Uran’s amazing journey from Colombia to pink jersey

Rigoberto Urán's path, from a small village west of Medellín to the Giro d'Italia's maglia rosa, is one of the most interesting in the sport

Photo: Tim De Waele

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BAROLO, Italy (VN) — Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) made Giro d’Italia history Thursday to become the first Colombian to don the pink jersey of the race leader.

Urán surprised the Giro peloton in the 42km time trial to beat back overnight leader Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), winning the stage and wrestling away the maglia rosa.

The 27-year-old’s road to the top of the European peloton is one of the most interesting in the sport. Like many of his compatriots from the South American nation, Urán’s natural ability on the bike helped lift him out of poverty.

Urán is reticent to talk about his past, and when asked to during a press conference to talk about his family, he remained vague.

“I left my country many years ago. It’s high time to get a win like this,” Urán said Thursday. “I am only 27, but I’ve been pro nine years already, on many teams.”

Urán hails from Urrao, a village west of Medellín surrounded by 2,000-meter peaks. His father was a keen cyclist, and turned his young son onto the sport. Soon after, however, a paramilitary group gunned down Urán’s father when he was abducted during a ride in the nearby mountains, leaving Rigoberto fatherless at 14.

Urán began working in evenings selling lottery tickets to help support his mother and younger sister. “He took it really hard, poor thing,” said his mother, Aracely, in an interview. “I remember how brave he was. All three us agreed to keep moving forward, without forgetting their father.”

The tragedy couldn’t shake Urán’s growing love for cycling, and he would squeeze in cycling training rides between school and hustling up money by selling lottery tickets on the street.

Urán poured his grief into his pedals, and joined the local racing club called Orgullo Paisa. He quickly started posting results, both on the road and on the track, and contacts with older Colombians racing in Europe led him to his first pro contract at just 19 in 2006.

“I wanted to have my chance in Europe, to be able to become a professional and to help my family,” Urán told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “It was a big risk to turn professional early, but I had the opportunity, and I didn’t want it to slip away.”

Urán raced one season with Tenax, picking up Italian, which he uses with fluency during his press conferences  at the Giro. He moved to Unibet in 2007 before joining Caisse d’Epargne (now Movistar) in 2008, when he moved close to the team’s headquarters in Pamplona, Spain.

“Rigo” was the pioneer of a new generation of Colombians who are now at the elite of the European peloton. After nearly a decade in Europe, Urán serves as a big brother of sorts for younger riders who have come in his wake, including Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Sergio Henao (Sky), who share an apartment owned by Urán in Pamplona.

“I am still young, only 27, but I feel like a veteran in many ways. I have been racing almost a decade,” Urán said. “Not much surprises me anymore here in Europe.”

He moved to Sky in 2011, and made headlines worldwide when he rode to the silver medal in the 2012 London Olympic Games, a result surrounded in controversy. Urán strongly denies he “sold” the gold medal to Alexander Vinokourov.

Urán finished second overall at last year’s Giro, even after spending the first half of the race riding in support of Sky leader Bradley Wiggins, who abandoned midway through the race.

Urán’s switch to Omega Pharma this year brings him outright leadership for grand tours. His victory at Barolo might come as a surprise for some, but he’s been working at it for a long time.

“I am so surprised to win the stage and have the pink jersey,” Urán said. “The hardest stages are still to come. Nothing’s won yet.”

In many ways, however, Thursday’s stage win, and race leadership, are already a major victory for this rider from Urrao.

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