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VN Vault: Santiago Botero on staying safe in Colombia, targeting the Tour, and taking on Lance Armstrong

In 2003 Santiago Botero told Andrew Hood that he never rides alone in Colombia, and that the only way to beat Lance Armstrong is to attack.

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Due to the cancelation of last week’s Colombia Tour 2.1, we have a host of features, interviews, photo galleries, and other stories to celebrate Colombian cycling as part of “Colombia Week.” This profile of Santiago Botero appeared in the 2003 issue of VeloNews magazine. 

There are two enduring images of Santiago Botero.

The first gets the vocal Colombian journalists all in a sweat: Botero attacking in the mountains, turning a race upside down with his fearless riding style.

The second, and all too familiar, is Botero dying on the bike, usually the day after one of those fearless attacks, and losing big chunks of time in the process.

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It’s a familiar, if unfortunate, pattern. But the 30-year-old Botero vows to repeat only the first part of the equation in this year’s Tour de France. Botero is optimistic that he can end his run of bad days, which have previously taken him out of contention in three-week tours. If he can pull it off, he’s sure he’ll be on the Tour podium in Paris.

All for the podium

Botero came into the race as the reigning TT world champion. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Do or die, Botero will be attacking come July. Too often for Botero, there has been as much die as do, but the Colombian refuses to change his style for the sake of playing it safe.

”I’m still going to attack. I’m not going to change my style,” Botero told VeloNews while sipping tonic water at an outdoor cafe near Madrid. “I have a lot of critics, and it’s true sometimes I suffer, but I prefer to win a stage, I prefer to make something spectacular. To take risks.”

Risk-taking has paid off throughout Botero’s career, but he has also paid the price for his gambling habits. Last year’s Tour was a perfect reflection of Botero’s up-and-down style. He delivered Lance Armstrong’s first loss via a long-distance Tour time trial, and then survived the Pyrenees in good position. Then, Botero cracked and fell from fifth to 18th after losing more than 15 minutes on Mont Ventoux.

The very next day he attacked, won in Les Deux-Alpes, and bounced back to seventh overall before eventually finishing one spot shy of the podium in fourth overall.

Botero shrugs off suggestions that he ride more tactically against his rivals in the overall classification.

“I don’t want to do like [Joseba] Beloki does, always be on the wheel,” he said. ”That takes strength, to be sure, but I want to be the attacker. The other riders are always too worried about their position in the overall classification to risk an attack. They are riding against each other to finish third, fifth, or 10th in Paris. That’s not interesting to me.”

From Colombia to new heights

Botero won stage 15 of the 2002 Tour de France. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Botero doesn’t fit the conventional image of a thin Colombian mountain goat. Fabio Parra, third in the 1988 Tour, and Luis Herrera, the two-time Tour King of the Mountains and winner of the Vuelta a Espana, fit the lean, ascetic Colombian stereotype.

Botero’s piercing blue eyes and bulkier build separate him from his more famous compatriots who have carved their reputations on rail-thin legs and lungs earned by plying 8,000-foot-high roads. Perhaps it’s no irony that Botero is the world time trial champion, even though he lives high on a mountainside in the Andes.

“I’m better in the time trial. I always have been,” Botero said. “I’ve always had to work harder in the mountains, even though I live on one.”

When he’s not racing in Europe, Botero lives on the outskirts of Medellin at 2,600-meters (8,500 feet) — that’s about 50 meters higher than the Col du Galibier in the Alps, the high point of this year’s Tour. Medellin is a sprawling city of more than 3 million people, more famous for its cocaine cartel than its cycling terrain.

“It’s all mountains there,” he said. “To ride your bike, you have to go up or down, then back up. There are long climbs there, typically about 40km. That’s what I prefer — long, steady climbs.”

Colombia doesn’t have the best reputation as being a safe holiday spot, and Botero admits many of the bad images are true. Narco-terrorists, kidnappers, anti-government rebel groups, and lawless bandits are all part of his home country. It’s so bad that Colombian cycling legend Herrera was kidnapped in March 2000 by seven armed men. Former pro Oliverio Rincon was also kidnapped that year. Both were released unharmed.

But Botero said he fears the crazy drivers more than any terrorists or kidnappers.

“I do ride with another team jersey [not his pink Telekom uniform] and keep a low profile,” Botero admitted. “I always ride with a motorcycle. He’s not there with any weapons to protect me, but rather to clear the way for the traffic. The drivers in Colombia are the most dangerous.”

Botero is quite famous in Colombia, especially after his world title — the first by a Colombian. Along with a handful of soccer players, baseball player Edgar Renteria and Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya, Botero is among the most popular Colombian athletes.

“We have lots of cycling history in Colombia, but we are kind of in a lull after Herrera and Parra,” he said. ”There are some young guys coming up that have a chance. I’ve tried to raise the interest [in] cycling in my country. After soccer, it’s the biggest sport.”

Taking on Lance

Botero historically struggled against Lance Armstrong. Photo : Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Botero knows he can’t afford to have a bad day if he wants to be on the Tour podium.

“There are lots of riders who can be in the front group, in the top 10, but to be on the podium is much more difficult,” he said. ” I want to be better than last year, which will be hard. I won two stages and finished fourth. I want to be on the podium.”

Botero promises to attack, but he’s wary of blowing up on a critical day. He said he learned a lot in the 2002 Tour.

“It’s relative,” Botero said. “In 2000, I didn’t eat right before Hautacam and lost time. In 2001, well, I lost time in almost every stage. Then in 2002 before Ventoux, I had bike problems three times before the start of the climb and I had to waste a lot of energy before the critical part of the stage. The stress, the fatigue, the heat, and sometimes the body says no. I was proud the next day I came back and won the stage to Les Deux-Alpes. For me, that stage was significant.”

Can Botero take on Armstrong? Like most, he doesn’t dare speak of toppling Armstrong outright, but rather suggests he’ll be ready if Armstrong falters. “Lance is the favorite to win,” he said. ” He has the experience, the team, and the motivation. He’s the strongest. I’ve never seen a weakness in Lance. His team might not have been so strong in the past, but last year the team was very strong, and I could sense that made Lance feel more secure.”

Botero says the best way to challenge Armstrong is his usual MO: attack. “To put Lance in danger you have to attack him from afar,” he said. “You cannot wait until the final climb, because he has the strength to match anyone. But no one wants to risk attacking from so far away. The others are thinking about protecting their position in the classifications.”

To Botero, however, the best defense is a good offense. “If I have the forces, I will attack Armstrong,” he said. ” I would like to see him in difficulty, then attack before the last climb. I want to be the one making the spectacle. If I have to, I will risk my position in the overall classification.”

New start at Telekom

Botero joined Telekom for 2003 to ride alongside Alexander Vinokourov. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

In the rarefied air of Medellin’s mountains, Botero started his racing career on mountain bikes in the early 1990s while studying business at college. He was plucked out of relative obscurity in 1996 to join Kelme. The Spanish team has always had strong Colombian connections and sponsored a Colombian-based Kelme team as well.

In 1998, Botero made the jump to full-time racing in Europe and quickly scored some wins to gamer the confidence and support of the team staff. That quick rise was almost derailed, however, in 1999, when Kelme pulled him out before the start of the Vuelta a España due to high testosterone levels.

He was later dealt a six-month racing ban by the Colombian cycling governing body despite a health certificate issued by the UCI supporting claims that Botero has naturally high testosterone levels. Kelme stuck by their man, but Botero remains bitter over the incident.

Botero first garnered international attention at the 2000 Tour, when one of his trademark attacks earned him a stage win into Briançon and the King of the Mountains jersey, the first by a Colombian since Herrera won two polka-dot Jerseys in the mid-1980s.

He struggled through an admittedly less-than-spectacular 2001 before bouncing back at the season’s end with a bronze medal in the time trial at the world’s in Lisbon, Portugal. Then came his breakthrough 2002 season. But after seven years at Kelme, Botero was ready for a change. Kelme was having trouble meeting its team payroll last year. Although the problems were eventually sorted out, Botero was ready for a new challenge.

“It was easy to leave,” Botero said. “I wanted the change, but I had one tar left on my contract. It was my decision to leave, but they w re interested in me. Kelme was good for me, but there comes a time to change.”

Botero said he spoke with then-Telekom director sportif Rudy Pevenage during last year’s Dauphiné Libéré, and they stayed in touch throughout the season. Telekom was thinking of releasing its troubled star, Jan Ullrich, and the perennial powerhouse German squad was looking for new muscle.

Botero fit the bill perfectly. After he won the world time trial title in October, they inked a two-year deal in which Telekom paid Boteto’s final year’s salary to Kelme.

“The team has been quite clear that I am not here to replace Jan Ullrich,” he said. ” We have a more open strategy now. Instead of riding for one clear leader, we have several options. Vinokourov, Savoldelli, Evans. Without Jan, we are still a strong team. We want to be at the front, making the race exciting, playing a role.

“Telekom is very organized. There isn’t a detail that is missed,” he said. “There’s a lot of communication, and they’re always asking you what you need. When I was training in Colombia, they’d often call me to make sure everything was okay. When I was at Kelme, no one ever called me.”

Like he does each winter, Botero returned to his beloved Colombia from November to April (though he spent January in the Spanish island of Majorca with the team). Despite the problems in his native land, he insists on returning and vows to return permanently once he retires from racing.

He came back to Europe in April and quickly made his presence known. In his Telekom debut at the Clasica de Alcobendas in Spain in mid-May, he finished third; at the Tour of Asturias a week later, he took fourth overall and attacked hard on a long, punishing climb to Santuario del Acebo.

I attacked to test myself to see how my form was coming, not so much to win,” Botero said. “From here to the Tour is still quite some time, so I wanted to see where I stand.”

Things look pretty good. Now, if he can just get through the three weeks without that one bad day.