Movistar is bullish Mikel Landa will perform at maximum capacity in 2019 following a rough and tumble debut with the Spanish blues.
Landa expressed optimism he would be back at his best next season following a string of crashes that kept him from shining at his best during 2018.
“If this year didn’t work out, next year it will,” Landa said. “It was a complicated season, with the crash at the Tour, I was never at my best and after crashing at San Sebastián, it really cost me a lot to try to get back for the Vuelta and the worlds.”
The Basque star was hampered at the Tour following a heavy fall on the pavé. He crashed again just as he was hitting top form at Clásica de San Sebastián.
“It really wore me out and I needed to take a long break to recover physically and mentally,” he said. “I’ve learned you need to be patient in these complicated situations, and next year I hope to avoid troubles so I can do what I know I can.”
Landa joined Movistar this year with big expectations of top results on the bike and intrigue off the bike with teammate Nairo Quintana. The pair ended up riding professionally and even became friends. In races, both Landa and Quintana suffered. Quintana delivered a Tour stage win but could not follow the best in GC. Landa rode into the top 10 despite injuries to his back in a spill on the cobbles.
“Mikel was never himself during the Tour and when he finally started to feel better, the race was over,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzue. “Class doesn’t disappear in a day, and I’m sure Mikel will be better than ever when he’s healthy in 2019.”
Unzue said he will bring both Landa and Quintana back to the Tour, but said racing calendars are still not finalized.
“With both Mikel and Nairo we can aspire for the maximum. As we’ve seen, bad luck and crashes can dash even the best-laid plans,” he said. “Everyone knows Mikel is capable of doing special things. We expect to see that even more next season.”
Landa, who resisted offers from other teams and will fulfill the second year of his two-year deal with Movistar, said his priority will be the Tour.
“I want and have to go to the Tour,” he said. “We’ll see about the Giro or Vuelta.”
PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — Nairo Quintana says he’s not washed up yet. In fact, the Movistar climber laughs at critics who suggest that Quintana’s best days are behind him.
“The fire hasn’t burned out yet,” Quintana said. “I am still here and I am still fighting. You’ll have Nairo around for awhile yet.”
Quintana, 28, seems relieved to be pedaling into the off-season after what was a rough and tumble 2018. He won two big stages — one at the Tour de Suisse and another at the Tour de France — but fell well short of his target of challenging for the yellow jersey with a 10th-place finish. And perhaps it’s a reflection of Quintana’s stature and consistency in the peloton that anything short of the podium is considered a disappointment.
“I finished the year without realizing my objectives,” he admitted. “It’s frustrating but I was always there fighting. It’s obvious that it wasn’t the year we were hoping for.”
What happened? Quintana said it’s not for a lack of trying. Going into the Tour, he hit podiums in three of the four stage races he started.
“We tried some new stuff with training, and it didn’t work out,” he said. “We’re not entirely sure, but it’s pretty clear that we messed up.”
Movistar isn’t ready to give up on Quintana yet either. Even with the arrival of Mikel Landa in 2018, team management is backing Quintana for another push at the Tour next season. Racing schedules will be outlined in the coming weeks, but it’s already confirmed that Quintana will target the 2019 Tour.
“Nairo has been so consistent over the past several years that people really took notice when he was a bit off his best this season,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “Even with Nairo not at his best he managed to win that big stage in the Pyrénées. His class doesn’t disappear in a blink of an eye.”
Quintana admits that he hears the critics who say he lost his attacking style or that he cannot beat back the Sky machine.
“People often say no one attacks, but when Sky is at the front at a very high level, it’s very hard to make a difference,” he said. “When they go at their high rhythm, they know no one can attack them. It’s their big advantage.
“I am an attacking rider,” he continued. “Cycling today is so controlled and it’s often the rider who throws the first punch ends up losing. Everyone knows they can hold a certain level. It’s hard to break that control, so you need to be at the absolute best to do it.”
And that’s what confounds Quintana. He said during his approach to the Tour that he posted some of his best ever numbers in training. Once the Tour started, however, he fell flat. A crash didn’t help and Quintana was in the unfamiliar position of getting dropped in the high mountains.
“During tests this season, I had some of my best numbers ever in my career,” he said. “I just lacked that extra spark I needed on a few key days to be able to challenge for the podium.”
“It just makes me laugh. Because if you can’t, you can’t — it’s that simple,” he continued. “Why attack to help someone who just sucks the wheel their whole lives? We don’t know why, but I clearly wasn’t at my best.”
Quintana shrugged off suggestions he was unhappy at Movistar and emphasized he’s not thinking about switching teams just yet. He also downplayed the perceived rivalry with Landa.
“Of course I would like to be the solitary leader and have the entire team at my disposal, but that is not what the team wants,” he said. “Having two options can be a good thing. Look what happened at Sky this year at the Tour. People talked about tension between us, but in the end, we got along well and we are friends.”
“Froome might like to call me the favorite, but it’s Froome who is the [Tour] favorite,” he said. “I think Froome is very motivated to win a fifth Tour. He is the man to beat.”
And Egan Bernal? Any growing rivalry to be the top Colombian favorite? Quintana laughed again.
“Of course he will be a great rider but we still don’t know how well he will go as a grand tour leader,” Quintana said. “There is no problem. We hope that there are 50 more Egans and 50 more Nairos.”
That yellow jersey dream still burns bright inside Quintana even if some critics have already written him off.
Far from the final podium, Colombia fell flat in a climber’s paradise that — at least on paper — suited the “escabarajos” perfectly. Nairo Quintana saved national pride with 15th at 1:21 back but that was far from where Colombia hoped to be in what was its best chance at the rainbow jersey in a generation.
“The rhythm was very high,” Quintana told bicigoga.com in Austria. “The last climb was criminal and at this point of the race, the ‘clasicomanos’ [one-day specialists] held the advantage. We held on and did what we could and we defended ourselves.”
Quintana was the last man standing for the highly touted Colombian team that brought Sergio Henao (Sky) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First-Drapac) as pre-race leaders. Quintana and Miguel Ángel López (Astana) were also protected by an equally stellar support squad.
So what happened? Henao and Urán, arguably the two best one-day racers on the Colombian team, couldn’t match the fierce pace set on the last lap by France, Italy, and the Netherlands. López was already dropped from the elite group before the decisive accelerations.
Urán, second in the 2012 Olympic road race, and Henao both lost contact before the final “Hell” wall when France’s Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) opened up the race-breaking selection. That left Quintana, who has only won a single one-day race in his career with the 2012 Giro dell’Emilia, carrying the national colors.
The result was a letdown for Colombian fans hoping for their best chance at the rainbow stripes in a generation. Santiago Botero, who won the world time trial title in Zolder, is the only Colombian to win a rainbow jersey in the elite men’s races. Despite its long-running success, especially in stage races, Colombia has never won an elite men’s road race world championship medal.
All four of Colombia’s riders came off a very hard and highly contested Vuelta a España, and that effort seemed to cost them during the challenging road worlds circuit. Urán and López, seventh and third respectively at the Vuelta, lacked their typical punch in the race. Henao, who was riding in support during the Vuelta, also struggled when he was expected to be one of Colombia’s best bets.
Urán was 33rd at 2:57 back, Henao 48th at 6:02 and López pulled off before the final lap — they were far from being the protagonists many expected at the start of the race.
“We had hoped that Sergio [Henao] could be there, as we had spoken about, to use his punch on the final climb,” Quintana said. “In the end, none of us had the strength.”
Quintana at least could celebrate the victory of professional teammate Alejandro Valverde. Quintana gave his Movistar “compañero” an emotional hug following Valverde’s moving victory Sunday.
“I am really happy for him,” Quintana said. “It was the dream he’s been chasing to fulfill. It will be a point of pride to see the rainbow jersey on our team next year.”
Colombia won’t have to wait long for another shot at the rainbow jersey, however. Fernando Gaviria, the ever-improving sprinter and classics rider, will be among the top favorites in Yorkshire in 2019.
With a climber-friendly world championships approaching, it’s only natural that the world’s best climbers will be among the favorites. That puts Colombia and its powerful eight-rider lineup for Austria move in great position for the rainbow jersey.
That answer, of course, is a lot. If Colombia does not rally around one clear leader, the team could end up with nothing.
“We understand each other well,” Henao said during the Vuelta of his compatriots. “I don’t expect there to be any problems. The tactics will be decided once we are in Austria.”
Along with France, Italy and Spain, among a few others, Colombia will be among the top favorites in Austria in what should be a climber’s banquet. With more than 5,000 vertical meters on the elite men’s road course, coupled with the final climb featuring ramps as steep as 28 percent, worlds seems tailormade for the Colombians.
With Colombia’s stellar squad, the nation’s first real shot at the rainbow jersey in a generation will come down to how well the team is organized and how much the other riders are willing to sacrifice.
Henao insisted the team always rallies around each other for the common good in major international events.
“We know this is a big opportunity,” Henao said. “It’s important that we are honest with each other. That hasn’t been a problem in the past. Even though we are pros and ride for other teams during the seasons, we always ride together [during the worlds].”
Coming out of the Vuelta, López and Urán were looking sharpest. Henao was on domestique duty and seemed to be cagily hiding his form, yet he did not win a stage or do anything encouraging to provide a glimpse of his form. He insisted he was at the Vuelta to work and hone his fitness for Austria.
López and Urán both had pressure to perform in the GC. That could work against them as they might not be as fresh for Austria as some of their other rivals. Yet that also means they have the depth and base that only the Vuelta can deliver for such a demanding and explosive course like at Innsbruck.
“Of course we want to do well in the Vuelta — the whole team is working for that — but we’re also not forgetting the worlds,” Urán said during the Vuelta. “Leaders? We’ll talk about that later. The most important thing is that the legs are good and there is a good understanding between all of us.”
The worlds is a unique race. Tactics and teamwork are essential to control the race and put the designated leaders into position to win on the final decisive closing lap or two. While the Colombians are renowned for their climbing prowess, riding and working as a unified unit and putting aside ego and ambition will be challenge for the team. Just like all the favorites, the Colombians know they need to go in with a solid game plan.
So far, no one is willing to raise their hand to claim captaincy, at least not publicly. The team will gather in Austria next week to recon the course and put in some final training sessions ahead of the September 30 men’s road race.
“We know we will have a strong team and we will have many cards to play,” said López, who could emerge as the outright leader. “The most important thing is that we have someone in position to try to win during the most important part of the race.”
Everyone will be wondering what role Quintana will play. He was far from his sharpest in the Vuelta and has never won a major one-day race. Quintana’s only raced the elite worlds three times and only finished once, landing 68th in 2012.
“We’ll recover from the Vuelta and see where we are,” Quintana said. “We will have more time to consider tactics once everyone is in Austria.”
Despite a hint of intrigue, Colombia does bring some workers. Among them are Sebastian Henao (Sky), Winner Acacona (Movistar), Dani Martinez (EF-Drapac), and Rodrigo Contreras (EPM Scott), the latter the only rider not currently racing for a WorldTour team, though he is headed to Astana in 2019.
Notable missing names include Fernando Gaviria, the explosive sprinter who will get his chances at the rainbow jersey in the future on courses better suited to his capabilities. Also missing is Esteban Chaves, who is struggling with Epstein-Barr, as well as Egan Bernal, the phenomenal climber who is still recovering from facial surgery following his crash at the Clásica San Sebastián. Bernal could have done well in Austria but he has not raced since his crash.
Highly touted climber Ivan Sosa (Androni-Sidermec), who beat back López at the Vuelta a Burgos in August, will be among the favorites in the under-23 road race.
This will certainly be Colombia’s best chance to win its first rainbow jersey on the road. Santiago Botero claimed Colombia’s only elite men’s world title when he won the time trial in Zolder in 2002.
Urán holds the best international men’s road race achievement when he took second in the 2012 Olympic Road Race in London.
“Of course everyone wants to be the world champion,” Urán said. “The most important thing is that one of us Colombians is the one who wins.”
A three-week harvest of two stage wins, the points jersey, a top-5 overall, and the team prize would be a great Vuelta a España for just about any team, except Movistar.
The Spanish super-team leaves the Vuelta with mixed emotions. Movistar was a player in every facet of the race, but it fell short of its goals.
When Spain’s lone WorldTour team is racing on home roads with two of the pre-race favorites, anything short of overall victory is a disappointment.
“Sometimes in cycling, there are times when there isn’t a correlation between the efforts you put in and the results you take,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué. “We had the pressure on our shoulders because we were the local team with Nairo [Quintana] and Alejandro [Valverde].”
Movistar leaves the Vuelta without a grand tour victory or podium for the entire season. A fourth-place result by Richard Carapaz at the Giro d’Italia was its best all season.
For most teams, two top-5s in grand tours would be a step in the right direction. Not if you’re Movistar, a team accustomed to racing for the biggest prizes in grand tours.
What happened during this Vuelta? As Valverde put it, others were simply better.
“You have to know how to win and how to lose,” Valverde said. “I never get mad at myself because if you lose, it’s because others did it better than you did.”
Valverde, who suffered a career-threatening knee injury in a crash in the opening stage of the 2017 Tour, surprised at every turn. The 38-year-old came to the Vuelta to prepare for the worlds, but he grew into the most serious challenger to Yates.
He won two stages in the first week and clawed to within one second of the red leader’s jersey. Valverde emerged as the most direct threat to Yates, just 25 seconds back going into the final weekend.
The wheels came off the Movistar wagon for good in Andorra. Movistar tried an aggressive tactic to knock Yates off balance, but it was the Mitchelton-Scott rider who punched first and knocked Valverde off the final podium.
Valverde, however, leaves the Vuelta emboldened for the upcoming world championships.
“I will go for it in the worlds,” Valverde said. “It’s a one-day race and anything can happen. I’ll arrive full of hope, motivation, and a good moment of form.”
Valverde held up his end of the bargain, so it’s Quintana who will be wondering what happened.
“Today is a sad day,” Quintana said Sunday in Madrid. “We didn’t achieve our objectives. Valverde couldn’t reach the podium and I leave without winning a stage. It’s hard to win and sometimes people seem to forget that.”
The Colombian, who won the Vuelta in 2016, faded in northern Spain during three decisive climbing stages across the Cantabrian Mountains. Quintana looked poised to move into the red jersey after a solid ride up La Camperona, but he fell back at Les Praeres and suffered even more losses at Lagos de Covadonga. By the time the race hit Andorra, however, he was in full domestique mode to try to help Valverde salvage the team’s ambitions.
“[Quintana] put in big efforts to go for the red jersey in the first two weeks of racing,” Unzué said. “As soon as he realized he was not in position to win, he showed a great attitude to put himself at the service of Valverde.”
Quintana isn’t paid to be a super domestique. With an eighth overall and a 10th at the Tour de France this summer, 2018 marks the first time the Colombian did not hit a grand tour podium since his grand tour debut in 2012. Every year since then, he’s at least finished on a grand tour podium (and won two along the way) in 11 starts.
“We will have time to look at what we didn’t get right,” Quintana said. “We’ll have to do the work to be back at the maximum level. We’ll be back at the Tour de France next year; with whom and how, we can figure that out at the end of the season.”
Movistar took some consolation in the team prize and in how it carried itself throughout the Vuelta.
“I’m proud of the teamwork over the past three weeks. They were impeccable,” Unzué said. “In the end, all three podium finishers deserved to be up there. It’s a sort of generational handover.”
Movistar will try to get its ship back on course for 2019. Mikel Landa, who was seventh at the Tour despite a crash, will be back with untapped ambitious. Valverde will be riding out the last year of his contract and perhaps the final season of his career.
The pressure will be on Quintana, who turns 29 next year, to demonstrate that he can still win a grand tour. Crashes and other mishaps took their collective toll on the team’s stars in 2018. Movistar is hoping it can produce the victories that its fans and sponsors expect and demand.
The Colombian classification rider hoped to salvage his season in the Vuelta, starting the race with top billing. Deep in the heart of the Basque Country, with mist blowing over the Balcón de Bizkaia finishing climb, he drifted away from the leaders.
He also slipped away from that star status earned by placing second twice to Chris Froome in the Tour, winning the 2014 Giro d’Italia and the 2016 Vuelta. That Vuelta overall win in 2016, two years ago, marked his last big grand tour showing.
“The truth is that I had no more strength,” Quintana said today when he came to a stop. “I’m not going to tell lies that I’m sick, because that’s not what it is. I feel like I’m fine, but there was no more strength.
“They threw me out the back and I was hanging on, hanging on, until I could reach Kruijswijk. The objective is to win the Vuelta with the team, and we are going to back Valverde.”
Movistar’s top brass listened closely when Quintana finished the Vuelta’s new climb. Boss Eusebio Unzué must now wonder what happened to his promising star.
Last year, Quintana played for the Giro/Tour double. He placed second to Tom Dumoulin in the Giro and managed 12th in the Tour. He complained it was too much and wanted a clean shot at the Tour. The team rallied around his 2018 Tour push, but Quintana only briefly shined. After slipping down the classification, he refocused and won the Saint-Lary-Soulan stage.
Unzué will be wondering what to do with Quintana in 2019, the final year of their contract together. On Sunday, he acknowledged the pressure is building on the 28-year-old Colombian who everyone tipped as a multiple grand tour winner when he first placed second to Froome in the 2013 Tour.
“It’s not so much the pressure but rather he wants to take advantage of another opportunity to win another grand tour,” Unzué said. “To do this, of course, you have to be superior to your rivals.”
At least in this Vuelta, Quintana admits he has shelved his classification aims. He lost 56 seconds minutes to leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) Wednesday and slipped from fourth to sixth. He sits 2:11 back in the overall.
His 38-year-old teammate Alejandro Valverde, who began the race saying he was preparing for the world championships, gained eight seconds on Yates. He remains in second overall, but now at 25 seconds with two more mountain stages.
“We haven’t spoken yet,” Valverde said, “but it’s obvious that the team will be riding for me.”
Quintana showered at the team bus and climbed into the team car with only a staff member driving for company. Before he left, he said, “Alejandro is strong and we are going to support him.”
Movistar is in an enviable position going into the final week of the Vuelta a España, with two riders in the top 3. So why all the sad faces?
The Spanish team expected to be in control of the Vuelta by the time the race hit its second rest day. With Tuesday’s decisive time trial on tap, the team still hopes the race will turn its way.
Nairo Quintana, third at 33 seconds behind leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), didn’t offer up any excuses. His conservative racing style has dismayed critics, but he admitted he’s not at his best level.
“The criticism doesn’t hurt, what hurts are my legs,” Quintana said in Monday’s press conference. “That’s why I am not attacking. When there is no more strength, there is no more. I’m OK, but I am not superior than the others. Other years, I’ve done what I could and it worked out, but this year, that’s not the case. I am still at a high level.”
Quintana, 28, came into the Vuelta as the big favorite and showed glimpses he was ready to take control of the race. He struggled on Saturday, however, and on Sunday he raced to limit his losses. That brought a wave of criticism against the Colombian, but he quickly clarified that Movistar is not giving up the fight.
“We came here after the Tour, which was very hard, and others are here after racing the Giro,” he said. “We can see it with [Richard] Carapaz, who was fourth in the Giro and he’s very fresh. We are still in the fight.”
It’s Movistar co-captain Alejandro Valverde who is looking stronger going into the final stages of the Vuelta. The veteran came to the race vowing to help Quintana and hone his form for the looming world championships.
Racing without pressure, Valverde has already won two stages and has been racing steadily to stay with the best. He was due to start Tuesday’s time trial in second place, 26 seconds behind Yates.
Valverde, 38, is expected to ride better than Quintana in the 32km time trial and could even take the overall lead if Yates falters. Quintana said he’s ready to ride in support of Valverde if it comes to that.
“It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done it,” Quintana said. “We have a good understanding between us. It all depends on the situation of the race.”
Valverde, meanwhile, continues to insist Quintana is the team’s best option with three mountaintop finales looming in the closing days.
“Sure, it would be nice to win [the Vuelta] again, but that’s not to say that it’s going to happen,” said Valverde, the 2009 Vuelta champion. “There’s too much drama going on about who is the leader. We are racing a great Vuelta and that’s what’s most important. We got ride of riders like [Sky’s David] De la Cruz and [Bora-Hansgrohe’s Emmanuel] Buchmann. We have to keep going like this. We want to win the Vuelta with Movistar, it doesn’t matter with who it is.”
In late June, Daniel Martínez was nervously waiting at his parent’s house for the phone to ring. The 22-year-old Colombian was all but sure to be named to EF Education First-Drapac’s Tour de France team. It wasn’t official until the call.
“It’s a dream to race with riders like Nairo [Quintana] and Rigo [Urán],” Martínez said. “I grew up watching their exploits on TV. They are why I wanted to be a bike racer.”
Along with 21-year-old compatriot Egan Bernal and 20-year-old Ivan Sosa, Martínez is part of a new wave of Colombian talent already making an impact in the international peloton. Other riders in Colombia’s latest surge include Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step) and Miguel Ángel López (Astana), each a few years older at 23 and 24, respectively. They’re young, brash, and highly talented.
Every one of these riders grew up watching Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán put Colombian cycling back on the map. Now they’re poised to go even higher.
IF IT SEEMS COLOMBIANS are coming out of the woodwork these days, you’re right.
Colombia’s two-wheeled renaissance began a decade ago when a new generation of trailblazing stars traveled to Europe. First, it was Urán and Quintana, then Esteban Chaves and Carlos Betancur. Right behind them were ace sprinter Gaviria and Giro d’Italia podium finisher Lopez, both already lighting up the WorldTour.
The Colombian talent factory keeps churning them out, with Bernal and Martínez moving up to the WorldTour this season with Sky and EF Education First-Drapac, respectively. Sosa delivered the win at the Adriatica Ionica stage race in June for Androni-Sidermec. It seems there are young Colombians everywhere in the WorldTour peloton.
“Everyone wants to have a Colombian rider on their team now,” said Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere, who signed Gaviria in 2015. “Why? Because they are great bike racers. And they have ambition.”
In 2018, there are 17 Colombians racing across nine WorldTour teams. There are another half-dozen racing at the Professional Continental level — not counting the 15 on the Manzana-Postobon team based in Colombia.
Where are they all coming from? Martínez’s story is not unlike that of many of his compatriots.
“My dream was to play soccer, but destiny has a way of putting you in its place,” Martínez said. “Believe it or not, no one in my family was ever involved in cycling. At 13, my dad gave me a bike and I started riding in the mountains around my house. I immediately liked it.”
The “mountains” are monsters by any scale. Martínez’s parents live at 8,400 feet and local climbs reach as high as 14,500 feet. That altitude churns out climbers like the Nebraskan prairie produces offensive linemen.
Before this season, not many people had even heard of Martínez or Bernal. But the signs were there. Bernal won last year’s Tour de l’Avenir, with Martínez as a key helper. The pair finished first and second in the Colombian national time trial championships in January. Then Bernal won the Amgen Tour of California, sharing the podium with Martínez who was third.
Success doesn’t happen overnight in cycling, and there are no exceptions to that rule in Colombia. Its rich and deep cycling tradition dates back more than 50 years and is helping to inspire this new glut of talent.
Martínez came of age in a nation pulling itself out of decades of war and conflict. While Urán’s father was gunned down in Colombia’s violencia, Martínez’s parents were forced to vacate their small sugar cane farm in the 1980s to flee growing violence in Colombia’s hinterlands. They found refuge in Soacha, a working-class suburb of the sprawling capital of Bogotá, perched at 8,400 feet. It was a safe place for a young family and ideal for a budding climber.
By the time Martínez started racing in local clubs when he was 15 and 16, Urán was poised to win a silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, Quintana would soon finish second overall, win a stage, and take the best climber’s and young rider’s jersey at the 2013 Tour de France.
“There was a big boom in Colombian cycling with Rigo and Nairo,” Martínez said. “Everyone wanted to race their bikes. Everyone wants to be like Nairo and Rigo.”
Martínez said there were so many junior riders wanting to start weekend regional races that organizers had to cut off the limit at around 200 per category. Just like in Italy and Belgium, there is a thriving local club community across Colombia. Local promoters, churches, social clubs, and cycling teams put on the races. Martínez was good right from the start and quickly got tapped to join the national team. He raced at the Pan-American Games and the 2013 world championships as a junior. That earned him a stint at the UCI’s World Cycling Center.
“I was winning almost all of my junior races,” Martínez said. “The national team saw me and helped me with equipment and brought me to races. It all started there.”
Just like in Europe, only the very best even have a hope of making it to the pros. Martínez said Bernal is the only other rider from his junior racing days who’s made it to the WorldTour level. And of his friends he made at the World Cycling Center, he’s the only one who is racing today on the WorldTour.
CYCLING HAS DEEP ROOTS in Colombia. It became a national sport in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Tour of Colombia emerged as an annual highlight for international competition.
Long before Quintana and Urán ventured to Europe, a wave of Colombian climbers made the trip in the 1980s, riding with Colombia’s first professional team, Café de Colombia. The team quickly made its presence felt.
Nicknamed the escarabajos — or beetles, for their spindly climbing style — riders like Luis “Lucho” Herrera and Fabio Parra became national heroes, with Herrera becoming the first Colombian to win a grand tour at the 1987 Vuelta a España. Parra became the first Colombian to finish on the Tour de France podium when he was third in 1988.
Many expected Colombia to become a world force in cycling, but things just as quickly stalled by the early 1990s. Why? There were a few reasons.
The Café de Colombia team folded in 1990, and without a Colombian-backed pro team, there were fewer Colombians racing with success in Europe by the early 1990s. And the top European teams stopped racing in Colombia, so there wasn’t a lot of cross-pollination like there was in the 1980s.
There were exceptions, including 2002 world time trial champion Santiago Botero and Victor Hugo Peña, who became the first Colombian to wear the yellow jersey in 2003. Overall, however, Colombian cycling went into the slow lane in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Others suggest another reason for the nation’s competitive decline: The natural benefits the Colombians gained from living and training at altitude were all but neutralized by the use of EPO and blood transfusions that swept through the peloton. That’s not to say that Colombians were not doing the same thing as other riders in that era, but the argument goes that the Colombians lost their natural edge during the EPO era. They just simply didn’t gain as much by chemical means.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Colombians returned to prominence with the introduction of the biological passport and enhanced doping controls in the late 2000s.
Carlos Betancur, one of the stars of the current wave of Colombian talent, said as much after finishing third at the 2013 Flèche Wallonne.
“With so many anti-doping controls and the biological passport, it’s helping us because we live and train at altitude,” Betancur said. “So when we come down, it’s a bit of an advantage to us.”
COLOMBIA’S CYCLING RENAISSANCE BEGAN in earnest about a decade ago under the tutelage of Colombian trainer and sport director Luis Fernando Saldarriaga. Today, he’s a manager at the Colombian Pro Continental team Manzana-Postobon, but in 2008 he began to nurture most of today’s elite crop of Colombian superstars, including Betancur, Quintana, Chaves, and Sergio Henao.
As head trainer at the Colombia es Pasión amateur team from 2008 to 2011, Saldarriaga was the first Colombian to introduce science-based training techniques and the use of power meters. The team won back-to-back editions of the Tour de l’Avenir with Quintana and Chaves in 2010 and 2011. Under his guidance, the team was also the first to operate under the biological passport program. Having a long track record of blood profiles and health data helped ease the way for this new generation to enter the WorldTour in Europe.
Meanwhile, a return to civil peace in Colombia over the past decade has allowed the sport to blossom again at the grassroots level. Today, in addition to the Manzana-Postobon team, there are another six Continental teams. That gives a lifeline to dozens of young, promising talents who clamor to be the next Nairo.
“There are big races every weekend,” Martínez said. “The racing season goes for months and months. Only soccer is bigger than cycling in Colombia.”
IF SALDARRIAGA HELPED LAY the groundwork for today’s Colombian boom, it was Rigoberto Urán who blazed the trail.
Now 31, Urán is the unofficial “padrino” of this new wave of Colombian cyclists. In 2006, at the age of 19, he turned pro and moved alone to Europe. In some ways, he has been a transitional figure, ushering in the generation of riders who had to find their own way to Europe a decade ago, and forging the path for today’s crop of Colombian talent.
His success not only opened doors for him at some of the biggest teams in Europe — with stints at Team Sky, Quick-Step, and Caisse d’Epargne (now Movistar) — it put Colombia back on the map.
Right behind Urán came a wave of riders that dominate the peloton today, including Henao, Chaves, Betancur, Lopez, and Jarlinson Pantano, who have all finished on grand tour podiums or won WorldTour races. Quintana has emerged as a superstar in the sport since his debut in 2012, winning both the Vuelta and Giro d’Italia, and finishing on three Tour podiums.
Many of those riders draw a straight line to Urán.
“Sometimes people say it all started with me, but there were always good Colombian cyclists,” Urán said. “It was only until my generation that people started to give us more opportunities to come to Europe.”
While Urán had to do much of it on his own, today there is a much deeper support system in place in Colombia to tap promising talent. Martínez, for example, already had an agent and had trained at the World Cycling Center by the time he was 18.
However, making it to the WorldTour and thriving there are hardly the same thing. Why do the Colombians shine in Europe? There are many moving parts in the background.
After the talent come the agents. Several ply the Colombian races with a sharp eye on the next Quintana. Among those signing big riders include Paolo Alberati, who is the agent of Bernal and new Colombian talent Sosa. Giuseppe Acquadro is another with several Colombians on his roster, including Urán, Henao, and others. Italian ex-pro Giovanni Lombardi, who is also Peter Sagan’s agent, represents Fernando Gaviria. He also helps organize races, including Colombia’s new Oro y Paz and the Tour de San Juan.
Agents help open the door to Europe because they have contacts at all the big teams. Many teams are quick to sign Colombians because, generally, they don’t initially demand high salaries. They also usually adapt very well to racing in Europe. Martínez, for example, works with Acquadro, who helped him land a two-year deal with Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia for 2016 after the Team Colombia team folded in 2015.
Part of the funnel inevitably goes through Italy via the irrepressible Gianni Savio, manager of Androni-Sidermec. The veteran Italian manager famously signed unknown Egan Bernal in 2016 before anyone had even heard of him.
“I have contacts going back 30 years in Colombia,” said Savio, who also served as Colombia’s national team coach for many years. “Today, everyone wants to sign Colombians. Why? Because they know how to win races.”
Once in Europe, there are several informal networks to help the young Colombians find their feet. Many settle close to their respective teams. For years, Spain’s Pamplona was home to riders such as Quintana, Urán, and Sergio Henao. Many moved to Monaco as their fortunes rose, but in the early days, Urán would rent rooms in his house and help the young arrivals find their feet in Europe.
Of course, once the Colombians arrive in Europe, they want to stay. As Lefevere said, most are ambitious and hungry not only to win races but also to make a good living from racing.
For Martínez, he’s not quite in Quintana’s league yet. As he anticipated that call in late June, he nervously waited in the kitchen of his parent’s house.
“The dream? Right now, to help Rigoberto Urán win the Tour de France,” Martínez said. “For me? We’ll see. It never hurts to dream.”
Someday soon, it’s likely that the dream of a first Colombian Tour de France winner will become a reality.
The Vuelta a España is headed into the final week of racing and things couldn’t be much closer in the battle for the red leader’s jersey. Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) has asserted himself on the climbs, but Movistar’s two aces, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde are only seconds behind. Who will thrive in the mountainous final stages, and what do we make of the budding rivalry between Quintana and Yates? Let’s roundtable!
The Vuelta’s GC picture is coming into focus, but the top four are still only 45 seconds apart. Who is your pick, and what does he have to do to win the race in this final week?
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Yates is strongest, and he’s my pick to win the overall. He simply needs to avoid catastrophe on the three remaining uphill finishes, limit his losses to Valverde in the individual time trial, and then mark Quintana and Lopez on the climbs. Lagos de Covadonga showed us that nobody has the legs to drop him on long, grinding climbs, and I do not know why that dynamic should change in the final week.
Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: Hombre, the way it’s looking now, Valverde could win! And I thought it was going to be an all-Colombian sweep. Well, Quintana and Lopez are still in the frame. Yates is in the driver’s seat. He is racing ice cold. If he has a good TT and doesn’t lose too much time, he’s the man for Madrid. Since he now is based in Andorra, he will have “home road” advantage on the final weekend.
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: I like Quintana for this final week. He’s no time trial ace, but the Colombian knows how to handle himself on the aerobars when a grand tour is on the line. After all, he has won both the Giro and the Vuelta. Plus, he has the advantage of super-duper domestique Alejandro Valverde in the final mountain stages.
We seem to a have a budding rivalry between Simon Yates and Nairo Quintana. How do you handicap their respective strengths and weaknesses?
Fred: Both men are equally pedestrian at the individual time trial (by grand tour contender comparison, anyway), and in recent years Yates seems to be less bad than Quintana. Yates has more punch than Quintana on the steepest climbs, and also seems to have an edge on the long, grinding ones. At this Vuelta, Quintana has the stronger team. Quintana, at this Vuelta, appears to have much worse tactical sense than Yates. On the climb to Lagos de Covadonga, for example, Quintana burned his teammate and then put himself into the red by chasing down Miguel Angel Lopez, which gave Yates a free ride. Quintana also looked so unsure of what to do near the top that only Yates’s anger could persuade him to pull through.
Andrew: Hmm, I see more of a rivalry between Quintana and Lopez. All those Colombian guys race to be the first Colombian in any race, and that is opening up the door for Yates. Per Yates, he has been impressive all year. Without having to worry about Froome or Dumoulin in the TT, like he did at the Giro, Yates is racing with much more tactical savvy. Quintana seems to have lost his fire or his punch, or both. Quintana is a fighter to the end, and that’s a quality that Yates will have to demonstrate if he ever hopes to win a grand tour.
Spencer: I think Yates has the edge when it comes to pure form. However, he can’t match Quintana when it comes to team strength or experience — again, Quintana has won two grand tours. The best Yates has done is sixth at the 2016 Vuelta. The time trial is a toss-up — who wants it more?
The last three stages, 13-15 in the Asturias region, were all thrilling. Which was the best to watch and what made it so good?
Fred: The bizarre rivalry between Nairo Quintana and Miguel Angel Lopez made these stages extremely compelling. Both men appeared to waste much energy marking the other man, which opened the door for Simon Yates to have a comparatively easy ride to the finish line, and for Thibaut Pinot to win the stage to Lagos de Covadonga. The climb to Lagos de Covadonga was particularly fun to watch since this Vuelta has only a few long, grinding climbs. It was tactical, even though the tactics were not the best.
Andrew: All three stages were great. No one holds back in the Vuelta and no one is truly at 100 percent — that’s what makes the race so interesting The Vuelta always delivers these crazy finales and Les Praeres on Saturday was right up there on the edge of the line. Things could go pear-shaped at any time in the Vuelta (just as it did in the finish the other day in Galicia when the race official caused that crash) but they always seem to pull it off. More impressive are the Spanish fans: They cheer every rider and actually applaud as they ride past, and not take selfies.
Spencer: I agree with Hoody that stage 14 was an instant classic on a new summit finish for the Vuelta. It had the perfect combination of narrow roads, steep ramps, and the occasional ease in gradient that create fascinating tactical puzzles. Quintana and Lopez went far too early on that finish. Yates was perfectly patient and it paid off. This was hardly the boring watts/kg test that we see at the Tour de France.
Which GC rider will gain the most in Tuesday’s time trial?
Fred: Of the top four, Alejandro Valverde should gain the most. Of the top 10, Rigoberto Uran stands to leapfrog a few spots.
Andrew: Who knows — none of these top guys are particularly great against the clock. Everyone is talking Valverde, but I think a rider like Uran or Kelderman could ride back into podium range on a great day. Of the top four, I see Yates having the best ride against the clock Tuesday.
Spencer: Steven Kruijswijk has really been flying under the radar this Vuelta, but he’s only 1:29 behind. I think he’ll be the top GC rider in stage 16 and he might take as much as 45 seconds back on those who stumble in the time trial.
LES PRAERES, Spain (VN) — Nairo Quintana went too soon and Alejandro Valverde (both Movistar) left it too late. Movistar got its wires crossed Saturday and opened the door for Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) to recapture the Vuelta a España’s race leader’s jersey.
The Spanish super-team was poised to take control of the Vuelta on the short but steep finale to Les Praeres in stage 14. Instead of winning the stage and claiming the jersey, Movistar was left wondering what happened.
“Today I risked a ‘bullet’ with these final attacks,” Quintana said. “Sometimes you hit the bull’s eye, sometimes you’re shooting in the air.”
Quintana surged clear midway up the short but very steep 4km climb, drawing out Miguel Angel López (Astana). His fellow Colombian didn’t help, allowing Yates and others to regain contact. Yates bolted clear on the final steep ramp and held off a chasing López and Valverde, who admitted he left it too late on the final false flat to the line.
“It’s too bad I didn’t know the climb. I thought it was steeper at the end,” Valverde said. “I waited too long. When I wanted to attack, it was already too late. I went up front to see if Nairo could come across, but it was a complicated climb for him. He did what he could.”
Instead of taking control of the Vuelta in what was the second of three straight mountaintop finales in northern Spain, Movistar let the race slip away to the very dangerous Yates who made the right calculation when to attack.
“I didn’t know the climb so I was conservative and decided to wait to make the right moment to attack,” Yates said. “I just made my own race. Movistar had the numbers which made me a little nervous, but I made my own race and I chose my moment to attack.”
The Vuelta is still a question of seconds, but Movistar finds itself on the wrong side of the equation. With time bonuses, Yates takes a 20-second lead to Valverde. Quintana slotted into third at 25 seconds back.
Movistar has a chance to rewrite the script in Sunday’s epic finale to Lagos de Covadonga, one of the emblematic summit finishes in Vuelta history.
Sunday’s 178km four-climb stage across Asturias ends atop the long, grinding Lagos de Covadonga summit. At 11.7km with an average grade of 7.2 percent, with ramps as steep as 20 percent, Covadonga will be the longest and most difficult climb of this Vuelta.
Movistar will be expecting to get back into the game in a stage profile that, at least on paper, is ideal for the Spanish team.
“Tomorrow will be very decisive because it’s a hard climb and it’s the third climbing day in a row, so a lot could happen,” Valverde said. “I’m feeling good. The GC is still very close, and that’s good because it’s more emotion for the race.”
Quintana won at Covadonga in 2016 en route to capturing the overall title when he won ahead of Robert Gesink and Chris Froome.
“It’s a climb that gives me good memories,” Quintana said. “It’s a very important stage for the overall in the Vuelta. Today I tried to attack and I tried to make the race. It didn’t go quite as well as I wanted but tomorrow I will try again and it’s another good opportunity for me.”
With Monday’s rest day and Tuesday’s 32km individual time trial up next, Movistar cannot let another opportunity slip through its fingers.