BEAVER CREEK — There’s good reason Colombian cyclists have long been nicknamed Los Escarabajos, or “The Beetles.”
The moniker was earned back in the ’50s, when Colombian cyclists came onto the international racing scene and quickly earned a reputation for being fast, scrappy climbers, deceptively strong despite their small stature. In the ’80s and ’90s, Colombian cycling reached a pinnacle with world-class climbers, legends such as Luis “Lucho” Herrera and Fabio Parra.
“It’s a nickname from the time of riders like Luis ‘Lucho’ Herrera when a Colombian often wore the polka dot (climber’s) jersey. When you saw a climb, you always saw the Colombians up front. Like the beetles, they aren’t afraid of the climbs,” says Darwin Atapuma, one of the top riders for Team Colombia Coldeportes.
And attacking on the climbs is where you’ll find Team Colombia during the USA Pro Challenge, where they’ve had a solid showing, with Atapuma sitting in seventh place in the general classification and sprinter Edwin Avila coming in sixth in Wednesday’s field sprint.
Atapuma and his squad are the new face of what the Colombian government and cycling fans hope will be a new golden age for South American cycling. In 2011, the Colombia Department of Sports formed a nationally-backed team with the intention of bringing Colombian riders to the world cycling stage. Made up of 17 riders, the government sent the team to live and train in Italy under team director Claudio Corti, where they would have the opportunity to race on the European circuit.
This year, they make their debut in Colorado, where they’ve flown under the radar in media coverage, but have made their presence known in the results.
“We hope to make a difference in the race, especially (on Thursday) with the uphill finish,” said Atapuma “Our goal is to win a stage and have a good result. I’m feeling particularly well now and hope to finish top 5 or even 3.”
Colombian Janier Acevedo took the win in Stage 4 in Beaver Creek.
Colombian teams have had a quiet presence in the previous two years of the Pro Challenge. In 2011 and 2012, Team EPM-Une, a Colombian Continental squad, made impressive bids for the King of the Mountain title and put a rider in numerous deciding breaks.
Team Colombia, a UCI Pro team, arrives in Colorado this year with a few podium finishes, including at the Tour of Poland and the Tour de l’Ain in France. While it’s the squad’s first time racing in Colorado, the riders are no strangers to high-altitude terrain and steep climbs
“There are definitely some similarities to the routes in Colombia and Colorado, but of course Colorado is very different,” said Atapuma. “We had hoped for more uphill finishes in this race.”
With a group of seven riders representing the team in Colorado, Team Colombia has already had some moments of glory. On the second stage, Atapuma attacked on a climb with Tom Danielson and Tejay Van Garderen and got some time on the peloton with the support of teammates Robinson Chalapud and Juan Pablo Suarez.
During Stage 3, which took racers into Steamboat Springs, the team had a low-key day, conserving energy in the main group and avoiding the number of crashes that marked the day.
The Colombian riders admit that getting a foot into the highest ranks of professional cycling wasn’t easy. However, as the team began garnering some good results in past seasons, both their peers and the media began to take notice.
“At first it was difficult to be part of the game and be accepted, but through the good results in the last year, we’ve had some good races,” said Atapuma. “Now we’re respected with the other teams and can play a part in the race. We feel this team has become pretty big and is well directed by team manager Claudio Corti. It’s managed to make itself known all over the world, and we’re getting better known in the media.”
For Atapuma, he admits that racing on the international stage (besides Europe, the team also rode in the Amgen Tour of California and some members competed in the Olympics), is a dream come true.
The small-statured climber hails from Narino, a southern region of Colombia only an hour from the border of Ecuador.
His parents are farmers, and he was born the youngest in a family of nine – not generally a recipe for the making of a world-class cyclist. However, in a country where road cycling is immensely popular both as a professional and recreational sport, Atapuma grew up with dreams of being a bike racer. He began racing bikes at the age of 10, and quickly became noticed in some junior competitions. He went pro at age 20 and jumped at the chance to race internationally when Team Colombia formed.
“It was always a dream for me to become a professional racer and race in Europe,” he said. “This way I can really enjoy every race I take in and I try to give my best every time I go out. I’ve been fighting for this all the way, so it is very good to be here.”