“THE MIRACLE OF MIRANDA” – NED BOULTING
February 18, 2019
If you look at the results of the final stage of the (prosaically named) Tour Colombia 2.1, you will not fail to notice their remarkable homogeneity. Of the first fifteen riders over the finish line of the fifteen kilometre slog to the “Viva Palmas” shopping centre on the mountainous fringes of Medellin, an astonishing fourteen were flying the yellow, blue and red of Colombia. The only rider who didn’t conform was Jhonatan Narváez, Team Sky’s new signing, who hails from Equador, a country which was once part of Gran Colombia, and shares the same tricolour adopted in the 19th Century by the visionary revolutionary Francisco de Miranda.
Other than Narváez’s very creditable 10th place, riding in support of his teammates Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa, there was only one show in town. Colombia was roaring its astonished, proud approval.
As the climb unfolded, it was simply a matter of time before the race leader, Julian Alaphilippe, would succumb to an entire nation throwing its armoury of skinny climbers at him. At times, as the peloton hunted down the victory and started to counter attack itself, it must have felt to the Frenchman as if someone had placed a slab on his chest, and one by one, Colombian riders had started to take turns in standing on it, then jumping up and down, crushing him into submission. The Alto de la Palmas is a climb that starts at just under 1500 metres and finishes at around 2500; modest by Colombian standards, but enough to asphyxiate sea-level dwellers. To his credit, Alaphilippe lasted until about five kilometres to go before dropping away and then it was over to the host nation to show its wares, virtually unopposed.
There were early moves from the likes of 22 year old Miguel Florez, one of so many Colombians lured into the clutches of the thoroughly Machiavellian Gianni Savio’s Androni Giocatelli team, as Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa had been before him. Another powerful counter followed that from the man who is still flush from his recent success at the Vuelta a San Juan, Winner Anacona. And for a while it looked as if this climb could herald a repeat of that wonderful victory in Argentina. But the blistering field at the Tour Colombia was more than a degree or two hotter than the race in Argentina, and besides, his team leader Nairo Quintana had a point to prove. Also, pertinently, Team Sky were putting on a show, ahead of inking their new contract with Ecopetrol and forging a bold new Colombian future.
When the race was finally distilled to the very best, its constitution and shape were noticeable for a few different reasons. As Nairo Quintana started to flit around and tease out the best, you couldn’t help but feel something generational was occurring to Colombian cycling, on these very slopes. It was hard not to notice, for instance, that the hardened campaigner Sergio Henao, riding for UAE Team Emirates these days, looked isolated and reactive, rather than like a man whose move to a “lesser” team than Sky had freed him up to express himself. Rigoberto Uran, second let’s not forget on the Tour de France, as recently as 2017, seemed to have devoted himself to the services of the quicksilver and highly promising Danny Martinez, wearing the white jersey. And Estaban Chaves (remember him?) wasn’t even in the race, as he struggles to recover from Epstein-Barr.
Wherever you looked on the shattering and re-forming procession up the mountain, there was extraordinary talent. I cannot recall seeing a race as dominated by one country outside of a National Championship. The sense of a nation in rapture at its own riches was only augmented by the thick, boisterous (and later, disruptive) crowd that lined the sides of the wide road. Hugely creditable rides were recorded by lesser known/unkown-in-Europe talents such as Jhohan Garcia, Didier Chaparro, Rodrigo Contraras (the son of a potato farming family who used to room with Fernando Gaviria in Belgium) and the perfectly named Freddy Montaña.
At the sharp end of the race, Miguel Ángel López was in electric form, doing enough to win the race overall but will undoubtedly be disappointed to have been beaten into third on the stage. Nairo Quintana (delirously hailed by the Colombian TV commentators for his every attack as “Nairoman!” in riposte to the much-vaunted “Superman!” López) reminded everyone who’s the boss in Colombia, by winning the stage in style.
But it was Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa, Sky’s pedigree pairing, whose similar physiques will be a curse to commentators all year long, who stole the show. Bernal, who could well win the Giro this year, excelled himself by sacrificing his chances of winning his home Tour in favour of his debutant teammate. And Sosa proved that he was eminently worthy of such high-calibre support. Paced into contention by Bernal, he took his place on Quintana’s wheel in the final selection, only to be rudely barged off his bike by an over exuberant fan running alongside. Unfazed, he remounted, got back into contention and then, in the final, left Superman López for dead with a stunning sprint for second place.
It was breathless stuff, quite unique, in my experience. And it heralds an extraordinary future for a country more in love with road racing than any on the planet. Only Belgium comes close.
But it was Sosa who really caught my attention. Sosa, whose upbringing is an archetype of Colombian cycling. In the company of Matt Rendell, I visited him at his family’s smallholding farm this winter, up in the remote Colombian Highlands, a few hours South of Bogota. Below I have posted a link to a few shots of this beautiful place, and the warm welcome he and his mother and father accorded us. As his Androni kit dried on the mountain heat outside, and his mother prepared lunch, we talked (or rather, I listened) to the family recount with pride their son’s preternatural talent, eyes aglow with all that he might go on to achieve. On this reckoning, he and his country are set to light up the high mountains of road racing for many years to come.