Saturday 8 March 2014

Colombians and Cycling

There is a buzz in a Colombia about cycling. Lots of dancing, cheering and gaiety is being reported from Team GB cyclists fresh from the World Track Cycling Championships. But this fanfare and fiesta is not just confined to the area around the Cali Velodrome, setting for the World Track Cycling Championships.
Conchise Rodriguez (R), the first Colombian to ride the Tour de France, with
Felice Gimondi (1974)
Over the last couple of years Colombia seems to have experienced a resurgence in international cycling success, not since the era of Luis Herrera in the mid 1980s.

There have been the achievements of people like Santiago Botero, Victor Hugo Pena in the early 2000s or the promise of the sadly doomed Mauricio Soler. But the likes of Carlos Betancur, Rigoberto Uran and Nairo Quintana have shown that this is no fluke.

The latter returned to Bogota from last year's Tour de France to much acclaim and frenzy from thousands of fans after placing second in the world's most famous bike race as well as winning the King of the Mountains jersey and the best young rider competition. His compatriot Rigoberto Uran, racing for Team Sky placed second at the Tour of Italy a few months earlier while another Colombian, Carlos Betancur won the best young rider competition in the same race.

So why the renaissance and interest in cycling? Cycling has always been there. It is all about the funding. During the days of Luis Herrera cycling teams were sponsored by the Colombian Coffee growers' federation. As the market dipped, so the funding disappeared.

Little by little, unofficial channels for riders began to open, in the form of Italian teams fielding a Colombian onto their team or Spanish companies with Colombian subsidiaries. Further more, Martin Emilio "Conchise" Rodriguez, the first Colombian to race in the Tour de France (in 1975), after retiring from professional cycling, took to mentoring Colombian riders with potential and giving them a hand with living and logistics.

But now, Colombian university wants to restore a National pride, like they have been doing with football. The government is getting on board. They would like cycling to do for Colombia what it did for its coffee beans. Andres Botero of the Colombian Sports Council  says : "We would like cycling to promote the country. We would like to have an all-Colombia team in the world's greatest (cycle) race." The signs are already positive since the Colombia-Coldeportes gained a wild-card entry to the 2013 Giro d'Italia.

At amateur level the improvements in cycling can also be seen, as every Sunday hundreds of Colombians embrace the "ciclovias" - car free days by taking to two wheels.

We will look out for the Colombians over the coming years.