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For Colombia's most beloved cyclist, winning isn't the point

Rigoberto Urán crosses the finish line of stage 12 of the 110th Tour de France, July 13, 2023, in Belleville-en-Beaujolais, France.
Jean Catuffe
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Getty Images
Rigoberto Urán crosses the finish line of stage 12 of the 110th Tour de France, July 13, 2023, in Belleville-en-Beaujolais, France.

GIRARDOT, Colombia — The crowd roared as Rigoberto Urán took the stage last month at Latin America's largest amateur bike event. The Colombian cyclist universally known as "Rigo" started his namesake race, the Giro de Rigo, in 2018. It now draws hordes of cyclists from around the world.

In fact, there were so many riders in this year's Giro de Rigo — more than 5,000 — that once the race began near the central Colombian town of Girardot, it took about 30 minutes for all of the cyclists to move out of the starting gate.

In this cycling-mad nation, Urán is both a superstar athlete and a branding celebrity. Besides his Giro de Rigo, he sells his own brand of cycling gear, called Go Rigo Go! and operates Rigo-themed restaurants. He's a constant presence on TV, endorsing everything from mattresses to mobile phones.

In October, Colombian TV began airing a telenovela — also called "Rigo" — about his rags-to-riches life story. (It is now streaming on Amazon Prime).

"Everyone loves Rigo," says César Betancur, a scriptwriter for the series. "His stardom transcends sports."

Ironically, Urán has achieved all his success despite never winning cycling's biggest races.

Other Colombian cyclists, such as Egan Bernal, Nairo Quintana and Luis Herrera, have triumphed at the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España, which are grueling, three-week races considered the hardest in the world. Urán, by contrast, has won stages in those races — but never overall victory. At the 2012 Olympics road race in London, he was in the lead but faded at the last minute, ending up with the silver medal.

Fans cheer for Urán as he takes the stage at his annual Giro de Rigo cycling event in November.
/ John Otis for NPR
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John Otis for NPR
Fans cheer for Urán as he takes the stage at his annual Giro de Rigo cycling event in November.

In an interview with NPR at his Go Rigo Go! office in the Colombian city of Medellín, Urán says his near-misses are part of his appeal.

"I think lots of people identify with me because they want to win," he says, "but don't quite make it."

Whether he's winning or losing on the bike, Urán savors the experience — marveling at the European countryside, joking with riders in the peloton and serving up humorous anecdotes to journalists.

"Most athletes are stressed out and don't enjoy anything," Urán says. "But riding in the Tour de France is very special. People see me at the tour and I'm smiling."

Urán also stands out because, in an era of scripted, risk-averse celebrity athletes, he sings and dances, constantly makes fun of himself, treats his fans like family by calling them "my sons and daughters," makes generous use of Colombian slang and often lets fly with foul language. That's a far cry from the likes of Tom Brady, Michael Jordan or Roger Federer, all masters of milquetoast in front of the microphone.

In a 2014 appearance on a Colombian talk show, for example, Urán unnerved the host by describing how, during long races, cyclists relieve themselves from their bikes — peeing while pedaling 25 miles an hour.

"Do you know how hard that is?" he asked amid laughs from the audience.

While on a team trip to China, he delighted an audience by busting out his salsa dance moves.

"His spontaneity carries you with him," says Matt Rendell, a British journalist who has written several books on Colombian cycling. "He's irreverent. He swears but in kind of a country way. He pushes the limits."

Urán in his Go Rigo Go! office in Medellin. Go Rigo Go! is a chain of stores selling cycling gear, one of the many businesses set up by Urán as he nears retirement and makes the transition from pro cyclist to entrepreneur.
/ John Otis for NPR
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John Otis for NPR
Urán in his Go Rigo Go! office in Medellin. Go Rigo Go! is a chain of stores selling cycling gear, one of the many businesses set up by Urán as he nears retirement and makes the transition from pro cyclist to entrepreneur.

Andrés Colorado, a university professor in Medellín who lectures on Urán's transition from cycling to business in his sports management course, says that just as young basketball players in the U.S. want to "be like Mike" — Michael Jordan — cyclists identify with Rigo's upbeat personality.

"Rigo is the life of the party," says Colorado.

Urán's lust for life helped him weather a tough childhood.

He grew up in the Andean Mountain town of Urrao where, during the height of Colombia's guerrilla war, his father was killed by paramilitary gunmen who often targeted civilians they suspected of collaborating with rebels.

In the wake of his father's murder, "there was this pall of mourning over the whole town," Rendell says. "And Rigo, somehow or other, came out of that. And that has to be a kind of genius."

At age 14, Urán became his family's breadwinner, selling lottery tickets, recycling refuse and collecting money from passengers on a local bus route. His father had encouraged him to take up cycling and he soon began winning prize money in local races. Eventually, he moved to Europe to ride for some of the top pro teams, including his current squad, EF Education-EasyPost.

He twice finished second at the Giro d'Italia, in 2013 and 2014. In his finest athletic hour, he was runner-up at the 2017 Tour de France, behind four-time Tour winner Chris Froome.

"He is the best leadership figure as a rider I've ever worked with, ever," Urán's team manager, Jonathan Vaughters, told ESPN at the time. "Rigo is a leader by example. He never shows up to a race even a pound overweight. He is always 100% dedicated to his training, his diet, his focus."

Now 36 and in the twilight of his athletic career, Urán is contemplating retiring from competitive cycling after next year's grand tours and the Olympics to focus on his many business ventures. His annual Giro de Rigo allows thousands of riders to rub shoulders with their hero — and promotes the next generation of cyclists.

The  bicycle parking lot at the Giro de Rigo, an annual cycling event organized by Urán, that this year drew more than 5,000 cyclists from 19 different countries.  It is the largest amateur cycling event in Latin America.
/ John Otis for NPR
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John Otis for NPR
The bicycle parking lot at the Giro de Rigo, an annual cycling event organized by Urán, that this year drew more than 5,000 cyclists from 19 different countries. It is the largest amateur cycling event in Latin America.

At this year's Giro de Rigo, held in November near Girardot, Urán was the last rider to start the race. Although he wasn't aiming to win, Urán zipped past nearly all the other riders, who let out cheers when they spotted him.

Among them was John Díaz, a Colombian doctor clad in a blue Giro de Rigo jersey.

"If you ask anyone in Colombia who is the most popular cyclist," he said, "it's Rigo."

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