With a just over month until the start of the Tour Colombia 2.1, which runs February 12-17 in the Antioquia region around Medellin, Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First) has ramped up his training for the race that will be fought over the roads he's used for training since he first started riding as a boy.
Urán is eager to get the 2019 season started after facing several disappointments in 2018, including having to abandon the Tour de France after struggling through several stages following a crash on the stage 9 cobbles to Roubaix. Urán was primed to defend his 2017 runner-up result in the French Grand Tour after winning a stage in the Tour de Slovenie and taking second overall in the June tune-up race, making the Tour abandon all the more painful.
Urán rebounded in August with sixth place at Clasica San Sebastian and seventh overall at the Vuelta a España. His final block of racing saw him make another podium with second at Giro dell'Emilia, then he added two more top 10 results at Italian one-days before going to China for the Gree-Tour of Guangxi, where he finished sixth overall.
Although he was unable to add another win after Slovenie, Urán's end-of-the-season was considerably less stressful than the year before, when Jonathan Vaughters' Slipstream program was in danger of folding because of sponsor troubles. In his off-season this year, Urán hosted several European riders - including four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome of Team Sky - in Colombia for the Giro de Rigo. The 140km recreational ride drew thousands of participants and fans, as well as fellow Colombian pros Sergio Henao, Sebastian Henao, Egan Bernal, Alvaro Hodeg, Fernando Gaviria, Dani Martinez and Julian Cardonas.
The enthusiasm among the spectators at the Giro de Rigo was obvious, and it reinforced the impression of the cycling-mad country that was on display last year at the Colombia Oro y Paz, the precursor to this year's Tour Colombia 2.1.
"We will have the best fans," Urán said in an interview published on the race website. "This will be better than the Tour de France. The people of Colombia, and especially of Medellín, are very fond of cycling. They follow the Colombian cyclists a lot, and watching them compete up close, it will be the best."
Urán also revealed that, aside from the pride of bringing top riders and teams to the his native land and wanting to perform well in front of the crowds, he is also motivated and well-prepared to get his season started.
"I am preparing every day, training and enjoying it," Urán said. "I'm very happy, also, that this race will take place here in Medellín. For me, it is an honour to compete here at home and on the roads where I train every day. It's going to be a wonderful thing for me and for the people of Antioquia.
"There will be a high level because the route is hard," he said of the competition. "We are going to have a battle in the Alto de las Palmas [the final climb of the final stage - ed.] that will be a very demanding stage. There will be big time differences. It is going to be a very demanding route where there will be opportunities for everyone."
Urán was third in last year's Oro y Paz race behind winner Bernal and runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar), both of whom are expected to return this year.
Froome will be among the competitors expected at the race, with Team Sky, Movistar and EF Education First among the seven WorldTour teams. Deceuninck-QuickStep, Astana, Bahrain-Merida and UAE Team Emirates will also be on the start line in Medellin.
Deceuninck-QuickStep has already committed Julian Alaphilippe, Bob Jungels and Alvaro Hodeg to the race, while Sergio Henao is expected with UAE Emirates, his new team. Astana will to send Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez.
All of the WorldTour teams will likely bring their Colombian riders, and after the Colombian Road Nationals on February 1-3, all of them should be in good form. Add in a host of Pro Continental and hungry Continental teams, and the field should have more than its fare share of motivation and talent.
"We are going well," Urán said. "We will have already had the national championships so that the cyclists who were in Europe could race. Then we will do this race, which is very beautiful, and it's very important that people enjoy it a lot and that it leaves many good things for the country."
Despite the local enthusiasm for racing and following the top pros, Urán suggested the Colombian federation that runs the event shouldn't be in too much of a hurry to push the race toward WorldTour status.
"Having a WorldTour race would also be possible, but many Colombian teams could not participate," he said. "It is something that we must continue evaluating. I think that as we are now we are fine, because we are going to have the best teams in the world with this race."
Urán said the next step for Colombian cycling should be to create a Colombian team with a good sponsor and Colombian riders who would be in the Tour de France and in the big European races.
"Every year some of us have been on the podium of the big races, and hopefully this year will be the same," Urán said.