Saturday, July 28, 2012

Choosing to forego revenge, and looking to the future instead. An interview with Rigoberto Urán.

In honor of Rigoberto Uran's silver medal at the London Olympics, I'm re-posting my interview with him. Rigoberto is a superbly talented rider, and his life story is perhaps even more amazing than his abilities on the bike. This is because—as I see it— both his life and willingness to persevere through unbelievable odds reflect the positive fighting spirit of a whole country: Colombia.

Photo: Team Sky

Urrao, Antioquia. 2001.
When Rigoberto Urán was only 14 years old, his father was gunned down near Urrao, Colombia. Most said he died at the hands of   paramilitary forces, but considering the mood in Colombia at the time, it could have been any number of groups, for any number of reasons. As Urán himself has said in the past, "...it was how things were back then. Many innocent people died." Encouraged by his father, Rigoberto had competed in his first bike race just three months earlier. They had trained together during those three months, wearing regular street clothes, since proper cycling attire was simply beyond what the family could afford.

Urrao—located in the southwestern edge of the department of Antioquia—has always known the realities of Colombian violence. In fact, many believe that few other places in Colombia suffered as much during the violent civil unrest that permeated the country in the middle of the last century. That period, simply known as La Violencia, came to define Urrao. In the book Blood And Fire, Urrao's plight during that time is framed this way:

“The area most associated with "La Violencia" in Antioqua is the southwest, specifically Urrao. Its experience has been the benchmark by which regional violence between 1946 and 1953 has historically been measured.” 

The violence that defined Urrao continued into 2001 (although for different reasons), when 14-year-old Rigoberto Urán became the head of his household. Due to his father's violent death, Rigoberto suddenly had his mother Aracelly and sister Marta Lucia to to take care of. He took over his father's job, selling lottery tickets in order to provide for his family. He would leave the house at 7am, only to return close to midnight. He continued attending school, training, and racing, while trying to lift his family out of the poverty in which they lived.

Unlike many in Colombia, who might seek revenge for their father's death in one way or another, Urán chose to move forward. Although his father's passing clearly affected him, his drive to succeed was also sizable. This was significant on a personal level, but also exemplary of Colombia's changing mood at that time. By then, Colombians had grown exhausted of the violence, the countless deaths, and they slowly became aware of how seeking retribution had exacerbated matters for decades. Like Uran, Colombia as a whole wanted to move forward, and wanted to succeed.

But that had not been the case in years prior. The country had often reveled in its own horrible state. As such, the need to seek retribution took hold over the years all over Colombia.

In Antioquia, the Colombian department where Urrao is located, there is even an expression for one's need to seek revenge, and for that revenge itself: culebra. The term speaks of an outstanding debt, but not a monetary one. It's sworn revenge of the physical kind. Perhaps most telling about this term, however, is the fact that "culebra" literally means "snake". This is because revenge in violent times is often complicated and lengthy, with one "culebra" easily being intertwined with another, to the point that no one remembers how the killings began, and no one can tell them apart. One assassination is revenge for another, which itself was revenge for a random killing. It goes on and on. It was this mentality that shaped the Colombian narrative for much of the last century, and certainly shaped the lives of those of us who grew up there during that time in one way or another. It was a pervasive and ongoing thread in the state of the country.

But Urán, like others in his generation, chose to break the cycle of violence. He had goals plans in mind.

Changing times
At sixteen, Urán told his team director in the Orgullo Paisa team that due to time constraints, he'd be unable to keep training. He had to turn professional now or simply sell lottery tickets full-time, never to race again. Since the age required to turn professional was 18, Rigobrto's request was a difficult one for the team take. In the end, it was Rigoberto's mother who signed and was technically awarded the contract and license, allowing him to become a professional at 16 years old. Three years later, Urán went to Italy and began racing for Tenax. He's raced for European teams ever since.

As Rigoberto's career in the sport developed, and his results improved, so too did conditions in Colombia. The violence that terrorized the country's citizens began to subside, and eventually a drastic change was palpable. The government and the army slowly started to turn the tide in the ongoing war against guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug lords and low-level thugs. More importantly, however, Colombian citizens started to take back their country. As a result, Colombia today is vastly different from what it was even as recently as 2001, when Rigoberto's father was killed. It's also very different from what it was back in 1987, when Colombia's Lucho Herrera won the Vuelta A España, making him a national hero of the grandest proportions. It was in 1987, incidentally, that Rigoerto Urán was born. Just as one chapter in Colombian cycling was reaching its peak, another one was just starting out.



Photo: Team Sky

The future
It's perhaps with this widespread positive change in mind that Rigoberto gives support to the cycling club in Urrao today. The club that helped him overcome hardship as a young man. He has helped fund the club, and rides with them when he's back in Urrao. He relays the vast amount of knowledge he has gathered over the years to a young crop of riders. A significant amount of work remains to be done with the cycling club in Urrao, and Rigoberto knows that. But he also knows there is another generation of kids who, like him, can overcome adversity if given a chance. He sees cycling as the perfect tool to make that happen.

Thanks to Rigoberto for his time, and to the ever-gracious Matt Rendell for his assistance in helping me contact Rigoberto.


Rigoberto (center) with the cycling club that now bears his name. (Photo: Rigoberto Uran cycling Club, Urrao)



What was your life like as a kid in Urrao?
As I saw it, it was a rather common life, like that of any adolescent. I went to school, and always played sports, but never cycling as a young kid. My mom was a homemaker, while my dad sold lottery tickets.



Why did you first become interested in cycling?
It was because I would go on rides with my dad. Every Sunday, we would go on these really long rides, simply for fun. That's how I became interested in the sport.



What about your first race?
Well, one day my dad said I should sign up for the local cycling club in Urrao. I said I would, and I signed up just eight days before there was going to be a time trial in Urrao. I had no idea how races worked, so my coach actually had to tell me before it started to "get to the finish line as quickly as possible." I did, and I won that day.



Photo: El Colombiano

Forgive me for asking a question about a very delicate topic, but how did the death of your father influence your cycling career?
In Colombia, we lived through a war in those years. My father was a victim of that war. When he died, I was already in the cycling club/academy, so I continued riding. I took on my dad's job when he died. I kept going to school, and it was very hard at first. But I became accustomed to it, and time passed. I've been very lucky, and I think my arduous dedication to the bike took me to Europe faster than I ever imagined.


You signed your first professional contract at 16, when you normally have to be 18 to turn pro. How did that come about?
In Colombia, I raced for the Orgullo Paisa team. With them, I had many victories, as I did with the national team on both road and the track. Through those victories, the chance to race in Europe for Tenax came up. I didn't think about it twice, and went. That started the path that I'm currently on.


How do you think that cycling changed your life, and how do you think it could change the lives of young people in Colombia? Did you see cycling as a way of escaping the tough realities of Colombia at the time?
No, I never saw it as a way of escaping. It did change my life however, since I had series of obligations in my life as a kid. I also had to learn how to take care of myself, and taking good care of everything around me, since the life of an athlete is not at all like the life of a common person.




Photo: www.cmi.com.co


How did your relationship with the cycling club in Urrao begin, and what would you like its future to be?
That club is where my roots are. I had their support when I needed it most, so I see me helping them as a way of giving back to young kids who need that help. I think sports, cycling in particular, is a good way to help these kids who come from such meager backgrounds. I see how motivated they are, and how strong their drive to improve and perhaps become a professional can be.


How does the club operate?
The club is set up as a place where the kids can learn to race, but it's also a place where they can grow as people. It's also important that they keep up with their studies, since they wont be taken to any races if their grades drop below a certain level. The club has around fifty kids, but we have no real help getting them things like bikes or proper clothing. Luckily, we have people who are willing to work on this, and we are working slowly making things happen.


Do you foresee a time when people in wealthy nations (like the United States) can perhaps donate to the club, in order to help?
Yes, of course. That's the idea. I want to let people know about the club, in order to show them how amazing these kids are, and how strong their dreams to succeed are. They come from very needy families, and even though many may not reach the professional ranks, I think their youth will be affected positively, and it will be great that they spent this time in their life doing something positive. These kids come from places where they actively need positive things in their lives.



Colombia is a very different place from Europe in many ways. I've heard several stories from Colombian professionals regarding the culture shock they underwent upon reaching Europe, and the cultural isolation they felt a a result. That isolation, as I see it, is much stronger that what an American would feel, particularly because of the type of rural towns that most Colombian cyclists come from. How did you adapt to racing in Europe when you moved there at such a young age?
It was very different, absolutely. But when you grew up as I did, and you want something badly enough, you can achieve it. I mean, yes, at first it was very, very hard. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Things were very different. I felt so incredibly isolated in Europe, I was so far from my family and friends. It was difficult, and I can see why some simply can't make their way through that isolation.


Photo: Team Sky

In Europe, you share a home in Pamplona with Mauricio Ardila and Mauricio Soler. What's it like living there during the season? Does Soler leave dirty dishes in the sink, or does Ardila leave his bike in the middle of the living room after training?
We live together, yes. But you know, we are almost never in the house at the same time, so things like that aren't an issue. Ardila has a similar racing calendar as mine, but we see each other very little in Spain. This is mostly because I tend to spend most of my time between races in Colombia training, as opposed to training in Europe. I just prefer training in Colombia.



Dennis Menchov also lives in Pamplona, which probably accounts for his flawless Spanish. Do you train with him, or see other riders in Pamplona socially when you are there?
I do. Pamplona is one of the cities with the most professional cyclists that I know of. We have fourteen living there now. We are a tight-knit group, training together, and sometimes going out for dinner.



I've always been interested in how superstitious many cyclists are. Additionally, I'm aware of how insanely superstitious we Colombians are in general. So a Colombian professional has to be, I imagine, insanely superstitious. Is that the case for you?
No, not at all. Nothing like that. I have no real superstitions or rituals, although you do have to have good luck in cycling in order not to have crashes. It's a sport filled with sacrifice and potential pain, that's for sure. There's no way around that.



Photo: Team Sky

In the 1980s, Colombian cyclists who raced in Europe famously ate bocadillo and drank aguapanela during races. Similarly, Colombian legend Ramon Hoyos once said to me that the ideal meal for a cyclist is a huge bandeja paisa. Clearly, our understanding of nutrition has changed over the years... for the best. But is there still room for bocadillo, aguapanela or a bandeja paisa from time to time?
Of course there's room! But most of those things are for the off-season. I also see their importance because they are our customs as Colombians, and most importantly, those things taste really, really good!



How different are Caisse d'Epargne and Sky as teams?
They are both great teams, no doubt about that. But here, at Sky, we work very differently. Objectives are very well planned out, and the mentality towards racing is completely different.



Are you learning English now that you're on a British team?
I study a good bit, but learning is slow. I work at it with the team.



The main square in Urrao, Antioquia (Photo: Guiarte.com)



You were fifth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a great result, and easily the best result by a Colombian at that race. Would you like to focus more on the Ardennes classics in the future?
I like those races, but it's also very important to ride well in three-week races. That's a focus for me.



Thankfully, things have changed in Colombia from the time when Lucho Herrera and Oliverio Rincon were kidnapped, or when Victor Hugo Peña was robbed at home only a few days before the Tour. Do you take certain precautions when training in Colombia now?
Yes, I do. I always train with others.



You obviously prefer training in Colombia over Europe. Why?
Where I train in Colombia, it's 77 degrees [25 Celcius] year round. I'm at 7,500 feet [2,300 meters] and the riding is great. The roads are fantastic, so it's a great place to train, and to get ready for the season.

Rigoberto at the Olympic road race. (Thanks to reader R. Joy for the picture)


At the start of this season, you trained with Italian Mateo Carrara (Vacanosoleil) in Colombia. What did he think of training in Colombia, since so few Europeans train there?
He really liked it, and actually came back again before the Giro to prepare. We do have other professionals training here, although it's a bit far for most of the guys who live in Europe.




For those interested in training or riding in Colombia, what would you recommend as an ideal location to ride in?
To me, the very best place to ride and train is to the west of Medellin. It's the best area in the country, and in all of South America actually. The roads are great, you have two airports with connecting flights that can get you anywhere, great hotels, and the people are extremely welcoming and kind.



Like every other town in Colombia, Urrao has always had an affinity for cycling. In this picture from 1959, Ramon Hoyos is picking up Ruben Dario Gomez at the start of a Vuelta A Colombia stage in Urrao. On the left (Pilsen jersey) is Hernan Medina. (Photo: Horacio Gil Ochoa)




In the 80s, and early 90s, people like Fabio Parra, Oliverio Rincon and Luis Herrera always spoke about feeling like they represented Colombia to the world. This is perhaps due to the negative image that Colombia has always had, and is thus different from how other cyclists view the relationship they have with their country of origin. Is this something you think about?

Yes. To me, it's clear that I race for a British team, but I'm also a representative of Colombia. I'm a representative at all times, not just when I put on the national jersey to represent Colombia formally.




If you could change the way people around the world view Colombia, what would you like them to know about the country?
They seem to know a lot, or think they do. They think that we live like savages here, that it's not a civilized place. But if they come to visit, they'll be impressed by how things actually are, how things function, by the beauty and by our people. I have friends from Italy who are like parents to me. They came to visit on two different occasions, and the first time they were absolutely frightened to even be here, but they left with a completely different opinion, and now love it here. It changes everyone's mind once they come.



If we speak again a year from now, what do you hope we'll be talking about regarding the current season?
From a sporting perspective, that I did an excellent Tour de France. That aside, I hope we get more support for the club, and for the kids of Urrao.



__________________________________________________________
Marginalia

1.
This interview was first published here last summer, shortly before the Tour de France. It was subsequently published in Road Magazine.


2.
You can learn more about the cycling club that Rigoberto supports here.
 
3.
You can follow Rigoberto on Twitter here

4.
If you'd like to get a better sense for the small town of Urrao, the video below shows a good bit of it, including its attractions, and even highlights Rigoberto and Giro stage winner Luis Felipe Laverde, who is also from there. Worth a watch, even if you don't understand Spanish. If you want to see some photographs of Urrao, you can see great ones in the Urrao Flickr pool here.




5.
Lastly, if you want to learn about the first gold medalist in road cycling (in the 1948 London Olympics), read this interview with Matt Rendell, who wrote Jose Beyaert's biography. Beyaert's life was an amazing one. From boxer to gymnist, to cyclist, to gun runner and (more than likely) hired assassin, the French cyclist lived most of his live in Colombia, a country he loved very, very deeply.

32 comments:

  1. Wow, what a story. I'm continually amazed by the grace and resilience of Colombian riders. Rigoberto is about a year younger than me, but no doubt many years wiser tougher. Thanks for giving me someone to follow in the TdF.

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  2. Podium!!!!

    only read the second half of the interview and was very impressed. I will read the rest shortly. You do a great job of breaking stereotypes Klaus.

    I am one week away from the biggest ride of the year for me. 110 miles solo from harrisburg PA to Philly PA and a return ride two days later. Your posts all year and especially in the winter kept me on my bike. Thank You. I feel more part of the world wide enjoyment of the sport and less like a loner. keep up the enlightenment.

    Thank You.

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  3. Another great interview. Any chance you'll expand your blogular investigations to expose the cycling histories in other Latin American countries aside from your motherland? Not a whole lot of bilingual cycling bloggers/journalists...

    Also do you know of any companies that run guided cycling tours for foreigners in any part of Colombia?

    Daniel

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  4. Hello Daniel,
    I could look into doing what you propose (speaking of other countries), but the truth is that I know very little about other places in latin america. Having said that, I've looked into interviewing several riders from other countries, but have been unable to. Getting anyone to write me back is usually pretty much impossible.

    I know of one company that runs guided cycling tours. I dont know the people personally, or anything like that, but I found them through my travels on the world wide web. Email me (link at the top right) and I can send you the URL.

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  5. This was brilliant.

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  6. Thanks Klaus, now i have a new rider to watch for in the tour. All of the sudden I have become interested in the white jersey competition.

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  7. thought you might wanna see this. a replica of lucho's old bike

    http://www.pezcyclingnews.com/?pg=fullstory&id=9292&status=True&catname=Feature Stories

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  8. A great story. In a big race, riders are often just another statistic, but you realise there is so much that can be going on underneath.

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  9. WOW! What a story! Rigoberto just gained a new fan.

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  10. I was also born in Bogota Colombia, and reading this wonderful story of overcoming high walls, just makes me so proud to know that there is someone out there with so much determination to get ahead in life no matter what. My congratulations to Rigoberto Uran and see him as a champ, in the Tour of France. Lo mejor de la suerte, from Fl. USA JNG










    g

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  11. Klaus, Excellent work!!! I have a Blog (Mi Diario Vivir) and have been writing brief notes about the Tour de France in general, Uran's performance in particular. I would like to ask you for permission to use the pic where Uran is riding along the burro... Please, if possible let me know if I may use it giving due credit and linking to your Blog, of course
    Best regards,
    Miguel

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  12. Klaus,
    I must say I enjoyed finding this website. I myself was born during a rough time in Colombia and was fortunate enough to be adopted to two great loving parents. I have always been a afraid to show my passion for my country due to the abusive slurs that would go on when I would wear the country with pride. I must say reading this blog as well as being a Colombian how i continues to ride day in and out on my Jamis Quest gives me great pride that I finally bought a Colombian jersey representing my heritage which I came from. IF any other Colombians read this page, feel the pride of our country and now I get to route for a Colombian in the Tour de France which made me more interested in watching it. Great job and thank you ! :)
    John Lapatchka M. Ed proud biker of Bike for Autism and Tour de Cure.

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  13. John,
    I'm so happy to hear that you're enjoying this site, and that you're becoming more proud of your heritage. Keep riding. Not sure if you've been to Colombia recently, or since your childhood. It's a beautiful place, and one with tons to see and enjoy.
    Suerte!

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  14. Miguel,
    Thank you for asking, to be perfectly honest, I don't own the image myself!

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  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  16. Hi, Uran was straggling towards the back of the peloton as it went over Putney Bridge, and I shouted some words of encouragement to him. I truly believe those words spurred him on to get into the winning break, then going with Vino. Not so sure about the sprint though.

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  17. I've been a fan of Uran since reading about him on this website last year (having clicked on a link from BikeSnob's blog), and taking a coincidental vacation to Colombia. This was a great article, and the race on Saturday was amazing.

    It's apparently been lost on the writers of Cycling News, but it was in fact Uran who attacked the break with a little under 10 K to go. Taking nothing away from Vino (who had the veteran's sense of knowing that that was the winning move), but I wish the new outlets would have given Uran his due.

    Also, the graphic on NBC initially had Sergio Henao as the attacker. I'm sure it was a simple mistake, but it was Phil Liggett who corrected the it. I thought that was funny, because normally the graphics / race radio are correcting his screw-ups.

    Say what you will about Vino, but I love his style of racing: keep attacking until someone cracks. Anyway, felicitaciones to Colombia for placing two riders in the deciding break, and awesome riding, Rigoberto!

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  18. Anonymous,
    I'm sure your encouragement helped! You know, having spent a couple of weeks in London before, it was helpful to know where they were, a luxury I simply don't have when watching a race that ends in some small town in rural Belgium or France that I've never been to. At the end, I told my wife, "there's Harrods, from there to the Palace is doable" I felt like such a well traveled cycling fan, if only for a minute.

    Mr Clever name,
    I'm totally with you. I'm already reading lots of articles that refer to Rigoberto as "the Colombian"....like he's a nobody. White jersey at the Giro, held the white jersey at the Tour, led Sky at the Giro and will do so a the Vuelta...but god forbid we can use his name. ugh. Needless to say, the move is credited to Vino, not to Uran.

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  19. About the Uran/Henao confusion: Uran was NOT in the official start list. It was a mistake and only Henao and Duarte were listed. I saw the BBC ans Eurosport coverage and they both made the same error. Makes sense: Colombian on a Pinarello... can't be Duarte, has to be Henao. Uran was only allowed to get a number and officially entered into the race a few hours before the start. We will expand on the topic during the podcast tomorrow night. The guy who wasn't even on the start list could have won gold. would have been nice... Still Vino had a great race and did read the right move, NOT the other way around. Very happy to be Colombian right now.

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  20. I saw the race when Rigoberto got silver medal in these olympics games, it was extraordinary..good for him and for Colombia too...congratulations

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  21. Excellent interview, it will show a few things to the BBC

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  22. Klaus! The link for Matt Rendell is messed up. It should be http://www.realpeloton.com/

    It was great listening to you guys on the podcast!

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  23. As a Brit, I was way too pissed off after the Olympic road race. The tactics of many teams in the peleton (especially the Aussies) was so defeatist. Sure, Cav will probably beat anyone in a sprint, but what is better, having chance of winning, or a chance at 34th place. O'Grady was never going to win the escape groups sprint.

    As for Vino, unrepentant drug cheats make my blood boil. What did he say to Uran? Did he do a Ulrich 2000 on him or a LBL from last year?

    I was happy to see Uran medal, but what was he doing looking over his shoulder, whilst riding down the middle of the road? Schoolboy error. Vino must have been laughing to himself as he passed.

    But as I said, my nationality might be clouding my judgement a tad.

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  24. One thing that kinda bugs me is the fact there was absolutely no mention of Uran's silver medal on Team Sky's homepage and that the news of this was buried somewhere else in their website. I bet Sky had a full-blown, gold-colored design ready to go live the moment Cav would've crossed that finish line in first place. I mean, I wasn't expecting something outrageous for Uran, but something as simple as what Katusha did for Kristoff and his bronze medal would've been fine. I guess Team GB/Sky's defeat was a little hard to swallow

    But then, Wiggins gets gold in the TT and all is good again... except that there is also no mention of Froome's bronze medal. For shame!

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  25. Jackseph,
    Rigo has now said in interviews that he couldn't keep up with Vino, so he merely looked back to see the group, to see how close they were. As he saw it, if he was caught by the group, he'd have no medal. he knew he was out of gold, and and was checking. If that's not what happened, a young climber got beaten by an old experienced rider who has spent his entire career in finishes like that. Makes sense.

    Christian,
    I noticed this too. Really kinda' sad. I didn't see any Sky riders congratulate him either. Everyone was so hyper focused on their plan A, which was their plan B and C that they failed to see their trade-team teammate winning a silver.

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  26. Fair enough. As I said, good work Uran. Maybe (read; definitely) Sky should have made a bigger deal of it. He will get a decent contract bonus all the same?
    My nationalist bloodlust has been quenched by the TT and now the track (after one day). All I need now is to see Pendleton and Meares have a full blown punch-up and my year will be complete.

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    1. I wonder if Uran is transferring next season, and that's why Sky doesn't seem to care about his silver. This is the time of year when these things are announced. Has anyone heard anything?

      About the race, I was amused to read the British team whining about it afterwards. Exactly how are the tactics of placing someone in a break negative? O'Grady was by far the fastest sprinter in the winning group, but was probably gassed from being out front all day. Without the benefit of radios, no one would have known what his condition was like in the finale, because the gap was small enough to the peloton that team cars weren't allowed.

      The bottom line is that the British staked everything on a bunch sprint, and it didn't happen. They were thinking like a stage race, wherein the riders up the road are relatively weak and will be out there only for TV time. Instead, there was some major firepower in every attack. They blamed everyone but themselves, as if every other nation should just play along with their tactics.

      On the other hand, the Americans did really well. We've been sucking pretty badly on the world stage in the past few years, so it was nice to see the young guys execute their plan so well. It didn't work out for them, but I think it's a good sign for the future (Richmond 2015, anyone?)

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  27. Mr Clever name,
    I haven't heard anything about Uran, but maybe you're on to something (though I think Sky is just so centered on british cycling). I think his contract was for two years, so it makes sense that it's probably up. He seems to like it there, but he's starting to come up against some slight limitations with someone like Froome clearly waiting in the wings, and with such an insane potential for grand tours already showing.

    I'm with you about tactics...and I'm already looking forward to Richmond. I'll be there for sure.

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  28. About Sky, there are lots of factors to consider. Velo News (normally the red-headed stepchild of cycling media) had a good article speculating on if and when Froome would jump ship. It had much to do with Wiggins being such a popular figure and Froome being born in Africa. Of course, there's also Uran and Henao. It will definitely be an interesting off-season story to follow. The premise of the story would seem to support the uber-British-ness that Klaus alluded to, and which is undeniably there.

    About Richmond, I'm mega excited. We (the Americans) have a ton of young talent that could be a major factor in that race. I live in D.C., so I'll certainly be there. Depending on the final course, the United States has Ben King, who is able to stay in a break all day (and he's from the Richmond area), and Vangarderen, who by that time may very well be one of the top stage racers in the world. Plus, Joe Dombrowski is shaping himself up to be the world's best climbing talent. He completely destroyed the field at the Baby Giro.

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