Colombia Comes of Age
Ok. Quiz time. Can anyone name the first amateur to win a stage of the Tour de France? I’ll give you a clue – it was 1984, the stage to L’Alpe d’Huez. This is a rider who went on to become only the second ever to win the mountains classification in all three Grand Tours (the first was Federico Bahamontes). Of course, it’s Luis ‘Lucho’ Herrera, probably the most famous of the first generation of Colombian cyclists to race in Europe. Herrera was a devastatingly talented climber, and his lone victory on L’Alpe d’Huez, ahead of Hinault, Fignon, Lemond et al, was a watershed moment in world cycling. And yet, while all of Colombia celebrated his victory, it was an episode from the following year’s Tour de France, 21 years ago this July, that truly transformed Herrera into a national hero. An episode that also tells us a great deal about the Colombian relationship to cycling.
On stage 14 to St. Etienne, Herrera attacked on the only climb of the day. In the polka dot jersey of mountains leader – which, like most of his jerseys, looked too big for his slender frame – Herrera soloed to victory. Having crashed earlier in the day, blood poured down his face from a nasty cut above his left eye, and though it clearly wasn’t bothering him, this image of the bleeding, suffering victor made Herrera a national icon. Colombia has a long and deep history of cycling. It is connected to poor rural communities, to the landscape of the Andes, and to a fervent Catholic belief in the importance of suffering and martyrdom. The idea of a lone cyclist overcoming pain, high mountains and self-doubt is hard-wired into the Colombian consciousness.
As I write, Colombian cyclists have just pulled off a remarkable double. Nairo Quintana has won the Route du Sud and Miguel Angel Lopez the Tour de Suisse (arguably a triple – Jarlinson Pantano won the final stage in Switzerland). Whilst it would be wrong to call this year a ‘breakthrough’ for Colombian cycling – it’s too well-established for that – there does seem to be a gradual surge in confidence and performances. Quintana, the quiet man from Boyaca, is ranked third in the world and has a Giro victory on his palmares, alongside numerous smaller stage races and two second places in the Tour. Esteban Chaves nearly pulled off what would have been an astonishing win in this year’s Giro. Though he was unable to hold off the phoenix-like Vicenzo Nibali, 26 year old Chaves shows huge promise for the future. Lopez is younger still, at 22, and his win at the Tour de Suisse confirms the potential he displayed when he won the Tour de L’Avenir in 2014. Rigoberto Uran has also been riding strongly this year for his new team Cannondale. Most importantly he seems to be performing consistently, something he failed to do in any other team colours. And if these are the stars of the current generation, there are a host of other riders making their presence felt in the peloton – Pantano, the Henao brothers of Team Sky, Darwin Atapuma of BMC Racing, Winner Anacona & Dayer Quintana of Movistar, and Fernando Gaviria of Quickstep.
In the eighties the Colombians were treated as something of an oddity. Their climbing talent spoke for itself, but the peloton and the mainstream cycling media often ridiculed their inability to descend or ride on the flat. Such portrayals weren’t wholly unjust. Often the blue, red and yellow jerseys of the Café de Colombia team could be seen hanging around the back of the peloton on flat stages, only ever a few moments away from being caught behind a crash or an echelon split. Today’s Colombian riders are far more adept at handling themselves in the peloton, and they spend time training specifically for time trials. This is partly because they all ride for European teams and have access to all the same coaching and resources as their Grand Tour rivals. They understand that climbing alone will not win a Grand Tour. A case in point was Quintana’s participation in the Belgian cobbled classics last year. He wasn’t there to win, merely to get a feel for riding on the cobbles in preparation for the Tour de France. Hard to imagine Herrera or his peer Fabio Parra doing that.
Perhaps because they were largely unsophisticated country boys, perhaps because they had no antecedents to follow, or perhaps because they faced racist behaviour in the European system, the Colombian cyclists of the eighties stayed in their own team where they felt safe. Now that cycling has modernized and become more international, the career path for a promising young Colombian rider is to start with a domestic team, gain experience and exposure, then jump into a European team where they can realize their full potential. It’s a model that seems to be working.
Nairo Quintana’s preparation for this year’s Tour de France has been faultless. He has the absolute support of his team, who respect his modest yet steely character, and he knows the passion of a nation is behind him. Yet in a sense it doesn’t really matter if he wins or loses; all he has to do is suffer.