The best cyclists in the world are currently racing in Colombia. Cycling is extremely popular there. Millions are invested in young talent.
Quintana’s generation was able to build on a fairly good infrastructure Photo: afp/Joaquin Sarmiento
Jairo Chaves describes himself as a frustrated cyclist. "When I was young, my family didn’t care about cycling. No one considered it a profession. Our families made us work," he says. He himself, unable to develop his talent, took it upon himself to do better for his children. "A whole generation of fathers developed who wanted to give their children better conditions," he tells taz at a meeting in Bogota.
Quite successfully. His son Esteban has been a professional with the Australian racing team Mitchelton-Scott for years. His podium finishes include the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. Meanwhile, second son Brayan, seven years younger than Esteban, rides on Mitchelton’s U23 team. "He has in even better values than Esteban at his age. He is a complete rider, also good in time trials," Chaves senior says proudly.
Top sprinter Fernando Gaviria – a stage winner in the Tour de France and currently chasing one-day victories in the domestic Tour Colombia – had a similar role played by his father, Hernando. He is a sports teacher, has his own cycling school in La Ceja near MedellIn and, in addition to son Fernando, also developed daughter Juliana as a track rider.
In to Boyaca, the home region of Nairo Quintana, who has already finished the Tour de France on the podium three times, the talk quickly turns to Don Luis, the father. He saved the last of his money and sold fruit and vegetables at a watering hole right next to his son’s training track in order to finance his not entirely inexpensive sport.
"It was tough back then. We had guys with talent. And Don Luis was also very committed. But it wasn’t easy to get support. We would go to the stores and ask for some provisions for the trips to the races. Sometimes we got something, but sometimes they left us alone," says Rusbel Achagua, Nairo’s "first coach, first mechanic, first masseur and first psychologist," in the village of Arcabuco.
Dovetailing track and road cycling
The generation of Quintana & Co, in addition to fathers who supported them and coaches who believed in them, could also build on a fairly good infrastructure. There are tracks in the three most important cycling regions. "That gives you the foundation as a professional cyclist, both in terms of muscle development and technical mastery of the equipment," says Jairo Chaves. His sons were out on the velodrome in Bogota, and the Gaviria siblings circled the MedellIn velodrome. And little Quintana also did his laps on the Duitama track in Boyaca. As with the so-successful British cycling program, the focus in Colombia was on the close integration of track and road cycling.
Conditions are being further improved for the next generation of cyclists. The generation of "frustrated cyclists" like Jairo Chaves has built up their own junior teams from the development programs for their sons. There is the finest equipment, good coaches, psychological support – and for the jump to Europe even English teachers who give instructions in English on the buttons in the ear during the race.
Not only climbers are trained, but also sprinters and classic riders
In Boyaca, Nairo Quintana has initiated a government development program. "The budget is 6 billion pesos, which is about $2 million. Every year, the amount continues to increase to absorb minimum wage increases," says the program’s coordinator, Carlos Chalapud. A total of 70 athletes are directly supervised in eight teams, and another 2,000 are in a monitoring program that includes Quintana’s explorer Achagua.
Relatively new by Colombian standards is that not only climbers are trained, but also sprinters and potential classic riders. Sebastian Molano is making his debut with Gaviria’s UAE racing team this season and is expected to dress the sprints for him in the Tour Colombia. He is a product of this program.
National coach Fernando Saldarriaga, who has coached Quintana and the elder Chaves, among others, and has placed three of his immediate proteges in World Tour teams this season, therefore sees a whole new generation of riders growing up. Not only is it more athletically broad-based, but it’s also mentally stronger. "In the past, it was enough for Colombian riders to be placed as helpers in European teams. But now we coaches have to train our talents so that they can be leaders and it becomes natural for European professionals to work for them," he says.
A Pro Tour team of his own would fit in with the new self-confidence in Colombia. Saldarriaga, currently head of the Pro Continental team Manzana Postobón, dreams of this: "How nice it would be if Colombian athletes won tours in a jersey that says Colombia!"