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Why Colombia keeps producing talented cyclists

In the last decade, cycling's WorldTour has experienced a resurgence of Colombian talent. Why?

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In late June, Daniel Martínez was nervously waiting at his parent’s house for the phone to ring. The 22-year-old Colombian was all but sure to be named to EF Education First-Drapac’s Tour de France team. It wasn’t official until the call.

“It’s a dream to race with riders like Nairo [Quintana] and Rigo [Urán],” Martínez said. “I grew up watching their exploits on TV. They are why I wanted to be a bike racer.”

Along with 21-year-old compatriot Egan Bernal and 20-year-old Ivan Sosa, Martínez is part of a new wave of Colombian talent already making an impact in the international peloton. Other riders in Colombia’s latest surge include Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step) and Miguel Ángel López (Astana), each a few years older at 23 and 24, respectively. They’re young, brash, and highly talented.

Every one of these riders grew up watching Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán put Colombian cycling back on the map. Now they’re poised to go even higher.

IF IT SEEMS COLOMBIANS are coming out of the woodwork these days, you’re right.

Colombia’s two-wheeled renaissance began a decade ago when a new generation of trailblazing stars traveled to Europe. First, it was Urán and Quintana, then Esteban Chaves and Carlos Betancur. Right behind them were ace sprinter Gaviria and Giro d’Italia podium finisher Lopez, both already lighting up the WorldTour.

The Colombian talent factory keeps churning them out, with Bernal and Martínez moving up to the WorldTour this season with Sky and EF Education First-Drapac, respectively. Sosa delivered the win at the Adriatica Ionica stage race in June for Androni-Sidermec. It seems there are young Colombians everywhere in the WorldTour peloton.

“Everyone wants to have a Colombian rider on their team now,” said Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere, who signed Gaviria in 2015. “Why? Because they are great bike racers. And they have ambition.”

In 2018, there are 17 Colombians racing across nine WorldTour teams. There are another half-dozen racing at the Professional Continental level — not counting the 15 on the Manzana-Postobon team based in Colombia.

Where are they all coming from? Martínez’s story is not unlike that of many of his compatriots.

“My dream was to play soccer, but destiny has a way of putting you in its place,” Martínez said. “Believe it or not, no one in my family was ever involved in cycling. At 13, my dad gave me a bike and I started riding in the mountains around my house. I immediately liked it.”

The “mountains” are monsters by any scale. Martínez’s parents live at 8,400 feet and local climbs reach as high as 14,500 feet. That altitude churns out climbers like the Nebraskan prairie produces offensive linemen.

Before this season, not many people had even heard of Martínez or Bernal. But the signs were there. Bernal won last year’s Tour de l’Avenir, with Martínez as a key helper. The pair finished first and second in the Colombian national time trial championships in January. Then Bernal won the Amgen Tour of California, sharing the podium with Martínez who was third.

Success doesn’t happen overnight in cycling, and there are no exceptions to that rule in Colombia. Its rich and deep cycling tradition dates back more than 50 years and is helping to inspire this new glut of talent.

Martínez came of age in a nation pulling itself out of decades of war and conflict. While Urán’s father was gunned down in Colombia’s violencia, Martínez’s parents were forced to vacate their small sugar cane farm in the 1980s to flee growing violence in Colombia’s hinterlands. They found refuge in Soacha, a working-class suburb of the sprawling capital of Bogotá, perched at 8,400 feet. It was a safe place for a young family and ideal for a budding climber.

By the time Martínez started racing in local clubs when he was 15 and 16, Urán was poised to win a silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, Quintana would soon finish second overall, win a stage, and take the best climber’s and young rider’s jersey at the 2013 Tour de France.

“There was a big boom in Colombian cycling with Rigo and Nairo,” Martínez said. “Everyone wanted to race their bikes. Everyone wants to be like Nairo and Rigo.”

Martínez said there were so many junior riders wanting to start weekend regional races that organizers had to cut off the limit at around 200 per category. Just like in Italy and Belgium, there is a thriving local club community across Colombia. Local promoters, churches, social clubs, and cycling teams put on the races. Martínez was good right from the start and quickly got tapped to join the national team. He raced at the Pan-American Games and the 2013 world championships as a junior. That earned him a stint at the UCI’s World Cycling Center.

“I was winning almost all of my junior races,” Martínez said. “The national team saw me and helped me with equipment and brought me to races. It all started there.”

Just like in Europe, only the very best even have a hope of making it to the pros. Martínez said Bernal is the only other rider from his junior racing days who’s made it to the WorldTour level. And of his friends he made at the World Cycling Center, he’s the only one who is racing today on the WorldTour.

Daniel Martinez
Daniel Martinez is one of the latest up-and-comers from Colombia in the pro peloton. Photo: Tim de Waele | Getty Images

CYCLING HAS DEEP ROOTS in Colombia. It became a national sport in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Tour of Colombia emerged as an annual highlight for international competition.

Long before Quintana and Urán ventured to Europe, a wave of Colombian climbers made the trip in the 1980s, riding with Colombia’s first professional team, Café de Colombia. The team quickly made its presence felt.

Nicknamed the escarabajos — or beetles, for their spindly climbing style — riders like Luis “Lucho” Herrera and Fabio Parra became national heroes, with Herrera becoming the first Colombian to win a grand tour at the 1987 Vuelta a España. Parra became the first Colombian to finish on the Tour de France podium when he was third in 1988.

Many expected Colombia to become a world force in cycling, but things just as quickly stalled by the early 1990s. Why? There were a few reasons.

The Café de Colombia team folded in 1990, and without a Colombian-backed pro team, there were fewer Colombians racing with success in Europe by the early 1990s. And the top European teams stopped racing in Colombia, so there wasn’t a lot of cross-pollination like there was in the 1980s.

There were exceptions, including 2002 world time trial champion Santiago Botero and Victor Hugo Peña, who became the first Colombian to wear the yellow jersey in 2003. Overall, however, Colombian cycling went into the slow lane in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Others suggest another reason for the nation’s competitive decline: The natural benefits the Colombians gained from living and training at altitude were all but neutralized by the use of EPO and blood transfusions that swept through the peloton. That’s not to say that Colombians were not doing the same thing as other riders in that era, but the argument goes that the Colombians lost their natural edge during the EPO era. They just simply didn’t gain as much by chemical means.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Colombians returned to prominence with the introduction of the biological passport and enhanced doping controls in the late 2000s.

Carlos Betancur, one of the stars of the current wave of Colombian talent, said as much after finishing third at the 2013 Flèche Wallonne.

“With so many anti-doping controls and the biological passport, it’s helping us because we live and train at altitude,” Betancur said. “So when we come down, it’s a bit of an advantage to us.”

COLOMBIA’S CYCLING RENAISSANCE BEGAN in earnest about a decade ago under the tutelage of Colombian trainer and sport director Luis Fernando Saldarriaga. Today, he’s a manager at the Colombian Pro Continental team Manzana-Postobon, but in 2008 he began to nurture most of today’s elite crop of Colombian superstars, including Betancur, Quintana, Chaves, and Sergio Henao.

As head trainer at the Colombia es Pasión amateur team from 2008 to 2011, Saldarriaga was the first Colombian to introduce science-based training techniques and the use of power meters. The team won back-to-back editions of the Tour de l’Avenir with Quintana and Chaves in 2010 and 2011. Under his guidance, the team was also the first to operate under the biological passport program. Having a long track record of blood profiles and health data helped ease the way for this new generation to enter the WorldTour in Europe.

Meanwhile, a return to civil peace in Colombia over the past decade has allowed the sport to blossom again at the grassroots level. Today, in addition to the Manzana-Postobon team, there are another six Continental teams. That gives a lifeline to dozens of young, promising talents who clamor to be the next Nairo.

“There are big races every weekend,” Martínez said. “The racing season goes for months and months. Only soccer is bigger than cycling in Colombia.”

Martinez Bernal
Team Sky’s Egan Bernal (right) and Daniel Martínez (EF Education First-Drapac) chat before stage 7 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California. Photo: Christian Petersen | Getty Images

IF SALDARRIAGA HELPED LAY the groundwork for today’s Colombian boom, it was Rigoberto Urán who blazed the trail.

Now 31, Urán is the unofficial “padrino” of this new wave of Colombian cyclists. In 2006, at the age of 19, he turned pro and moved alone to Europe. In some ways, he has been a transitional figure, ushering in the generation of riders who had to find their own way to Europe a decade ago, and forging the path for today’s crop of Colombian talent.

His success not only opened doors for him at some of the biggest teams in Europe — with stints at Team Sky, Quick-Step, and Caisse d’Epargne (now Movistar) — it put Colombia back on the map.

Right behind Urán came a wave of riders that dominate the peloton today, including Henao, Chaves, Betancur, Lopez, and Jarlinson Pantano, who have all finished on grand tour podiums or won WorldTour races. Quintana has emerged as a superstar in the sport since his debut in 2012, winning both the Vuelta and Giro d’Italia, and finishing on three Tour podiums.

Many of those riders draw a straight line to Urán.

“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.”

While Urán had to do much of it on his own, today there is a much deeper support system in place in Colombia to tap promising talent. Martínez, for example, already had an agent and had trained at the World Cycling Center by the time he was 18.

However, making it to the WorldTour and thriving there are hardly the same thing. Why do the Colombians shine in Europe? There are many moving parts in the background.

After the talent come the agents. Several ply the Colombian races with a sharp eye on the next Quintana. Among those signing big riders include Paolo Alberati, who is the agent of Bernal and new Colombian talent Sosa. Giuseppe Acquadro is another with several Colombians on his roster, including Urán, Henao, and others. Italian ex-pro Giovanni Lombardi, who is also Peter Sagan’s agent, represents Fernando Gaviria. He also helps organize races, including Colombia’s new Oro y Paz and the Tour de San Juan.

Agents help open the door to Europe because they have contacts at all the big teams. Many teams are quick to sign Colombians because, generally, they don’t initially demand high salaries. They also usually adapt very well to racing in Europe. Martínez, for example, works with Acquadro, who helped him land a two-year deal with Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia for 2016 after the Team Colombia team folded in 2015.

Part of the funnel inevitably goes through Italy via the irrepressible Gianni Savio, manager of Androni-Sidermec. The veteran Italian manager famously signed unknown Egan Bernal in 2016 before anyone had even heard of him.

“I have contacts going back 30 years in Colombia,” said Savio, who also served as Colombia’s national team coach for many years. “Today, everyone wants to sign Colombians. Why? Because they know how to win races.”

Once in Europe, there are several informal networks to help the young Colombians find their feet. Many settle close to their respective teams. For years, Spain’s Pamplona was home to riders such as Quintana, Urán, and Sergio Henao. Many moved to Monaco as their fortunes rose, but in the early days, Urán would rent rooms in his house and help the young arrivals find their feet in Europe.

Of course, once the Colombians arrive in Europe, they want to stay. As Lefevere said, most are ambitious and hungry not only to win races but also to make a good living from racing.

For Martínez, he’s not quite in Quintana’s league yet. As he anticipated that call in late June, he nervously waited in the kitchen of his parent’s house.

“The dream? Right now, to help Rigoberto Urán win the Tour de France,” Martínez said. “For me? We’ll see. It never hurts to dream.”

Someday soon, it’s likely that the dream of a first Colombian Tour de France winner will become a reality.

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