With a climber-friendly world championships approaching, it’s only natural that the world’s best climbers will be among the favorites. That puts Colombia and its powerful eight-rider lineup for Austria in great position for the rainbow jersey.
At first glance, the Colombian team looks like it should blast straight to its first elite men’s world title. With firepower in the form of Miguel Ángel López, Rigoberto Urán, Sergio Henao, and Nairo Quintana, what could possibly go wrong?
That answer, of course, is a lot. If Colombia does not rally around one clear leader, the team could end up with nothing.
“We understand each other well,” Henao said of his compatriots during the Vuelta . “I don’t expect there to be any problems. The tactics will be decided once we are in Austria.”
Along with France, Italy, and Spain, among a few others, Colombia will be one of the top favorites in Austria in what should be a climber’s banquet. With more than 5,000 vertical meters on the elite men’s road course, coupled with the final climb that features ramps as steep as 28 percent, the worlds seems tailor-made for the nation of climbers.
With Colombia’s stellar squad, the country’s first real shot at the rainbow jersey in a generation will come down to how well the team is organized and how much the other riders are willing to sacrifice.
Henao insisted the team always rallies around each other for the common good in major international events.
“We know this is a big opportunity,” Henao said. “It’s important that we are honest with each other. That hasn’t been a problem in the past. Even though we are pros and ride for other teams during the seasons, we always ride together [during the worlds].”
Coming out of the Vuelta, López and Urán were looking sharpest. Henao rode as a domestique and seemed to be cagily hiding his form: he did not win a stage or do anything to provide a glimpse of his true form. He insisted he was at the Vuelta to work and hone his fitness for Austria.
López and Urán both had pressure to perform in the general classification. That may have left them less fresh for Austria than some of their rivals. Yet it also means they could have the depth and base that only the Vuelta could provide, which would serve them well on such a demanding and explosive course as Innsbruck.
“Of course we want to do well in the Vuelta — the whole team is working for that — but we’re also not forgetting the worlds,” Urán said during the Vuelta. “Leaders? We’ll talk about that later. The most important thing is that the legs are good and there is a good understanding between all of us.”
Worlds is a unique race. Tactics and teamwork are essential to control the race and put the designated leaders into position to win on the final decisive closing lap or two. While the Colombians are renowned for their climbing prowess, riding and working as a unified unit and putting aside ego and ambition will be a challenge for the team. Just like all the favorites, the Colombians know they need to go in with a solid game plan.
So far, no one is willing to raise his hand to claim leadership, at least not publicly. The team will gather in Austria next week to recon the course and put in some final training sessions ahead of the September 30 men’s road race.
“We know we will have a strong team and we will have many cards to play,” said López, who could emerge as the outright leader. “The most important thing is that we have someone in position to try to win during the most important part of the race.”
Everyone will be wondering what role Quintana will play. He was far from his sharpest in the Vuelta and has never won a major one-day race. In fact, Quintana has only raced the elite worlds three times and only finished once, landing 68th in 2012.
“We’ll recover from the Vuelta and see where we are,” Quintana said. “We will have more time to consider tactics once everyone is in Austria.”
Despite a hint of intrigue, Colombia does bring some workers. Among them are Sebastian Henao (Sky), Winner Acacona (Movistar), Dani Martinez (EF-Drapac), and Rodrigo Contreras (EPM Scott), the latter the only rider not currently racing for a WorldTour team, though he is headed to Astana in 2019.
Notable names missing from the roster include Fernando Gaviria, the explosive sprinter who should get his chances at the rainbow jersey in the future on courses better suited to his capabilities. Also missing is Esteban Chaves, who is struggling with Epstein-Barr, as well as Egan Bernal, the phenomenal climber who is still recovering from facial surgery following his crash at the Clásica San Sebastián. He has not raced since that day.
Highly touted climber Ivan Sosa (Androni-Sidermec), who beat back López at the Vuelta a Burgos in August, will be among the favorites in the under-23 road race.
This will certainly be Colombia’s best chance to win its first rainbow jersey on the road. Santiago Botero claimed Colombia’s only elite men’s world title when he won the time trial in Zolder in 2002.
Urán holds the best international men’s road race achievement when he took second in the 2012 Olympic Road Race in London.
“Of course everyone wants to be the world champion,” Urán said. “The most important thing is that one of us Colombians is the one who wins.”