On the wings of a prayer

It was the first of two tough mountain stages in the 2005 Giro d’Italia. Stage 13 through the Dolomites from Mezzocorona to Ortisei was 218 kilometres over 6 major climbs, including the Passo di Sella at 2,224 metres and two more passes over 2,000 metres. The final stretch to Ortisei climbed 800 metres to bring the total for the day to over 4,900 metres of ascending.

An early break of mountain men chanced their legs on this daunting stage and stayed away from a peloton reluctant to chase too hard. Whittled down to four on the final climb, one rider jumped away. Standing up in a spirited acceleration, he opened a small 10 second gap, no more than 100 metres. The chasing riders tried to close it down, but could not bridge.

As the climb continued, this rider continued to accelerate, alternating between a rhythmic seated pace and more standing attacks. The gap widened to 13 seconds, and by the finish it was 23 as the rider raised his arms in triumph to win the stage.

The victorious rider that day was Ivan Parra Pinto, a Colombian with the Selle Italia team, a wild-card entry into the Giro.

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Excellent podium form

It was a magical performance, and Parra was to repeat it the next day on the second tough mountain stage.

Parra again worked in tandem with his Venezuelan teammate, the flyweight Jose Rujano. The latter, like on stage 13, took the mountain points for the climbing classification on stage 14 while Parra rode for the stage win, again as part of a breakaway group.

Stage 14 from Egna to Livigno was 210 kilometres and the three major climbs included the Passo dello Stelvio at 2,758 metres – the Cima Coppi, or highest point, for that year’s Giro. The climb up the Stelvio for the riders was 73 kilometres uphill, a gentle rise of 590 metres over the first 50 kilometres then 1,851 metres in 25 kilometres. That was followed by 950 metres up the Passo di Foscagno before a fast descent and a short final climb before the descent into Livigno.

This time Parra had 1’50″ at the finish. On stage 13 he had bested Juan Manuel Garate and Pietro Caucchioli; this time it was the turn of Tadej Valjavec and Unai Osa to feel the pain caused by the Colombian’s accelerations.

Two stunning victories in two days, and a demonstration of sensational climbing prowess.

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Parra, manager Gianni Savio, and Rujano

For Parra, it seemed to be validation of years of struggle as a professional in Europe to realise his potential. He turned professional in 1998 and big thing were expected of him when he joined ONCE in 2001 for two years. Two more years of a handful of top-ten finishes in mostly Spanish races with Kelme in 2003 and 2004 was less than impressive, and he was unable to follow the strong tradition of Colombian success on that team most recently seen with Santiago Botero.

But with Selle Italia-Colombia, under the flamboyant Italian manager Gianni Savio, Parra took the opportunity as one of two Colombians on the team to thrust himself into the limelight. Savio has taken on numerous Colombian riders over the years and recent successes included two mountain points wins in 2001 and 2003 with Fredy Gonzalez. He has made a name for himself as a manager that makes the most of his riders’ potential.

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Climbing to victory in 2005

Parra was always brimming with potential. He was born in Sogamoso, the town itself at 2,740 metres altitude in the mountains, which has produced a series of fabulous cyclists in a country with abundant cycling talent and a national passion for the sport.

But making the jump to the professional ranks in Europe has historically been a challenge for Colombia. After some brief but memorable appearances in the 1970s, there was some early success with Alfonso Flores winning Le Tour l’Avenir in 1980. But the amateur team invited to the Tour de France in 1983 fared poorly, with 5 of the 10 riders abandoning by stage 11, worn down by flat time trials and cobblestones. Flores lasted until stage 10, before even reaching the mountains.

There were glimpses of the future, however, with Edgar Corredor and Patrocinio Jimenez among the leaders in the Pyrenees. Jimenez took the maillot à pois rouges and wore it for 5 days and took two 3rd places in the Alps. In Paris, he was second in the KOM overall, ahead of Robert Millar but behind a pumped-up Lucien Van Impe. Corredor, nicknamed ‘the little condor’ rode strongly and placed 3rd on the Puy de Dome hillclimb ITT.

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Alfonso Flores racing in Colombia in 1979

The next year, however, saw the arrival of Luis ‘Lucho’ Herrera, who was to become most successful climber from Colombia and who mesmerized observers with pure climbing ability. But Herrera was not the only Colombian to achieve international success in 1984. In the Dauphiné Libéré, Martin Ramirez won ahead of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, despite Hinault’s aggressive riding. On the final road stage, Ramirez reportedly said: “I rode the entire stage on Hinault’s wheel. He responded by braking hard to make me fall, while his team bombarded me with elbows and fists.” But it was not enough to prevent Ramirez’s victory.

Herrera continued this run of success in the 1984 Tour when he was second to Robert Millar at Guzet-Neige in the Pyrenees (after the early stages that did not feature cobblestones). That year the Tour went through the Pyrenees with a whimper, with several major climbs left off the route. Organizers blamed the threat of Basque separatists close to the Spanish border, but some observers suggested that it was to blunt the climbing power of the Colombians.

But the Colombian team found the Tour tough going. “I didn’t believe the Tour could be so difficult,” Herrara was reported saying by Samuel Abt. “Here [compared to Colombia] it’s ten times tougher.”

The team also battled against prejudice in the peloton, with Hinault – perhaps bitter – mocking their supposed amateur status. Others said that they had no team tactics, and even that they drank too much coffee. Herrera showed what the team could achieve, however, when he jumped away from the duel between Hinault and Laurent Fignon on the lower slopes of the climb to win the Alpe d’Huez stage from Fignon by 41 seconds. It was the first Tour stage win by a Colombian.

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Lucho on his way to mountains victory in the 1985 Tour

The door to Europe was now open, with Colombians riding for other professional teams. Ramirez rode for Systeme U in the 1984 Tour, but abandoned after stage 14; Edgar Corredor and Patrocinio Jimenez were on the Teka team; and there were two Colombians on Mondial Moquette-Splendor (although Pablo Wilches left Mondial for Cafe de Colombia for the 1985 Tour). The Tour of 1986 featured two Colombian teams, Herrera’s Cafe de Colombia (with Corredor and Jimenez back in the team) and the Postobon team led by Omar Hernandez. Four European teams had Colombian riders, including Ramirez now with Fagor.

Herrera’s career results were outstanding. He took the KOM classification twice at the Tour de France (1985, famously standing on the podium in St. Etienne still bleeding from a crash, and 1987) as well as three top-ten finishes, and the maglia verde at the Giro in 1989; he won the Vuelta a Espana in 1987, taking the mountains classification as well, and also won the Dauphiné Libéré twice. Four of Herrera’s domestiques, including Edgar Corredor, were from Sogamoso.

More impressive, though, is that Ivan is the younger brother of Fabio Parra (the oldest of three) who raced during the same era as Herrera. Fabio first rode in 1985 for the Colombian team, finishing 4th on stage 11 behind winner Herrera, then the next day winnin a seven-climb monster stage in the Alps just ahead of his team captain. Another 3rd place was gained in the Pyrennes and Fabio finished 8th in the Tour overall, just behind Herrera in 7th.

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Fabio Parra showing the pain in the 1985 Tour

In 1988, however, riding for Spanish team Kelme, Fabio placed 3rd in the Tour (winning one stage), the highest placing of any Colombian rider and ahead of Herrera who was 6th. He also won three Vuelta stages, and the KOM prize at the Tour of Switzerland, between 1985 and 1991.

Other great climbers were to follow. Alvaro Mejia joined Motorola in 1993 and rode to a 4th place in that year’s Tour. It was remarkable debut but the high point of a career that soon flagged. That same year, Oliverio Rincon, with Amaya Seguros, won one of the tough mountain stages and placed 3rd in the KOM contest, having already won a stage in the Vuelta Espana. With Kelme from 1991-92 he won the best young rider competition in the Vuelta and the Dauphiné. In 1995 Rincon placed 5th in the Giro, riding for ONCE, with one stage win.

Finally, to complete Ivan Parra’s family tree, cousin Jaime Jose Gonzalez, ‘Chepe’ Gonzalez, won stage 11 from Gap to Valence in the Tour in 1996, on a Kelme squad with four other Colombians. He also won the maglia verde at the Giro twice, in 1997 and 1999, while riding for Kelme.

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‘Chepe’ claiming a Giro stage win in 1997

It was no wonder that Ivan was born to climb, although he started his career racing mountainbikes, including representing Colombia, before switching to road racing.

Unlike the rocky transfer road taken by teammate Jose Rujano, first to Quickstep for 2006 then to Unibet for this year, Parra’s move to Cofidis for the 2006 season appeared painless. His season started well enough, with victory in the mountains competition in the Tour de Romandie.

But he was unable to repeat his Giro performance of 2005 in the 2006 edition, although his 16th place overall was a credible performance. His best placing was 6th on stage 19, on another tough Dolomites route, 2’06″ behind winner and 2005 adversary Juan Manuel Garate (riding for Quickstep in the colours of the Spanish champion) in a memorable day that saw Jens Voigt refuse to contest the sprint for the win, claiming to have worked less in the breakaway.

Parra did not ride the Dauphiné that year and the Tour de France saw him place 43rd overall and a dismal 74th in the mountains competition. A 17th place on stage 15 to Alpe d’Huez, 2’49″ down on Frank Schleck, showed potential. But 58th the next day to La Toussuire and 117th the day after on stage 17, 52’13″ behind the unstoppable Floyd Landis, was a disappointment – although Parra was in fine company, finishing with Gilberto Simoni and countryman Victor Hugo Pena, the latter riding on Landis’ Phonak team.

Perhaps the Tour was simply too long, the opening flat stages causing havoc with Parra and the other climbers as they have so often done in recent years: too many riders, riding too fast and too eager for stage-win glory, leaving the lightweight climbers to struggle with a frantic rolling pace, cross winds, and high-speed crashes before they even reach the mountains.

Or perhaps Cofidis, with its eyes on its French riders – David Moncoutie and Sylvain Chavanel – was not prepared to give space to a talented climber wanting to ride his own race for at least one mountain stage and not work for the team.

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Parra’s Cofidis team photo

But this year, Parra will ride the Giro with number 91, which suggests that he will be the leader of Cofidis for the race. And currently listed as tipping the scales at 62 kg or 132 lbs for his 1.74 cm (5’8″) height he is in prime shape for mountain climbing.

On a course made for climbers, he will be challenged by the specialists such as Pietro Caucchioli, still with Credit Agricole, or Wim Vanhuffel, the Belgian climber on Predictor-Lotto for whom many have high expectations. Juan Manuel Garate is reportedly absent, but also threatening will be Leonardo Piepoli, although he may be working for his Saunier Duval team leader Gilberto Simoni, who himself will be strong in the mountains as he chases Damiano Cunego for the overall win.

Parra may not be a contender for the maglia rosa but he remains a rider to be wary of in the mountains, in the Giro and later in the Tour. This season may well be his year to eclipse even the high points of 2005, and to challenge for both the maglia verde and the maillot à pois rouges.

In a village nearby Sogamoso is the Virgin of Marcá, the patron saint to local cyclists. “She’s helped me achieve everything I’ve asked of her,” Parra told journalist Matt Rendell. Parra has used his professional winnings to contribute to the upkeep of the basilica of the Virgin in the village.

Like his compatriots before him, Parra has soared bird-like across the mountain tops, his patron saint protecting him, on the wings of a prayer.

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