You may not know who she is. But if you've noticed the rise in quality of Colombian riders at the World Tour level (Quintana, Chaves, Pantano, Atapuma, Henao), you should know that Luisa Fernanda Rios played a crucial part in the development of those riders, and in the current state of Colombian cycling at the highest level. As general manager of the Manzana Postobon team (previously Colombia Es Pasion and 4-72 Colombia), Luisa Fernanda oversaw the development of all the riders I just mentioned. Plus many others. She's been a constant and important presence in the Colombian peloton, guiding her team through countless setbacks with a positive outlook that is admirable.
Luisa Fernanda came to the Manzana Postobon team as its general manager nine years ago, in large part because she was a complete outsider to the sport. Something that Colombia Es Pasion directors were looking for, as they felt disheartened by the status of Colombian cycling. Now, backed by the largest soft drink maker in Colombia, Manzana Postobon has been invited to this year's Vuelta a España. I spoke with Luisa Fernanda to understand what their Vuelta a España invite means for the sponsor, the team, and ultimately, a country.
Your team started in 2006. Like with all small teams, the dream of going to a grand tour was always there. But at the end of last season, when you applied for your Pro Continental license, that dream became a realistic goal. Was it a clear and obvious part of your plan for this year from the start?
It was. We tried to be smart about it, and planned for it. To that end, we began to lobby for an invite, and had meetings last year with the Vuelta organizers, including Javier Guillen, in Madrid, and executives from Postobon. That was last September. So that was happening as we were applying for our Pro Continental license. But we felt confident in that process, and were working on both initiatives at once. So we were very forward with the Vuelta organizers. We told them specifically that we wanted to do that race, that we would work hard to get there, and would make the most of an invitation. We weren't coy about it. So I have to say that our strategy worked.
Once this season started, were you in touch with the organizers? Or was it simply understood that your performance in early-season races would help determine your invite?
We weren't in touch with them directly, no. But what we did was let it be known that our performances in our early-season races in Europe were very good. We wanted to let those news get to them, to assure them that we were on the same competitive level as the other teams who sought an invite. Because of that, we thought long and hard about the kinds of races that we picked for the early part of the season. We wanted to make sure they would suit us in terms of topography, style of racing and everything else. I have to say that the strategy worked there as well, as we had great showings in those races (KOM jersey at Algarve, two stage wins at the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal). And then we knew that the Vuelta a Catalunya would be a big part of the decision as well.
How did you get the news about the Vuelta a España?
We were told the decision would be made in April. So we were surprised when, on the 27th of March, the news broke through social media. We were at the Vuelta a Catalunya, at the hotel, and we couldn't believe it. It was emotional, because I've been with the team for nine years, and during that time we've been through a lot. Many setbacks, having to start from scratch again and again...so it was fantastic news.
And what does it mean to you, in a pragmatic sense, that you are now invited?
Now begins the real work for me. See, when you dream big, and you work hard, things come true, and that's when you then have to deliver.
What does this invitation means for the team in terms of the race calendar, in terms of budget or anything else that might have to shift or change as a result?
In terms of our calendar, nothing changes. Because the moment we decided that the Vuelta was our goal, we chose our races around that. And that even includes the work we are doing now. We have a block of races coming up now in France. All one-day races, which we are using to get our young riders acclimated to racing in Europe, in technical situations. So they can see and feel what it's like to race there.
Then we have another block of races with Asturias, Comunidad de Madrid, and later Burgos. So all these races are once we picked with the thought of working toward the Vuelta, and to help our young riders get the experience they need. Because we have a very, very young team.
How does this invite affect other aspects of the season? I can only imagine that it's a difficult thing to take on because doing a grand tour is very expensive.
It is. So on my end, the reality is that my budget doesn't change simply because we got an invite. The money I have, is what I have to work with. But we need more mechanics, more soigneurs. We have greater logistical needs now. We need more cars, and we need a bus, which we don't have. But I go about it in a realistic way. I will make the most of what we have, and try to find creative ways to get around these challenges. But we can do it, and we believe that our sponsor will fall in love even further with the sport once again (the same company sponsored a team in the 80s and 90s). With good performances will come a bigger budget. But again, we have to step up and deliver.
What is the team's budget for this year?
1.2 million Euro. While teams at the World Tour level have budgets that are, at the very least, around seven times that. Of course we also have sponsors like Gios, Shimano and others, but that's the money we have to work with. So I have to figure out who can sponsor the cost of the bus. What companies can I reach out to, in order to get the personal I need for that race. So Saldarriaga (the team's coach) now has to fight to get our riders ready for the race, while I have my own fight, of getting the funds we need, and everything in order so that everything is taken care of for the race.
When will the riders for the Vuelta be chosen?
It will take a while, because we don't yet know what form some of our riders are really in. We have to make sure they'll be able to perform...but there are also unforeseen things that happen. For example, we wanted to have Antonio Piedra (formerly of Caja Rural) in our team for the Vueulta, to help with his experience at that race. He was going to be a big part of our team there, but he had a crash, and won't be training for another three months or more. So we're having to figure things out as we go.
I don't want to jump ahead too much, since this invitation just happened. But allow me to look into the future just a bit. With your calendar and perhaps budget growing, does the type and prominence of rider that you can sign suddenly grow or change a bit for next year?
We came into this season knowing that we are a very young team. We have young riders with amazing, amazing potential. But they are young, and they need time to develop. So we want to get older riders around them, who can help them grow. Part of that is that we went from having one, to now having three European riders. I expect the same thing to happen going into next year. Because our focus is that we have to let our young riders, who we feel very strongly about, develop. So we will do what it takes to help them along the way. But it's a process.
That, to me, is the key word here. Process. Manzana Postobon is a small team. The team picked and helped develop some of the very best cyclists racing today. But it took time. Sometimes a it takes a long time for the fruits of that labor to be visible. So my question to you is, does the sponsor understand, realistically, what the team can, and perhaps can't accomplish in high-level races in Europe at this point?
They do understand. They do. We've educated them about the growth that is needed in the sport, and how the process works. So we've always made sure that everyone's feet are firmly planted on the ground. For example, it would be downright silly of us to say that we are going for the GC at the Vuelta, and we want to win five stages. Impossible. Just silly. But we can outline realistic goals, and let everyone know what is possible, and still dream big.
Which brings up something I've noticed among Colombian cycling fans. And much of the press. Some of them are well informed, know the history of the sport, and yet fail to realize what is, and is not possible for certain riders and certain teams. Perhaps it's not about managing expectations, but simply educating people about the realities of the sport.
Yes. Absolutely. That's something we've always known, and something we've worked on, educating the public. In part because cycling is once again gaining popularity in Colombia, and with that comes a new audience. So that's part of our charter, to educate fans about the sport. About the different roles that riders within a race have, about the different types of races, and what kind of rider they are suited for. That type of thing.
Which makes me think of something you as a team have done, which is to focus and work on disciplines and aspects of racing that Colombian teams have sort of ignored in the past. Time trials, cross winds, sprinting, as well as having interest in the kind of races that take place in Belgium, versus solely mountain stages.
Yes, because we want to develop Colombian cyclists that are more complete. For example, something as simple as descending. We know that if you can't descend well, you can't win. So we are aware of what a rider's strength is, we don't ignore that, but we make sure they work on other areas. On the flats, for example. And that's something that we start with them from the start, from when they are very young. That's something that we've always liked about working with young riders. They can learn. The older riders get, the harder it is to reset their hard drive, if you will. So that's one thing that I've always felt we have going for us.
Forgive me for jumping ahead a good bit. But if you and I speak a day or a week after the Vuelta is over, what will you consider to have been a successful race for the team. What does a good Vuelta a España look like for Manzana Postobon?
That we fought and did everything we could on every stage. That we fought for the young rider's classification, maybe for the mountains classification. And more importantly, to be protagonists. To be part of the race, and to play a part in some stages. That, to me, would be a real success. To be sure that we are seen, and to make it known that we are there. Yes, we are a small team. We are a young team, but we give it all, and have no regrets in the end. And I'm confident that we'll do that in Spain. For our team, for our sponsor, and for all of Colombia. Because we know that we represent our sponsors, but also our country. And we are very proud of that.
I have to admit that the Thereabouts: Colombia film was not on my radar. Having just seen it, I have to say that it's very well done, interesting and worth a watch. Below is the trailer for the film, you can watch it for $5 on Vimeo. Check it out.
Friendly tip of the day. Don't ask your Colombian friend or co-worker if they've watched Narcos. Just don't.