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VeloNews story of the decade: Colombian cycling rises

Cyclists from Colombia made a huge impact on the pro peloton over the last decade, as Rigoberto Uran, Nairo Quintana, and then Egan Bernal all scored top victories.

This story appeared in the November/December print issue of VeloNews Magazine. 

Egan Bernal’s historic win at the Tour de France sprung from decades of work, and hope, from Colombia’s top cyclists.

The roots of Bernal’s momentous yellow jersey harken back to the famous “escarabajos” — the climbing beetles — who conquered the European mountains in the 1980s. But the direct thread from Bernal to his arrival as Latin America and Colombia’s first Tour winner is much closer in scope.

“Colombia deserves this victory,” Bernal said in July. “We’ve had many great cyclists over the years, but for one reason or another, we never won. This yellow jersey belongs to all those great Colombian cyclists who came before me.”

Bernal became the first Colombian winner of the Tour de France, giving these fans something special to cheer. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

In truth, Colombian cycling endured fits and starts since those glory days of the 1980’s. A decade ago, Colombian cycling was a mere shadow of its former and present glory. In fact, in 2009 there were barely a half-dozen Colombians in the WorldTour. By contrast, this year 18 Colombians were racing across eight WorldTour teams.

How did one of cycling’s biggest turn-arounds happen? To understand that, you need to go back to its roots.

The globalization of the peloton that started in the 1980s saw the famed “escarabajos” at the center of a sport in transformation. Fearless attackers like Herrera and Parra won on Europe’s steepest mountains and rattled the established powers of France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy. In little more than a decade, this swashbuckling foreign legion converted the peloton into the international kaleidoscope of nationalities that it remains today.

But a funny thing happened on the road to cycling Nirvana. While non-traditional nations like the United States, Australia, and Great Britain all went on to win history-making first-ever Tour de France victories, the Colombians slipped backward. By the turn of the century, they had all but disappeared from the peloton.

Santiago Botero was Colombia’s biggest cycling star in the early 2000’s. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

“Today, every team wants to have Colombians, but that wasn’t always the case,” said Italian manager Gianni Savio, who famously signed Bernal to his first pro contract. “The Colombians have always been there. The big difference is that Europe has opened their eyes to the talent that is coming out of Latin America.”

There were a few reasons for the Colombian malaise. Political and economic turmoil during the worst years of the narco wars saw sponsorship dollars dry up in Colombia, nipping the growing sport off at the bud in its 1980’s heyday. It even became too dangerous to train. One of the lone Colombian standouts in the 1990s and early 2000s was Santiago Botero, a world time trial champion in 2002, who was forced to use an armed escort during his training rides.

Another reason was generational. Just as today there are no major U.S. GC stars, a decade or so ago, Colombia, too, suddenly saw a drought of talent. Stars inspire sponsorship dollars and a groundswell of new participants. So, while well-funded national programs in Australia and Great Britain poured millions into talent spotting in the 1990’s, Colombian cycling, by contrast, withered on the vine.

And then there was the specter of doping. One argument is that the use of blood-booster EPO negated the natural advantage held by the Colombians, many of who lived above 10,000 feet in the Andes. Latin American riders doped, too, but the natural-born advantage of altitude was largely neutralized.

Mauricio Soler brought Colombian cycling back into the limelight in 2007. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

By the end of the 1990s, nearly every rider had a hematocrit of 53 percent, no matter the elevation of your boyhood home. Some say it’s no coincidence that the great Colombian renaissance that began in the late “aughts” came just as the biological passport, EPO controls, and stricter testing came to the fore.

Colombian cycling saw its first high points in the mid-2000s, when regional teams popped up across the country. A revival of junior and local racing in Colombia flourished in the wake of an economic boom and political stability. Teams such as Coldeportes-Colombia and Colombia Es Pasión reopened the pathway of natural talent between the Andes and Europe.

The career of star-crossed talent Mauricio Soler, who won the King of the Mountains jersey and won a stage in the 2007 Tour, was cut short with a tragic career-ending crash in 2011. Soler was the forebearer of the innate talent pool that was poised to swarm Europe.

Skinny kids on second-hand bikes started showing up to local races and winning. The first was Rigoberto Urán, who at age 32 has become the godfather of Colombian cycling’s latest group of riders. Nairo Quintana was next. As a kid Quintana would ride a rusty mountain bike uphill 25km every day on the way back from school. By 2014, he would emerge as a popular hero of a reborn nation when he became the first Colombian to win the Giro d’Italia.

For a long time, it appeared as if Quintana would be the first to win the Tour. As a victor at the Vuelta a España and Giro, Quintana’s own Tour ambitions then hit a rut.

A key figure in the bridge between Europe and the Colombian renaissance is Savio, who signed then-unknown Bernal to a four-year contract at 19. He has had his finger on the pulse of Latin American cycling for decades.

Nairo Quintana burst onto the scene in 2013. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“It is my passion—to search out these pure talents, sometimes in lost villages in the mountains,” Savio said. Savio worked for years as the world’s coach for Colombia and stayed in close contact with local coaches, journalists and riders to tap bright raw talent. He brought dozens of talented riders to Europe. After a decade of this work, he found Bernal.

“I’ve always said when I signed him when he was only 19 years old that he is a true talent, and he is going to achieve great things,” Savio said. “And he’s proving me right.”

Today, the Colombian success has bypassed even Savio. Cycling’s top agents now troll the Colombian race results sheets and teams keep a close eye on young Colombians, hoping to sign the next Bernal or Quintana.

It appears Colombian cycling is just hitting its stride. Even as riders such as Urán and Quintana transition into the roles of elder statesmen, a new generation promises to keep the Colombian fire burning bright. With so many teams keen to sign Colombians, it’s unlikely that the sport will see another drought. Bernal leads a younger generation of riders such as Sergio Higuita, 22, Fernando Gaviria, 25, and the highly touted Iván Sosa, just 21; the future seems assured.

This comeback story seems permanent. The 2020’s could well be the decade of Colombian dominance.