Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Best Colombian Riders of The Modern Era


HomeStoriesThe Best Colombian Riders of The Modern Era

A couple of years ago we did a piece about the Colombian influence on European Cycle Sport and the best Colombian riders of the modern era, and at the end of it we mentioned a guy who we believed was going to be a ‘Big’; Senor Egan Bernal by name. Since Bernal has become the first Colombian winner of the Tour de France we thought you make like to see what we said back then…

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They’re part of the landscape now, those Colombians; Chaves, Gaviria, Quintana, Uran all rampaging across Grand Tours and Classics landscapes.

Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas (both GBR / Team INEOS). Photo©Dion Kerckhoffs

It got me to thinking about Colombians I have known and loved (most of them, that is) since I started following cycling way back in 1970.

Nairo Quintana is riding clear of his challengers. Photo©Gian Mattia D’Alberto

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 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.

I hadn’t realised 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.

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 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.

The Bianchi-Campagnolo stars of 1973 – Marino Basso, Martin Rodriguez and Felice Gimondi.

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 realised that these Columbian guys were the real deal.

Florez, who enjoyed huge success in his native Colombia would sadly die, a murder victim in Medelin 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 Columbian 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.

Martin Ramirez winning a stage at the Tour d l’Avenir.

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 Columbian 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.

Lucho Herrera. Photo©AFP/Getty

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.

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 Columbian 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 realised his potential as a stage race rider.

Álvaro Mejia.

Similarly Álvaro 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.

Santiago Botero.

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 Operacion 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 Columbia, which he did very successfully, winning his national time trial championship as recently as 2010.

KoM Mauricio Soller was no tester but looked great in this Tour TT all the same. Photo©Martin Williamson

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.

Rigoberto Uran – Possible Grand Tour winner? Photo©Martin Williamson