Jarlinson Pantano in Saturday's Strada Bianche (the "J" in his first name is soft, and pronounced like the "h" in "holiday")
In 2010, the Tour de France started without a single Colombian rider for the first time in 27 years. In a way, that event best exemplifies the relationship I've had with professional cycling during the last few years. Like others, I've watched and become invested in races. I've enjoyed the spectacle and (dare I say) the beauty of the sport. But the euphoric joy and devastating lows I experienced as a kid watching the Cafe De Colombia team were mere memories. For the last few years, there simply haven't been enough Colombian riders at the highest level to warrant consistently high expectations. Instead I delighted in the occasional flash of brilliance from a Colombian rider, and smiled when I saw the faces of riders like Leonardo Duque, Cayetano Sarmiento and Carlos Betancur pop up during races.
But as I look around today, it's tempting to say that Colombian cycling is waking from a long slumber. Perhaps "slumber" is too strong a word, and downplays the accomplishments of many riders who raced and succeeded after what many consider to be the golden years of Colombian cycling. Riders like Alvaro Mejia (white jersey at the Tour in '91, and fourth in '93), Chepe Gonzalez (stage winner at the Tour and Giro, and winner of the mountains classification at the Giro in '97 an '99), Oliverio Rincon (second in the Duphine, stage winner in the Giro, Vuelta and Tour) and Nelson Rodriguez (stage winner at the Tour, sixth in the Giro) certainly deserve some respect for their accomplishments.
But today, there are four Colombian riders in ProTeam squads (two in Sky, one in Movistar, one in Liquigas and one in Lampre), and a Professional Continental team that is entirely Colombian. With this in mind, the 2010 Tour de France seems like a distant memory. At least it did this weekend. Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia-Coldeportes) managed to stay with an impressive group for much of the Strada Bianche, a race that didn't suit his abilities. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) won the Vuelta a Murcia, and Jose Serpa (Androni Giocattoli ) won the Tour de Langkawi.
Later this week, Colombia-Coldeportes starts Tirreno Adriatico, and confirmed invites to Milan-San Remo, Criterium International, Giro del Trentino, Fleche Wallone, Tour of California, and the Dauphine await.
Am I foolishly getting carried away with excitement? Perhaps. But this is where I find myself, as Colombian cyclists have slowly started to come back into the foreground so early in the season. For some time, I've tried hard to keep my potentially overbearing patriotism in check (hard to believe when you consider the focus of this blog, I know). But now, I'm suddenly being thrown back into my childhood. The days of listening to the Tour de France on the radio in the summer of 1984 seem less distant at times like these. So too does the potential outpouring of emotions that can come when any Colombian starts following a sport too closely. It's a feature (or flaw, depending on who you ask) that appears to be hardwired in all of us who were born and raised there.
Pantano talks about his ride at Strada Bianche:
You can watch an interview that Pantano did during the huge party that greeted him in the city of Cali upon his return from winning the polka dot jersey at the Tour d l'Avenir in 2010 here.
Still, I'd like to think that I'm more control of emotions than I was in 1984. I have to sit back and enjoy the spectacle, remembering to keep my emotions in check.
Not long ago, I spoke with Jose Duarte, for the article I wrote for Peloton magazine. Duarte is an expert framemaker with over fifteen thousand frames under his belt. He's a fixutre in Colombian cycling, and a keen observer of the sport (he was also national road champion in the late 50s). In speaking with him about the golden years of Colombian cycling, Duarte had an unusual, but telling insight. As he sees it, Colombia's love affair with the sport came to a halt when most expected it to explode once again. He believes that when Lucho Herrera won the Vuelta a España in 1987, many fans in Colombia became restless. Nothing could satiate their desires.
“We saw ourselves as the underdogs in the 1980s. Being invited to the Tour made us ecstatic. Then, winning a stage at the Tour made the entire country go absolutely insane. When Lucho won the Vuelta, it was unbelievable. It meant more to us than it ever could to people of any other country.
But once we saw that it was possible for one of ours to win a grand tour, we lost the underdog status. We lost that hunger. We as fans suddenly believed that only an overall win at the Tour de France would do. We lost the most important part of being Colombian, our sense of wonder, and our ability to dream about the what-ifs. We lost the ability to enjoy the mere existence of such grand possibilities.”
Nairo Quintana wins the Vuelta a Murcia
But as I see it, if I keep my sense of wonder alive, and (in Duarte's words) I remain aware of how amazing it is that these grand possibilities even exist, I'll be fine. And if a handful of non-Colombians begin to understand and share in this joy, so much the better.
For those of you who want to follow Colombian cycling more closely, here are a few links that are worth looking into:
Colombia-Coldeportes on Twitter (in English)
Rigoberto Uran (Sky) on Twitter
Jarlinson Pantano (Colombia-Coldeportes) on Twitter
Colombia-Coldeportes on Facebook
Carlos Julian Quintero (Colombia-Coldeportes) on Twitter
Juan Pablo Suarez (Colombia-Coldeportes) on Twitter
Mundo Ciclistico, Colombia's leading cycling publication, on Twitter
Victor Hugo Peña on Facebook
Lastly, you may also enjoy:
My interview with Rigobero Uran, and my interview with Sergio Henao.