The unexpected rise of Rigoberto Uran

LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France -- Rigoberto Uran fields the question practically every day here at the Tour de France: "What do you have to say to the people of Colombia?"

It's a big responsibility. Uran bears it with good humor. Monday, sitting in front of a small thicket of microphones set up on a sidewalk between the Cannondale-Drapac bus and the team's rest-day hotel, he grinned and said, "No pierdan tanto trabajo mirando toda la etapa todos los dias." Translation, "Don't miss too much work watching the whole stage every day."

Sage advice, but unlikely to be followed by a country and a continent awaiting its first Tour champion. So fervent is the interest in Uran back home that Colombian radio reporters somehow obtained the cellphone number of Cannondale-Drapac bus driver Andrea "Biso" Bisogno -- an Italian who speaks Spanish and occasionally serves as Uran's translator -- and have been pelting him with requests.

Beneath the table where Uran sat Monday, he was balanced on his toes, feet pointed and calves flexed, like a dancer. He has a gift for being simultaneously relaxed and vigilant, for taking his work seriously without being self-serious. He is a no-drama guy in a dramatic situation.

Uran is in fourth place, 29 seconds off Chris Froome's overall lead, heading toward the Alps on Wednesday.

He wasn't the Colombian rider most would have picked to be biting at the heels of his former Sky teammate. At 30, Uran's résumé includes a 2012 Olympic silver medal and a second-place finish in the 2013 and 2014 Giro d'Italia, but his star has been eclipsed in recent seasons by Nairo Quintana, 2014 Giro winner and two-time Tour runner-up.

Quintana finished second in this year's Giro, but his Tour campaign appears to be fading on tired legs. Meanwhile, Uran burst onto center stage and into contention in the most unexpected place and time possible.

He survived the treacherous descent of the Mont du Chat in Stage 9 that cost Australia's Richie Porte a broken collarbone and hip. The fact that Uran avoided being taken down by Dan Martin's domino effect wipeout was, in Uran's own words, "a miracle."

Uran's rear derailleur was broken by the glancing blow, and as he came off the mountain with a small group that looked primed to contest a sprint, he was faced with a choice: lose precious seconds with a bike change or opt to have a Mavic neutral support mechanic fix him immovably in one gear.

He gambled on the heavy battleship setting of 53 x 11, hoping he could build up enough momentum at the finish. Uran and France's Warren Barguil of Team Sunweb drag-raced over the line together and Barguil initially raised his hands in celebration, but subsequent finish line technology showed Uran had won.

Before Uran took off on his final effort of the day, "He wasn't yelling and waving his hands around," said Cannondale-Drapac director Charly Wegelius. "He wanted to know whether it was all downhill and flat to the finish, and what line to take in the sprint. He wanted to know the facts. He didn't linger on anything unproductive.

"He's not someone who needs me in his ear telling him what to do."

In an ESPN interview Monday, Uran, known to fans and fellow riders as "Rigo," said simply, "When you get desperate, it's easier to make mistakes." His composure might be inborn, but the native of the mountainous Medellin area -- where he still lives -- has coped with far more stress than any bike race could generate.

His father fell victim to Colombia's internecine violence when Uran was 14, a painful crossroads he consistently and politely declines to describe. The teenager went to work selling lottery tickets to help sustain his mother and sister, but his precocious cycling talent proved to be the real payoff, launching him into the lower tier of the European pro peloton at age 19. He has since competed for teams based in five countries, including Great Britain's Sky, for which he rode from 2011 to 2013.

South American riders, who first made a significant impact in Europe in the late 1980s, have this in common with North Americans: They are on their own culturally to sink or float. Wegelius thinks those years of fending for himself have fed Uran's ability to freelance in a stage like the one he improbably snagged and have enhanced his natural fearlessness.

"The big black bus can be intimidating," Wegelius said of Sky. "[Uran's] time there was a few years ago, but he knows they're not robots."

There are at least six riders within striking distance of Froome. Uran is the strongest in the discipline of the time trial, but he knows he will probably need a margin -- preferably a minute or more -- on Froome to contest the yellow jersey Saturday in Marseille.

To that end, the stage Uran and every other aspirant will point toward is the only remaining summit finish Thursday on the Col d'Izoard. If things evolve as planned, he will have the talented French climber Pierre Rolland at his side until late in the ascent.

Cannondale-Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters said his team will be motivated by not only the prospect of a title but also the quality of the person who would win it.

"He is the best leadership figure as a rider I've ever worked with, ever," Vaughters said. "That includes my riding days. Rigo is a leader by example. He never shows up to a race even a pound overweight. He is always 100 percent dedicated to his training, his diet, his focus. He does everything the best he can always, not just some of the time. That, right there, inspires the guys to raise their level."