Pure Colombian?

Cycling’s hierarchy is rapidly changing, the names of the winners are changing, powerful teams are now also-ran’s, what’s changed in pro cycling, and why? I brushed on the topic of the Colombians returning to cycling in blog in January HERE, it seems to be coming true.

Pais Vasco

Nairo Quintana, the diminutive Colombian climbing specialist has just taken overall victory in the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco for his Movistar team, he took victory in a time trial won by Tony Martin, so we’re not talking a pure climbers test here, this guy won this race in a fine fashion. In yesterday’s GC, he was trailing one of Sky’s Colombians, Sergio Henao by 6 seconds, with Sky’s early season sensation Richie Porte at 10 seconds. Everybody expected Porte to overhaul them both and take the overall, but it didn’t pan out that way today.

During this race, we’ve seen some stunning performances from the South American’s, they’ve been making a huge impact on the race, possibly Sky’s better Colombian, Rigoberto Uran wasn’t even here, so this Sky pairing could prove to be incredibly strong as they mature. But don’t forget stage 3 where Hanao just outsprinted Ag2r’s Colombian Carlos Betancur, then Quintana’s stage 4 victory, these guys are really going to liven up racing this year, nobody really knows what they’re capable of yet. If Pais Vasco is anything to go by, we can assume the high altitude dwellers are going to make things trickier for the Europeans in 2013.

Where have they been?

It’s been a few years since we’ve seen this volume of talented Colombians performing in the European peloton. We can’t discount the effect that EPO has had on pro riders over the last 20 years, anybody watching racing pre 1990 will remember there were Colombians romping up the climbs, gangling over their bikes, falling on descents, but their natural talent in haematocrit resulted in some epic climbing memories on the Tour de France col’s. From 1990 onwards, we no longer saw riders like Lucho Herrera & Fabio Parra attacked the climbs Grand Tours in the mountains, winning stages, taking mountains jerseys placing in the top 10 on GC. Something had changed.

With no test for EPO at that time, the UCI implemented a cap on blood haematocrit of 50% (red blood cell percentage) “for health reasons”, this was to avoid riders becoming dangerous to themselves more than anything else. If a riders blood got too thick then it put excessive strain on their heart, there were reports of riders dying in their sleep & having to take a large quantity of aspirin every night in order to thin their blood to avoid dying (extreme stuff, but almost common place in the pro peloton). For the Colombians, and other riders whose family came from a high altitude & already possessed a high haematocrit (often a few points over 50%), they had to get special dispensation from the UCI as otherwise they would trigger the 2 week ‘health’ break from racing. Whether or not the Colombians intended doping with EPO, they were never going to be capable of it due to the 50% rule, but even if they did, we now know that EPO benefits the less well endowed in the red blood cell department. So lowland riders of European descent with around 38% natural hct (like Armstrong), could boost their levels by a huge amount, while those with a natural high level (some of the riders who would previously have been considered the Grand Tour talents) couldn’t use EPO or gained little or no benefit from it. It’s highly likely that we lost some of the best riders during that period, they may not have even made the pro ranks.

So with hindsight, it’s no wonder that the Colombians disappeared (Santiago Botero was a different case). We keep hearing pro’s saying that things are different now, we don’t know how different things are, but we do know that there is a test for EPO & the introduction of the bio-passport has allowed the Colombians to compete on a more level playing field. They’re now back with a vengeance as Pais Vasco has shown, I’m not saying they’re all squeaky clean, but the nature of the massive gains from blood vector doping means that those who didn’t benefit are now back performing, which tells you something about the overall state of pro cycling, it is ‘cleaner’.

Who are the Colombians now?

We have several talented Colombians already on World Tour teams. As a nation they are 6th overall in the current UCI World-Tour rankings, one place behind Great Britain.

  • Sergio Henao : Sky
  • Rigoberto Uran : Sky
  • Carlos Betancur : Ag2r
  • Jose Serpa : Lampre-Merida
  • Winner Anacona : Lampre-Merida
  • Nairo Quintana : Movistar
  • Argiro Ospina : Movistar
  • Cayetano Sarmiento : Cannondale

There is also a Colombia Pro-Continental team operating in Europe, they are one step down from the World-Tour but have been getting wild cards for some of the major races, like Milan-SanRemo & the Giro d’Italia. You can see more info HERE.

Keep an eye on the names above, you’re going to see a lot more of them over the next few years.


  1. Very nice article!. Your point of view makes more sense. Colombians couldn’t be exempt from EPOs. Some may have taken it. Botero tested positive, Victor Hugo Peña & Colombian-descent Hincapie were teammates in USPS with Armstrong. The difference is that if they did take it, most didn’t see any benefits from it. I believe Vaughters wrote an article just on this point…some benefit, some don’t, some benefit a lot. Kills the argument of ‘if they all were doing it, its a level ground’. It never was

  2. Having a genetic heritage from high altitude and growing up at high altitude brings many benefits, in addition to high haematocrit. Colombian riders from the mountains are likely to have bigger hearts and lungs, better circulation (high VO2 max) and better tolerance of racing at altitude. They will have more microcapillaries in their bones, brain, eyes and internal organs, and many other benefits enabling increased effort and better recovery. Perhaps in the near future we will see a similar rise of Kenyan, Moroccan, Ethiopian etc riders. There must also be a great potential for central asian/himalayan nations to succeed but i guess various political factors are preventing this.

  3. Mauricio Soler is a Columbian worth remembering for recent KOM accomplishments in a Grand Tour (although time slowed down for him in a TT) , I think his time was cut short after a nasty crash.

    I had forgotten about Botero though, he was an enigma for Colombian cycling.

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