ZIPAQUIRA, Colombia (AP) - Tomás Moreno sneaks a quick glance over his shoulder before speeding across the white finish line and throwing his hands in the air. It’s the 8-year-old’s first ever cycling win but he’s already looking to follow in the path blazed by Egan Bernal, who hauled himself up from a modest upbringing in this high Andean town outside Colombia’s capital to the pinnacle of competitive cycling.
“I want to go to the Tour de France and do everything I can to win,” says Moreno, catching his breath after finishing a 1.5 kilometer sprint in a little over five minutes.
He’s not the only Colombian child dreaming big these days with Bernal poised to win the Tour de France.
A few blocks away, dozens of young cyclists, some of them on bicycles or dressed in the red, yellow and blue of Colombia’s flag, pack into Zipaquira’s “Plaza of Hope” to watch on a giant screen their town’s favorite son defend the yellow jersey in Saturday’s penultimate stage. Confetti rained on the tear-shedding crowd, which included several of Bernal’s relatives and cycling buddies, as he finished with a commanding lead heading into Sunday’s traditional procession into Paris.
“He was always disciplined and a hard worker. You never had to tell him to do something twice,” said Fabio Rodríguez, who discovered Bernal at the tender age of 8 when against the wishes of his father, a frustrated semiprofessional cyclist himself, he enrolled in a mountain biking class for underprivileged kids run by the city government.
Rodriguez said he realized Bernal would surpass the dozens of other hard-charging youth he’s trained in this oxygen-starved town at 2,650 meters (8,700 feet) above sea level when as a teenager he traveled to Europe and immediately racked up a string of impressive cross-country performances before turning to road racing at the relatively late age of 17. “That’s when I said to myself he will be the best.”
Colombian riders have shined at the Tour before. Luis “Lucho” Herrera in 1984 became the first of 12 Colombians to win a stage victory at the race, while several others have worn the polka dotted “King of the Mountains” jersey. Nairo Quintana, who entered this year’s Tour as a favorite to win, finished second overall in 2013 and 2015 and is one of two Colombians behind Bernal in the top 10 of this year’s edition.
But none of those memorable races have energized Colombians like the 22-year-old Bernal’s breakout performance as the Tour’s youngest post World War II winner.
For days now, Colombians have been glued to their TV sets watching live every move by Bernal and his British team Ineos. Even President Ivan Duque dipped into a downtown cafe amid a packed schedule of events Friday to watch the final minutes of Bernal’s historic performance when he took the lead while riding through a violent hailstorm. On Saturday, with Bernal on the cusp of victory, the airwaves filled with news that one mother had named her newborn son after the country’s overnight sporting sensation. In Zipaquira, the town’s mayor, smelling victory, unveiled 10 days ago a giant graffiti rendering of Bernal’s tiger-like stare.
While little known in Europe and the U.S., Colombia’s cycling tradition forms an integral part of the national culture like nowhere else in Latin America. Much of it was written in the same steep hills surrounding Bernal’s hometown, from where one of the country’s sporting legends, Efraín “El Zipa” Forero, winner of the first-ever Tour of Colombia in 1951, also hails.
With a first-place prize of barely $10,000 - versus the 500,000 euros Bernal stands to win in France - the two-week Tour of Colombia until recently had been all but shunned by the sport’s top riders.
But it’s a showcase for the unique brand of riders known in Colombia as Los Escarabajos - the beetles - for the relentless determination with which they scramble up almost any mountain. Its toughest stage is a 3,265-meter pass known as “La Linea” - “The Line” - a full 500 meters above the highest point on this year’s Tour de France - in which riders setting off in a lush, tropical valley must grind their way 13 miles (21 kilometers) up to the freezing, oxygen-starved Andean plateau before embarking on a treacherous, winding descent back into the jungle heat. Bernal finished fourth at this year’s Vuelta, as the Tour de Colombia is known in Spanish.
In a country torn apart by rugged topography and a half century of guerrilla warfare the race has managed to bring Colombians together in a way only sports can. And while the popularity of soccer and other sports have overshadowed cycling, live radio broadcasts of the Tour still saturate airwaves nationwide.
“I almost feel like I won too,” Santiago Botero, who competed in three Tours and finished first in the mountain classification in 2000, said of Bernal’s performance. “Watching Egan, you notice the difference between people who were born at high altitude and those who just train there.”
While all Colombians share in Bernal’s triumph, Botero said it especially resonates with poorer Colombians, who frequently come from the same heavily indigenous, neglected mountains from where the champion climbers hail. He said they see in Bernal’s success a validation of traditional values such as hard work in one of the world’s most corrupt and economically unequal countries. Ironically, it’s the beetles’ gaunt, stringy physiques - the result of poorly nourished upbringings - that is a source of their aerodynamic strength in the saddle.
As in Europe, the pressure to win in Colombia is huge - and like elsewhere has led to revelations of doping that have tarnished the wholesome image of the sport here. This year, one of the country’s premier teams, Postobon, folded ahead of the European season and was suspended by cycling’s governing body after two riders tested positive for banned substances within a 12-month period. The World Anti-Doping Agency also suspended the government-run laboratory in Bogota charged with taking the samples of the cyclists and controlling anti-doping in races.
Bernal has been surrounded by cyclists from an early age. While his father’s semiprofessional career was a bust his girlfriend, Xiomara Guerrero, is a three-time Colombian mountain bike champion. His 14-year-old brother, Roland, and 8-year-old cousin Nicole Pachón, were among the kids who came out Saturday to the amateur race in Zipaquira.
But unlike his more privileged European rivals, breaking into the cycling big leagues wasn’t easy for Bernal. Growing up his father worked at a security guard, first at a cathedral buried under a salt mine - Zipaquira’s main tourist attraction - and later at a dam while his mother picked stems at a nearby flower farm. They lived in public housing and at first didn’t have enough money to pay for a helmet or enroll their son in classes.
The family received help from a Colombian philanthropist, Pablo Mazuera, who sponsors a half dozen Colombian cycling phenoms from in and around Zipaquira. Mazuera is with his star pupil in France.
But at one point, frustrated with his disappointing results, Bernal stopped training and enrolled in a local university to study journalism. With patience, Mazuera lured him back onto a bike, promising that if after a year he didn’t show progress he would fund his entire academic career.
“We always knew Egan had the perfect physique but he wasn’t just born a champion,” said Martha Cecilia Cortes, who works with Mazuera training the teenage cyclists. “He had to fight to reach his dream.”
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