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A Call to Arms
by Klaus (cyclinginquisition.com)
You’ve probably read the term, or heard it at some point. It’s an unusual but now popular bit of shorthand used among the cycling press: “the Colombians.” More often than not, this moniker is used in the past tense to encompass a hundred riders or more who raced in Europe for the better part of a decade, after the first all-Colombian team took part in the Tour de France in 1983. In a sense, the use of the term suits the memory that many have of South America’s most feared climbers. To European riders of the time, Colombia’s cyclists came seemingly “out of nowhere” — another stock phrase that is still often used — and then largely disappeared after the early 1990s, further adding to their mystique.
In reality, Colombian cyclists were always present in European cycling, albeit among international teams, and seldom riding for their own interests. So, while Colombian riders continued to amass impressive accomplishments well after Lucho Herrera retired, this year’s Giro d’Italia has served as a re-introduction of “the Colombians.”
With the last all-Colombian team having ridden in the Giro twenty one years ago, a great deal of attention was given to the fact that a total of fifteen riders from the South American country lined up at the start of this year’s race, among them the state-sponsored Team Colombia. Additionally, there was Jose Serpa (Lampre-Merida), Cayetano Sarmiento (Cannondale), Carlos Betancur (AG2R), Sergio Henao (Team Sky) and Rigoberto Urán (Team Sky). The sheer number was both impressive and unusual. This got the attention of the press, but also of fans in Colombia who continued to long for the golden age of the 1980s, a time when Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra soared over European mountain passes.
A call to arms
In 1988, Fabio Enrique Parra, a native of Boyacá (one of Colombia’s most cycling-rich departments) was third overall at the Tour de France. This was but one of Parra’s accomplishments in professional cycling, but it remains the one that is most often mentioned in the Colombian media. Through his years as a professional, Parra was a confident but reserved individual. Today, despite his success as the owner of a large plastics company, and the ongoing reverence fellow Colombians have for him, Parra is still reserved and seldom speaks to the press about cycling. All of which made Parra’s comments before stage 19 into Galibier that much more significant. The 53 year-old took to Twitter to cheer on the newest generation of Colombian climbers.
“…Seize the mountain!” he stated, later adding, “A partial victory, the general, or a competition [like the KOM] will require an alliance between all Colombians…”
And with that, Colombian fans looked on, in hopes that Parra’s words would come true: a partial victory, a strong showing, and perhaps an alliance between Colombians across teams. It all seemed unlikely within the context of modern cycling.
Even before Parra’s words of encouragement, Colombian riders at the Giro were well aware of the importance that many placed on their mere attendance to the race. And they behaved accordingly. Team Colombia’s Jarlinson Pantano, Darwin Atapuma, Fabio Duarte and Robinson Chalapud demonstrated Team Colombia’s stubborn will to fight. The team was present in breaks and attacks, coming heartbreakingly close to victory despite the fact that many of the team’s riders were competing in their first grand tour. They were given a monumental task, and performed accordingly while holding their head up high. Similarly, Teams Sky’s duo of Henao and Urán did their part in salvaging their team’s race after Wiggins’ unexpected departure.
But they didn’t simply salvage it. Along with their teammates, they made it their own.
Urán took stage 10, and finished second overall, making him only the third Colombian in history to ever stand on the podium at a grand tour. This puts Urán in mythical company, and safely places him among Colombia’s best in the sport. Henao, who rode in support of his long-time friend, finished 16th, while demonstraing his abilities once again. Henao and Urán, who began racing together in their early teens, have also lived together for some time in Pamplona, though they seldom train together. The reason? As Urán tells it, he enjoys to train at slow speeds, while Henao insists on training much faster. It’s a bit of incompatibility that they’ve learned to work through over the years.
An abundance of riches
Amazingly, Colombia’s talent doesn’t stop at its eponymous team, or Sky’s riders. Perhaps the most significant revelation among all Colombian riders at the Giro was Ag2r’s Carlos Betancur, who finished fifth overall and earned the white jersey. Betancur, who was born in the small town of Ciudad Bolivar, proved his abilities among the sport’s best. “Bananito” as he’s known by friends and family, started his professional career shortly after his overall victory at the GiroBio in 2010. At the Giro, he was a constant protagonist, showing his abilities on long climbs, much as he did in the short but steep pitches of the Ardennes earlier in the year.
As a whole, the 2013 Giro proved to be a coming out party of sorts for this current generation of Colombian riders, despite their long list of accomplishments prior to this race. One simply can’t ignore Urán’s silver medal in London, the white jersey he earned at last year’s Giro, or Henao’s impressive first grand tour in that same race. It would be foolish and disrespectful to do so. Having said that, this Giro spoke volumes about the future of Colombian riders, who in turned peaked the interest of international fans and the press. They did so much in the way that Parra and Herrera did in their day.
In fact, it wasn’t just the press who looked on with interest as this year’s Giro unfolded. Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos, followed the race closely through its entirety. After stage 20 finished at Tre Cime di Lavaredo, as Duarte, Urán and Betancur showed their amazing climbing abilities together, president Santos placed a call to Duarte, congratulating him and relaying how emotional it had been for him to watch the stage. Santos, himself an avid cyclist and fan of the sport, no doubt realized the historical significance of his call. It was in 1984 after all, that then-president Belisario Betancur made a similar call to Martin Ramirez, after he’d won the Dauphiné Libéré.
Along with the president, fans and fellow professionals in Colombia followed the race closely. In fact, Saturday’s stage in the prestigious Vuelta a Antioquia was delayed by more than two hours, not due to weather, but simply to allow all riders, directors and organizers to watch their friends and past teammates take on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where they no doubt saw Team Colombia’s Wilson Marentes give Carlos Betancur a helpful push, while Urán, Duarte and Betancur later rode together for much of the final snowbound kilometer of the climb.
The trio’s ascent led to Urán jumping up to second in the GC, ahead of Cadel Evans. It was an amazing display of the talent and fortitude that this generation of Colombian riders have. And as riders in the Vuelta a Antioquia gathered to watch this display, it became apparent that maybe Fabio Parra wasn’t just an out of touch dreamer. Maybe he has outdated notions within the context of modern cycling. Maybe he’s just an ardent Colombian fan. But maybe, just maybe, he was right.
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