The 2018 Colombia Oro y Paz, the race of gold and peace, burst onto the international cycling scene like a newborn infant that's the pride of the family. The inaugural UCI stage race, organised by Colombia's cycling federation, highlighted cycling-mad enthusiasm in a country where hundreds of thousands of fans lined the streets daily to see the peloton pass by.
This year, rebranded as Tour Colombia 2.1 and moving to the Antioquia region around Medellin, the race hopes to build on the momentum created last year when four WorldTour teams ventured to the South American country for the first edition. Colombians claimed all but two of the top 16 spots last year, with Egan Bernal (Team Sky) taking the win ahead of Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First). Only Julian Alaphilippe (Decenunicnk-QuickStep) and then-teammate Jhonatan Narváez could break through the Colombian blockade.
The race added two more WorldTour teams, for a total of six this year, with four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome headlining the Team Sky line. Also on the start in Medellin for the opening team trial on February 12 will be Astana, Deceuninck-QuickStep, EF Education First, Movistar and UAE Team Emirates.
Although there will be multiple opportunities for sprinters like double Oro y Paz stage winner Fernando Gaviria and his new UAE team, the overall classification will be decided over the final two hilly days, including the summit finish on the last day up Alto de Palmas.
Expect exciting racing, massive crowds and a deserving winner at the finish on February 17.
Quintana, Henao, Bernal and Uran sprint for the finish of stage 5 at Oro y Paz (Getty)
The sprint stages in Colombia will be a rematch from last week's Vuelta a San Juan, minus the Bora-Hansgrohe duo of Peter Sagan and Sam Bennett. That leaves Gaviria and his UAE Team Emirates lead-out train taking on the Deceuninck-QuickStep duo of Colombian Alvaro Hodeg and Argentinian Max Richeze. The team hasn't said if Iljo Keisse, who was on the provisional Colombia roster, will make the trip after he was thrown out of San Juan by the race organisers.
A spattering of fast men from the Pro Continental teams could find themselves in the mix on the sprint stages, but the big battles are likely going to take place between the UAE and QuickStep trains.
What the race's six WorldTour teams are lacking in sprint depth, however, they've got in spades for the general classification.
Team Sky is bringing a powerhouse roster to the race, with defending champion Bernal likely taking the lead as Froome begins his slow build up toward a run at his fifth Tour de France title. Colombians Sebastian Henao and Ivan Sosa, the team's newest Latin American signing, will be eager to prove themselves in their home country, while Ecuadorian Jhonatan Narvaez and Spaniard Jonathan Castroviejo round out the roster.
Fresh off Winner Anacona's overall win at the Vuelta a San Juan, Movistar will line up a similar squad in Colombia. Marc Soler, who arrived in the Antioquia last week, will be the only change on the roster, which features Colombians Anacona and Quintana. Ecuador's Richard Carapaz, Argentinian Eduardo Sepúlveda and Spaniard Jorge Arcas round out the team's roster.
The EF Education First features an interesting roster with four Americans backing up Colombians Rigoberto Urán and Daniel Martínez, who won the Colombian national time trial title on February 1. The team has already said that Urán, who won a stage at Oro y Paz last year and finished third overall, is having a slower start to his season and so EF will be supporting Martínez in the general classification.
The 22-year-old's time trial skills will come in handy on the opening day, and the team will be happy to have Lawson Craddock and Taylor Phinney for the discipline as well. Nate Brown and Alex Howes add to the firepower.
Astana's Miguel Ángel López, the 25-year-old Colombian who was third in both the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana last year, did not race Oro y Paz in 2018 and so will be bringing extra motivation to perform in front of his home fans. The provisional roster around him includes Colombians Rodrigo Contreras and Hernando Bohórquez, along with Czech Jan Hirt, Nikita Kalzan of Kazakhstan and Italian Davide Villella.
The Deceuninck-QuickStep roster, although divided between sprint and GC riders, has a formidable duo in Julian Alaphilippe, who won two stages in San Juan and finished second overall, and Bob Jungels, the talented Luxembourg rider who is starting his season in Colombia.
A young fan greets the Oro y Paz peloton with the Colombian flag (Getty)
The Route for the 2019 Tour Colombia 2.1 is backloaded for the GC riders with a hilly stage 5 and a summit finish on the final day. Although the race can't be won in the opening team time trial, it can certainly be lost there with a poor team performance or an unexpected disaster. In between the TTT and the final two days, three days for the sprinters should provide plenty of flashy excitement for the throngs that are sure to line the finish.
The 14km team time trial course winds in and around Medellin with gentle, sweeping corners and two dramatic 180 degree turns that will test the teams' cohesiveness and skill. Although the parcours is quite flat, riders who haven't acclimated to the region's elevation might find themselves suffering.
Stage 2 takes the peloton around a relatively flat circuit in La Ceja for 150.5km. A bunch sprint is expected, but the race rarely drops below 2,000m of elevation over the next three stages, putting an extra strain on the fast men and their lead-out trains. Breakaways of well-acclimated local riders could always spoil the sprinters' party.
Stage 3 is a 167.6km loop that takes the peloton through Llanogrande por Rionegro, San Antonio de Pereira, La Ceja and Don Diego. The third category Alto Nano, which climbs 195 metres over 3.5km and tops out at 2,355m, is another obstacle for the sprinters.
Stage 4 is a 144km circuit race that sees the peloton race six laps on a course in the heart of Medellin. A small climb in the middle of the circuit shouldn't cause too much trouble for the sprinters.
Fans line the route of the 2018 Colombia Oro y Paz (Getty)
Although the final day, with its summit finish on the 15.5km climb up Alto de Palmas, is a proper queen stage for the race, stage 5 could be as significant for the overall standings. The stage starts in La Union and makes its way to La Ceja and Retiro before the finish back in La Union. The lumpy route starts and finishes at 2,476m above sea level and tops out twice on Alta La Union at 2,476m.
"Stage 5 is super hard," said EF Education first director Juanma Garate. "Stage 6 is a long uphill final to Las Palmas, which climbs to 2,345m, which is up to Rigo's house. But stage 5 up to La Unión, topping out at 2,476m, will be the harder stage."
The general classification pecking order will be firmly set on stage 5, but Bernal was able to steal the overall win from Quintana on the final day last year, and organisers are no doubt hoping for similar excitement.
The 173.8km final stage from Retiro to Alto de Palmas will start out with a 45km flat opening before a short climb up Alto La Virgen. A long descent from there will lead to several short climbs that serve as an hors d'oeuvre for the main entrée.
Alto de Palmas comes after more than 156km of racing and throws 933m of vertical at the riders over the final 15.5km. The overall winner at the 2019 Tour Colombia 2.1 will have to conquer the climb, or at least fight off all challengers, proving himself a worthy champion.