Here come the Colombians again! In the 1980s, Colombian riders, supported by a sponsor benefiting from high coffee prices, played the role of heroic outsiders in the Grand Tours. When it came to climbing, they flew like birds; but they were always uncomfortable on descents and cobbles. The Colombians of the class of 2013 have reprised the romantic image cultivated by their elders but have more depth of experience and a more determined attitude, as has become so apparent in races all around the world.
The Colombians have become a dominant force on the UCI America Tour â€“ in terms of the Nations Ranking which they have won six times in eight years, as well as in the individual classification, led by Ã“scar SÃ¡nchez at the end of June. A Colombian rider, Julian David Arredondo, also leads the individual ranking of the UCI Asia Tour, riding for the Japanese Team Nippo-De Rosa. But the UCI Continental Circuits are not enough to satisfy Colombian appetites. The UCI WorldTour is now on their agenda, with success in the Ardennes classics (Carlos Betancur), victory in the Tour of the Basque Country (Nairo Quintana) and second place in the Giro d'Italia (Rigoberto UrÃ¡n). The Colombian flag even flew at the top of the UCI WorldTour Nations Ranking for the first three weeks of June, ahead of Spain and Italy.
"This is a golden age," sums up Ramiro Valencia Cossio. The President of the Colombian Cycling Federation identifies the Olympic Games last year, when UrÃ¡n won the silver medal in the road race, as the starting point for this unprecedented Colombian success.
From the Tour de lâ€™Avenir to the Tour de France
Colombia's passion for cycling goes back at least to the 1950s. Fausto Coppi and Hugo Koblet were invited to race in Colombia, while a Frenchman, the 1948 Olympic road champion JosÃ© Beyaert, took on the task of developing cycling in the country. But the Colombians wanted to turn the tables: rather than taking on the Europeans in Colombia, they sought to challenge them in their own back yard.
Martin "Cochise" Rodriguez, a track specialist, turned professional for Bianchi in 1973, and rode in support of Felice Gimondi. Seven years later, Alfonso FlÃ³rez won the Tour de l'Avenir, the biggest stage race for amateurs, and opened up the possibility of Colombians competing in the Tour de France. In the CafÃ© de Colombia era (1985-1990), the climber Luis Herrera won three stages and two polka-dot jerseys in the Tour de France as well as the general classification of the 1987 Vuelta a EspaÃ±a.
Since that time, cycling has become more than a sport in Colombia. It has been a means of building bonds in Colombian society and has promoted national pride; it has become a priority for the state.
With government assistance, the Colombian Federation has attempted to improve upon the successes of the past. In 2007, the Federation supported a project to set up a UCI Continental team, Colombia es PasiÃ³n, for Under-23 riders. Then the Tour de lâ€™Avenir again became the target â€“ with success in 2010 and 2011 with Colombian riders on the top step of the podium. The team developed alongside its young riders: it achieved UCI Professional Continental status and then ceded its place to another second division structure in 2012, a team known simply as Colombia, a team which received an invitation to the 2013 Giro dâ€™Italia.
The government has now established an impressive development pyramid, starting with clubs, leading onto the UCI Continental Team known as 472-Colombia (third division), the Colombia team (second division) and finally riders in the UCI WorldTour such as Team Sky's Sergio Henao and Rigoberto UrÃ¡n.
Cycling unites the nation
The Colombia team, the central link in the chain, was set up by the Ministry of Sport. The Minister explained why cycling is a political project in this Latin American country: "Sport helps to unify a country â€“ through peace rather than by conflict. I was inspired by people such as Nelson Mandela. Mandela used rugby to bring the divided nation of South Africa together. I think we can do the same in Colombia with cycling."
Victories in the Tour de lâ€™Avenir, impressive performances in the Tour de France, work with young riders and setting up a national team: Colombia is clearly on the right road. The result is that Colombian riders are sought after by professional teams all around the world.
The authorities, committed to road cycling, have also set up new development structures for other cycling disciplines. The UCI has recognised this work by awarding two World Championships to Colombia; on the Track in Cali in 2015 and in BMX in MedellÃn in 2016.