Why these Colombian riders, and why now?

Pre-race chat among Colombian friends at Fleche Wallone (Photo: Manual For Speed)
There's been a great deal of interest and speculation regarding recent triumphs and high placings by Colombian riders in Europe. This interest has manifested itself in multiple ways, from curiosity, to misguided doubt, and simple questions being asked. While it would be simple to say that Colombian cycling on the world stage simply dried up after 1990 (once the Cafe de Colombia and Postobon teams came to an end or moved operations back to Colombia), that would be oversimplifying matters. Additionally, it would be an insult to men like Nelson Rodríguez, Oliverio Rincón, Mauricio Soler, Chepe González, Victor Hugo Peña, Félix Cárdenas, and many others who raced and won significant races during Colombia's supposed "lean" years on the world stage.

Still, the fact the remains that since the Tour of the Basque country, Quintana, Betancur, Henao and Rigoberto Uran (who some now insist on calling Robert Uran for some reason) have been putting on an amazing show, while Team Colombia competing at major races only makes the country's presence more obvious. Because of this, I wanted to look at some of the reasons why these men are now riding in Europe, and performing at such a high level.

No, they didn't come out of nowhere, and no, their generation is not insanely different from earlier ones. So what is different now, and what has helped this Colombian talent make it to the highest levels of the sport? There are several factors, but they're probably not the ones you'd expect.

Betancur attacks at Fleche Wallone (Photo: Road Cycling UK)

Yes, Carlos Betancur may well be correct in his assumption that less EPO use in Europe means that riders like him, who live and train at altitude, are once again seeing the benefits that men like Herrea and Parra did back in the 1980s. My interview with Henry Cardenas, who struggled through the early 90s in Europe, further confirms the power of oxygen vector doping, and how its use in the peloton affected Colombian riders. But that issue aside, there are more tangible and far more obvious reasons for why these men are in Europe now, and why they are competing at this level.

Carlos Betancur at the start of Amsel Gold (photo: Cycling Inquisition)

Yes there is simple physiology (we Colombians tend to be a bit smaller and shorter), as well as the very aspect that Betancur brings up (living and training at altitude). There's also the unique topography that dominates much of the Colombian landscape, as well as a long-standing sociological connection to cycling (which I explored in depth in my interview with Corey Shouse Tourino Ph.D., here and here). But I've discussed these factors in the past, and while they explain Colombian cycling in general, they don't necessarily explain the current crop of riders, and the unique situations that got them where they are. In other words, what is happening now, that didn't happen or exist for previous generations?

Rigoberto Uran at Amstel Gold (photo: Cycling Inquisition)

The Colombian Connection
Through the 1980s, European teams didn't really need any special mechanism to find Colombian talent. Simply put, the talent came to them. Teams like Cafe De Colombia, Postobon and even Pony Malta raced in Europe, and large trade teams were left to pick and choose who they wanted from the latest crop of Colombian riders. Additionally, some European teams would often venture into Colombia for racing at altitude, which allowed them even more chances to see upcoming riders in races like the Vuelta a Colombia and the Clasico RCN.

 A video about the 1983 Clasico RCN, and the "invasion" of international teams

This link to Colombia, however, was lost in the 1990s. As Colombian teams stopped racing in Europe (for reasons I'll address in a future post), European teams also stopped racing in Colombia, leaving the South American nation completely divorced from European racing. This left no opportunities for Colombian riders to be seen by international teams, who quickly forgot about Colombia, leaving it as isolated as it had been before the Tour de France in 1983.

Walter Pedraza wearing the Colombian national champion's jersey while racing with Selle Italia - Diquigiovanni. One of the very few times that a Colombian champion has raced outside of South America.

Through the early late 90s and early 2000s, the most significant link to Colombian cycling was the Colombia-Selle Italia team (now Androni Giocatoli). The team was started in 1996 as Gaseosas Glacial (a regional soft drink company in Colombia), and later had the Colombian government, as well as an Aguardiente company as a sponsor. But the team only managed to expose a limited amount of Colombian talent, so most riders who made it to Europe, had to make their own way, with some going as far as funding their own tickets to Europe in hopes of racing at the amateur level. Through that time, many Colombian riders were helped along and housed in Belgium by the first Colombian professional ever, Giovanni Jimenez, who still lives in Flanders today. Men like Victor Hugo Peña, Leonardo Duque and Maucio Ardila were all helped along by Jimenez. But by and large, support was difficult to come by for Colombian riders, and there was no real mechanism in place to help them be seen.

Quintana at Amstel Gold (photo: Cycling Inquisition)

Today, however, there are several direct links that allow Colombian riders to be seen. Teams like Indeportes Antioquia, and EPM-Une have been invited to race in the United States, while Movistar maintained a Continental team in Colombia until last year (the team remains, but is now sponsored by the South American arm of the company).

Additionally, teams like 4-72 (more about this team in just a bit) are now racing in Europe, and perhaps most interestingly, Acqua Sapone sponsored Colombia's national team off and on at the Girobio for many years. Yes, you read that right. An Italian company/team sponsored Colombia's national team in order to have them go race in Italy. Why? It was a great way to see young Colombian talent up close, which they would not be able to do otherwise. So, did this investment payoff? It surely did. The race was won by Cayetano Sarmiento in 2009 (Acqua Sapone then signed him, and he's now with Cannondale) and Carlos Betancur won in 2010 (Acqua Sapone also signed him, and he's now with Ag2r).

Carlos Betancur wins a stage, on his way to winning the GC at the GiroBio in 2010 (Photo: Cyclingnews)

Lastly, it's also worth pointing out that the Colombia Es Pasion team (now called 4-72) is perhaps the greatest springboard from which current Colombian talent has come from, and they too raced and won in Europe. The team existed from 2008-2011, then dissolving under that name, but continuing in as 4-72 (you can see the team's YouTube channel here). During the team's relatively short existence as Colombia Es Pasion, riders were able to compete in Europe, and won the Tour de l'Avenir racing as Colombia's national team (twice), and also took the U23 world championship title with Fabio Duarte. This brings us to the second reason why you are seeing this number and level of Colombian talent in Europe today.

Colombia Es Pasion, while the team was also sponosred by Cafe De Colombia. Included in this team picture are Sergio Henao, Darwin Atapuma, Jarlinson Pantano, and Robinson Chalapud, who all race as professionals in Europe now.

Colombia Es Pasion, the men behind the team, and the value of Colombia's only bio passport
If you're impressed by the wealth of Colombian talent on display in Europe today, you are not alone. And if you're wondering where many of these riders came from, you'll quickly find that many of them have one common denominator.

Nairo Quintana, Sergio Henao, John Atapuma, Jarlinson Pantano, Fabio Duarte, Robinson Chalapud, Esteban Chaves...these are all riders racing and excelling to different degrees in in Europe. What do they all have in common? They all came up through the Colombia Es Pasion team, but more importantly, they all trained under the tutelage of one man: Luis Fernando Saldarriaga.

Colombia Es Pasion, racing as the Colombian national team, swept the Tour de l'Avenir in 2010. Nairo Quintana took the GC (ahead of Andrew Talansky and teammate Jarlinson Pantano), while Pantano took the mountains classification, and the squad took the team classification as well (a full 13 minutes ahead of second placed Spain). In this picture, from left to right:   Darwin Atapuma (now with Team Colombia), Camilo Suarez (now in 4-72), Nairo Quintana (now with Movistar), Sebastian Salasar (4-72), Esteban Chaves (now with Team Colombia), Jarlinson Pantano (now with Team Colombia), and Luis Fernando Saldarriaga.

But is this oversimplifying matters? Can one man be largely credited for this wealth of talent? To a large degree, yes, particularly when you learn that Saldarriaga (who you can follow on Twitter here) is the only trainer and director in Colombia who uses power with his riders. That's right, no other team in Colombia (professional or otherwise) uses power-based training. As such, it should be understood that the chasm between Saldarriaga's knowledge, and that of the others directors and trainers in Colombia is absolutely massive (though of course there are other successful trainers as well). But to get the chance of training and racing for Saldarriaga is a gigantic boost to Colombian riders, who previously trained and raced much in the way that riders did in the early 1980s. It's for this reason that the team, in its current incarnation as 4-72, has secured funding from sponsors like SRM and Retul, which is highly unusual for a Colombian team (where teams all consistently pay for their own bikes, wheels, and even handlebar tape).

Saldarriaga at work with one of his 4-72 riders (Photo: Manual For Speed)

 Fleche Wallone (Photo: Manual For Speed)

Luckily, Colombia Es Pasion didn't just bring about great riders. Jenaro Leguizamo, who was a technical assistant with the team, is now the director of Colombia's national team (he picks the riders for all competitions), including having picked and directed the national squad for the London Olympics. Leguizamo, a native of Sogamoso in the department of Boyaca, has a masters degree with a focus in endurance sports, and a doctorate in physical education and endurance, a rarity in Colombia. He's yet another powerful and influential voice in Colombian cycling today.

Luis Fernando Saldarriaga with Esteban Chaves (now with Team Colombia) after their Tour de l'Avenir victory in 2011

But there's another aspect to Saldarriaga's teams (both Colombia Es Pasion, and 4-72 today) which has been hugely beneficial to all riders: the team has its own bio passport and stringent testing program. You see, Colombian teams are not required to be a part of the bio passport program, and testing at Colombian races has been...uh...let's just say, spotty at times. Credit here for instituting this practice within the team goes to another man: Ignacio Velez.

Quintana riding with Colombia Es Pasion (Photo: Colombia Es Pasion)

Velez, whose educational background is in mathematics (he obtained his masters degree at Stanford), was the general manager of Colombia Es Pasion, and remains active with 4-72. Though deeply involved in cycling, he does not earn a living from the sport, freeing him up to make the kinds of decisions that helped bring about this current crop of riders.

For example: Velez willingly chose to use a significant part of the team's budget for testing to be done by an independent party. What this did was not only ensure that riders were clean, but more importantly (and this is a level of foresight that is rare in Colombian cycling) give the team's riders medical credentials, that would allow them to be hired by European teams in the future. That Quintana and Henao ended up in European teams is no mistake. Yes, it was their talent and ability that got them the opportunity, but a backlog of existing blood values made the decision easier, and played a part in their signing.

So when you consider the number of riders who came through this team (see partial list above), you realize the undeniable foresight and ability that was behind it, which undoubtedly led to the high level of Colombian riders that you see in Europe today. Luckily for fans of Colombian cycling, many more riders are waiting in the wings in this program, and yet another Tour de l'Avenir is around the corner.

So altitude, topography and simple physiological reasons have no doubt aided matters, but Colombia's secret within the realm of cycling is no secret at all. It's exactly the same thing the helps us Colombians through other matters during all of our lives: our people, the connections we make with one another, and our endless—almost stubborn— drive to help ourselves an each other. It's there, I would argue, that Colombia's real magic (in and out of cycling) lies.


With the current rush of excitement about Colombian riders in Europe, it's easy to forget that one rider is missing from this group: Mauricio Soler. The native of Boyaca was featured in a Colombian news program last week, which you can watch in its entirety (in Spanish), below. It features interviews with Mauricio, who will no longer be able to race or perhaps even ride his bike. Luckily, he's alive and with family, there to see his young daughter grow up in Colombia. His situation is extremely difficult, but considering the options, it's one I believe he's happy to have.