Commentary: How the sabotage of the Tour Del Café highlights big problems in Colombian cycling

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Earlier this month, Nairo Quintana took his second Grand Tour victory, beating Tour de France champion Chris Froome at the Vuelta a España and marking himself out as one of the biggest stars in the sport. He shared the podium with Colombian compatriot Esteban Chaves. However, beyond Quintana and Chaves and a handful of other WorldTour pros, there are some very big problems in Colombian cycling.

El Tiempo journalist Gustavo Duncan digs deeper into the deliberate hampering of the planned 2.1-ranked Tour Del Café and shows why it is just one of several big issues affecting the sport in the South American nation.

Wearing his bright red champion’s jersey, Nairo Quintana was the most obvious sign of a Colombian victory as this year’s Vuelta a España came to a close. Aside from Nairo, however, an amazing number of his countrymen could be seen celebrating in Madrid, enjoying the success in a way that they hadn’t been able to do since Lucho Herrera won the same event in 1987.

Wearing the national soccer team’s jersey, they were easy to spot. It was a seemingly unusual choice when celebrating a cycling victory. But that jersey was the only national symbol they had on hand. That’s because going back some decades now, after the demise of the Postobón y del Café de Colombia teams in the early 90s, Colombia hasn’t had a cycling team at the highest level of the sport.

Colombia has had great riders racing internationally, to be sure, but just is the case with men like Quintana and Esteban Chaves, they raced abroad exclusively.

How can it be that Colombia, a huge force within the sport, one that is continuously ranked as one of the top nations by the UCI, has little more than the riders who race abroad as its connection to the top level of cycling?

Sadly, the story behind a planned race called Tour del Café helps shed light on the matter. And the reason why the race has thus far failed to occur also speaks volumes about the current crop of riders who currently compete in Europe, who have managed to become global figures despite leadership of the sport in their country — riders who have succeeded despite that leadership, not because of it.

For reasons explored below, the leadership of Colombian cycling is seemingly intent on staying disconnected from the rest of the world.

Thwarting progress

The race couldn’t have had any other name. The Tour del Café has been in the works for three years now. Conceived by The Cycling Company, a Colombian cycle tour group, the five-day stage race would take place in and around the areas in the country where its most famed export is grown and processed. Its place in the calendar would be strategic, directly after Argentina’s Tour de San Luis, in late January.

Like San Luis, the Tour del Café would have a 2.1 ranking, bringing top talent to race in Colombia for the first time in decades. This would, ideally, include local riders from World Tour teams, whom most Colombian cycling fans have never seen race in person.

As things stand now, races in Colombia have, at most, a 2.2 UCI rating — as is the case with the Vuelta a Colombia — or lack a UCI ranking altogether. WorldTour riders are not allowed to compete at these national-level events, which make up the bulk of Colombia’s racing calendar. Only regional teams, or the occasional team from Rwanda or Italy, can compete.

In an effort to bring world-class racing to Colombia, the Cycling Company’s president Alejandro Carrizosa obtained interest and backing from Medalist Sports, the Georgia-based company responsible for organizing the Tour of Utah and Tour of Alberta (as well as the Amgen Tour of California, Tour of Georgia, Missouri, and the USA Cycling Challenge in the past).

Along with Medalist Sports, Carrizosa also spoke with several Colombian companies in the private sector, who signed on to sponsor the race. Likewise, local and regional government entities in coffee-growing regions showed great interest and supported the event.

With such a strong and positive reaction, the Tour del Café appeared to be well on its way to becoming a reality. The next step was to process the necessary paperwork with Colombia’s cycling federation. This is where things went awry.

“I wrote to them about the matter, and of course they never even wrote back,” says Carrizosa. “I then wrote to the UCI directly, with full support from Medalist Sports. The UCI responded by saying I had to get a permit from the local federation.”

Dismissed by that federation, the UCI sent Carrizosa the necessary paperwork for the race directly. But the forms, once completed, had to be sent back to the UCI by the national federation. Its only role on the matter was merely administrative (since a race at the 2.1 level meant that it would be backed directly by the UCI), yet the federation took the opportunity to halt the project once again.

It was months later that the UCI informed Carrizosa that the federation had never submitted the forms. With that, Carrizosa called Jorge Ovidio González, then-president of the Colombian cycling federation.

His hope was to get help from González, but instead he was harshly rebuked. “He said I was trying to go around them, that this was a ‘pirate’ race, since it was not backed by the federation.”

He was then told that if the race was going to happen, the federation would have to be fully involved, both in its planning and organization.

These events transpired three years ago. Since then, the federation has yet to submit the paperwork to the UCI. It continued to stall, even after a strongly-worded email from the UCI was sent in which the governing body warned the federation about referring to race organizers of a race as “pirates,” the federation’s argument for not supporting the event.

It should be noted that the author of this article has seen and read these emails, both from the Colombian federation and the UCI.

Lucho Herrera was, for many years, one of the country's top riders and represented the first big wave of Colombian riders in the Tour de France.
Lucho Herrera was, for many years, one of the country’s top riders and represented the first big wave of Colombian riders in the Tour de France.

It might be small, but it’s all mine

Faced by continuous opposition from Colombia’s federation, Carrizosa went to Coldeportes, the state-backed ministry of sport. Coldeportes in turn contacted the federation once again. They were told that such an event would rival their efforts to get sponsorship for their own events. It was for that reason, they stated, that they were unable to support the Tour del Café.

Going even further, the federation then said the following, in a July 11 press release. “The Tour del Café race was discussed, which would be organized by Medalist Sports. The federation’s stance is that no race in Colombia that exists above this entity [operates without its full endorsement] can take place.”

Such a statement is in line with the federation’s past behaviour. Their approach, it would appear, is to pass up the chance of putting Colombian cycling on the world stage in order to keep Colombian cycling as a local affair. It’s a position that seems to favor control above all else, and fully ignores the national talent at the WorldTour level.

The Colombian federation’s logic, it appears, is that the cake might be small, but it’s all theirs.

The degree of impudence at play is such that Jorge Ovidio González, now business manager of the federation, told the Colombian daily El Tiempo on Sunday: “The plans for this race were known by the UCI, but [UCI president] Brian Cookson asked that the organizers speak with the federation to reach an agreement. But they never reached out to us”.

This is false. On April 18, a meeting with the federation was set up in order to present all the necessary plans about the race, to ensure that no one at the federation felt as though organizers were going around them in any way. “The federation realized that the UCI and a representative from Medalist Sports would be present. It was then that they backed out of the meeting,” says Carrizosa, who has a letter supporting his claims.

Aside from being troubling, these developments illustrate another unusual aspect of Colombian cycling. The federation not only blocks organizers from bettering the scant race calendar in Colombia, but it also fails to do what it claims it should: to set up and manage races.

Its incompetence is such that the Vuelta a Colombia may soon disappear from the UCI calendar. The race itself is a disaster in terms of organization. From the prize money, to teams being charged for each vehicle they have in the caravan and riders having to pay for their own lodging, the race has a long list of violations against the rules the UCI sets out for such races.

Mountains leader Lucho Herrera with five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault. The odds of finding more riders like Herrera and Nairo Quintana are hampered by the issues involving cycling in Colombia.
Mountains leader Lucho Herrera with five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault. The odds of finding more riders like Herrera and Nairo Quintana are hampered by the issues involving cycling in Colombia.

Problems beyond races alone

Issues with the Colombian cycling federation extend further. As an example, the nation has been awarded 24 spots in the upcoming world championships in Doha based on the performances of its riders. Despite this, the federation is only planning to take 16 riders.

According to Agustín Moreno, the federation’s current president, the reason for doing this is that Colombia lacks competitive riders in the women’s and U23 categories. Consequently those categories which can benefit most from racing at this level, those that need the most help in terms of developing talent and new riders, and those for which have no teams or sponsors, are being denied the ability to compete in the world championships.

In the fight against doping, the federation’s results have been poor as well. Colombia’s biggest newspaper, El Tiempo, recently reported that the local peloton uses banned substances more freely than riders in Europe did in the ’90s. The article included pictures of doping products imported from China, which were consumed in the last Vuelta a Colombia.

For young cyclists in Colombia, the choice becomes clear — cheat, or else win nothing, and thus risk never being able to get on a team that actually pays its riders.

Two well-known cycling coaches in Colombia were contacted for this article, and both felt strongly about the fact that a local cyclist must leave for Europe early on or risk never being able to win without cheating. There have been several cases of Colombian cyclists who flew over mountain passes in local races, yet struggled to even finish low-level races once they made it to Europe.

Quintana defeated Tour de France champion Chris Froome to win the 2016 Vuelta a Espana.
Quintana defeated Tour de France champion Chris Froome to win the 2016 Vuelta a Espana.

To reap someone else’s rewards

In considering all these problems, a logical question arises: If things are so bad in the federation, why has no one intervened? How is it that the leadership hasn’t changed? It’s a matter of perception. In the eyes of many in Colombia, cycling is a sport that comes to the forefront only with sizable victories.

Before this current generation of riders — Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán, and Esteban Chaves — many in Colombia had little interest on the matter, much less that of local cycling. The federation did a poor job with no one noticing, or caring.

Now that men like Quintana and Chaves are on the podium of the biggest races in the sport, it’s logical that many in Colombia assume that the success of this current generation of riders has come about due to the longstanding support and vigilance of local institutions such as the cycling federation. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

By taking partial ownership of those victories, these individuals from the federation dismissively put aside the very riders who actually did the necessary work to get themselves to European podiums. They, in essence, step in to reap someone else’s rewards.

It should come as no surprise that Movistar’s Winner Anacona took to Twitter recently in order to respond to Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos. Santos had stated that, “Colombians will be back to the Tour next year!” to claim a yellow jersey.

Anacona’s reply was short, but its subtext was powerful.

Yes, he said, they will be back next year. Because, “we are all SELF-MADE.”


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