Colombia expected and they have delivered. Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán, Sergio Henao, and Egan Bernal have made the inaugural edition of the Colombia Oro y Paz race a memorable one, playing out a dramatic tussle on the climb to Salento on stage 5 to set up a mouth-watering finale on Sunday atop Manizales.
There were doubts about how the established WorldTour stars would go this week. They clearly wanted to come here because of what it means to the country but it’s only the first step in a long season where the primary objectives are still some way down the line.
But the vociferous Colombian fans got what they wanted on Saturday as Quintana, Urán, Henao, and Bernal established themselves as the strongest in the race. No one else could follow on the short but steep final climb, and they crossed the line together – Urán taking stage honours – for an image that was immediately sewn into the tapestry of Colombian cycling history.
“I didn’t know the finish but I knew it was straight. Sergio was the one who worried me most because he has a strong kick,” said Urán in his post-race television interview. "I’m always happy to find myself up there and when I win, then even more so.”
To Urán went the stage honours but to Quintana the pink jersey of overall leader. Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), who won Friday’s stage atop El Tambo, found the gradients too severe and vanished from the picture.
“The idea was that the peloton would arrive very much reduced and that way there’d be fewer attacks and it would be easier to control the situation,” said Quintana. "I thought Sergio would have attacked sooner. At the end I was a bit blocked in by the barriers but I took a risk to launch myself, but Rigo is very powerful on these finishes.”
Taking into account time gaps from El Tambo and bonus seconds on the line, Quintana leads the race from Urán by three seconds, with Henao at four seconds and Bernal at nine. With no one else within 30 seconds, it looks like a four-horse race.
Team Sky have the numerical and tactical advantage with Henao and Bernal, though it remains to be seen if they try to mix things up. Bernal ended up finishing third in Salento, ahead of Henao, thus mopping up the final four bonus seconds, but he insisted that Henao remains Sky’s leader.
“I wasn’t going for GC, but I ended up in the mix,” Bernal told reporters in Salento. “The ideas was to help Sergio, he was very strong on the final climb. The idea wasn’t for me to arrive with them – even though to do it is great – but the idea was to help Sergio who’s the leader for this race. I’ll continue to give everything for him.”
The race comes down to the Manizales summit finish on Sunday. After three sprint stages and two with short final climbs, Manizales is a different beast entirely – a 20km ascent that rises to 2202 metres of altitude.
The average gradient is just 4.4 per cent but there are stretches that head way into the double digits, and most who know the climb say it’s tough enough for significant differences.
Speaking to reporters after a warm-down on the rollers, Sergio Henao briefly gave his impressions.
“Manizales is a much longer climb – for sure it’s going to be hard. It’s up to us to take the race on,” he said. “There’s only seconds in it so it’s going to be a great day.”
Quintana, meanwhile, can afford to take a more defensive approach.
“I think the break will go a long way, and we’ll try to control it as best we can,” he said. “It’s the last day tomorrow so there’ll be lots of teams wanting to do something. But we’ll try to control it, see how the attacks play out, and defend the jersey. I’m hoping the climb suits me better than today’s. Without doubt tomorrow there’ll be war.”