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.”
Today’s peloton is so packed with Colombian stars across so many WorldTour teams — 22 riders on nine teams in the elite men’s peloton in 2021 — it’s almost hard to remember the sport without them.
Yet a generation ago, Colombian cycling was on the skids. The famous “escarabajos” riders of the 1980s and early 90s had all retired. There were a few transitional stars, like Victor Hugo Peña, who became the first Colombian to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey, and Santiago Botero, a world time trial champion. But the Colombian pro teams were shuttered, and the top European teams were no longer traveling to Colombia to race, making it harder for stand-out riders to get noticed.
That started to change when a few pioneering racers re-opened the bridge to the European peloton about 15 years ago. There were always a few Colombians who made it across, but leading the way for today’s Colombian resurgence was Rigoberto Urán.
“I won everything — todo, todo, todo — in juniors, in amateurs in Colombia, and through some contacts, a team was interested in me, and I jumped at the opportunity,” Urán told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “I haven’t looked back, and since then, everything is getting bigger and bigger in Colombian cycling.”
Now 34 and an established superstar on EF Education-Nippo, Urán turned pro in 2006 as a sprightly 19-year-old. Since then, he finished second in the Tour de France, won a fistful of races, including an Olympic medal, and helped put Colombia back on the radar.
It wasn’t just Urán, but his charismatic style and solid results helped open the eyes of the top European teams that Colombians were ready to take on the world.
“There is a real before and after with Urán,” said author Matt Rendell, whose latest book, “Colombia es Pasíon,” chronicles the amazing back stories of many of today’s top Colombian riders.
“Rigoberto helped build a bridge to Europe,” Rendell said. “He’s been a bit of a godfather for a generation of riders who’ve come across.”
A trailblazer with charisma
But if anyone’s a true crossover star in Colombia, it’s Urán.
His energy, sense of humor, and dynamic style on and off the bike have skyrocketed him into celebrity status in Colombia. He calls his fans “mijitos” — my little ones — and calls journalists “güevón,” a term that defies translation. Today, he has more than 1.2 million followers on Twitter and Instagram.
When Urán and Quintana were lighting up the races, an entire nation tuned in.
“There was a big boom in Colombian cycling with Rigo and Nairo,” said Ineos Grenadiers rider Daniel Martínez. “Everyone wanted to race their bikes. Everyone wants to be like Nairo and Rigo.”
— Rigoberto Urán ЯU (@UranRigoberto) October 21, 2018
In the wake of early successes from Urán, who raced with Caisse d’Epargne (now Movistar), Sky, and Quick-Step, before landing at EF Education-Nippo in 2016, team managers and sport directors started to pay attention to these young, brash, and ambitious Colombians. And so did the rider agents.
Today, no team can dare miss signing that next superstar-in-waiting.
“Everyone wants to have a Colombian rider on their team now,” said Deceuinck-Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere, who signed Fernando Gaviria in 2015. “Why? Because they are great bike racers. And they have ambition.”
Urán boasted all that and more when he came across the pond more than 15 years ago.
Leading the way
During the Colombia Tour 2.1, it’s Urán who is often at the center of attention.
His arrival to the European peloton, and his transition to cycling champion and national celebrity, is one of the most amazing personal stories in the peloton. Teammate Alex Howes compared his popularity in Colombia to NFL quarterback Tom Brady back in the United States.
In some ways, Urán’s story reflects the narrative of Colombia during the past two decades. Urán grew up Urrao, site of some of the worse of Colombia’s violence during the drug wars of the 1980s and 90s. A paramilitary group gunned down his father, and he was forced to work selling lottery tickets to help his family makes ends meet. Urán’s father put his son on a bike in part to keep him out of trouble.
With newfound responsibilities and innate talent, Urán poured his remorse and passion into the pedals. It’s a story that Rendell explains in detail in his latest book.
“When Rigoberto grew up, it was one of the most dangerous places in Colombia,” Rendell said. “Rigoberto’s father was very charismatic and everyone loved him. He carries that with him today, and it drives in everything he does.”
Urán was soon winning races, and he could see that the bicycle was not only fun and exciting, but it could be a great way to help his family.
Throughout Colombia’s rich cycling history there have always been local clubs that hold junior races, sometimes two or three a weekend. Programs like these helped forge the stars like Quintana, Urán, and Miguel Ángel López.
Today, cycling is becoming more organized and developed, especially with every family wanting their son to be the next Nairo. Agents troll the results sheets, and team managers are signing up riders when they’re still in their teens.
When Urán crossed the Atlantic to Europe to race on the Italian Tenax team, compatriot Marlon Pérez was also there and helped introduce him to a new style of racing.
“When I first went over, there were not many Colombians in the peloton,” Urán said. “It’s not like today. We had to find our own way a bit, but it was a big adventure. I was only 19, so I loved it even if it was difficult sometimes.”
Searching out ‘la casa de Urán’
By 2008, a pair of wins and some solid results put Urán on the radar at Caisse d’Epargne, the Spanish franchise that was one of the first major teams to realize the untapped potential of Colombian and other Latin American riders.
Others to join the Spanish team over the next few years would include Costa Rican rider Andrey Amador, Mauricio Soler (who was tragically injured in 2011), and, after Urán left, riders like Quintana, Richard Carapaz, an Ecuadorian who lived very near Colombia, Winner Anacona, and Carlos Betancur.
They all shared one point of reference — Urán. He helped spread the word among agents and team managers about fast, young racers. The peloton’s Colombian drought was about to end, and Colombia cycling would boom. And when they landed in Europe, they typically searched out Urán.
Urán rented an apartment near the team’s headquarters in Pamplona, and Colombian riders filtered in and out over the years. Others who stayed included Esteban Chaves, López, and Sergio Henao, and dozens of others.
“He hosted so many riders in that house,” said writer Rendell. “It was often the first place they would go. Rigoberto would help them find their feet. He helped so many riders during that time.”
By 2010, Colombian cycling was booming on both sides of the Atlantic. Urán was getting big results in the pro peloton, and in 2010, an unknown Colombian climber named Nairo Quintana beat back the Europeans to win the Tour de l’Avenir. A year later, Chaves won, and suddenly there was a gold rush looking for new Colombian talent.
Urán’s silver in the 2012 Olympic Games just poured gas on the fire.
“I am proud to be part of this generation of riders,” Chaves said. “We were among the first ones. Myself, Rigo, and Nairo. Behind us have come many more. Now Colombian cycling is booming, and we are proud of how big it has become for all the fans.”
Flash-forward 10 years, and Urán is still helping out young talented riders. He started a development team in his home region, and remains one of the most popular riders in Colombia. Though he’s only won 13 races, Urán’s palmares are stellar nonetheless. Twice second in the Giro, he was also second in the 2017 Tour, just 55 seconds behind Chris Froome to give the four-time winner his narrowest margin of victory.
Urán also started his own clothing brand called, “Go Rigo Go!”, and organizes an annual gran fondo event — Giro de Rigo — that attracts thousands. Even Froome showed up in 2018.
Last year, Urán bounced back from injury in the 2019 Vuelta a España to finish in the top-10 at the Tour. He’s still motivated to keep racing, and to continue to serve as a mentor and beacon for a new generation.
“Sometimes people say it all started with me, but there were always good Colombian cyclists,” Urán said. “It was only until my generation that people started to give us more opportunities to come to Europe.”
Urán looks on with pride with not only how cycling is booming at the professional level, but how the sport is transforming an entire nation.
In a recent interview in El Tiempo, Urán spoke of his legacy as the “padrino” for today’s generation of Colombian superstars.
“There are more Colombians racing than ever, but at an even greater level,” Urán said. “They’re all on the best teams, and even the ones that are not a leader, they have a chance to win. The quality is very high, and they’re present in all the different types of races.
“Cycling is now the trendy sport,” he said. “Everyone rides a bike. People are using it to get around. Cities are investing a lot in infrastructure. Cycling is booming right now.”
A big part of the “gracias” is due to Urán, a trailblazer of Colombia’s cycling renaissance.