Will a Colombian ever win the Tour de France?

At the 2017 Tour de France, Colombia's Rigoberto Uran surprised fans and riders alike by becoming defending champ Chris Froome's biggest threat. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The Colombian would not be denied.

He had made the elite selection on the final climb on a pivotal mountain stage of the 2017 Tour de France. He emerged upright from the crash on the treacherous descent that took out two other contenders and crippled his derailleur; and he was somehow, impossibly, still in the mix for the small-group sprint despite having only one working gear.

Into the final corner, Astana's Jakob Fuglsang jumped first, but the Colombian calmly closed the gap, churning a huge gear, and then starting his own sprint with less than 200 meters to go. Behind, Sunweb's Warren Barguil closed fast, but the Colombian seemed to find extra strength, lunging for the finish line with a final surge to hold off the challenge and take a photo-finish victory.

Perhaps more important, he would jump seven spots to fourth overall, just 55 seconds behind leader and multiple-time Tour winner Chris Froome, who later would label the Colombian "my biggest threat."

If, before that Tour, fans were asked to predict which Colombian would threaten Froome, the obvious pick would have been three-time podium finisher Nairo Quintana. But Quintana was uncharacteristically missing from the front of the race that day. Instead, Froome's new rival was Rigoberto Uran.

Uran is often overlooked. Despite several second-place finishes in the Giro d'Italia, he'd never finished better than 23rd in the Tour de France. After 13 seasons as a pro, went the thinking, maybe his best seasons were behind him. But Uran would confirm Froome's comment, eventually finishing second overall in Paris, just 54 seconds behind. It's the closest a Colombian has ever come to winning cycling's biggest race.

The 31-year-old is back at the Tour de France (July 7-29) to try again as a part of EF Education First. And he won't be alone. Quintana is there, too, with four other Colombians, including Team Sky's Egan Bernal -- the country's most promising young talent and field sprinter Fernando Gaviria, who won the Tour's opening stage on Saturday and Colombia's first-ever yellow jersey. Almost 35 years after Colombia's first taste of success at the Tour, and after a long sojourn that saw its teams fold and talent in the pipeline wither, arguably the most bike-mad country in the world will again try to answer the question: Will a Colombian rider ever win the Tour de France?

Of course, said Spaniard Alberto Contador, one of the finest Grand Tour racers in history. "Colombia will win the Tour one day," he said earlier this year to El Tiempo, Colombia's most widely read daily newspaper. "It's an impressive generation [of riders], and the one that is coming is very interesting, with many names to take into account."

What's so striking about Colombia's resurgence is its quality. No nation, not even the sport's traditional powers like France and Belgium and Italy, has achieved as many podium finishes (11) in the three-week Grand Tours the past five years as Colombia. And while Quintana has the most impressive palmares, Uran, Esteban Chaves and Miguel Angel Lopez have also stood on Grand Tour podiums the past three seasons.

Of six Colombians at the Tour, Uran and 28-year-old Quintana are leading their respective EF Education First and Movistar teams. And although the typical Colombian rider is like Quintana, a wiry climber at 5-foot-6, one of the most talented young riders to emerge in the past two years is 5-foot-11 Gaviria, who started his first Tour de France in hopes of matching his Giro debut last year, where he won four stages. He's off to a good start in France, after he finished ahead of world champion Peter Sagan and German Marcel Kittel, second and third respectively, in Stage 1.

Behind them is a pipeline of young, talented riders. Most prominent is Bernal, a phenomenal 21-year-old with six wins already this year, including the recent Tour of California. Bernal has never ridden a Grand Tour, but his climbing prowess was too strong a lure for Team Sky to resist, so he is riding in support of Froome. Uran has his own up-and-coming young colleague in 22-year-old Daniel Martinez, who finished third at the Tour of California and got his first Tour de France start.

Bernal and Martinez are the race's youngest and third-youngest entrants, respectively, and fashionable picks to contend for the white jersey of the Tour's best young rider. "Dani needs experience over three weeks [of racing]," Uran said through an interpreter. "But the most important thing is to be a good rider, and Dani is a good rider. It's just a question of time."

But they also represent the gusher of talent coming out of Colombia right now -- a gusher that, if it can be sustained, could finally transform Colombia from the most successful cycling nation in the Western Hemisphere to the most successful in the world.

Colombia is neither particularly large nor small in population (49.5 million) and landmass. And before the 1980s, it had little international cycling pedigree. But it currently sits sixth in the sport's national ranking -- behind only Great Britain and four of the traditional cycling powers: Italy, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

It has the same number of WorldTour riders (17) as the United States (population 300 million), but the U.S., also once a rising nation in the sport, now sits a distant 20th in the UCI standings, hasn't won a Tour stage since 2011, and has no clear overall contender now or in the immediate future.

So what makes Colombia so good?

Start with geography. Colombians grow up riding steep terrain -- and because their top cyclists tend to be smaller and lighter, this gives them a theoretical advantage in the mountains against larger European riders. The country's Andean mountain range holds some of the longest and hardest climbs in the world, like the famed Alto de Letras, which climbs more than 10,000 feet over 52 miles. "Cycling takes these horrible climbs and inverts that and turns those into monuments of cycling," says Matt Rendell, author of the only English-language history of Colombian cycling, "Kings of the Mountains" and a forthcoming sequel.

The geography also plays a role in their unique physiology. Cycling relies significantly on the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. More red cells equals more oxygen, which leads to increased energy to the muscles and results in faster riding. Living at altitude also forces the body to produce more red cells to compensate for the decreased oxygen.

Martinez lives on the outskirts of Bogota, at 8,500 feet above sea level. "That's a big advantage for us," Martinez says through an interpreter. Chaves is also from Bogota. Uran's hometown of Urrao is at 6,000 feet, and rural La Concepcion, Quintana's childhood home, sits at more than 9,000 feet high in the Boyaca department. But it's not as simple as just moving somewhere high.

"You can't just take some random climber from Italy and send them to Colombia and it'll work," says Jonathan Vaughters, Uran's EF Education First team general manager. Colombians are altitude natives, genetically adapted for low-oxygen environments, says Vaughters, "so when they go home, their red blood cell count ramps up, whereas you send someone else and they struggle with altitude."

Finally, there's Colombia's deep domestic cycling culture. The oldest continually run stage race outside of Europe is the Vuelta a Colombia, which dates to 1951. And Colombia's first bike racers are national heroes. Luis "Lucho" Herrera became Colombia's first Tour stage winner in 1984, and Klaus Bellon, a cycling writer who grew up in Bogota, recalled the ecstasy that followed. The radio commentators "were not just crying, but gasping for breath like a child," he says. "It's easy to write off as patriotic hubris, but we lived and died for cycling."

By the late 1980s, Colombia had two teams -- Café de Colombia and Postobon -- and was winning major European races. When Fabio Parra finished third overall in the 1988 Tour, Colombia seemed on the brink of winning the whole thing. Then, with stunning quickness, the country's cycling program collapsed, its two teams folding in the 1990s.

How did Colombian cycling fall so far so fast? Rendell and Bellon point to several wide-ranging culprits in the '80s and early '90s, like the 1989 collapse of the International Coffee Agreement, which cratered prices; violent drug cartels; political instability; and one rooted in Colombia's success in another sport.

In 1990, Colombia qualified for its first football World Cup since 1962. "When I was a kid, [1962] was ancient history," Bellon says. "So when they qualified, it was the biggest news in the country. All of a sudden it was like a switch went off. Instantly, the companies sponsoring cycling teams seized that opportunity and shifted their marketing dollars to football."

There was little left over for international cycling. But if Colombians retreated from the world stage, the domestic sport stayed strong. The Vuelta a Colombia and its rival race, the Clasico RCN, continued to be major national events. At February's Colombia Oro y Paz stage race, fans lined the road eight to 10 deep to glimpse the riders. "Groups of police officers would link arms and create a human chain just so Rigo could get from the finish tent to the team bus," says Alex Howes, an American teammate of Uran's. And tucked into almost every town in Andean departments like Boyaca, Cundinamarca, and Antioquia, the heart of Colombian cycling, were local cycling clubs where boys learned to ride.

Uran and Quintana are only three years apart in age but come from different generations of Colombian cycling. Quintana represents the newer path. Raised in a small farming village near Tunja, he got his first bike at 15 to ride to school (nine miles, one way and a 1,000-foot climb home) and raced for small local teams. In 2009, then 19, he signed with Boyaca es Para Vivirla, sponsored by the regional government. Success there put him into Colombia's most important modern development team, then called Colombia es Pasion. There, Quintana, who can come across as shy and quiet, turned heads by winning the 2010 Tour de l'Avenir, the Tour de France for young riders. The WorldTour contract with Movistar followed.

Uran, by contrast, grew up quickly in one of Colombia's most troubled eras. In 2001, his father, also named Rigoberto, was killed by paramilitaries while on a bike ride. Just 14, young Rigo was man of the house and took over his father's job selling lottery tickets, while continuing to train. To earn more, he turned pro at 16 years old with a regional team; he was so young his mother had to sign his contract. At 19, the same age Quintana signed his first domestic pro deal, Uran was already in Europe, racing for the second-division Italian team Tenax.

"You feel alone and you don't have many friends," Uran says of the isolation that he felt when he arrived in Italy. Everything about the culture was different, "especially the organization, the races." Uran was lucky to meet a family in Brescia that essentially adopted him after he broke a collarbone in a crash, and he credits them with helping him recover and gradually assimilate. He thinks being so young actually helped. "It was possible to adapt to their culture," he says.

These years away from home prepared Uran for his role today. "I've never seen a leader like Uran before," says Vaughters, who credits Uran's emotional intelligence. "He leads by example, shows up ready and wants everyone to execute on the plan. He treats all the guys like he's their best friend. They just end up wanting to work for him. He knows how to lead out of love as opposed to dictatorship." But he's also a prankster.

Howes, the longest-tenured rider on the team, recalled that at February's Oro y Paz Uran convinced a soigneur (staffers who assist with numerous vital, and often thankless, team duties) that he was needed for all sponsor and media events -- not the kind of thing soigneurs usually go to. The soigneur "hates being in the spotlight," Howes says, "but Rigo convinced ESPN Colombia to do an interview and they're grilling the guy with all these tough questions about doping, and he's sweating bullets." Uran looked on until he was unable to hide his delight and revealed the joke, to the soigneur's instant relief. "Stuff like that happens at most races," Howes says. "Rigo's a pretty lighthearted guy."

Right now, Colombia is hot. "Bernal could've gone to any team on the WorldTour," says Vaughters, who adds that he expects to have to fight to keep Martinez when the rider's two-year deal ends after next season. Teams and agents now scour the country for emerging talent; Vaughters won't even discuss which riders he's scouting. "There are a lot of little 'Bernals' coming up," he says, "but as soon as some guy is seen as a hot prospect, all the teams are just right on top of it."

Says Uran: "It's a question of intervals. There was a time when Italy won everything, and then the Spanish. It goes in cycles. There's more investment [in Colombia] in the sport, which means there are higher quality athletes coming through."

But Colombia's continued success is far from assured. Government funding is still essential for the regional development teams and, Rendell points out, until very recently that has relied greatly on political patronage of whoever is in office at the time. Pros like Uran and Quintana try to offset that with personal sponsorship or foundation money, especially for local clubs, but they can't support every team. And few believe that Colombia's cycling federation has the resources or -- more important -- the will, to tackle the persistent doping problem that resulted in eight riders testing positive at the most recent Vuelta a Colombia. If pro teams don't feel confident in Colombians' performances, they'll be more reluctant to sign them.

But for now, Colombia is having a moment of success unlike any in its history. The question is whether -- and when -- a Colombian can win the biggest race in the world.

This year's course presents some unique challenges, like the use of cobblestone roads in Stage 9 from the one-day spring Paris-Roubaix classic. The cobbles, narrow, horrifically bumpy roads as many as 300 years old, are feared because they're notorious for causing crashes. They have been used in past editions, most recently in 2014. But never before has the Tour included so many of them (almost 22 kilometers). And neither Quintana nor Uran have any experience with them in a race situation. There are also only four of the steep mountaintop finishes favored by Colombian climbers.

On paper, the route doesn't favor either man, although Quintana enters as one of the top picks to win. Despite Uran's pedigree, and a stage win and second overall finish at his lone prep race in June, most European sports books don't even have him listed in the top 10 contenders.

It doesn't bother him. "It's more important that [the press] considers you the favorite when there are only four days to go," he says, "not a month and a half before."

Uran may be in the best place he's ever been to make a run at the win: in good shape, on a team that fully believes in him and will invest all its resources to support only his ride for the overall. Although he says he may race another four seasons yet, Uran is not content to wait. Quintana has arguably the strongest team in the race, and the form to match. For both riders, and for Colombia, the time to win a Tour has come.