow jersey. Victor Hugo Peña wore it for three stages in 2003 after U.S. Postal Service won the team time trial stage.

Rigoberto Uran
Rigoberto Uran’s stage 9 sprint victory was one of the first indications he’d be a true contender in the 2017 Tour. Photo: Jared Gruber/Ashley Gruber

From tragedy to Europe

Urán’s journey to the cusp of the Tour podium is one of the most transitory in the peloton. In his 13-year career, he’s raced for Italian, Belgian, British, Spanish, and American teams. Urán is the peloton’s quintessential opportunist, an entrepreneur on two wheels, selling his wares to the highest bidder.

His palmares might only boast nine victories, but it’s also packed with podiums. Twice second at the Giro d’Italia and second in the road race at the 2012 London Olympics, Urán is as race savvy as it gets. So far through this Tour, he’s been exactly where he needs to be in every key moment.

“Rigo has a very good cold head,” Wegelius said. “When it comes to these small decisions, I don’t want to interfere from the car. We should just trust the fact that he’s a good bike rider, and he is.”

That Urán is so close to becoming South America’s first Tour winner says much about his persistence this month as it does about his past. Overcoming setbacks with an optimistic outlook is an Urán trademark. Everyone agrees that Urán is exemplary when it comes to training and racing, but he doesn’t have time for unnecessary complications. He laughs every chance he gets.

“I don’t want to interfere from the car. We should just trust the fact that he’s a good bike rider, and he is.”
– Charly Wegelius

Urán’s origin story is one of the more remarkable in a peloton packed with colorful characters. He hails from Urrao, a village west of Medellín surrounded by 2,000-meter peaks. Growing up in the 1990s, Colombia in transition, caught between a violent past and a peaceful future. In 2001, when Urán was 14, his father was killed in Colombia’s guerrilla violence.

It’s something so intimate and so painful that Urán doesn’t like to discuss this period of his life in detail. In an interview with VeloNews a few years ago, he simply said, “My father died when I was young, and we passed through some difficult moments as a family. Of course, this is never easy to recount.”

Still in his mid-teens and fatherless, Urán took over his father’s job of selling lottery tickets to help support his mother and younger sister. It was only months before his father died that he had introduced his son to cycling. The bike became a salve as well as a way to travel to nearby villages to hustle up money. When he was 15, someone suggested he race in a local time trial. Dressed in street clothes and riding a second-hand bike his uncle gave him, Urán won.

By his late teens, he was winning enough that regional amateur team Orgullo Paisa signed him up. Colombian rules stated that a rider couldn’t turn pro until age 18. Urán, then 17, convinced them to pay him some money so he could help his mother pay the bills. Impatient to start a professional career, contacts within the Colombian cycling community led to a deal with Tenax, a second-division Italian team. In 2006 at age 19, he was already a professional in Europe.

“It was a big risk to turn pro so early, but I didn’t want to let the opportunity slip past,” Urán said in an interview last year. “I am still young, but I’ve been professional many years now. It’s like I’ve already lived two lives.”

A taste of Olympic glory

By 2008, Urán had landed at Caisse d’Epargne (now Movistar), and moved close to the team’s headquarters in Pamplona, Spain.

Already established in Europe, “Rigo” soon played the role of big brother to a new wave of Colombians crossing the Atlantic to test fate. Many ended up sharing a room in Urán’s home in Pamplona, including Sergio Henao, Carlos Betancur, and one young rider who did not make much noise at the time, Nairo Quintana.

These days, it’s Quintana who is the apple of the Colombian public’s eye, but that wasn’t always the case. In 2012, Urán won Colombia’s first Olympic medal in men’s road racing when he took silver to Alexander Vinokourov. Despite an inopportune glance over his shoulder that triggered Vinokourov’s winning attack, Urán always denied suggestions that he sold off the gold medal.

“What was I going to do, sell my own country?” Urán told VeloNews in 2012. “I was looking to back to make sure the chasing group wasn’t going to catch us.”

In 2013, his third and final season with Sky, he went to the Giro to support Bradley Wiggins. “Wiggo” quickly flamed out, but Urán rode to second overall to confirm his grand tour potential. Urán’s star kept burning bright.

After a move to Quick-Step in 2014, he won a long, rolling time trial at Barolo to become the first Colombian to wear the pink jersey. He looked to have victory within grasp, only to lose it four days later in the controversial, snow-bound stage over the Stelvio to compatriot Quintana. Urán settled for second, and Quintana became the first Colombian to win the Giro.

As Nairo-mania swept Colombia, Urán quietly kept doing his thing. And now here he is, on the cusp of the Tour podium — and maybe more.

Rigoberto Urán won the silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Tour route made for Rigo

The ever-discreet Urán never criticized Quintana for the controversial attack over the Stelvio, when the race jury had raised red flags to neutralize the descent on snow-bound roads. There is never a hint of public jealousy or envy. Urán quietly goes about his job, always with a smile and a shrug.

“For me, the past is the past. I don’t waste time thinking about what could have happened, or should I have won the Giro,” Urán told VeloNews last year. “For me, what happened is what happened, and I ended up second. And now what we are thinking about is the future.”

The future is now for Urán, rife with possibilities unimaginable just weeks ago.

When the 2017 Tour de France route was announced, everyone inside the Cannondale organization knew it was ideal for Urán’s style of racing. The irregular terrain, the long descents, and the punchy finales are perfect hunting ground for one of the peloton’s top puncheurs.

“I am still young, but I’ve been professional many years now. It’s like I’ve already lived two lives.”
– Rigoberto Urán

“The route suits him and he’s getting a clear shot,” Wegelius said. “We are still talking about a high-quality rider. And if you look closely at his grand tour history, he’s always been there, but there’s always been some sort of hiccup.”

Now, everything is possible. What’s in Urán’s favor? His form, his experience, and his racing acumen. Against him? The lung-busting climbs waiting at the Galibier and d’Izoard might prove a challenge to stay with Chris Froome (Sky) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale).

Riding on a young team with four Tour rookies that’s thin on support once the road tilts upward doesn’t help, either. And that’s not counting that Cannondale’s budget is about one-third of Sky’s.

“Maybe the ignorance of what’s waiting for you can keep you from having sleepless nights,” he joked. “All of the riders in our group are riding above our expectations.”

From here to Paris, the tactics are pretty simple. Urán has to hang on as long as he can in the Alps and then try to spring a surprise. Once the pack hits the Galibier and the Col d’Izoard, it’s going to be mano-a-mano.

“The hardest stages are still ahead of us,” Urán said. “The key is to stay close and be alert for opportunities. Everyone needs time going into the time trial.”

Anyone hoping to knock off Froome from his Tour pedestal needs a miracle ride in the Alps. Many expect the three-time champion to take back around one minute in the stage 20 time trial that measures 22.5km in Marseille.

“This is a great situation for us. It is so close, people don’t know what to do,” Wegelius said. “Every single stage, every single corner and climb. There is something for Rigo everywhere.”

Of the four riders closest to Froome, Urán has the best track record against the clock. But since his big season in 2014, when he won the Giro time trial at Barolo and finished second in a similar course to Tony Martin in the Vuelta, Urán has been wildly inconsistent. And a time trial at the end of three weeks is more about who has the legs.

For Urán, everything is still possible.

“Who knows? It’s nice that it’s so close, and I just hope that the people at home are enjoying,” Wegelius said. “I couldn’t make a call now how it’s going to end.”