As one might expect in an enthusiastic cycling country like Colombia, Chris Froome (Team Sky) was a big hit at the teams presentation ahead of the Tour Colombia at the Atanasio Girardot football stadium in downtown Medellin on Sunday.
Standing on the podium next to Colombian riders Ivan Sosa, Sebastian Henao and 2018 Oro y Paz champion Egan Bernal, Froome received one of the biggest ovations of the night – except for EF Education First's Rigoberto Uran, whose status in his home country goes beyond that of a rock star.
When the four-time Tour de France champion departed the field after the ceremony was over, he was surrounded by half a dozen armed police officers – not to protect him from violence, but to ensure the throngs of fans that wanted to get a close-up glimpse didn't overwhelm him.
Later in the day at the pre-race press conference, Froome was effusive about the South American country, its people and the reception he's been given since arriving two weeks ago.
"It's quite overwhelming for me – quite heartwarming for me to be welcomed to Colombia in this kind of way, especially when I'm racing every year against Nairo Quintana, and against the [other] champions of Colombia," Froome said.
"I could expect some people to see me as the enemy, but I haven't felt anything like that at all. I just want to say a massive thank you to everyone for the welcome, and also thank you to the Colombian Cycling Federation for inviting me here."
He said the draw to Colombia made it an easy decision to start things off there this year.
"There are two benefits to being here in Colombia this time of year. Obviously, I've heard a lot about Colombia from my teammates over the years, and I've never spent time here. So, I think it was about time I came here for a training camp," Froome said.
"I've been here the past two weeks, and I think it's a fantastic place to train in terms of the altitude, the roads, great food and obviously friendly people. It's just been a pleasure to be here, and I'll have to come back in the future."
Froome is in Colombia with the defending champion in Bernal, and with Sosa, who was sixth last year with Androni Giacattoli. The British rider was vague about his personal goals for the race, but said the team goal is to keep the title.
"I'm here to try to improve my level ahead of the season that's coming, but we are here with the defending champion from last year, so we're going to try to work as hard as we can to try to keep that title in the team," he said of the race that was called Colombia Oro y Paz, but is now Tour Colombia 2.1.
A year ago, Froome was the centre of attention when he started his season at the Ruta del Sol, which was also his first race since his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a España. The UCI dropped the charges against Froome in June, weeks after he had won the 2018 Giro d’Italia. He also placed third overall at the Tour de France, and the Briton has confirmed that he will target a record-equalling fifth Tour victory in 2019.
Pressed again about his personal goals for the coming week in Colombia, Froome fell back on a little humour and modesty.
"To survive," he said, eliciting laughter from the assembled media. "Racing above 2,000 metres all week is something I've never done before, so hopefully I'll get to the end."
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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.
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