After the first stage of the Tour de San Luis, Mark Cavendish made sure he congratulated Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria on his win. Though he'd never heard of the 20 year old sprinter, he was no doubt impressed by his speed. Still, at a post-race press conference, Cavendish said he hadn't seen the "200 meters to go" sign, and it was perhaps for that reason that Gaviria, who launched an early sprint at 300 meters to go, had won. But then it happened again in the 176 kilometer stage from Concoran to Juan Koslay. This time, Cavendish took to Twitter, and was more forthcoming.
"He has phenomenal acceleration that's hard to close a gap to. Impressive."
And while some might opine that Gaviria's win could say more about Cavendish than the young Colombian, it's worth mentioning that Lampre's Sacha Modolo (who had eight victories to this name last year) was also beaten, as were other capable sprinters. And with that, it's a Colombian sprinter, not a climber or GC rider, who is getting all the attention. Which of course brings up one obvious question. Who is Fernando Gaviria?
A cycling academy and a family
As is often the case in Colombian sport, the story of one athlete uncovers a vast human network, which (as I've often argued) is one of the unique constructs that makes Colombian cycling what it is. This story is no different.
Fernando Gaviria Rendon was born in 1994 in La Ceja (making him a "Cejeño"), some 50 minutes away from Medellin. La Ceja has a population of 49,000, and sits at 7,200 feet in altitude, surrounded by the kind of rolling terrain and flower plantations that are common throughout southeastern Antioquia. He began riding a bike on his own at 3 years old, later taking up soccer, volleyball and basketball while attending La Paz school, where he proved to be a less-than-fantastic student, mostly due to small disciplinary matters that often required calls to his parents. Within his family, Gaviria is known as "El Niño" (the kid) and "Care-mico" (a contraction of two words that mean "monkey face") as terms of endearment .
I've written before about Colombian terms of endearment given by parents, which may sometimes sound negative when translated and taken out of context. Nairo Quintana's family, for example, refer to him as "little blackie". I assure you, these are somewhat standard things that parents call us Colombian kids, and no ill-will is meant by it. To the contrary.
At any rate, sports were always a part of Fernando's life, and it was speed skating that first got his attention . He was incredibly devoted to the sport, but once he found cycling, he put his speed skates aside for good. Gaviria then joined a cycling academy, which happened to be headed up by his father Hernando, himself once a sprinter who raced in many of Colombia's top races during his youth. As a kid, Fernando would often angrily ask his father why he'd been dropped on a climb during a race, unaware of the tough realities faced by sprinters in Colombian racing.
The Clecilja Club, Escuela de Ciclismo, run by Hernando Gaviria, is one of countless cycling schools/academies that dot the Colombian countryside. Usually run by retired professionals, or parents with a history in the sport, it's in these institutions that nearly all competitive Colombian cyclists learn about the sport (I discussed this at length in a similar post about Julian Arredondo). Gaviria's initial focus was on the road, eventually shifting to the track, as he moved to Medellin. There, he became part of Colombia's cycling milieu, watching the grand tours attentively, and coming to idolize one rider in particular, Mark Cavendish.
Around the same time, his sister Juliana began racing on the track as well. She's now an olympian with several records to her name. Like her brother, Juliana also started on the road, but these days devotes herself fully to the track. In fact, this past October, while at Medellin's velodrome, she laughed as she told me how much she hates racing on the road.
Like Rigoberto Uran, Carlos Betancur, Sergio Henao, Julian Arredondo and many others, Gaviria's path then went through Indeportes Antioquia, a program created to develop regional sports talent that is fully funded by the department of Antioquia. This institution, whose headquarters are in Medellin, aims to spot talent, nurture it, and help it grow to the highest level. Aside from cycling, Indeportes Antioquia supports speed skating, track and field, boxing, soccer, wrestling, gymnastics, baseball, basketball, and even chess and bowling among many others.
Speaking with Mauricio Mosquera, the director of Indeportes Antioquia in Medellin, I asked about the specific aim of these programs. Without putting much thought into it, Mosquera answered, "to make better citizens, better Colombians. The wins and the championships will likely come. But that's not our focus. We see sport as having a greater purpose."
It was through this program that Fernando Gaviria began his cycling career in earnest (though he still worked with his father as a coach), leading to a win at 18 years of age that got him a fair amount of attention regionally. He became the U23 champion of Antioquia, urging his team that day to cover every break, in order to force a sprint. His team did just that, delivering Gaviria to the last kilometer. This win, along with several others that he earned, helped get him a contract with the local (UCI continental) Coldeportes-Claro team. By 2012, he was awarded the Breakout Star of the Year award in the same ceremony where Colombia's sportsman of the year is honored. On that occasion, it was mostly his performances on the track that earned him the award.
Partial list of his 2012 palmares:
National champion, TT
National champion, points race
National champion, team pursuit
National Champion, Madison
World Champion, Omnium
World Champion, Madison
Sprinter's jersey, Vuelta al Porvenir
News story (in Spanish) about the female riders from the Clecija cycling academy. Fernando's father Hernando (club president) is interviewed.
With time, Gaviria's stock within Colombian cycling continued to rise as he mostly focused on the track, while still competing in races like the Tour de l'Avenir in 2014, later winning the PanAmerican road race and then the Omnium at the World Cup in London.
Before going to San Luis, Gaviria admitted to the Colombian press that he was a bit nervous about the race. "There's a chance for sidewinds, something we don't experience where in Colombia. To race at that level will be a huge challenge." He also said that he was trying to be realistic about his goals, and stated several times that he was very much focused on several track events coming up, eventually leading to the next Olympics. In that sense, it's possible that his two wins against World Tour riders is almost as much a surprise to him as they have been to many others. Though if you look at his past accomplishments, it's easy to see that his star was on the rise.
Now, with these two victories in San Luis (racing for the state-backed and Postobon-sponsored Colombian national team), the 20 year old has most certainly gotten the attention of the cycling world. He's still under contract for 2015 with the Coldeportes-Claro team, though where he'll eventually end up is anybody's guess.
UPDATE (January 23, AM): Colombian journalist Pablo Arbelaez reports on Twitter that Etixx-Quick Step is the first team to have made contact with Gaviria. He has already turned in results from recent tests, and they are sending a representative to speak wit him.