Monday, June 16, 2014

Vuelta de la Juventud Colombia: Riders in the Mist

So I've said it before and I will say it again. South America is one of my weaker areas in terms of covering riders and races, especially when getting into the amateur scene. Maybe because of my lack of Spanish skills or perhaps some indifference at some points, I've always been a little behind. But I've been trying to stretch my boundaries a bit this year and really delve into some different areas this year. With the emergence of 4-72 Colombia last year as well as the work by Ignacio Velez and author/presenter Matt Rendel, I've been slowly falling for Colombian cycling. It is one of the places where a rider from a poor family can still, quite easily, ride a bike and perhaps make a living for themselves. Now it would be unfair to say that all riders from Colombia come from the dregs of poverty, such as what people claimed with Nairo Quintana after his emergence on the professional scene, but many kids on bikes in Colombia have fire in their belly.

The Vuelta de la Juventud Colombia is the U23 version of the Vuelta a Colombia and it is one of the more hotly contested races in the amateur ranks. Careers have been started by strong rides in this race. The race has been won overall by the likes of Daniel Jaramillo (Jamis), Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Sergio Henao (SKY), twice by Fabio Duarte (Colombia) as well as Juan Mauricio Soler, Mauricio Ardilla, Ivan Parra, Oliveiro Rincon and Alvaro Mejia. That is just in the last 25 years and only the bigger names. This races dates all the way back to the late 1960's and truly highlights how far ahead Colombian racing was at that time, even though it was more or less ignored by the dominant Europeans.

The race itself this year centered around Boyacá, a state in Colombia that sits at a fairly high altitude and has produced some spectacular riders such as Nairo Quintana, Fabio and Ivan Parra, Mauricio Soler and many others. Cycling Inquisition, one of the best cycling blogs going and the go-to place for anything regarding Colombia, wrote a great intro piece on Boyacá so go there for some further details on the region.

The race began with a prologue in the city of Duitama, the site of the 1995 UCI World Road Championships. Brayan Ramirez (Movistar America) took out the prologue by 5 seconds over Miguel Angel Lopez. His win wasn't a surprise as Ramirez is one of the strongest TT talents in Colombia having been in the top 20 in the World U23 TT last year in Firenze and has hit the podium in previous Colombian, South American and Pan-Am Championships. Brayan Ramirez...put him down in your notes.

Sebastian Molano (Coldeportes Claro) won stage 1 in a two-man breakaway with teammate Fernando Gaviria. The pair were the lone survivors from an 8-man breakaway that had dominated the race. The peloton, led in by their Coldeportes Claro teammate Jhonathan Restropo ahead of last year's overall winner Cesar Villegas and Brayan Ramirez, came in 6 seconds down. It was a impressive ride for the Boyacánese Molano but Ramirez was able to hold onto the leader's jersey by 1 second over Molano. For those taking notes, Molano won a stage at the Junior Vuelta a Colombia in 2012.

Stage 2 went into the proper Boyacan mountains and the riders went up into the mist on the Alto Blanco de Combita, where the race hit an altitude of 3070 meters (10,069 feet). A breakaway of 24 got away early and dominated most of the race. On the Blanco de Combita, it was Brayan Sanchez (Ag. Antioquena) who took the maximum points over the top of the climb ahead of Jonathan Touissant and local Boyacan Wilmer Rodriguez. The 2nd climb of the day was the 19 kilometer long Alto da Garavito, which summited with just 19 kilometers to go in the race. Hugo Horacio Cabrera, who hails from a small farming village in the state of Cundinamarca (where Bogota is), attacked the shredded breakaway on the Garavito and began to chug away on the slight gradients. Farm-boy Cabrera soloed away from Rodriguez and over the flat final 19 kilometers to the line, he was able to pull out 30 seconds over Rodriguez by the time he raised his arms on the line. A group of the remnants of the breakaway and GC favorites rolled in 1'38" down. It was an incredible win by Cabrera, who rides for the Hotel Villa Alegria team which is led by 4-time Vuelta a Colombia winner Jose "Chepe" Castelblanco, and he slipped into the yellow jersey by 22 seconds over Rodriguez and 45 seconds on Brayan Ramirez.

The rolling time trial course proved not to be as decisive as one might think as but the time trial favorites stacked the top placings. The 23.3 km course only had a few rises in it and it was the Pan-American TT Champion Rodrigo Contreras who set the fastest time on the day with an average speed of 45.4 km/h while double 2013 Juventud stage winner Jhon Restropo was in 2nd, just 6 seconds back, and Brayan Ramirez in 3rd, just 9 seconds back. The strong ride by Ramirez slotted him back in the leader's jersey ahead of two Boyacán riders Miguel Angel Lopez and Hernando Bohorquez, both on the Boyaca Lottery team. The mountains loomed.

The 4th stage was the queen of the bunch and while there were 3 KOM's on tap, it was really two big mountains, the final of which topped out at 3240 meters (10627 feet) in altitude on the finishing climb to Villa de Leyva. It turned into a duel between leader Brayan Ramirez and Miguel Angel Lopez, the latter of whom is from the region and whose lithe body is better suited to the finishing climb than Ramirez. It was pretty evenly matched for a while and Ramirez was able to match Lopez for a while but the Boyacan but in one too many attacks and went away a few kilometers from the finish. Lopez flew up the climb as the air got thinner by the meter. The remnants of the leading group had exploded with 2013 winner Cesar Villegas being the first chaser to come across after Lopez while Ramirez came in a few seconds behind Villegas in 4th, 52 seconds behind Lopez.

Miguel Angel Lopez is still just 19 years old and his ride on Villa de Leyva should have turned more heads than it did. A kid from the heartland of Colombian cycling rides away from the yellow jersey and solos to a stellar win that seals the overall of the most important race for under 23 Colombians.

For the final two stages, the race left Boyaca and traveled to the Cundinamarca state (again, think around Bogota). The 5th stage went over a few smaller climbs but with Lopez's lead nearly unassailable, a breakaway would rule the day. With Cesar Villegas off the overall podium, two of his teammates leapt off the front for a day. Alejandro Ceballos and Jader Betancur, both of the Ag.Antioqueña-Lotto Medellin squad, took off before the final climb and the duo soloed to the line over a minute ahead of the chasing lead peloton. Ceballos took the win, his first ever on the national level, and his teammate Villegas lead the peloton in for 3rd place, 1'12" down.

The final stage saw the race take a circuit through Zipaquira. The town is known for having a Salt Cathedral, which is built underground 200 meters underground from a hallowed out mine, as well as being the birthplace of Efrain Trivino, the winner of the first Vuelta a Colombia in 1951. At only 91 kilometers and a rather flat circuit, it had a sprint written all over it. Coldeportes-Claro decided to swap the first stage results and it was Fernando Gavira who took the sprint win over teammate Sebastian Molano with Villegas in 3rd. Gavira was a double junior World Champion on the track (madison and omnium) and including the Pan-Am U23 RR win, this was his 6th win of the year.

Miguel Lopez locked up the historic win and took his biggest (and easily most memorable) win to date. I would say this would set him up with a possible date with the Tour de l'Avenir but seeing as 4-72 Colombia and the National Federation are feuding, it seems like there will be no Colombian team in France this summer. For being so light, Lopez isn't a shabby TTer and given the track record of former winners of this race, I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the pro ranks soon enough. Brayan Ramirez should be satisfied with his 2nd place overall as it confirms that he can climb and that he has a future by going after GC wins for right now. If he keeps on with Movistar America, he could see himself taking on a stagiaire role with the big team. Hernando Bohorquez's 3rd place has added to a great U23 career that has included multiple Vuelta de la Juventud stage wins and a 7th place in the U23 World RR in Valkenburg.

So do these results truly carry much meaning outside of Colombia? Maybe. We will have to see if many of these riders even get out of South America to see if Colombia's version of the Tour de l'Avenir churns out Colombia's big talent of tomorrow like the Tour de l'Avenir seemingly does yearly. It really depends on how big a rider's desire is, I guess, because the riders that are able to make an imprint here are capable of great things. More than anything, I wish there was a race with the infrastructure to bring riders from Europe, USA, Australia, Asia, etc. to race in Colombia against the best homegrown talent. Oh how I wish...

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