While Chris Froome and his Sky team won yet another Tour de France on Sunday, for many cycling fans the more compelling story was that of Rigoberto Urán and his Cannondale-Drapac team. The Colombian finished second overall, just 54 seconds behind Froome after three weeks of intense racing, giving what Froome called his “closest and most hard-fought battle” in the world’s biggest bike race.
Cannondale-Drapac has among the smallest budgets in the WorldTour, a third of Sky’s, and is known as a scrappy squad that has resorted to a “Moneyball” strategy to compete against deep-pocketed juggernauts, with Urán its lone million-dollar rider. Jonathan Vaughters, the team’s general manager, rolled the dice with Urán at the Tour, and it paid off big time, with the 30-year-old winning a key mountain stage and finishing on the second step in Paris, in a coup for the Argyle Armada.
While American fans who watch only the Tour may have seen Urán as a surprise, he’s long been building a standout résumé, having raced in Europe for over a decade. Wildly popular at home and with die-hard cycling fans worldwide, he’s a colorful character who loves to laugh and joke. But “Rigo” is also respected as a dedicated professional, and in Colombia he personifies a country that’s trying to move forward from its war-torn past.
Following are some of the pivotal moments in Urán’s life and career to date. Thanks to Klaus Bellon, a cycling journalist who reports on Colombian cycling at Alps & Andes, who shared his insights with Business Insider.
Urán was born on January 26, 1987, in Urrao, Colombia.
Urán told Bellon in an interview that he had a fairly common childhood, going to school and playing a lot of different sports. His mother was a homemaker and his dad sold lottery tickets. Eventually Urán’s father got him into cycling, and the two would go on long rides in the countryside. They wore street clothes because they could not afford cycling shorts and jerseys.
Urrao is in northwest Colombia, in the department of Antioquia.
Urrao has a violent past, with fighting between the military and paramilitary and guerrilla groups. As Bellon has pointed out, Urán’s hometown was essentially at the center of a decadelong civil war in Colombia, a period known as “La Violencia.”
Urán’s family experienced the violence firsthand.
“Rigoberto’s dad was – as so many people in that sort of socioeconomic scale in Colombia were, especially in the countryside – very keen on cycling,” Bellon told Business Insider. “One day his dad was out on a training ride, and it was also around that time he had gotten Rigoberto into cycling. Rigoberto had just done his first race a few months earlier, a time trial, and they simply told him, ‘Get to the finish line as fast as you can.’ Of course he won …
“So his dad was out on a training ride, on a Saturday or a Sunday, and he was captured. In Colombia, the military would have these checkpoints where they’d stop you and check your car. And the guerrillas would set up fake checkpoints, as though they were the military. His dad, as I understand, was kidnapped along with other people. What the guerrillas wanted to do was apparently move some cattle and they used the people they captured to move it, and then they just assassinated them afterwards. Rigoberto was left without a father at 14 years old.”
The club Urán had just joined took him under its wing.
Urrao has long had a strong cycling culture, Bellon said, “and there are local business owners who sponsor kids. There’s a guy who runs the little supermarket. Every day at 6 in the morning his house is open for any cyclists – kids – who want to have breakfast for free. He will feed them because otherwise they will never be fed.”
A fatherless teen, Urán became head of the household.
“In Colombia they call it ‘vender chance,'” Bellon said. “If this was your job, you walk around a part of town where you know there’s foot traffic and you have a little vest that says ‘chance,’ or lottery, and someone says, ‘Hey, I’ll take two for this Saturday.’ You tell me the number, I run your card, and I print out your receipt, and that’s your ticket. You’re a roaming lottery dealer.
Riding out of poverty.
“He would leave the house at 7 a.m., only to return close to midnight,” Bellon wrote in an introduction to an interview with Urán. “He continued attending school, training, and racing, while trying to lift his family out of the poverty in which they lived.”
Urán looked to a future in cycling, and he avoided a darker path.
In the years after the killing of his father, “Rigoberto was big on just moving on,” Bellon said. And cycling would play a critical role not only in Urán’s life but also in his next move.
“In those violent times in Colombia,” Bellon said, “the paramilitaries were, by and large, leftists groups funded by wealthy cattle owners who wanted to protect themselves against the guerrillas because the government wasn’t doing a good enough job with the army. They become well funded, and it was also a perfect tool to recruit someone like Rigoberto. I’m sure everyone in town knew what had happened, and yet he just threw himself into the sport of cycling.”
Urán would eventually move on from his cycling club to race at the national level, where he won several races and became one of Colombia’s most promising riders.
What he really wanted, though, was to turn professional so he could earn enough money from racing to fully provide for his family. As Bellon tells it, he issued a kind of ultimatum to his team: Either I turn pro or I sell lottery tickets full time. But that was tricky because at 16 Urán was a few years short of the legal age to sign a contact. Bellon reported that Urán’s mother signed the paperwork allowing Urán to race professionally so young.
Urán breaks through in Europe.
In 2006, Urán got a chance to race in Europe, the center of world cycling. At 19 he went to Italy, where he lived with an Italian family who helped him learn to speak the language. (To this day, he and his sports directors communicate in Italian.) In his second season in Europe, 2007, he took his first big victory, at the Tour de Suisse, while racing for the Unibet team, winning a stage. It was the start of a long European racing career.
A high-speed crash nearly ends his career.
In 2007, his second year in Europe, Urán crashed heavily after riding off the side of the road during a high-speed descent at the Tour of Germany. He broke both his elbows and his right wrist. It was a scary crash that could have derailed his career, but he eventually recovered and continued racing. Getting back to the top meant a lot of hard work.
Urán keeps moving up to bigger and better teams.
After Unibet, he spent two seasons racing for Caisse d’Epargne, where he continued to get solid results, including top-10 finishes in big races like the Tour de Suisse and third place in the prestigious Giro di Lombardia classic. In 2011, Urán joined the big-budget Sky outfit, where he often rode in support of stars Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. While Sky was not the best fit for Urán, he did take his first grand-tour podium with the British team after finishing second to Vincenzo Nibali at the 2013 Giro d’Italia. For many, that cemented Urán’s world class.
Urán also claimed silver in the road race at the London Olympics.
‘An absolute consummate professional.’
“He’s really like a plug-and-play rider,” Charly Wegelius, a sports director for the Cannondale-Drapac team, told Business Insider. “He’s just an absolute consummate professional. He’s really good at just taking things that aren’t relevant to him or his performance and he just puts them to the side. Some people may think they put them to the side, but it’s still there.
“He goes in a straight line. The noise around races and teams and media? He does what he has to do. He knows what adds to his performance and what doesn’t. He knows what’s expected. If he has to go to a presentation or have his picture taken, he’ll do it. If he asks for something and pushes for something, you can be sure it’s performance-related. It’s not just hot air.”
No surprise here.
“He’s always focused on the Giro, so if anyone is surprised it’s because it’s surprising that it’s happening at the Tour,” Bellon said. “But when you see his trajectory at races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Olympics, the Colombian time-trial championships, and podiums at the Giro, it’s not surprising at all. That’s just underscored by the Tour, because you know people who only watch the Tour will always be surprised – like, who’s this guy?”
Big personality and a popular figure.
Urán is not just one of the world’s top cyclists; he’s also a big personality with a huge following.
‘Rigoberto is quintessentially Colombian.’
“He’s a fun, cool guy,” Bellon said. “He is a media darling. He is beloved. And yes, he jokes and he even curses … Colombians love it. We understand what he’s saying, but he’s using words that other people would not get. Rigoberto is quintessentially Colombian.”
Urán is a star in his native Colombia.
He regularly appears on talk shows – including the popular “Suso’s Show.”
As Bellon has written, in a culture where some seek revenge for wrongs committed, Urán chose to move foward after his father was killed:
“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 Urán, Colombia as a whole wanted to move forward, and wanted to succeed.”
‘Generous, kind, and humble.’
“For those who don’t know Rigoberto Uran, beyond being a great champion on the bike, he is a truly great person,” Cannondale-Drapac team boss Jonathan Vaughters said after the Tour ended on Sunday. “Generous, kind, and humble.”
Can Urán win the Tour de France?
Urán’s performance over the past three weeks strongly suggests he can win the biggest race.
“I don’t like to talk up my chances because cycling is a sport where the legs do the talking, and you have to wait until the end, but we knew I was coming into the Tour in good shape,” Urán said after the Tour. “The most important thing this year was that I lost time in the time trial on the opening day. After that there wasn’t a lot of difference. This gives me hope.”