LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (CT) – Few would have predicted this. Twice runner-up in the Giro d’Italia, then a rider who endured two seasons of Grand Tour disappointments, Rigoberto Uran is back in business. The Colombian is days away from what could be the biggest result of his carer, and people are beginning to notice.
That much was clear at the Cannondale-Drapac team accommodation in Le Puy-en-Velay on Monday morning. The hotel is small and modest and located on a quiet street, but was getting plenty of attention. Fans gathered for autographs before the team’s training ride, while others massed to request signatures and selfies when the riders returned.
Print, radio and TV journalists also turned up, seeking insight from Uran and others. On this, the second rest day of the Tour, there was a palpable buzz of interest around the rider and around the team.
There should be little surprise in that: with six stages remaining in this year’s Tour, the Colombian is just 29 seconds off the yellow jersey currently held by Chris Froome (Team Sky).
He’s 11 seconds adrift of the second-placed rider Fabio Aru (Astana), and a mere six seconds off the podium position of Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale).
There’s everything to race for, and he’s excited.
“I am in a very good condition. We will see what happens in the Alps,” he tells CyclingTips in a one-on-one interview held on Monday morning. “You can be quite relaxed when you are well and when you can be with the best riders in the mountains.
“I feel good, and the team is very strong. I want to keep improving as I’m close to the podium and am only 29 seconds back from yellow. It’s not much…”
There’s plenty of racing ahead and also a time trial which could well suit him more than it does Aru and Bardet. With that in mind, as well as the remaining mountain stages, what does he believe is possible?
“Everything,” he replies, firmly. “Everything is possible. The most important thing is that I am well, and that I am with a good team. Anything can happen.
“I believe the most important thing is my condition. There are complicated stages ahead, tough stages ahead that I know very well. So we will see what happens in the race.”
Returning from career disappointment
Born in Urrao, Colombia in January 1987, Uran competed with teams such as Unibet.com, Caisse d’Epargne, Team Sky and Omega Pharma-QuickStep prior to moving to Cannondale prior to the start of the 2016 season.
He went there as a double runner-up in the Giro d’Italia, and was seen as someone who could continue contending for Grand Tour titles.
However things didn’t work out in year one. He came down with bronchitis in the 2016 Giro d’Italia and finished back in seventh overall. That followed on from a quiet performance in the same race in 2015, and his confidence was rattled.
“It is difficult for everyone if you are accustomed to riding races for the podium, and when there is a period when you are not riding as well,” he says, revisiting his emotions of that time. “But when you have the support of your family and your team, it makes it much easier.
“In the end it is a matter if being patient, believing in yourself, believing in your talent and staying focussed on the same goals.”
He underlines that keeping grounded was vital, always remembering why he took up cycling in the first place.
“In cycling you need to love the sport first,” he explains. “If you get too caught up in just focussing on results, you forget about your love for the sport. What has been good about the last two years is that the team has let me go back to Colombia more to be with my family and to refocus my passion on racing a bike.”
Jonathan Vaughters is the CEO of the Cannondale-Drapac team and said that overreacting to the 2016 Giro disappointment would have been a mistake.
“Honestly, it is nothing more than just trusting him and having patience in him,” he tells CyclingTips. “That’s really what it comes down to. There is no magic bullet or special thing.
“A lot of times, with Colombian riders and North American riders, they have a little bit of a down period, and all of a sudden the team says, ‘okay, you need to start doing more races over in Europe. You need to start coming to more training camps. You clearly didn’t do it right in the past, so now we are going to take over your schedule a bit more tightly,’ and so on and so forth.”
That, for him, would have been the wrong approach to take. “I think teams doing that is a mistake,” he says. “The biggest thing we have done is that we knew he was good the entire time; it just wasn’t clicking quite right. We just let him keep doing what he knew worked and didn’t interfere with it.
“We allowed him the space and freedom to do that without getting overly wrapped up in the here and now.”
Not panicking that the big investment hadn’t initially paid off was key. “Having patience was very important,” Vaughters continues. “Because Rigoberto is a smart cat. He knows how to get it done.
“Last year in the Giro, he had a really, really nasty case of bronchitis. Most riders I know wouldn’t have finished with what he had going on, and he was still seventh overall. That is kind of lost in the mix. But for us, we knew how good he actually was.”
Uran went away and set about rebuilding things. He reminded himself that he had achieved big results in the past and that there were logical reasons why he hadn’t performed. After all, any rider can become ill or run into different problems. What’s vital is to stay focussed. To keep the faith.
“I never lost confidence. I stayed relaxed,” he states. “I kept working the same and the team supported me. I didn’t change my training or anything, simply because I know if I train like I did in the other years, like when I rode strongly in the Giro, that I can perform as long as I am healthy.”
Setting new targets was important, and he aimed for the end of season Classics. They had always been of interest to him, particularly Il Lombardia as he has family in that area. And so he pinpointed those events as an objective hoped to land a victory in at least one of them.
It didn’t quite work out: he was third in the Giro dell’Emilia, third in Milan-Turin and third, again, in Il Lombardia.
Still, although he didn’t get the win he was chasing, he was back on a good level and his confidence was up. He kept working with the following July in mind.
“I prepared the whole year for this Tour, working towards this all season,” he says. “I did other races but I didn’t do the Giro, only the Classics. Because of that I came here in very good condition.”
So what did he believe was possible when he travelled to Dusseldorf for the Grand Depart? It’s easy to see now how well he is going, but was he convinced then that he would be a contender?
“Well,” he answers, “I always go with a lot of desire to all the races and I work contentiously. But in a race of three weeks, many things are necessary. Eleven years of experience has taught me that you need a good head, good legs and luck. No illnesses, no problems, no crashes.
“Before the Tour, my sensations were good and I knew I was in a very, very good condition and could be ahead. When I am good, in the high mountains, the medium mountains and the flat, everything follows.
“So, I knew that I could be ahead, but it depended on how things went. The build-up went well, everything was going fine and I knew I could win a stage, but I didn’t know how things would go beyond that. I certainly didn’t know that things would be so tight now, and be so close to the yellow jersey. It is always impossible to know how each race is going to evolve.
“This race has been surprising. Not just for me, but for all the guys in front.”
A Tour campaign gathering momentum
Early on, Uran lost time, finishing only 95th in the opening time trial. Normally good against the clock – particularly for a climber – his concentration was rattled when the UCI commissaires decided that his TT handlebar position didn’t conform to the setup regulations five minutes before his start time.
According to Uran and Vaughters, a different commissiare had green-lighted it two hours beforehand. The team was left with insufficient time to change the position of the bars, and so he had to quickly change to a spare bike. That affected his TT and he lost 63 seconds to the stage winner Geraint Thomas, and 51 seconds to Froome.
Undeterred, Uran kept his focus and gradually started moving up the GC. Netting 19th on the stage 3 uphill finish at Longwy elevated him to 31st. He then jumped to 11th overall two days later when he was seventh at La Planche des Belles Filles.
However his biggest show of form came on stage 9 to Chambéry, where he was quickest out of the leading group and won the stage.
“It is clear that such a victory gives a lot of confidence, and particularly because of the way it happened,” he says. “It was a sprint after a hard mountain stage and that is always a tricky thing.
“It is clear that I feel relaxed in this Tour because I have the confidence and happiness I need.”
Hitting the line first brought him his first victory in almost two years and was huge for his morale. It also bumped him up to fourth overall, and marked him out as a big overall contender. His second place on stage 12 further underlined that.
Given that he wasn’t on many people’s radar before the race started, was he upset not to be mentioned amongst the favourites?
“No, I don’t worry about what people think and don’t give it much importance,” he says. “It was clear that I wasn’t amongst the favourites as for two years I didn’t have good results in races of three weeks. That is normal. When you have two years when you are behind, it is normal when you are not in the list of favourites.
“The press isn’t going to understand the circumstances that made my performances before what I hoped, including bronchitis. I didn’t worry about it.”
Interestingly, he doesn’t believe that being out of the spotlight brought any benefits. While it might seem like he wouldn’t have the burden of expectation, he underlines that there is always pressure in the race.
“When you come to the Tour de France, everyone is under that same stress,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a race favourite or not, everyone feels the pressure of this race.”
‘There will come the moment when he throws it all on the line’
It’s been a long road to get to this point, within striking distance of the yellow jersey. That’s true for both Uran and also Vaughters. The latter has seen his riders take fourth overall with Christian Vande Velde in 2008 and Bradley Wiggins in 2009, although the latter was subsequently elevated to third after Lance Armstrong was disqualified in 2012.
Being so close to the Maillot Jaune with less than a week to go is a new experience for Vaughters, and one he could be bowled over by. However, like Uran, he’s making sure he doesn’t get ahead of himself.
“I kind of have the same attitude as Rigo,” he says. “I don’t take it for granted. I know he could go out training today and get stung like a wasp, like I did. You just never know on any day – any number of things could happen.
“You really just have to strategize for what is right in front of you. If you start thinking about three days from now, four days from now and so on and so forth, things can fall apart really fast.
“So for us, I am not even thinking about him being on the podium in Paris. That would be incredible. It would be unbelievable. It would make this organisation so happy…it would be a beautiful thing. But we are focussed on tomorrow, just tomorrow.”
Uran is also taking things day by day. He held the pink jersey in the 2014 Giro d’Italia and looked to have a solid chance of overall victory. However on stage 16 he was caught out when Nairo Quintana (Movistar) attacked on a descent Uran and others had understood was neutralised due to bad weather.
He chased desperately, but was out of the Maglia Rosa by the end of the day. Because of that he knows how quickly things can turn around.
Three years on, the tables have turned to some extent. Quintana is suffering in this Tour, due at least partly due to his decision to contest the Giro d’Italia, and has been dropped on several occasions. In contrast, Uran is riding very strongly and very much in the hunt for a podium place or better.
Years later, how is his relationship with Quintana?
“Everything is normal,” he insists. “All of us Colombians have a very good relationship. For me, the past is the past. What happened happened. All that interests me is the present.
“People said I lost the Giro because of that attack. In the end, I was second in the Giro. But now the most important thing is where I am, that I am with this team and I am working hard.”
He’s right: there’s zero point in raking over the coals of a past battle. It’s far more productive to try to make up for that disappointment with a big success and, because of that, he’ll give everything to wear yellow into Paris.
What’s important in the days ahead is to keep trying to close the gap to the Maillot Jaune and, if possible, to seize it in advance of the final time trial.
Vaughters is hoping that he will have more in reserve than the other GC contenders in this final week.
“Rigo has played a really cagey race thus far,” he says. “For example yesterday, you could see that Froome and Bardet had to go really, really deep. I don’t think Rigo had to go that deep. And Aru, two days ago he had to go really deep; yesterday I think he was a little bit on the limit.
“From what I can see, Rigo hasn’t gone all the way to the bottom yet, as far as being in the pain bucket. So hopefully he has got some juice left over for the Alps. That will be the difference, one way or another.
“I know there will come the moment when he throws it all on the line. Before then, he picks his moments very carefully.”
In terms of his strategy in the days ahead, Uran isn’t saying much. Rather than revealing his tactics, he’s staying quiet.
That’s not necessarily to keep an advantage, but rather to fend off stress. He knows that looking ahead too far is counter-productive, and so he’s taking things gradually.
“I am very happy to have won a stage,” he says. “And I want to finish on the podium. But now I am very close to yellow; that is very motivating.
“I want to take things day by day and see where we end up. That’s the best approach.”
Just as he’s done thus far in the race, he’ll keep his head down and continue quietly plugging away. He’ll seize his chances when they arise, and then try to finish things off in Saturday’s time trial.
Will that be enough? We’ll know the answer to that question in six days time.
Right now he’s ruling nothing out. “Everything is possible.”