Better than Bernal? The rapid rise of Colombian climber Iván Sosa
When the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir gets underway on Friday August 17, it will do so with Colombia’s Iván Sosa as the rider to beat. The 20-year-old has had a monster of a year, winning four of his last five stage races and beating some big-name rivals along the way. His trajectory in the sport has earned him comparisons with compatriot Egan Bernal who this year stepped up to the WorldTour with Team Sky in impressive fashion.
As Fran Reyes writes, Sosa and Bernal have taken a similar path to Europe and last year Sosa was a key support rider for Bernal. But now that Bernal has graduated to the big leagues, Sosa is free to fly. And fly he has.
In the ever-changing, fast-evolving environment of professional cycling, some things remain the same year after year. Case in point: Androni-Sidermec, a modest Italian Pro Continental team that has been on the road for more than 20 years now. Since the start it has been spearheaded by its principal Gianni Savio and his lust for media exposure.
Savio, once defined by Spanish journalist Carlos Arribas as “a man who runs a cycling team but could also be hosting a TV show or playing piano in a brothel,” makes his cycling business a personal affair. The way his team races is as flashy as Savio himself. He loves South America, and every season he brings aboard some youngster from Colombia, Venezuela or Costa Rica on a bet that, every now and then, pays off.
Behind Savio we find Giovanni Ellena, Androni-Sidermec’s head sports director. In an interview with Tuttobici back in March this year, Ellena was questioned about Egan Bernal, the rising star who this year joined the WorldTour with Sky after a couple of seasons with Androni.
Ellena was asked about Androni’s other South American talents, and there was one name that immediately popped to the Italian’s mind.
“He reminds me of The Ugly Duckling,” Ellena said. “He trained with Egan and in every race he would devote all his energies to working for him. Now, he will be free to make it to cycling’s history books.”
That “Ugly Duckling” goes by the name of Iván Sosa, a 20-year-old Colombian who’s well on his way to becoming a beautiful swan. Just last week, at the Vuelta a Burgos, Sosa upstaged another up-and-coming but more established Colombian climber, Miguel Ángel López (Astana).
On the first mountaintop finish of the Spanish stage race, Picón Blanco, Sosa bade his time on the wheel of Team Sky’s David de la Cruz while López created a 30-second gap. Under the red kite, Sosa attacked to reach his fellow Colombian in a sudden, explosive one-minute acceleration.
“But I made a mistake there,” Sosa explains, speaking to CyclingTips. “I tried to drop him immediately instead of waiting a bit before overtaking him and sprinting for victory.” It proved to be a crucial mistake: López pipped him on the finish line.
Revenge came two days later atop the Lagunas de Neila, a summit where excellent Colombian climbers such as Esteban Chaves, Nairo Quintana and ‘Superman’ López himself have won in recent years. Sosa waited on Lopez’s wheel until about 500 meters to go, where he took off to win the stage and the GC.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect it,” he says. “It’s pretty humbling and satisfying, seeing the great riders who have won the Vuelta a Burgos before me.”
You have to imagine it will be the first of many televised victories.
The mentors and the scouts
Every time we dig for the roots of a young Colombian rider who makes it to the biggest European races, we find a pack of people who claim to have discovered him. Sosa is no exception, but he has a rather philosophical approach to the idea of success having so many parents.
“A lot of people have been important in particular moments of my career,” he asserts. “But, you know, it has been up to me to do the best part of the work. Still, I remain thankful to all of them.”
Sosa was born in Cundinamarca, the region that surrounds Bogotá, in a family which made its living out of growing beans. It was his uncle Joaquín who first piqued young Iván’s interest in cycling by taking him out for a ride when he was 10.
Our protagonist first showed his talent as a racer at the Vuelta del Porvenir, the best stage race for junior cyclists in Colombia, racing for the Canapro team. He won the queen stage with a long-range attack that caught the eye of Andrea Bianco, an MTB coach working for the Colombian federation.
Bianco relayed Sosa’s name to his friend Paolo Alberati, the same rider agent that brought Egan Bernal to Europe … and to Savio’s team.
In Sosa’s case, there was an intermediate step. He spent his first under-23 year at the Maltinti Lampadari team, directed by Savio’s former rider Leonardo Scarselli. Victory in a very tough one-day race in the Little Dolomites sealed his professional contract with Androni-Sidermec, which started in 2017 and currently runs until 2020.
The Alps and the Carpathians
After a first year fully devoted to supporting Bernal, Sosa was unleashed this season. After finishing sixth at Colombia Oro y Paz, his first meaningful exploit in Europe arrived at the Tour of the Alps, where he wore the leader’s jersey after two mountain stages, ahead of the likes of Chris Froome and Thibaut Pinot.
His first professional victory came only a month later at the Tour of Bihor, a UCI 2.2 stage race held on the Romanian side of the Carpathian Mountains. He won the queen stage and the GC there, likewise at the Sibiu Tour, a UCI 2.1 event in the Carpathians. In that particular race he won all four of the tour’s major classifications: the GC, points, best young rider and KOM.
Between the two Romanian races, Sosa was also dominant at the Adriatica Ionica Race, a new UCI 2.1 stage event managed by former road race world champion Moreno Argentin. While fully held in the north of Italy this year, it’s a race that intends to race through up to 10 countries including Slovenia, Austria, Croatia and Greece by 2020: from the Adriatic sea all the way to the Ionian.
Sosa triumphed in the first mountaintop finish of the race’s first edition. He displayed his impressive power in the roads up to the Passo Giau, covering every move by his rivals until the fight for victory was reduced to a mano-a-mano with Giulio Ciccone (Bardiani-CSF). With a touch over two kilometres to go, the young Italian rider tried to drop Sosa with an attack that was answered by an even stronger counter-attack from the Colombian.
“I’d say I am the typical Colombian climber, one who wants to offer a good show to the fans,” Sosa describes himself, modestly. “I’m good at keeping a steady pace uphill, but I also have some power in my legs to produce good accelerations and win races.”
Ciccone can testify that’s quite an understatement.
The future and L’Avenir
After winning four of his last five stage races and a total of nine victories for the year, Sosa now has his sights on the imminent Tour de l’Avenir, to be held from August 17 to 26. He will lead the Colombian squad after helping Egan Bernal in the last two editions of the world’s most prestigious U23 race, which is ridden by national teams.
“I’m pretty good friends with Egan Bernal,” Sosa says of his former teammate. “We’ve shared a lot of experiences here in Europe. We speak often, even now that we are in different teams. I’m thankful for everything he has taught me.”
Bernal was fourth at the 2016 Tour de l’Avenir and won the 2017 edition by more than a minute. “The Ugly Duckling” is confident he will contend for victory this year.
“The preparation has been perfect and I’m sure the experience of these two previous seasons will help me,” he said. “The key is to remain attentive at every moment of the race, especially in the flat stages where wind could be a factor. We hope not to be caught offside by any skirmish.”
The field he will face on the roads of France features the best U23 talents in the world. Russia’s Alexander Vlasov (Gazprom-Rusvelo) and Australia’s Robert Stannard (Mitchelton-BikeExchange), first and third at this year’s U23 Giro d’Italia, are the main favourites along with Switzerland’s Marc Hirschi, who rides at Development Team Sunweb. Great Britain has two potential podium finishers in Team Wiggins’ Mark Donovan and SEG Racing’s Stephen Williams, while Movistar’s Jaime Castrillo leads the Spanish national team.
As for the future, post-l’Avenir, there are suggestions Iván Sosa is set to join Trek-Segafredo next season.
“I can’t confirm my team for 2019,” he says politely. “I’ve been in talks with Trek-Segafredo, but it is still unsure [that he will join their ranks].”
And as for his grand vision? The young Colombian has dreams of pink.
“I’d love to win the Giro d’Italia,” he said. “I think that’s a race well suited to my characteristics — very tough, perfect for a pure climber like myself”.
It’s hard to disagree with him.
About the author
Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modeling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF