Giro team revives Colombia's passion for pedalling
Colombia's cyclists are back competing on the world stage - more than 20 years after they last rode to glory. As an all-Colombian team takes part in the Giro d'Italia, BBC Mundo's Arturo Wallace looks at the country's passion for pedalling.
Spending a Sunday in Bogota would convince anyone that, for Colombians, cycling is quite special.
If the sun is up, hundreds of thousands of people jump onto their bikes to take advantage of the "ciclovia" - the capital's car-free day.
Among the crowd you can always be sure to see more than a few riders wearing the T-shirt of Cafe de Colombia.
The all-Colombian professional cycling team, sponsored by the Colombian coffee growers' federation, enjoyed success between 1985 and 1990.
It was under the team's colours that Luis Herrera won the Vuelta a Espana in 1987, as well as three stages of the Tour de France, in which he was twice crowned "King of the Mountains".
The performances of "Los Escarabajos" (The Beatles), as the Cafe de Colombia riders were affectionately known, helped cement their country's love affair with the sport.
Eventually, the money ran out - to a large extent because of a dramatic drop in the international coffee prices - forcing the team off the European circuit in 1990.
But more than 20 years later, and thanks to the support of the government, another all-Colombian professional team is taking part in one of three Grand Tours.
Team Colombia-Coldeportes has been given a wild card for the 2013 Giro d'Italia, which starts on Saturday.
From the government's perspective, the objective is clear - it wants cycling to do for Colombia what it once did for its coffee beans.
"We want it to promote the country," says Andres Botero, the director of the Administrative Department of Sport, Recreation, Physical Activity and the Use of Free Time, also known as "Coldeportes".
"We want to showcase the changes that Colombia has undergone over the last few years."
That is not to say the Colombia-Coldeportes riders - who earned their invitation to the Giro d'Italia with a strong performance during the 2012 Europe Tour - do not have clear sporting ambitions.
"This year's squad is more balanced, stronger than last year's. We have gained experience," says the team director, Carlo Corti.
"And while I don't feel I can guarantee we have among us a future Tour de France winner, we do have young riders that can still improve and get some great results," he adds.
Mr Corti's stated objective is for his squad to quickly obtain ProTour status, the highest level of registration of the International Cycling Union (UCI).
But, for Mr Botero, it all boils down to one thing - having a Colombian team back in the Tour de France.
"That's next year's goal, that's the dream - to have an all-Colombia team in the world's greatest race," he says.
However, the dream does not seem too far-fetched.
This South American country has never lacked good cyclists, as the silver medal won by Rigoberto Uran in the Men's Road Race at the 2012 Olympic Games in London proved.
And Uran, currently a member of the UK's Team Sky, is just one of several Colombians plying their trade with European outfits.
According to the Colombian Cycling Federation (FCC), some 17,000 people participate in some version of the sport, 3,000 of them at a professional level.
"And among so many riders, it is easy to find good ones," Mr Corti says.
For the president of the FCC, Jorge Gonzalez, the recipe for both success and enthusiasm has been working with young cyclists.
"We have national competitions for cyclists of all ages, and we've done so for more than 30 years," he says.
He points out that Eddy Merckx, Belgium's five-time Tour de France winner, said no other country did youth development in cycling like Colombia.
Mr Gonzalez, meanwhile, believes that seeing an all-Colombian team at the Giro d'Italia could do for new generations what Cafe de Colombia did two decades ago.
"Colombia's biggest radio station has said it will broadcast [the race] live, like they used to do 20-plus years ago," he says.
This suggests that, in the not so distant future, people in the Ciclovia might sporting different T-Shirts - those of Colombia-Coldeportes.