The Best Colombian Riders of The Modern Era: Ed’s Top 10 + 3
Colombian Conquistadors: They’re part of the landscape now, those Colombian riders; Chaves, Gaviria, Quintana, Uran and now Egan Bernal, all rampaging across Grand Tours and Classics landscapes. Ed Hood was one of the first to ‘big up’ Egan Bernal, here is his article form a couple of years ago about the Colombians influence on modern cycling.
Nairo is a big hit with the fans – Colombian or not
Seeing Egan Bernal taking the lead in the Tour de France this week got me to thinking about Colombians I’ve known and loved (most of them, that is) since I started following cycling way back in 1970.
Varese, Italy 1971, the track Worlds and Martin Rodriguez, known as ‘Cochise’ to his fans, won the amateur 4,000 metres pursuit to general surprise. I hadn’t realized that cycling was a big sport in South America until the ‘Cycling Weekly’ magazine printed a picture of Cochise on the phone to the President of Colombia after his Worlds success. But it really shouldn’t have been – Rodriguez was a prolific winner on the South American scene and had broken the amateur world hour record in 1970 with 47.553 kilometres. Rodriguez turned pro with Felice Gimondi’s Bianchi team and partnered the great man to a win in the Baracchi two-up time trial in 1973 as well as winning two Giro stages during his time as a EuroPro.
‘Cochise’ with Gimondi
The Bianchi-Campagnolo stars of 1973 – Marino Basso, Martin Rodriguez and Felice Gimondi
The next big surprise to come out of Colombia was in 1980 when the man with the ‘Glasgow Hard Man’ look, Alfonso Florez defeated the cream of East European cycling to win the Tour de l’Avenir overall by three minutes. That one jarred our eyes open, Sergei Soukhoroutchenkov @ 3:10 and Yuri Barinov @ 4:28, that was one serious result; iron man ‘Soukho’ had dominated the Olympic Road race; we realized that these Columbian guys were the real deal. Florez, who enjoyed huge success in his native Colombia would sadly die, a murder victim in Medellin in 1992.
Colombian hard man – Alfonso Florez
In 1984 a non-cycling friend came back from holiday in France and said to me; ‘have you heard about the Colombian boy?’ In those pre-‘net days, of course I hadn’t, but the French newspapers and TV were full of the story. The ‘Colombian Boy’ to whom he referred was 24 year-old Bogota amateur rider, Martin Ramirez who with minimal team support usurped none other than Tour winner, Bernard Hinault to win the Dauphine, the number one warm up for le Tour. The last day was a split stage and Ramirez defended a narrow lead during the morning road stage despite physical and verbal abuse from Hinault and his team. In the afternoon the Colombian got the better of the Frenchman in the time trial, won by Greg Lemond to win the race overall with Hinault second and Lemond third on GC. Hinault was his usual unapologetic self; ‘For me the honour of the professional class is at stake. It’s not right that these pseudo-professionals should be earning two million francs a month while there are numerous pros getting less than 700 francs.’ The Badger at his best. Ramirez would go on to win the 1985 Tour de l’Avenir too.
Ramirez was no slouch
Ramirez wins saw the fans go into raptures back home but that was as nothing when Luis ‘Lucho’ Herrera won the 1987 Vuelta. The little climber who could contrive to fall off even going up hills had won a Tour stage in 1984, sending the Colombian TV commentators deep into laryngitis territory with their screamed reports as Lucho rode to glory. In ’85 he won two Tour stages and was crowned king of the mountains, a feat he repeated in 1987. The ’87 Vuelta had looked like it belonged to Sean Kelly but a massive saddle boil was such that even iron man Kelly couldn’t stand the pain and the victory crossed the Atlantic. Herrera would go on to win the Dauphine in 1988 and 1991 as well as winning stages and the mountains classification in the Giro.
The biggest thing to come out of Colombia in the 80s – Lucho Herrera
Herrera’s team mate, Fabio Parra wasn’t just a man of the mountains, he could contend for GC and was the first Colombian to make the Tour podium with third place in 1988 and was second to Pedro Delgado in the 1989 Vuelta. Robert Millar used to say that his name was derived from ‘Parra-chute’ because if there was a big crash, the Colombian would always be at the bottom of the pile.
A young Fabio Parra racing in Colombia
Parra in the Tour
Every year, my buddy John and I used to go down to Barcelona for the Euro season closing Escalada a Montjuich. In 1991 we watched the classy Colombian Oliverio Rincon win the massed start stage and the individual time trial to run away with the overall honours. Despite winning stages in all three Grand Tours and finishing top five in the Vuelta and Giro the slim man from Duitama never fully realized his potential as a stage race rider.
Oliverio Rincon: Vuelta a España 1993 – Lagos de Covadonga
Similarly Alvaro Mejia had the class and look of a Grand Tour contender, he was best young rider in the 1991 Tour and in the 1993 Tour looked to be headed for the podium coming in to the final time trial, Indurain was impregnable but the podium was up for grabs. But as Mejia told Matt Rendell in an interview earlier this year; “As I approached the finish, I was feeling bad and my head was full of doubt. My only hope was that perhaps Rominger or Jaskuła had had a bad day too, and I could keep my podium place. Then my directeur sportif told me that my time was not enough for third place. The podium had gone.” Despite that disappointment Mejia won the Volta a Catalunya, Route du Sud, Vuelta a Murcia and Vuelta a Galicia during his pro career with Postobon and Motorola.
If ever there was an unlikely Tour de France king of the mountains winner then it was Santiago Botero, he first caught the eye with some decent rides in Portugal in 1998, the following year he was a Paris-Nice stage winner and by 2000 had wrestled and bludgeoned his machine to a stage win and Tour king of the mountains title. Definitely not one of the sport’s great stylists he took the world time trial championship in 2002 with more Tour and Vuelta stages along the way. His involvement in Operación Puerto – albeit “potential evidence provided against him by Spain’s Civil Guard was not validated by the correct judicial authority,” put paid to his Euro career but he went back to racing in Colombia, which he did very successfully, winning his national time trial championship as recently as 2010.
Quite a line-up in Paris at the end of the 2000 Tour de France – Francesco Mancebo, Erik Zabel, Lance Armstrong and Santiago Botero
Another sad story but on a different track is that of Mauricio Soler who after a winning start to his career in his homeland moved to Europe and started very promisingly with a win in the 2007 Circuit des Mines. A year later he was a Tour de France stage winner and king of the mountains. He never quite performed at that level again but in the 2011 Tour de Suisse with an excellent stage win under his belt he seemed be back to his best – but the tall man from Ramiriqui suffered a horror crash later in the same race which ended his career before his true potential was fulfilled.
KOM Mauricio Soler
Rigoberto Uran in second place in the Tour with minimal team support was a surprise to many but the former track rider has been a European professional for a decade and has twice been second in the Giro in recent years. It was back in 2007 when he won a stage in the Tour de Suisse and has been around the business end of races ever since. Can he win a Grand Tour? Maybe – but not the Tour de France.
Rigoberto Uran – Possible Grand Tour winner?
It was 2010 when Nairo Quintana first ‘blipped’ on our radar screens, winning the Tour de l’Avenir and picking up on the fine tradition established by Florez and Martinez. The stats speak for themselves: 2012, Vuelta a Murcia and Route du Sud; 2013, Tour of the Basque Country, Vuelta a Burgos and second in Le Tour; 2014, Giro, Burgos and San Luis; 2015, Tirreno and second in Le Tour; 2016, Vuelta, Romandie, Catalonia, Route du Sud and third in Le Tour. This year saw him take Tirreno and Valencia then place second to Dumoulin in the Giro as part on of an ill-advised Giro/Tour bid. He was nowhere in the Tour and looked tired with a capital ‘T.’ Despite any claim to the contrary he’ll want to join that exclusive club of riders who have won all three Grand Tours.
Nairo Quintana wants a Tour de France win for the full set
One year after Quintana’s l’Avenir win, along came Esteban Chaves to emulate him and introduce himself as the next Colombian ‘big thing.’ His pro career started well with a win the GP Citta di Camaiore and sixth in the 2012 U23 Worlds but 2013 was a right off after a bad crash in the season opening Trofeo Laigueglia. The Australian Orica squad saw the potential, signed him, stuck by him and he repaid them with stages in California and Switzerland in 2014. Season 2015 was even better with two Vuelta stages and a stage/GC double in Abu Dhabi. Last year was outstanding with a stage and second overall in the Giro, third in the Vuelta and wins in Emilia and Lombardia. Meanwhile 2018 has been a non-event; a knee injury, the death of his friend and personal soigneur, Diana Casas and then a crash in Emilia have made it a season to forget. Can he come back and win a Grand Tour? The Giro or Vuelta perhaps – but Le Tour? Unlikely.
Esteban Chaves could pull off a Grand Tour win in Italy or Spain, but France…
All of the Colombians we’ve mentioned so far have one thing in common; they’re climbers. But that’s not the ‘bag’ of our next man for the spotlight, Fernando Gaviria who this season has underscored his rep as one of the fastest there is – he’s closed his season on 14 wins this year. Not many of us would have noticed his winning two world junior track titles in 2012, the omnium and Madison. But we did sit up when he beat Cav twice in San Luis in 2015; since then he’s won a classic, Paris-Tours and was the top fast man in this year’s Giro. Gent-Wevelgem and Milano-Sanremo must beckon?
Colombian sprinter – Fernando Gaviria, could he win a Classic?
Young Colombians for the future?
There’s Jarlinson Pantano and Winner Anacona of course but I’d chose two others before them. . .
Jarliston Pantano still has a lot to do
Miguel Angel Lopez won l’Avenir (naturally) in 2014. Since then he’s been moving seamlessly up and on – 2015, fourth overall and a stage in Burgos, seventh overall in the Tour de Suisse; 2016 saw him win the Swiss tour, Milano-Torino and take a stage in Langkawi whilst this season saw a stage and third overall in the Tour of Austria, fourth overall and a stage in Burgos and two stages in the Vuelta. He’s the real deal.
Lopez showed his class in la Vuelta
And finally – In 2017 we were consoling Pro Continental team Androni’s manager because his squad hadn’t made the Giro. He told us that whilst that was a disappointment he had struck gold with a lad who had just won the Tour of Bihor-Bellotto in Romania, a certain Egan Bernal. Bernal finished fourth in the 2016 l’Avenir but moved up to win it this year, taking two stages along the way. He also won two stages and the GC in the Tour des Pays de Savoie and two stages in the GC in the Sibiu Tour in Romania. We’re not sure that signing for Sky was the right thing to do for his development – but as AC/DC say; ‘Listen to the Money Talk.’
Egan Bernal – A Colombian with a big future
Egan Bernal – Now a Colombian with a Tour win
The years to come should be interesting for students of Colombian Cycling – But then, has it not been that way since the 1970s?
Every year there are more Colombian fans roadside in Europe
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,700 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.