Colombian riders are more famous for their climbing skills than racing on the cobbles but on Sunday, Leonardo Duque hopes to be the first Colombian to ever get a result in Paris-Roubaix even though he is riding the “Hell of the North” for the first time in his career.
“The most important thing is to finish the race, and hopefully I can even be in the top 20,” the Cofidis rider told Cyclingnews.
A good performance would be the perfect birthday present for Duque as he celebrates his 32nd birthday on Sunday and his recent results indicate he could do well. He finished 12th in Gent-Wevelgem and 19th at the Tour of Flanders. However he also went down in the high-speed crash at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday and is trying to recover from a back injury.
Several Colombian riders have tried to target Paris-Roubaix in the last 30 years but have often been dogged by bad luck. No Colombian has managed to leave their mark in the official race results, with all those who have so far tried, pulling out of the race before reaching the Roubaix velodrome.
The result archive reveals the stories of just four audacious Colombians who have started Paris-Roubaix: Martin “Cochise” Rodriguez who rode in 1973 with Team Bianchi, Néstor Mora in 1994, Julio Cesar Ortegón in 1995 and Víctor Hugo Peña in 2003 and 2004 (with Discovery Channel) and 2005 (with Phonak).
The pavé also wrecked Colombian hopes in the Tour de France, in 1983 and especially 1985, when GC outsider Luis Herrera lost 2:03 time to Bernard Hinault.
Contrary to most of his famous predecessors, Duque is more of a sprinter-puncheur than a true climber and even enjoys riding the Classics.
“Leo is almost Belgian”, his directeur sportif Alain Deloeil explained. “He knows all the secrets of the cobbled races because he turned professional with a Flemish team”.
Duque signed with the small Jartazi-Granville team in 2004 and he won semi-Classic Druivenkoers-Overijse the year after, ahead of a certain Nick Nuyens. But he says his love of Belgium began in 2000 when he rode some kermesse races with the Colombian track national team. Three seasons later, Duque came back to Flanders to prepare for the road World Championships in Zolder.
Paris-Roubaix has always been one of his favourite races to watch on television.
“One year, I remember the riders had terrible faces and I was also impressed by the performance of George Hincapie. He’s popular in Colombia because his father is from Medellin.”
Duque is a featherweight; he is only 1.75 m tall and weighs just 60kg. But he does not see that as a handicap.
“I know my building is quite unusual for the cobbles but it’s no problem for me! Perhaps it's even an asset because I need less pressure than the others in my tyres. I’m also good on a bike because I used to do some freestyle riding when I was a child. I could even jump on and off walls.”
Duque’s palmarès confirms his adaptability. He won the overall classification of the Tour du Limousin in 2006, a stage of Vuelta Espana the year after, the points race in a World Cup event in 2008 and the overall classification of the 2010 French Cup.
Deloeil confirmed that the Cofidis team does not have a protected leader for Paris-Roubaix and so Duque will be free to ride for himself and could perhaps look to get in a key breakaway in the finale.
That could allow him to make history and become the first Colombian to make it to the Roubaix velodrome and finish Paris-Roubaix.