The other Colombian riders to watch in 2014 (Part 1)

Through much of 2013, headlines about Colombian riders, and their seemingly unexpected victories flowed effortlessly in websites, magazines and newspapers. Colombians were portrayed as though they were “invading Europe”, “rising” and “coming back” for much of the year. Now, as the 2014 season gets underway, it would be foolish to say that riders like Rigoberto Uran, Nairo Quintana, Jose Serpa, Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur are unknown quantities. In fact, so much is expected of them now, that any less-than-spectacular showings will be viewed as failures by some, particularly in Colombia, where despite a long history in the sport, many fans fail to understand that some races are taken on as mere training, and that simply being Colombian and wanting to win is often not enough.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that men like Uran, Serpa, Henao and Quintana will be watched closely by fans, and marked just as closely by their rivals. Similarly, recent additions to Movistar and Sky will be followed closely for obvious reasons (one being Nairo’s brother Dayer, and the other being Sergio Henao’s cousin Sebastian). Those riders aside, it’s logical that many of us are asking what other Colombians will step up this year and have strong showings that will once again have journalists claiming that another South American invasion is afoot. 

Below is a list of riders that are likely to make an impression this year in any number of ways. Some are new, others are lesser known, but all have the talent and hunger to try to make this year a repeat of what the 2013 season proved to be for their fellow countrymen. While some of these riders are well known, others are likely new faces and names for most fans. Part two of this list will feature even more riders along those lines. 

Photo: Orica-Green Edge

Esteban Chaves (Orica-Green Edge)
We begin the list with Chavito, as friends and family affectionately know him. Esteban is the ever-smiling ball of energy that rose to prominence when he won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2011 with Colombia Es Pasion. He then went on to sign with Team Colombia (then Colombia-Coldeportes). At 23, he returns to racing after nearly a year away, following a serious shoulder injury sustained at the Trofeo de Laigueglia in 2013. Actually it wasn’t just a single injury, but a laundry list of them. Broken collarbone, head trauma, fractured jaw, broken inner ear bone, torn quadriceps. To make matters worse, nerves around the shoulder were badly damaged and required surgery, along with a painful and slow recovery. In all, Esteban lost around 9 months, many of them spent off the bike. This led to Chaves sitting at home for much of the year, even as his teammates took on the Giro d’ Italia.

With no contract for 2014, Orica-Green Edge reached out to Chaves, after getting his contact information through Rigoberto Uran. They asked Esteban to join other members of the team in Girona last September, where they offered him a contract after seeing him back on the bike.

Chaves comes into the 2014 season as an untested rider at the top level of the sport, but his talent and drive are undeniable. He’s spoken openly about needing time to adapt back to riding in the bunch, and slowly wanting to test his fitness. To that end, it was decided that he would race at the Tour of Langkawi as his second race of the season, simply to get miles in his legs. In doing so, Chaves still managed to finish in an impressive fourth place in that race’s queen stage. And as impressive as his ride was, he expressed that his legs just didn't feel "all that great" last week.

Chaves’ upbeat personality and wicked sense of humor should not be confused as traits of someone who takes things lightly. To the contrary. He comes into this season with a year’s worth of hunger in him, along with an urge to prove that making the jump to a top-level team was warranted, despite the fact that he was never really able to show himself with Team Colombia.

You can read my interview with Esteban here. You can also read about the cycling academy that bears his name in Bogota, and its inner workings here, here an here, written by yours truly.

Photo: United Healthcare

Isaac Bolivar (United Healthcare)
A product of Antioquia’s powerful and very successful cycling programs, Bolivar moves to the American team after spending three years riding for different teams in his home department (Indeportes Antioquia, EPM-Une and Aguardiente Antioqueño). Aside from being a strong climber, Bolivar is also a solid time trialist (by Colombian standards, but this is worth noting nevertheless). He's Colombia’s current U23 champion in that discipline. He was also second in the Panamerican road race, and third in the Panamerican time trial.

As United Healthcare’s international profile rises this season, look for Bolivar to make the most of any opportunity he gets to show his climbing abilities, particularly in races outside the United States, were he’ll find longer climbs that suit his style of riding. Even within the US, Bolivar will likely try to match his fellow paisa Janier Acevedo’s accomplishments from last year. Like Esteban Chaves, Bolivar has already shown impressive form, finishing third in Langkawi’s queen stage.

Fabio Duarte (Team Colombia)
As the 2013 season came to a close, teams from all over the world became enamored with the notion of having strong Colombian climbers on their rosters. For that reason, Team Colombia became an ideal place for European teams to get their talent from. Darwin Atapuma was signed by BMC, and Chaves by Orica-Green Edge. Fabio Duarte, who showed his abilities at the Giro, was contacted by Astana, and a deal was nearly signed. This would have left Team Colombia without a GC leader, meaning that team management had to step in. They made a counter offer, urging Duarte to stay with the team. The terms of his new contract are unknown, but it’s obvious that the team had to make Duarte stay, and likely held nothing back in order to make that happen. Remember, Team Colombia is backed by the country’s government, and a lackluster year could easily mean the end of the project. They needed Duarte. This is because, like all monetary matters in the Colombian government, budgets are planned on a yearly basis, and the team’s contract is one year long, and always up for review.

This all means that Duarte will be under a great deal of pressure in 2014. In the past, reports have suggested that Duarte doesn't deal with pressure very well, but maybe time and experience have helped in this regard. He’s now the undisputed GC leader of the team (though Jarlinson Pantano will likely take that role in smaller races). His contract reflects those expectations. To say that this year is a make-or-break one for Duarte would be an overstatement, but the 2008 U23 world champion has had a rough go at it since arriving to Europe. This season will prove how he can handle the rigors of having an entire team (and a country's government) looking his way when it comes to results.

Photo: Wikipedia

Janier Acevedo (Garmin-Sharp)
If you watched stage 2 in last year’s Tour of California, you know why Janier Acevedo is a rider to watch this year. The native of Antioquia won the mountainous stage that ended in 120-degree heat, and saw riders finish the day in ambulances due to heat exhaustion or burns from sitting on the hot asphalt after collapsing at the finish line. Acevedo comes into Garmin-Sharp as a strong support rider, but the team and Jonathan Vaughters in particular, know his abilities. Not just from past performances in American stage races, but also due to hard data. Prior to being signed with Garmin-Sharp, Vaughters had Acevedo’s blood and performance output tested. The results were beyond impressive, with the doctor and Vaughters both saying that his power numbers were by far the best that they had ever seen in any athlete (cyclist or otherwise). It’s true that impressive power output doesn’t always translate into sure-fire wins (as has been the case with Tom Daniels and others in the past), but Acevedo has already proven his ability to win and perform under pressure. You can read my interview with Janier here.

Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia

Edward Beltran (Tinkoff-Saxo)
The growing list of Colombian riders at the World Tour level (Pro Tour, World Tour, Allure, Kuala Lumpur...what are they calling it this year?) has grown by one over the last few hours. Edward Beltran, who was second at the GiroBio in 2010 (behind Carlos Betancur) raced with EPM-Une last season, and got a rather late contract offer from Bjarne Riis, presumably to help Roche and Contador in the mountains. Beltran's signing comes as a bit of a surprise, since it was announced last October that he'd be joining the continental Cerámica Flaminia – Fondriest.

His performances in Colombia have shown much promise, but interestingly (like other riders on this list) Beltran is not one of the riders in Colombia who seems to win everything at will. That honor goes primarily to riders in their late 30s or early 40 who raced in Europe at one point. Unlike other riders on this list, Beltran will have to jump into the deep-end quickly, having missed out on team camps, and early season races with Tinkoff-Saxo. How he will adapt to such an abrupt change remains to be seen, and will serve as a case study of sorts for teams who are considering recruiting talent directly from smaller Colombian teams.

Part 2 of this list will come later this week, with other lesser known riders who we'll likely be talking about later this year.