LEON, Spain (VN) — Nairo Quintana’s overall win at the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) on Saturday not only marked his arrival to the big time, but also put an exclamation point on a Colombian revival that’s been on slow simmer over the past several years.
In the 1980s, the Colombian escarabajos took Europe by storm, with Luis Herrera winning the 1987 Vuelta a España and Fabio Parra reaching the Tour de France podium with third in 1988.
The Colombian climbers were largely squeezed out in the go-go 1990s and 2000s, with only the likes of Santiago Botero, later linked to the Operación Puerto doping ring, and the occasional stage-hunter, such as former Lance Armstrong teammate Victor Hugo Peña, who wore the yellow jersey in the 2003 Tour, gaining any notable results in Europe.
That’s changing in a big way as Quintana (Movistar) leads a new wave of Colombian riders making new headway in the European peloton.
“Now we have some excellent riders,” Quintana said Saturday in a press conference after winning the Basque tour. “Now we are stronger than those who came before. We’ve improved; we’re stronger in the time trial, climbing as well as descending, and that makes us more complete riders.”
Other top Colombians include Olympic silver medalist Rigoberto Urán and Sky teammate Sergio Henao. Both have already made big impressions at Sky, where Urán will be riding the Giro d’Italia in support of captain Bradley Wiggins and his quest for the pink jersey. Henao led the Basque tour until the final-stage time trial, when Quintana replaced him atop the leaderboard.
Quintana is only 23 years old, but many are already tipping him as a potential grand tour winner.
“That’s the idea, to one day fight for a grand tour,” Quintana said. “I will go to the Tour this year to help Alejandro (Valverde) and to get to know the race. I am still young and we have to see how my body adapts, but I hope to someday return to try win a grand tour.”
Winner of the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir ahead of Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Quintana has been on a tear this year.
He won a stage and was fourth at the Volta a Catalunya and was third in the final-stage, uphill time trial at Paris-Nice. Only a crash in the fourth stage knocked him out of contention for the overall.
At the Basque tour, he won the decisive climbing stage up the Arrate summit and then surprised many by pacing to second in Saturday’s time trial finale, only 17 seconds behind world champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and 22 second faster than pre-stage favorite Richie Porte (Sky).
What might have been a surprise for many wasn’t for Quintana, who is quietly gaining confidence in his second full season in Europe with Spanish outfit Movistar.
“It wasn’t that much of a surprise because I have been working a lot on my time trial,” he said. “I am more confident and I knew I could do well in the time trial. Even though I took a few risks on the descents, the course was perfect for me. I knew I would have chances to win.”
Quintana will next race the Ardennes classics for the first time before retreating to Colombia for a break ahead of his anticipated Tour debut later this season.
Quintana is not alone
The Basque tour proved a coming out party of sorts for the new generation of escarabajos, including Henao, who pipped compatriot Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) for the win in stage 3.
Quintana’s impressive ride in Saturday’s 24km TT also proved that the new Colombians can time trial. Henao was seventh in the stage to secure third place, while Betancur was eighth and clinched seventh overall.
Betancur won the 2010 Giro Bio and turned pro in 2011, winning the Giro dell’Emilia and the Trofeo Melinda last year and finidhing fourth at the Giro del Trentino.
Another key element of the Colombian revival is the Colombia UCI Pro Continental team, led by former Saeco boss Claudio Corti. Called Colombia-Coldeportes in its debut season last year, the squad boasts an all-Colombian roster (with the exception of Corti’s son, Marco) and will be making its grand tour debut this year at the Giro d’Italia.
Veteran Leonardo Duque and 2008 U23 world champion Fabio Duarte, winner of the Coppa Sabatini, anchor the squad. Other strong riders include Johan Chaves, who won the Citta di Camaiore in 2012, as well as John Atapuma, winner of a climbing stage in last year’s Giro del Trentino.
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the Colombian broadcasters return to the finish lines in Europe with their emphatic, futbol-inspired commentary. They may have plenty to cheer for in the coming years.