In the last 11 months, Rigoberto Urán has pinned numbers onto the back of his…
“A real champion shows their character when their chips are down, and he’s shown throughout this process, even with all the uncertainties, the great character he truly is.”
– Charly Wegelius, head sport director
Crashes are part and parcel of bike racing, most leave riders with some nasty road rash and perhaps the odd fractured bone, but others leave riders facing a tough journey ahead. Last September after stage six of La Vuelta a España, Rigoberto Urán found himself lying in a hospital bed with a tough decision to make: did he have the motivation and commitment inside of himself to attempt a comeback to racing.
The days after the crash when loved ones questioned him if he thought it was time to call it a day on his racing career is indicative of just how serious the crash was. But laid in hospital in intensive care waiting for the lung contusion he was suffering to heal before being able to have surgery on his fractured left clavicle and scapula, he told his family it wasn’t the time to be making the decision on whether to continue his racing career or not.
“When you’re in a hospital and you’re pretty screwed up with injuries of course there are moments when you start to have negative thoughts,” Urán says. “There were moments when my family asked me if I thought it was worth continuing my professional cycling career, but I told them I couldn’t make that kind of decision in a moment like that, when everything around me felt so complicated.”
The hospital Urán attended immediately after the crash diagnosed the multiple fractures to his left clavicle and scapula, it wasn’t until later that evening after having transferred hospital to one in Barcelona that fractured ribs and a contusion to his lung were detected.
“At first when I thought it was just the clavicle and scapula my initial thoughts were, “Ok they’ll be able to operate on me the next day and that’s it,” but then we realised it was the lung as well and how much serious it was than first thought, I ended up being in hospital for 23 days,” Urán explains.
When finally leaving hospital and being able to return to his home country, Colombia, Urán was under no illusion just how much hard work there was ahead of him. The aim was to recover and make it back to his level prior to the crash, but no-one could give him that guarantee. The first five months after the crash saw him putting in hours of hard work every day into rehab and physio and eventually after three months being back on the road riding his bike.
“He was putting so much effort into rehab and was ahead of that recovery curve, but nonetheless he had setbacks every so often or progress slowed down, which is what I meant when I said he didn’t know where the finish line was,” head sport director Charly Wegelius says. “But he approached this as the champion he is, he was totally committed and showed a real desire to get back to racing at the highest level.”
The day before the Tour Colombia 2.1 was due to kick off a local school was invited to do a Q&A with the riders. As Urán stepped up onto the stage a ripple of excitement and whispers swept across his young wide-eyed audience. In Colombia, his fandom stretches from five-year-olds to people well over their eighties. There’s a love and an appreciation for him that in some cases has people teary eyed just to be in his presence and touch him. In front of a room of 100 people a girl, no older than eight, stands up and takes the mic with a precocious confidence and asks, “How did you manage to get better after your crash?”
“If you have a reason to get better, something that you feel really passionate about then it makes it a lot easier,” Urán tells the 100 pairs of attentive little ears. “For me I’m really passionate about cycling and wanted to get better to be able to do it again. What also helps and is so important is family and having their support. Mine have helped me a lot,” he continues.
The next day lining up with his team atop the starting ramp for the team time trial it was the moment where the previous five months of hard work and recovery were put to their first test.
“He took the tough option,” Wegelius states. “For someone with his profile in Colombia I wouldn’t say it was a risk, but in terms of his reputation and who he is over there he could have chosen a much more anonymous race to start back, but he went to the biggest race in Colombia with all his fans and he didn’t know how he was going to perform, that was a brave route to take.”
As the six riders rolled down the start ramp they were all motivated to take the win that day, but the intensity of the effort was a shock to Urán’s system as he lost contact with the group just before the top of the climb, mid-way through the 16,7km stage.
“What he showed on the first day [at the team time trial] was maybe that he lacked a bit of intensity training on the bike, but the days after when we were in mountains, in particular the last stage, he managed to hang out all the way in the front, so that was pretty impressive,” team doctor David Castol explains.
If the TTT was feedback to Urán on where his current level was, the following stages where he regularly squeezed every last drop of energy out of himself to help protect the team’s general classification standings, showed that his ability to recovery and go back out there day after day was looking remarkable for five months of not racing. But entering back into the hustle of the peloton can be a nerve wracking prospect even for the most seasoned of pros such as Urán.
“I was wondering how I was going to feel riding in the peloton again but I feel fine, maybe I felt a bit nervous for a start going into corners on the descents, but on the whole I was just extremely happy to be back out there again,” Urán explains.
After months of rehab and physio, of long solo training rides at his home in Colombia during lockdown, and a team win at the Critérium du Dauphiné, Rigo is ready for the start of the Tour de France. While most riders would be nervous about how the lack of racing and months of uncertainty have affected their performance at the Tour, Rigo has full confidence in the team and his preparation. “To be there with the team also really motivates me, working alongside those guys is something really special, to work hard together,” says the Colombian Tour de France veteran. “We are all together now, waiting for the race to start, but you know me, it’s all about taking it day-by-day, and hoping that we’re going to have a good one.”
His courage and the dogged determination he’s committed to his comeback show the strength of character he possesses and why he’s such a valued member of this team. “For me the whole thing just shows the character he has,” Wegelius says with a huge amount of pride in the team’s star rider. “A real champion shows their character when their chips are down, and he’s shown throughout this process, even with all the uncertainties, the great character he truly is.”