The Colombians are out of the World Cup, but in Yellow at the Tour de France with Fernando Gaviria’s impressive win on today’s opening stage. The young Colombian has certainly learned his bike handling lessons after crashing himself out of what seemed like a certain victory in Milano San Remo a couple of years ago. He capped off yet another perfect Quickstep team effort by putting away Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel in the end, becoming only the second Colombian ever to hold Yellow, preceded by the popular Victor Hugo Peña in 2003.
Peña’s rein in Yellow is an odd story, one that was truly misrepresented to the public by, sorry to say it (I’m a subscriber) the New York Times. Fans, media and Race Direction were outraged to see Peña, in Yellow, dropping back to the team car to collect bottles for Lance Armstrong, and in general, comporting himself as a normal team worker instead of honoring the Maillot Jaune with a safe, protected ride in front. The Times called it: “A criminal act on Armstrong’s part”. The truth is something quite different.
Peña was part of the Postal Service team and a veritable locomotive in their Team Time Trial machine that set the foundations for Lance’s wins. A former swimmer who turned to cycling, Peña was a flatlander, excellent track racer, but certainly not a “winged angel” of the mountains. The day of the TTT was, in fact, his birthday, and Lance manipulated him to the front at the finish so that he would be awarded the prized tunic. Afterwards, as observed by then Cyclingnews European Editor Tim Maloney, Lance himself came out of the team bus with a birthday cake – a rare moment of kindness and humanity for that monstrous ego.
2003 was the year that Jan Ulrich had finally gotten it all together – the German was raging and Lance…not so much. As Greg Lemond’s venerated French Director Cyrille Guimard would say. “The Yellow Jersey is absolute poison in the first week, you have to get rid of it immediately!” If you want to win in Paris that is. There was no tactical sense whatsoever to try and hold that jersey and the Postal boys made the right call. Peña wanted to work, his reward had been given. And 15-years later, Victor Hugo is still the first Colombian to hold Yellow.
Gaviria, on the other hand, is on a team with almost no ambitions for Yellow in Paris. Look for Quickstep to profit as long as they can from the publicity they’ll get from leading the race.
Colombia is spewing forth a veritable eruption of cycling talent. Historically known for tiny climbers that would fold in the brutal flatland races, with their rain, crosswinds, Dutch and Belgian elbows and horror of horrors, cobblestone races, this new generation can do just about anything. They have sprinters – as we see today – climbers of course, but also all-arounders. A full set of talent.
I was stuck out on the road a couple of weeks ago with a malfunctioning electronic shifting system – the malfunction was my doing of course, a Di2 cable crushed behind my stem faceplate… I rode 25-miles in 52 x 11 to a Hamptons bicycle shop called Rotations where their wonderful head mechanic, a Colombian named Nelson Aldana, explained their system while bailing me out.
According to Nelson, each Colombian town and city has a “Comite de Ciclismo” a government office where parents can take their children to learn the sport. The Comite helps with getting the kids bikes, assigns them a trainer to follow them on the roads and even work to create school programs where the kids can choose cycling instead of gym classes. The best young riders are then drafted into the “Liga” which is the State or Department level cycling league. From there, the very best ones are put into Liga teams that compete around the country, and then up into the top amateur and then professional teams. It’s an organized, cohesive and sensible system, and we are seeing the beautiful fruits of that long-term planning today. Gaviria is 24, Egan Bernal (mark that name – you’ll hear much from him) is only 21, Nairo’s a contender of course and lots more are coming down the pipeline.
And we Americans with all of our riches? What do we have? Not much. No planning, few important amateur races, a pathway to the National Team that requires breathtaking amounts of money eliminating the very kids we actually need, and a focus on the ProTour to the exclusion of the most important development work. Perhaps our cycling leadership, the USA Cycling Foundation comes to mind and that BOD, can look at Colombia, or the UK with their somewhat similar and fertile systems, and reconsider their approach. That entire crew loves to sip Champagne on the Champs Elysee, but those days are long gone and won’t be back anytime soon – especially if things don’t change.
John Eustice, is the organizer of the Thompson Bucks County Classic in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and a long-time cycling analyst who has contributed to ESPN, ABC Sports, Time Magazine, and CNN among others. The Bucks County native resides in New York City. He was a pioneer on the European racing circuit and is a two-time United States Professional Champion.