Little Pinky

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I’ve been enthralled by the Colombians since they started returning to the peloton in greater numbers recently, this Giro has really set the tone for what I hope is an ongoing resurgence of what cycling fans during the nineties & noughties completely missed. Nairo Quintana, ‘The boy with the pink shiny shoes’ is the real deal, he ripped the mountain time trial apart today, with only new Italian GC star, Fabio Aru anywhere near him (but this lad is going to get some serious attention soon too). The only down side were Nairo’s choice of booties, where Twitter decreed that the Spice Girls would be requesting the return of their property & @journalvelo posted a photo of an actual mountain goat, complete with four pink wellies (it’s HERE).

All these ‘new’ riders who’ve emerged during this Giro to the wider audience are young talented climbers, not your 1990’s diesels ‘converted’ in to mountain goats by their doctors. It looks like we’re seeing what’s been missing for a good few years, the return of the pure climber, who can’t win an 8km prologue, but can change pace & attack in the mountains, not just ride out an elevated pace set by their team-mates. Many fans who were attracted during the ‘Texan Chaingang Masacre’ years, will be quite unfamiliar with these kinds of riders. We’ll still have more all-rounder types going for GC, but it looks like the pure climbers are gaining more all round abilities too, Quintana can time trial pretty well, but I don’t expect he’d win the sprint on your local chain gang. They even look like they can handle their bikes well, the previous batch of Colombians were a little dicey & it appeared like the local landscape gardener had fitted them to their bikes, with the same care & attention they apply to attaching their brush to their trailer.

One major factor in the high performance in several of these riders all in the one race is partly down to circumstance. This Giro has suffered quite an attrition rate, plus several other riders are focussing on the Tour this year, namely Contador & Aru’s normal team leader Nibali. Trek’s Colombian Arredondo has been the key rider during the Giro, holding the mountains Jersey & winning a stage, the Colombian team have been particularly active. Uran was designated team leader at Omega Pharma Quick Step after finishing 2nd last year, having worked for Wiggins, but it looks like he may be struggling to repeat that, could be a sign of a different race.

Another major factor could also be the absence of something similar to a Sky train in the mountains, a style which doesn’t suit the Colombian attacking style too well. They prefer changes in pace to destroy their ‘diesel’ rivals, which should make the Tour de France very interesting if there’s any Climbers left who’ve not been pummelled by the Giro. Dan Martin was reputedly in fine form, he may have been a factor with his Garmin team if he hadn’t crashed out at the beginning.

Saturday is going to be very interesting, with the steep slopes of the Zoncolan favouring the smaller riders again. Can Pozzovivo make up that deficit & grab a spot on the podium? It looks like our little pinky has the Maglia Rosa sown up, but the other podium spots are up for grabs, anybody can crack at this stage of a grand tour. Drama awaits on the Monte Zoncolan tomorrow afternoon.

 

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.