Events

Commentary: Five takeaways from Tour Colombia 2.1

The Tour Colombia 2.1 is the biggest race in the Western Hemisphere, even if you can't stream it online. Here are five takeaways from the 2020 edition of the race, which saw EF Pro Cycling battle against Egan Bernal and Team Ineos.

One of the biggest bike races on the planet took place this past week, and unless you were really paying attention, you may have overlooked the Tour Colombia 2.1. Don’t worry, you’re not alone if you missed the action. The Tour Colombia was not streamed in the United States on NBC Sports Gold, Fubo, or FloBikes, but rather on the WatchESPN app, which, I assume few of you have.

The six-day race produced plenty of drama and action between some of the biggest riders and teams in the WorldTour. For those of you who missed the action, here are five takeaways:

1. Tour Colombia 2.1 is the biggest stage race in the Western Hemisphere

More than 300 media credentials were distributed for the 2020 edition of the race. Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

The demise of the Amgen Tour of California has left the Western Hemisphere without a single WorldTour stage race, and the Tour Colombia has filled California’s void as the biggest stage race in the Americas. Look, I realize that the Tour de San Juan and Tour of Utah technically hold a higher UCI rating than Colombia (2.Pro vs. 2.1). But c’mon, Tour Colombia is the biggest. I suggest you read Rebecca Reza’s great reporting from the event to learn about its size and scope. Last year the race estimated that 7 million Colombians turned out to watch, and the crowds this year were reportedly even bigger.

The crowds were so big that marquee riders had to be escorted by bodyguards to and from the team presentation. No cyclist ever needed a bodyguard to walk the streets of Park City, Utah.

The race distributed 320 media credentials at the race to journalists from 20 different nations. That is an enormous media footprint, on par with that of the biggest races in Europe. Even if 300 of those credentials went to Colombian radio stations, this media footprint far surpasses anything we’ve seen in American cycling.

And then there was the race’s lineup. Two of the three grand tour winners from 2019 (Egan Bernal and Richard Carapaz) squared off against Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step, Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates), and EF Pro Cycling‘s lineup of South American hitters. And these riders were racing to win, not just get miles in their legs.

Look, I love the Tour of Utah, Tour de Beauce, and Joe Martin Stage Race. With all respect given to these events, North America’s other big stage races cannot match the crowds, fanfare, and media footprint of Tour Colombia 2.1.

2. U.S. Cycling should look to Colombia

Carapaz tried his hardest to set up Egan Bernal for the win on stage 6. Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

Take a look at this video clip from stage 6 of the Tour Colombia.

Giro winner Richard Carapaz takes an enormous pull on the front of the peloton for several long kilometers as Tour de France winner Egan Bernal tries to drop his EF Pro Cycling rivals. Meanwhile, a handful of Colombian riders from smaller teams hang on for dear life at the back of the bunch, in an effort to reach the top of the climb alongside the WorldTour heroes.

Local riders testing themselves against the stars—that’s the role that the old Tour of California played a decade ago for rising American riders. Having a proving ground like this plays an integral role in a nation’s development pipeline, as it gives up-and-coming riders an opportunity to perform in front of WorldTour directors. How many of those Colombian riders from the front group on stage 6 will be riding for WorldTour squads in the coming years?

You can’t underestimate the value of racing moments like this to a country, or an entire region of cyclists. If I owned a U.S. bike brand, I would carve out a spot in my marketing budget for Tour Colombia 2.1. If I managed an American pro road team, I’d follow in the footsteps of Rally Pro Cycling and start contacting the race management immediately about starting the race in 2021. If I ran a streaming site, I’d strike a deal to broadcast the race in 2021.

3. EF Pro Cycling has found its Tour de France riders

EF Pro Cycling swept the final podium with Higuita taking the overall win. Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

In January, I sat down with EF Pro Cycling CEO Jonathan Vaughters, in California. Vaughters said the Tour de France sits atop the team’s performance goals for 2020. The team had yet to establish its game plan for July, however Vaughters hinted at bringing multiple leaders to chase the general classification.  The riders Vaughters earmarked for the Tour were punchy climbers who could excel in the mountains.

“I have some big aspirations for the Tour de France this year,” Vaughters said. “There’s no flat time trial. There’s no team time trial. It starts right out of the box with a lot of hills.”

I think Vaughters should tap his Tour Colombia 2.1 squad for the Tour. EF Pro Cycling was simply dominant at the event, winning three of six stages and sweeping the final podium. Yes, the EF riders were strong. Yet Sergio Higuita, Daniel Martinez, and Jonathan Caicedo simply rode with the confidence of a seasoned grand tour veterans against the heavy hitters of Team Ineos.

Is this a guarantee that Higuita will be stronger than Bernal come July? Of course not. But the victory in Colombia is a morale-boosting win that will undoubtedly take EF Pro Cycling into the grand tours.

4. Tour Colombia should stay a 2.1

Team Medellin was one of the most aggressive teams during the 2020 edition of Tour Colombia 2.1 Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

Races that achieve this level of popularity and momentum have historically been nudged toward joining cycling’s highest echelon, the WorldTour. It sounds like Tour Colombia 2.1 is not yet interested in such a move. Mauricio Vargas, the president of Colombia’s cycling federation, told Reza that the race is not currently seeking WorldTour designation, due to the excessive costs.

“What we are looking at, and what the UCI proposed to us, is to have a prosperous race, but all of it is about money because the cost of these races are too much,” Varas said.

To be perfectly honest, I hope that the Tour Colombia declines the WorldTour enticement. The true value of a race like this is to pit WorldTour riders alongside local heroes, as to inspire the next generation of hopers and dreamers to see the pathway to the pro ranks laid out before them. If the peloton is just composed of international pros, the race might lose that appeal. Maintaining a 2.1 designation opens the door for lower-tiered teams to compete, and in all honesty, there’s so much more value in that than having Groupama-FDJ’s B-squad show up with February legs.

5. Nairo Quintana missed out

Nairo Quintana is opening his season at le Tour de la Provence with his new French team. Photo: James Startt

The 2020 edition of the race was another all-Colombian affair, with Higuita and Martinez defeating Bernal, and all of the Colombian stars being treated like international celebrities. Of course, there was one Colombian cycling celebrity who was missing: Nairo Quitnana! And this year the race traversed Boyacá, Quintana’s home region.

Colombia’s most famous cyclist skipped the race to compete in the French race le Tour de la Provence, as to make his French team Arkéa-Samsic happy. Hey, it paid off for Quintana, who won the overall after dropping the field on Ventoux. In fact, Quintana’s victory won bigger headlines in some Colombian newspapers than Higuita’s win.

Still, I think this was a missed opportunity for Quintana. His eye-popping time on Ventoux is a sign that he’s in amazing form at the moment. But the field at Provence lacked the firepower of a Bernal or Carapaz. Would Quintana have dropped Bernal and Higuita on stage 6? Alas, we will never know. Winning Colombia’s biggest race, ahead of his countrymen, would have been an amazing way to start 2020.