Escarabajos everywhere: The South American renaissance in world cycling

First, there was Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz winning the Giro in May. Then there was the Colombian Egan Bernal taking the Tour de France in July. And now we see Miguel Ángel López and Nairo Quintana, another two Colombians, as genuine contenders for the red jersey at the Vuelta a España.

Suddenly South American cyclists – once nicknamed ‘Escarbajos’ or ‘beetles’ for their spindly-legged climbing – are all over the pointy end of WorldTour racing.

And it’s not just the landmark names winning grand tours. Colombia alone have contributed 11 riders to the Vuelta – placing them in equal fourth in terms of national representation. Among them were both rising stars Danny Martinez and Sergio Higuita, and genuine GC contenders Esteban Chaves and Rigoberto Urán – the ‘father’ of modern South American racing.

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There’s no doubt that Latin America is rising to the cycling world’s conscience in a similar way to how Great Britain emerged 10 or so years ago with their dominating track team, and then the rise of Team Sky, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.

Colombia have had a long-established relationship with Cycling, dating back before the formation of the Café de Colombia team and the rise of talents such Fabio Parra and Velta a España winner Luis ‘Lucho’ Herrera, who won the nation its first grand tour in 1987.

However, with the folding of Café de Colombia in 1990 and a decline in Europeans making the trip over the Atlantic to race in South America, the continent’s presence in the top ranks dwindled, and they didn’t find themselves in contention for grand tours for decades.

That tide started to turn in the early 2000s. The Colombian Manzana-Postobón team formed and offered riders exposure and opportunity, and stricter doping regulations throughout the cycling world gave the high-livin’ Latinos their natural advantage back. Riders such as Bernal, born in Zipaquirá Colombia, 2,650m, or Carapaz, born in Tulcán, Ecuador, 2,950m, boasted a natural aerobic advantage that the Europeans couldn’t match without the use of substances that had been so rife but now were banned.

Rigobero Urán – perhaps now deemed a fading force in the WorldTour after his twilight years in the middle of the decade – was arguably one of the cornerstones of the South American renaissance. Rigo ventured out of Colombia at just 19 years of age and started racing in lower-tier teams in Italy, Belgium and Spain, before being tapped up by Team Sky in 2011. Urán’s trailblazing statement in moving to Europe rather than racing and hoping for recognition in Colombia felt like the first step for the South Americans, and the continent firmly planted its foot back on the map in 2013, where Urán placed second in the Giro d’Italia.

Significantly, Urán was beaten to the pink jersey that year by compatriot Quintana, racing for Spanish team Movistar. Quintana made it into WorldTour ranks having been signed directly from the Pro Continental team Colombia Es Pasion, where he had ridden with Chaves.

Quintana and Urán’s rise to fame in world cycling elevated them to superstars back home, and the amateur cycling scene in Colombia flourished like it did in the 80s, with massive participation and competition at junior races. “There was a big boom in Colombian cycling with Rigo and Nairo,” Danny Martínez told Andrew Hood of VeloNews. “Everyone wanted to race their bikes. Everyone wants to be like Nairo and Rigo.”

Central to Nairo making it into the Movistar team was the machinery behind elite racing – the agents and talent scouts. Luis Fernando Saldarriaga was the DS at Colombia Es Pasion, and had brought European principles such as training with power meters and strict tracking of blood and health data. With this ‘Europeanisation’ of home teams’ approach to racing and training, and the huge pool of talent to be found there, European scouts and team managers started paying attention to South America again.

Gianni Savio, boss of Continental team Androni-Giocattoli has had a particularly key role to play. The flamboyant Italian has garnered a reputation for discover Colombians – including Bernal and Ivan Sosa – and signing them to his team. Not only did he recognise their ability to win races, but also, the return he could make on his investment as his hot prospects were snapped up by the major teams.

“I get people contacting me all the time, from Ecuador, from Costa Rica, Colombia obviously, Argentina, all offering riders,” he said in an interview with Rouleur magazine. “All my young riders sign a four-year deal and if a WorldTour team comes in to sign them, I get a fee for finding and developing them. In Bernal’s case, I signed him as a 19-year-old and the Sky money helped keep the team going.”

South America isn’t just being robbed of all its talent, never to see them racing again, however. The Argentinian 2.1 status Vuelta a San Juan has been raced for nearly 40 years now, and in 2018, the newly-formed Oro y Paz (later re-named the Tour of Colombia) attracted strong home support, with Bernal beating Quintana and Urán in the overall, and Colombian Fernando Gaviria dominating in the sprints.

In 2019, a home rider again took the honours – ‘superman’ López. The crowds at the Colombian Tour were staggering as thousands turned out to support riders who they had turned into superheroes.

And the Colombians are just as passionate when they travel in their droves to Europe, as was proven by the huge Colombian contingent cheering Bernal through the final stages of the Tour de France that he went on to win, and the emotional scenes witnessed when the 22-year-old secured the yellow jersey in Paris.

As this story goes live, the eighth stage of the Vuelta a España rolls out from Valls and sees Colombian López wearing the red jersey, his third time in the lead of race in the dramatic opening spell of stages. Before Urán crashed and abandoned on stage six, Colombia boasted four riders in the top ten of the General Classification.

Even without Rigo, Colombians pack the top 25 at the start of stage 8, with Quintana and Chaves in 4th and 7th, and young hopefuls Higuita and Martinez only a handful of places behind their more experienced countrymen, in 15th and 23rd respectively.

The race is being muted as a two-horse race between López and Slovenian Primož Roglič, with Quintana a strong secondary favourite. Should ‘superman’, or indeed, any of his countrymen, secure the red jersey two weeks’ time, Latin America will have pulled off an incredible triple in the grand tours, mimicking Great Britain’s feat in 2018 with Froome, Thomas and Yates.

There is perhaps no better a symbol of the continent’s return to the top of the cycling world.

It’s perhaps even more telling that, if hot favourite López takes the red in Madrid, South America’s three 2019 grand tour winners will all be aged under 26.

And with 22-year-old ‘the Higuita Monster’ and 21-year-old Sosa both muted as future Grand Tour stars, it seems that the South American star could burn bright for several years to come.

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Although vital feeder and development team Manzana-Postobón stopped racing this year amid doping issues, it seems the Latin American ball is firmly on a roll with a momentum that won’t be halted.

With the continent firmly succumbed to cycling fever and the pool of talent being so deep, you can be sure that more Latin American teams will emerge and more ‘Escarbajos’ will find their way to the WorldTour through the European scouts.

Back when Colombians first entered the top flight of the sport in the 70s and 80s, they were abused and bullied by the Euro-centric peloton.

Generations later, it’s the Escarbajos that are laying down the punishment in a far more civilised way – in the racing

Main image by Pauline Ballet, courtesy of ASO.

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