It was back in the 2002 Tour de France that a Colombian last set the race on fire in the mountains. Santiago Botero showed tremendous form that year and claimed a stage win at Les Deux-Alpes. An unconventional climber, in style and build, Botero used his time-trialling prowess (he won the first long ITT that year) to dominate the stage.
Botero also won a stage at Briançon in 2000 and placed second when the race finished there in 2005. It seemed fitting, therefore, that the next Colombian to claim a mountains stage in the Tour would do so in the town.
It was the prediction of le grimpeur that veteren Colombian climber Ivan Parra that might attack in this Tour. Instead, it was Mauricio Soler, 24 years old and riding for wild-card entry Barloworld in his first Tour, who attacked early on Stage 9, and held his advantage over the mighty Col du Galibier for a fine win.
“I attacked like a loco,” he was reported saying.
For the rider of humble origins (aren’t they all from Colombia), he described the victory as “a dream come true” and was clearly ecstactic in his jubilation on the podium.
But with Michael Rasmussen seemingly unstoppable, the mountain-goat like Dane looked like he would dominate both the maillot jaune and the maillot á pois rouges.
But Soler rode hard in the Pyrenees, showing incredible climbing form and a slight disbelief at riding at the head of the peloton – at one point offering to share his water with a sombre Rasmussen.
Third behind Rasmussen on the Stage 14 finish on Plateau-de-Beille, he struggled on Stage 15. On the fearsome final climb in the Pyrenees, the Col d’Aubisque, on Stage 16, however, Soler’s fifth place – 1’25” behind stage-winner Rasmussen – was enough for him to gain the KOM title outright with 206 points to Rasmussen’s 196. It had been a thrilling duel of pure climbing talent, further enlivened by sensational riding by Alberto Contador.
The next day, though, Rasmussen was ejected from the Tour by his team. Contador took the maillot jaune but remainded under suspicion from Operacion Puerto. Rumours later circulated that Soler himself had failed a drug test, but they proved to be unfounded.
Whatever the Rasmussen story, the mountain stages were over and Soler could justifiably claim the King of the Mountains title for the 2007 Tour de France.
Soler showed great form in his debut Tour, but what of next year and subsequent tests of his mountains prowess?
In 2002, Santiago Botero was unable to repeat his 2000 record, when he took the KOM title, won by Laurent Jalabert in his final Tour, but his exploits were enough for fourth overall (behind convicted doper Raimondas Rumsas).
Question marks remain over Botero, however, throughout his career. Caught with high testosterone early in his career, Botero secured an exemption and escaped sanction through the petitioning of one Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes who argued that the high levels were naturally occuring.
As the doctor on the Kelme team, he was accused by former rider Jesus Manzano (who collapsed in a drug-induced seizure in the 2003 Tour) of overseeing an expansive doping programme for the team, involving a veritable pharamacy of products. Fuentes was also at the centre of the blood doping ring exposed in 2006 by Operacion Puerto, and Botero was on the Phonak team riders to be caught in the investigation.
Botero left Europe to race in Colombia. Despite being cleared to race by the Colombian cycling authorities, serious question marks remain over Botero’s entire career. While he never failed a doping test – aside from his early positive for a high testosterone/epitestosterone ratio – enough circumstantial evidence exists to question many, if not all, of his victories. He may not have doped, but that evidence casts an indelible mark on his record.
In Colombia, though, Botero has had a return to success and he won the 2007 edition of the Vuelta a Colombia. He reportedly won the prologue and two stages, and dominated much of the race.
Hernán Buenahora placed second, having won the event in 2001. A long-time campaigner, Buenahora rode with Gianni Savio’s Selle Italia team (like many other Colombia riders) to some success in the Giro in 2000 and 2001. He also won the Vuelta al Táchira this year, the Venezuelan race on the border area between Venezuela and Colombia (which was won by Jose Rujano in 2004 and 2005 while Rujano was on Selle Italia). Interestingly, Buenahora was suspended from the Vuelta al Táchira in 2006 after failing a doping control.
Soler has proved to be an exciting rider in a long line of great talents from Colombia. Since the 1980s, though, and the reign of Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra, Colombian climbers have shown much promise but their performances have been mercurial.
In recent years, riding for lesser teams, Colombians have given brilliant performances but failed to translate those performances into a lasting or dominating legacy when picked up by major teams. Soler has continued his winning ways from this year’s Tour with other impressive results in Europe, and is unlikely to remain with Barloworld for 2008.
It remains to be seen what Soler will do with his talent. We can only hope that we will see more of his superb climbing efforts in the future.
See also: On the wings of a prayer