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Cycling’s new home: welcome to the Tour of Colombia

25 Nov 2020

Cyclist visited the 2020 Tour of Colombia early this year to discover why all eyes are now on this South American nation

Words: Rebecca Reza Photography: Jered Gruber

Perhaps it’s something in the water. Perhaps it’s the training roads that soar up high among the clouds. For decades the world has been mystified by how the escarabajos – the beetles – of Colombia can be so adept at scaling the most challenging climbs on the world stage, leaving their European competitors in their wake.

And in Colombia itself, the legendary exploits of cyclists from Martín ‘Cochise’ Rodriguez more than half a century ago to historic Tour winner Egan Bernal last July have built a passion for the bicycle among its people that can easily rival that of their counterparts along the cobbles of Belgium or the switchbacks of the Alps and Dolomites.

Driving up the winding road in the mountains above Bogotá, the nation’s capital, the sounds of cowbells and animated chatter of Spanish commentators on Colombian radio fill the air. Anxious fans have lined the roads for hours, like they have all week. They’re waiting for the riders of the peloton to arrive, while the policia try frantically to control their enthusiasm.

It is 16th February 2020, and we’re at the sixth and final stage of the Tour of Colombia. In just three years the race has captured the imagination of the nation, and people have travelled from all over Colombia and Latin America to see their idols in person.

Cycling is more than a sport in Colombia. It is engrained in the culture. Equally, the bike is not just a shiny specimen of the latest in industry technology. In Colombia, the bike represents opportunity; it is a means of transportation for many and it’s integrated into nearly every aspect of Colombian life. When it comes to struggling up a mountain on a bicycle, class distinctions mean nothing.

Joining the crowds

‘Colombian cycling has sabor – flavour,’ says William Laverde, one of the many fans that Cyclist meets beside the road on the finishing straight of Stage 6.

‘In football they dive, they fall for a penalty and roll around,’ he says dismissively. ‘Cycling is the bigger sport here. We have spent decades listening to the radio, following the races since we were kids, and we begin riding at four or five years of age. It is thanks to that culture that we have the best cyclists in the world.’

Over the past decade the sport has indeed grown to challenge football as the top sport in the country thanks to the rise of the current generation of stars, which includes Rigoberto Uran, Esteban Chaves, Nairo Quintana, Miguel Àngel Lopez and, of course, Bernal.

‘It’s a dream come true for Colombians,’ says Ernesto Luceno Barrero, the newly appointed Minister of Sports for Colombia. ‘Cycling is part of our lives. If you see Colombian scenery, most of the things we do involve riding on a bike.’

During the 1980s the country gained notoriety as the epicentre of the drug war in the Americas, led by the infamous Pablo Escobar and his Medellín drug cartel. Through smuggling and cocaine distribution he became one of the richest men in the world, but his actions in protecting his trade also turned Colombia into the murder capital of the world.

More than 20 years later the country continues to struggle with this stereotype, despite the violence having long since abated.

‘The people of cycling in Colombia, our idols, have shown to the world that we’re a different society to the one we’ve shown in the past,’ Barrero says. ‘Cycling is the most important sport in Colombia right now.

‘As Nairo, as Egan, as Rigo and all of our cyclists show the world, Colombia has talent, and we have now won the three biggest races in the world. In the future we are going to keep on supporting those youngsters, to show that peace can be made through sport.’

Watching the children racing their bikes up the hills and through the valleys around Bogotá, it is easy to imagine that there are many more Bernals and Quintanas in the pipeline. WorldTour team bosses and pro cycling agents are keenly aware of this, and many of them have joined the trek to South America in February, hoping to discover the next escarabajo star. Every professional team wants a Colombian rider. Ask the fans to choose their favourite, and the list covers every Colombian currently racing in Europe.

One important name missing from the line-up at today’s race, however, is ‘Nairoman’ himself. Having left Spanish team Movistar last year, Quintana now races for French Pro Continental squad Arkéa-Samsic, and as a result he was required to begin his season in France.

This region north of Bogotá is his home, however, and race organisers have been keen to point out that, despite not being present this time around, Quintana was instrumental in choosing the route for the 2020 edition.

Yesterday, while fans were gathering for the penultimate stage of the Tour of Colombia, they were also glued to their radios listening as ‘Nairoman’ went on a solo attack up the infamous Mont Ventoux at the Tour de Provence. He would go on to win the stage and keep the leader’s yellow jersey to the race finish the following day.

His exploits saw Colombia’s national papers give him top billing, even above the eventual winner at the Tour of Colombia, EF Education First Pro Cycling’s Sergio Higuita.

‘They are all a part of us,’ says James Castillo, another fan from Bogotá. ‘It’s very difficult to pick just one. Yesterday, Nairo won in France, he escaped and we were watching in our hotel. Nairo is one of our best representatives that we have in the world… but we love them all. All of them are our brothers, our family.’

Everyone wants a taste

‘Colombians are taking over cycling,’ says Tejay van Garderen at EF’s pre-race press conference. ‘I came to Colombia last year to train after the Tour of California. I was training with Rigo [Uran] and after that experience I told the team I had to come back and do this race. I had to soak in everything I could while I was in this country.’

In doing so Van Garderen echoed a trend that began several years ago, and one the Tour of Colombia has helped accelerate. Last season Chris Froome spent several weeks in the country before the 2019 Tour of Colombia, spending his time here doing altitude training. At the beginning of this year, three-time World Champion Peter Sagan flew over for his own block of training.

The warm weather and high altitude are obviously more appealing to many riders than training in Europe over the winter. And no doubt many of those riders are hoping that some of the Colombian magic will rub off on them. It isn’t just the high altitude or the length of the climbs that holds the secret to Colombian success – it’s the people and culture of the country itself.

‘I’m always really happy to be here in Colombia to race because of the atmosphere,’ says QuickStep’s Julian Alaphilippe before this year’s Tour. ‘I really love to be here. The race is always exciting. If I can, I want to continue starting my season here every year.’

For many of the sport’s big names, the Tour of Colombia’s place early in the year means they have only a few weeks of racing in their legs when they ride it, or are even just starting their annual campaigns. You would expect them to sit in the peloton and build up the miles for later in the season, but this race has a passion and an intensity to it that wouldn’t be out of place on a Grand Tour.

That is even more true for the Colombians. They’re here to win, and every day the stage leaderboard and general classification is loaded with Colombian names. The three editions of the Tour of Colombia have each been won by a different Colombian: Bernal in 2018, López in 2019 and Higuita this time around.

Heading for the heights

During the final climb to the finish on Alto Once de Verjón, the scene – like that intensity – could easily be straight out of a European summer. Giro d’Italia champion Richard Carapaz puts in a monstrous pull for his new teammate, Tour de France champion Bernal. They’re leading an 11-man breakaway that includes Uran, Higuita, Chaves, Dani Martinez, Sergio Henao and a host of other Colombians.

Once Carapaz has burned his final match with 3km to go, Bernal is left to battle it out against a four-man train from Education First, giving Higuita plenty of options for the finish. The EF men will finish one-two on the stage, with Martinez leading Higuita across the line.

The Colombian riders have held the advantage all week, with the race remaining mostly up at around 3,000m. Their efforts over the six stages have been their way of thanking the fans for all the support they have shown, whether in person or abroad throughout the European season.

‘It’s the most important and beautiful race of the year,’ says Bernal afterwards. ‘A race that Colombians are waiting for during the entire pre-season. It is a special opportunity to share it with the people of Colombia – our family and friends.

‘I always do my best to respect the race and respect my teammates who come over to help me get the best result possible, even if I’m not at 100%. It’s a beautiful thing for me to have won the first Tour of Colombia and now the Tour de France.

‘The Tour of Colombia is gaining a lot of points. It’s a beautiful race with good organisation, top teams and leaders arriving here with the intention of racing well. They have respect for all of the Colombians racing. It is something that is very important for us and something that we are very proud of.’

Hundreds of thousands of fans have lined the streets all week. In 2019 race organisers estimated seven million came out to see the race; 2020 is no different. Back on the side of the mountain high above Bogotá, William Laverde is still waving his Colombian flag.

‘We have mountains, we have valleys, we have respect in the streets, the traffic respects the distance given to cyclists, we know the sport,’ he says. ‘I will be a cycling fan until I die.’