Colombians at the Giro. A bit of history, and a closer look at the riders competing this year.

Tomorrow, fifteen Colombian riders will be at the Giro d'Italia's start line in Naples. They will be accompanied by the Colombian ambassador to Italy, which only underscores the significance of the event for all Colombians. As Darwin Atapuma of Team Colombia put it in a pre-race conference, "every pedal stroke will be in the name of an entire nation." It was, after all, 21 years ago that the last all-Colombian team (Postobon) competed in Italy's grand tour.

But Colombia's love for the Giro began long ago, even before the days of teams like Cafe De Colombia and Postobon. This is because the first Colombian to ever compete in the race was Cochise Rodriguez in 1973. The native of Medellin, Antioquia, raced for the Bianchi team, alongside Felice Gimondi, and he was quick to leave his mark, taking a stage win in his first ever grand tour, and one of his first races as a professional. He would later win another stage at the Giro in 1975.

In 1974, aided by Cochise's success, Rafael Antonio Niño (who would eventually become Cafe De Colombia's DS) made it to Italy as a professional too, as an all-Colombian amateur squad lined up at the amateur version of the Giro, the Piccolo Giro. The team performed amazingly well, finishing second, third and fourth in the overall, while taking several stages. I spoke to Alvaro Pachón, who was part of the that team about this race not long ago. The one thing he remembered most about his time in Italy was just how incompatible his team's racing and climbing styles were to that of Europeans in the mid 70s.

“They didn’t know who we were, and were angered by our early attacks on climbs. The riders and the directors would yell out ‘Go slow Colombians, go slow!’ But we didn’t know any other way. As soon as a climb would start, we would attack and break up the peloton. That’s not how they did things over there. They wanted to ride tempo, and wait until near the summit to sort things out." As Pachón told me this story in the back of the bike shop he now owns in central Bogota, he started to laugh, clearly proud of the pain he inflicted all those years ago.

On the front page of the El Bogotano newspaper during the Piccolo Giro (Pachón furthest to the left). The text reads "Colombia obliterated the competition! Pachon won today's stage".

As the 80s came, so too did teams like Cafe De Colombia and Postobon, the golden years of Colombian cycling in Europe. But that chapter came to a close in 1992, as the Postobon moved operations back to Colombia, and Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra retired. Herrera chose a quiet life in his farm in Fusagasuga, while Parra finished his studies in business administration, and eventually started a plastics company.

The years that followed were not a complete dry spell for Colombians at the Giro, as they included stage wins and two mountains classification jerseys for Chepe Gonzalez, and other stage wins by Ivan Parra, Carlos Contreras, Oliverio Rincon (now a director at Team Colombia), and Luis Felipe Laverde. These were followed by impressive performances by Nelson Rodriguez, and more recently Jose Serpa, Carlos Betancur, Cayetano Sarmiento, Sergio Henao, as well as a stage win last year by Miguel Angel Rubiano last year, along with Rigoberto Uran taking the best young rider's jersey.

So tomorrow's start is not an absolute return of Colombians to the Giro, since they never fully went away. But the sheer number of riders (15), as well as the quality of the group is impressive.

Lucho Herrera wins Stage 9 into Terminillo at the Giro in '92 (finish comes at around 15:45)

Video introducing Team Colombia for this year's Giro


How these Colombian professionals perform at the race will depend on any number of variants. Some of the most talented riders will be supporting their team leaders (Serpa, Uran, Henao, Sarmiento), while others are given a bit more leeway (Betancur, Rubiano), and some will lead their team (Duarte, Atapuma).

There will be a great camaraderie between these riders, something that Esteban Chaves discussed with me earlier this year. Odd as it may seem, during last year's season all Colombian riders, regardless of what team they raced for, would congregate at Team Colombia's bus before races for coffee and a chat. This became a daily event, and will likely continue for many stages at the Giro. So there's a great degree of bonding that will happen between these 15 riders, as they all understand the importance of this moment. And in the end, regardless of how the race goes for all of them, fans of Colombian cycling can rest assured that within this group there is an unbelievable wealth of talent, some of which may still need some time to develop. This means we still have a significant amount of Colombian talent to look forward to.

Here's a list of who the riders competing at the Giro are, sorted by their race numbers.

Carlos Alberto Betancur Gomez (on Twitter cabg1989)
Age: 23
Nickname: Bananito (Little banana)
Team: Ag2r Place of birth: Ciudad Bolivar, Antioquia
Explosive rider who excels at short punchy climbs, but can also keep up in longer climbs. Has shown an ability to win in any number of terrains, and is strategically wise beyond his years. He was a silver medalist at the 2009 U23 World Championships, won the GiroBio in 2010, and has already shown amazing form this year (3rd Fleche Wallone, 4th Liege Bastone Liege, 7th Tour of the Basque Country). Domenico Pozzovivo is Ag2r's team captain for the Giro, but Betancur has not ruled out a podium spot. He's mentally tough, and a very aggressive rider.

Miguel Angel Rubiano Chavez
(on Facebook here)

Age: 28
Team: Androni Giocattoli
Place of birth: Bogota, DC
Rubiano is a good climber, and has excelled in breakaways, including his stage win at the Giro last year. He has four top ten placings to his name this season (including 3rd overall at Coppi e Bartali, 5th at giro di Toscana, and 7th overall at the Tour de San Luis). Rubiano will ride in support of Franco Pellizotti.

Cayetano Sarmiento Tunarrosa (on Twitter cayetanosarmien)
Age: 26
Team: Cannondale
Place of birth: Arcabuco, Boyaca
Sarmiento had strong showings at the Giro with Acqua & Sapone, who he signed with in 2009 after he won the GiroBio. He was fifth overall at the Tour of Slovinia during his first year as a professional, and won the mountains classification at the Dauphine last year. He's had a quiet season thus far, but has been given the freedom to hunt for a stage by his team.

Darwin Atapuma Hurtado (on Twitter ElPumaDarwin)
Age: 25
Nickname: El Puma (the puma)
Team: Team Colombia
Place of birth: Tuquerres, Nariño
Atapuma is a very good climber, and showed good form at the Tour of Turkey (team Colombia has had few opportunities to race this year, particularly ones well suited to their abilities). He won a snowy stage at the Giro del Trentino last year, and was Colombia's road champion in 2008. Atapuma is a product of the Colombia Es Pasion Team. He will lead Team Colombia along with Fabio Duarte, in the absence of Esteban Chaves.

Edwin Avila Vanegas (on Twitter edwinavila189)
Age: 24
Nickname: Kalimeno
Team: Team Colombia
Place of birth: Cali, Valle del Cauca
Avila comes from a track background (he's Juan Esteban Arango's partner in the Madison). Because of this, he follows in the great tradition of sprinters and rouleurs from Cali (a not-so-mountainous region by Colombian standards). He now lives in Bogota, where he's Esteban Chaves' training partner. Here's an interesting picture of Edwin at the Giro presentation from MFS.

Robinson Chalapud Gomez ("Chalapud" is one of Colombia's original indigenous last names after the Spaniards arrived, and is almost exclusive to the region where Robinson is from. On Twitter robinsonchalapud)
Age: 29
Nickname: El Chala
Team: Team Colombia
Place of birth: Ipiales, Nariño (close to where Darwin Atapuma grew up)
Chalapud is an effective climbing domestique, a role he played well in Spain's Circuito Montañes in Spain for Fabio Duarte. He's been in the top ten in both the GP Miguel Indurain and the Tour de l'Ain. Like many others in Team Colombia, he's a product of the Colombia Es Pasion team. 

Fabio Andres Duarte (on Twitter fabioduarte)
Age: 27
Team: Team Colombia
Place of birth: Facatativa, Cundinamarca (near Bogota)
Fabio Duarte remains one of Colombia's most promising talents, in part due to his ability to win in any number of terrains. Duarte had a tough upbringing, but managed to get ahead, becoming the U23 world champion in 2008. He came up through the Colombia Es Pasion team, and raced wtih Geox-TMC before the team dissolved. He won a stage at the Giro del Trentino, and was fifth overall at the Tour of California last year. He will lead Team Colombia along with Atapuma, in the absence of Esteban Chaves.

Leonardo Duque (last name is pronounce "doo-keh", not "dookie". On Facebook here)
Age: 33
Team: Team Colombia
Place of birth: Cali, Valle del Cauca
A talented sprinter from the city of Cali, Duque is the most experienced Colombian rider at the Giro. He raced for Cofidis for six years, won a stage at the Vuelta a España, and competed in the cobbled classics year after year for the French team. Duque and his family live in France full time. He was sixth at this year's Roma Maxima, fourth at E3 Harelbeke last year, and 3rd overall at the Tour de Picardie. In true Colombian style, Duque has strong climbing abilities for a sprinter.

Wilson Marentes (on Facebook here)
Age: 28
Team: Team Colombia
Place of birth: Facatativa, Cundinamarca (near Bogota, where he grew up)
Another product of Colombia Es Pasion, Marentes is an all-arounder who does well in medium mountains and time trials. He was second in the Colombian time trial championships in 2011. His victories have largely come in Colombian races, but he was also fifth at the Tour of Portugal last year.

Daliver Ospina (on Twitter Daliver)
Age: 28
Team: Team Colombia
Place of birth: Palmira, Valle del Cauca (near Cali)
Ospina comes from the Colombia Es Pasion team, and he's from the area around the city of Cali, meaning that he's not a climber, but a strong rouleur, who is effective as a domestique for the team.

Jarlinson Pantano (His last name means "swamp". On Twitter jarlinsonpantan)
Age: 25
Nickname: Pais or El Pais (Country. Unusual nickname. Jarlinson always greets people by calling them "pais". "Que hubo pais?" so others in turn started calling him that same word.)
Team: Team Colombia
Place of birth: Cali, Valle del Cauca
If you've read this far into the rider descriptions, you've no doubt realized there's a pattern. And that pattern continues with Pantano. He's from Cali, so you know he's not a pure climber. He does well in medium mountains and rolling terrain, and can sprint well at the end of such stages. Having said that, he can still hold his own in the mountains, and was thus on the podium at the Tour d l'Avenir, where he also won the polka dot jersey. He won a stage at the Tour Mediterranean last year, and also comes from the Colombia Es Pasion team.

Carlos Julian Quintero (on Twitter carjulian05)
Age: 27
Team: Team Colombia
Place of birth: Villa Maria, Caldas (near Manizales)
Some may remember Quintero for his bad crash at Milan San Remo last year. Still, he recovered and took the polka dot jersey at the 4 Days Of Dunkerque. Quintero climbs well, but is multi-talented in part due to his track background.

Jose Serpa Perez
Age: 34
Nickname: El Leon De Bucaramanga (The Lion of Bucaramanga, the city where he grew up and now lives)
Team: Lampre Merida
Place of birth: Corozal, Sucre
Perez is the Colombian rider with the most Giros in his legs. He'll be racing for Michelle Scarponi, though he himself was often a team leader during his years with Androni Giocattoli. Perez won the Tour de Langkawi in 2012, and has always excelled in early season races like Tour de San Luis, and Lombardia (where he wont a stage in 2010). He's had 34 professional victories. He's a strong climber, and as you can see in the image above, is capable of growing a powerful off-season mustache, which he tends to do every year.

Sergio Luis Henao (pronounced eh-nah-oh)

Age: 25
Nickname: Venado (The Deer, with the"d" being almost silent, and thus sounding like like last name)
Team: Sky
Place of birth: Rionegro, Antioquia
Henao had his grand tour debut last year at the Giro, managing an impressive 9th while riding in support of Rigoberto Uran. He wore the white jersey for two stages, eventually passing it on to Uran. Henao is also a product of Colombia Es Pasion, and won a stage at the Volta ao Algarve this season, along with being second at Fleche Wallonne, sixth at Amstel Gold, third overall at the Tour of the Basque country, along with having won a stage there as well. Henao is a climber, and does well in long climbs, but also excels in short explosive ones. His abilities are perhaps most closely matched by fellow Colombian Carlos Betancur. He'll be riding in support of Bradley Wiggins. You can read my interview with Hano here. Oh, and if you're wondering, yes Sergio (like most of us Colombians) is fairly short.

Rigoberto Uran Uran (If you want to understand how last names from Spanish-speaking countries are structured, and why Rigoberto has the same last name twice, go here. On Twiter UranRigoberto)
Age: 26
Nickname: Rigo
Team: Sky
Place of birth: Urrao, Antioquia
Uran is now an experienced rider within the European peloton. He won the silver medal at the 2013 olympic road race, along with many impressive showings throughout his time as a professional. 2nd at the Volta a Catalunya (2008), 3rd overall in Lomardia (2008), 5th at Liege Bastogne Liege (2011), he wore the white jersey at the Tour in 2011 for four stages, and won a stage at the Volta a Catalunya last year. As a climber, he's well suited for long steady climbs, though his Olympic road race showed that he's not simply a pure climber, but is capable of doing well in different terrain, perhaps as a result of his track background. Uran will ride in support of Bradley Wiggins, but has not totally discounted some stage opportunities toward the end of the race. You can read my interview with him here. As a point of reference regarding the amount of Colombians racing in Europe today, consider that when Rigoberto, who is only 26, arrived in Europe, only two other Colombians were professionals there.