Historically, certain stage races have always served aspiring Colombian cyclists well. The Tour d l'Avenir (1980-Alfonso Florez, 1985-Martin Ramirez, 2010-Nairo Quintana, 2011 Esteban Chaves), and the Biogiro (2009-Cayetano Sarmiento, 2010-Carlos Betancur) are two that certainly come to mind. Having said that, the Tour de Langkawi is probably one of the races that Colombian riders have taken to the most over the last few years. The Malaysian stage race has been won by Colombian riders five times since 2002, twice by Jose Serpa, and now by Julián Arredondo, in his second season as a professional with the Italian/Japanese Team Nippo-De Rosa. Upon winning the race, the young Colombian was quick to point out that Malaysia reminds him a bit of home, with it's warm climate, and friendly people...a vast difference from the cold weather of early-season races in Europe.
Although Arredondo has been competing in Italy for five seasons (amassing 8 victories in as many years), he's relatively unknown, at least judging by the number of emails I've received asking who on earth he is (much as I did last year when Nairo Quintana won a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné, prompting me to write this post). With this in mind, allow me to share a bit of information about Arredondo with you.
Looking back, Colombian riders have always made a habit out of coming "seemingly out of nowhere" to win prestigious races. In that respect, Arredondo is in good company. After all, who were Lucho Herrera, Martin Ramirez or Fabio Parra, in the eyes of some during the early 1980s? But a quick look at Julian Arredondo's past shows the interesting and somewhat predictable path that his career has taken. Like those who came before him, his first major victory has not come from "nowhere", though the young Colombian climber is admittedly unknown to many.
Ciudad Bolivar. Notice how mountains, not just hills, surround the town in every direction.
Cerro San Nicolas, one of the many peaks that looks down on Ciudad Bolivar
Arredondo was born and raised in Ciudad Bolivar, in the cycling-rich department of Antioquia (if you want to read more about Antioquia's deep cycling history, go here), and within the core of Colombia's coffee growing region. Ciudad Bolivar, with a population of 27,000 is located in same department where the likes of Rigoberto Uran, Sergio Henao, Santiago Botero and Cochise Rodriguez were born and raised. Like Arredondo himself, the municipality of Ciudad Bolivar is a bit of a mystery, since no one has been able to pinpoint when it was founded, though estimates place the date between 1839 y 1853. Arredondo's age, however, is far clearer. He's 24, and he began racing at a very young age, prompted by his father Tulio Arredondo and his uncles, who were all avid cyclists.
Photo: Tour de Langkawi
Like all Colombian cyclists with promise, "Perico" or "El Empanao'", as he's known to friends, came up through development squads sponsored by local and regional governments. First with the Ciudad Bolivar cycling academy, and subsequently with CICLEB, another local academy which served as his last step before venturing into Italy, just as it was for fellow Ciudad Bolivar native Carlos Betancur (now with Ag2r-La Mondiale).
Unlike casual clubs, or development teams in most countries, these Colombian academies are usually linked to semi-professional (and in some cases professional) teams, delineating a clear path for the best riders to take. More importantly, however, these academies start kids off at a very young age, sometimes as young as 5, racing in a category with an unusually comical name: Smurfs.
A video about CICLEB, the primary cycling club in Ciudad Bolivar, where Julian spent his formative years.
A video, in English, about a cycling academy elsewhere in Colombia (this one being in Boyaca), that functions much in the same way as those where Julian Arredondo began his career.
From that early age, kids are taught the basics, from bike handling skills, to training basics, nutrition and race tactics, all from certified coaches who run the squads. Sporting aside, it's also worth mentioning that these academies place significant importance on helping their members become upstanding and productive members of Colombian society. A lofty goal to be sure, but an important one considering the rural and sometimes impoverished areas where some of their members often reside (and thus the potentially bad choices than can be made along the way).
Young members of the CICLEB academy, doing bike handling drills.
The president of CICLEB puts the club's goals thus, "as an alternative for personal growth, and as a way of instilling values. We seek for these children to grow in a holistic manner, and that they understand the meaning of human rights, and of co-existing with others in a peaceful manner." The club's secretary adds that they want kids to learn and grow, "taking in the basics of modern pedagogy:'
know how to be, know how to understand, and know how to do'. In doing so, we are here to give our city and our department of Antioquia adults who will be good citizens who will actively work toward our ultimate goal of achieving peace."
Again, these formative academies and clubs, are simply unlike those found in other countries.
From CICLEB, Arredondo went to Italy due to the cultural and linguistic similarities, much as Cochise Rodriguez, Rigoberto Uran, Cayetano Sarmiento, Carlos Betancur and many other Colombians before him did. Once there, he spent two seasons in the elite/U-23 ranks with Scap Foresi , then signing with Nippo-De Rosa last March, primarily as a result of winning the season-long classification in the elite class in Italy.
Short video showing one of several races that takes places in Ciudad Bolivar. It's worth mentioning that some of these races, intended for young kids, are mountainous stage races, which help explain Betancur and Arredondo's strength in that terrain. Aside from hosting its own races, Ciudad Bolivar has hosted the finishes of four Vueltas a Colombia in recent years.
As with others Colombians—professional cyclists or not—Arredondo has had difficulty securing a visa (some may remember that Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran missed early training camps with Sky last year, and risked missing early-season races as well), and was then close to missing the race in Langkawi altogether due to flight delays. For now, Arredondo is only able to secure visas for three-month spans, forcing him to travel back to Colombia from both Italian and Asian races. With this latest victory, Arredondo was clear in his wishes to join a bigger team, and has spoken in the past about his dream of riding with Team Colombia. But for now, he'll surely enjoy this victory, and the huge party that no doubt awaits him in Ciudad Bolivar.
Interview with Julian Arredondo in Medellin's Aeroparque, as he prepared to travel for Langkawi. Notice Carlos Betancur lurking around in the background. Also note that he says his plan was to arrive to the Malaysian stage race at "about 80% or 90%