Edwin Avila's prowess on the velodrome is well known. He's twice won gold in the points race at the UCI Track World Championships, in 2011 and 2014, and he represented Colombia at the 2012 Olympics as part of the team pursuit squad.
There's no doubt Avila is a fast and accomplished cyclist, but his result Sunday at the Colombian national road race, where he took the title ahead of more-famous and more-established road racers like Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Sergio Henao (Team Sky) and Winner Anacona (Movistar) caught almost everyone by surprise, most especially, it seems, Avila himself.
“It's simply an unbelievable victory,” he said in an email to Cyclingnews. “I really have no words to describe how it feels, even more when I know the circuit was made mostly for climbers. I surprised everyone, even myself. This is so surreal, I really can't believe it yet.”
The course in the Boyacá region of Colombia, which Quintana calls home, was tailor made for climbers like Movistar's 2014 Giro d'Italia champion. The title was decided on a hilly course above 2,700 meters, with seven laps of the lumpy final 16km circuit providing the challenge for the day.
A delayed date for the event winnowed the field down before the race even started, with notable absentees including Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale), who was racing at the Volta ao Algarve, and Miguel Ángel López (Astana), who competed in the Colombian time trial on Friday but left before the road race and will start the Tour de Langkawi on Wednesday. However, the presence of Quintana, Henao, Anacona, 2015 winner Robinson Chalapud (Liga de Antioquia) and 2014 winner Miguel Ángel Rubiano (Coldeportes Claro) provided plenty of heavy competition.
Taking every opportunity to upset the favourites
Avila started the final circuit in group of five that also included Anacona, Weimar Roldan, Rafael Montiel and Cayetano Sarmiento (Epm Tigo-Une Area Metropolitana). Eight riders made up the chase group that included Quintana, Henao and Chalapud. In the final kilometers the leaders began to play games amongst themselves, but with just over a minute back to the chase group, they had to also keep the pressure on.
The leaders' slowed pace allowed the chase to pull within sight as the finish approached. But it was too late as Avila countered an attack from Sarmiento, caught him on a descent and then left him behind on the final kicker before the finish. Henao, meanwhile, attacked out of the chase group and gapped Quintana, then was able to sweep up everyone on the road except for the winner.
It was a huge achievement for Avila, who, while competing in a logo-free orange jersey and plain black shorts, astonished a crowd that expected to see a winner decked out in one of the WorldTour kits they recognized from the big European races.
“Yeah, it was tough and I took every single chance I had,” Avila said of his opportunistic win. “I knew I needed to attack if I wanted to win; I needed to go all-in during that last climb because I knew it would've been difficult for anyone to follow my pace if I reached the top of that slope first.”
The gambit worked, and Avila finished three seconds ahead of Henao, four seconds ahead of Sarmiento, and 19 seconds up on Quintana.
The year ahead
Avila will not race the upcoming UCI Track World Championships in London, and will instead be competing with Team Illuminate at the Tour de Taiwain. The 26-year-old will have a tough time making the talent-rich Colombian road team for Rio for the Olympic Games, and his lack of participation at the track world championships indicates he's not angling for a spot on the Olympic track team either.
Although the majority of Avila's successes have come on the track, he's been living in Italy the past couple of years and competing on the road professionally since 2013, when he joined the Pro Continental ranks with Team Colombia. When that team came apart following the 2015 season, he signed with Team Illuminate, a US Continental outfit that raced as Airgas-Safeway last year when it featured 2013 Vuelta a Espana champion Chris Horner.
Last year, Avila finished third and fifth in two stages at the Tour of Utah, the race where he first connected with Team Illuminate general manager Chris Johnson.
“I noticed his riding, but also his personality,” Johnson said. “In the dinner hall one night he came over to our team table and spoke to one of my riders. Edwin was outgoing, friendly and excited to be racing in the United States. You could tell he just had that warm personality you wanted to be around – a smile that is contagious.”
Johnson was understandably ecstatic this week when his new recruit won the Colombian title, saying the team would honour the accomplishment with a special Colombian champion's jersey. Avila will have two teammates who are also national champions: Flavio de Luna won the Mexican time trial title last fall, and Callum Scotson won the Australian U23 time trial title in January.
Johnson is also looking forward to seeing Avila put his road experience to work with Team Illuminate's relatively young roster. Avila twice started the Giro d'Italia with Team Colombia, finishing the Grand Tour in 2013 and taking eighth during stage 3 of the 2014 race before finishing outside the time limit on stage 9.