A team of elite, teenaged Colombians backed by renowned professional cyclist Nairo Quintana and sponsored by the department of Boyaca traveled to the hills of Appalachia to take part in this weekend's River Gorge Omnium, signaling a shift toward international fame for the local bike race.
The team consists of the exact type of top-level racers event director Scott Morris is hoping to attract while still hoping to appeal to local riders who have supported the cycling race for 16 years. The number of competitive cyclists nationwide is dwindling, so the event organizer is looking farther to bring in racers. The trend has led to a boost in competition for the three-day event, which features a time trial, criterium and road race.
"I think we're continuing to be more of a destination race," Morris said. "There are fewer races now. People are willing to travel for the quality race and the quality venue that Chattanooga offers."
Morris got a surprise last week when Atlanta-based rider Marvin Rivera called. The Colombian raced in the omnium previously and said it is a personal favorite. He is the American liaison in charge of logistics for the Columbian team Boyaca Raza de Campeones.
Rivera recommended the race to team coach Lino Casas, who also coached Quintana in his youth. The two thought the event could offer their teenaged riders a competitive field and challenging multi-day event outside of the cycling-obsessed country.
"I raced this the previous year myself. I had a beautiful experience and recommended it to the team," Rivera said. "It's one of my favorites. It's well organized and has a good level [of competition]."
The team did not have high expectations for Saturday's criterium, instead choosing to focus on today's hilly road race. Colombian cyclists are renowned climbers due to their small stature and ability to train year-round at high elevations. The team rides daily at more than 9,000 feet above sea level, increasing their oxygen levels and adapting them to major climbs.
However, they found unexpected success in Saturday's Men's Category 4 race. Two young riders — Santiago Umba and Libardo Mancipe — finished first and second, respectively.
"So far, I am very impressed with the high level we have seen. We have seen very high level," Casas said through a translator prior to the criterium races. "We hope something special is in for the [criterium races], but we are aware that here in the States, they are a big spectacle. We know Americans are very strong in these races."
The criterium race is a crowd favorite because it offers spectators a chance to sit and watch riders compete in laps on a small course, unlike a road race where spectators may only see riders come by once for a short period.
The downtown omnium course is similar to others seen in races throughout the U.S. It is the road race and Friday's time trial atop Raccoon Mountain that distinguish the race and attract riders from beyond the region.
Chicago Women's Elite Cycling brought its team after hearing about the event's beauty and challenging course from one of its riders.
"We heard it was gorgeous and had a good, competitive field," said team co-founder and president Cathy Frampton. "We don't get an opportunity to do road races and time trials like what this course offers up in Chicago."
The omnium will conclude today with the road race. Races will begin between 10 and 11:25 a.m. and conclude atop Raccoon Mountain. The race will be streamed live at USACRITS.tv.