Talented climber lost to cycling
The quiet retirement of Mauricio Soler last month was a poignant reminder of just how dangerous our sport can be.
Lost amidst Tour de France hype, the Colombian climber’s announcement was barely noticed – a sad and lonely end to a professional career that didn’t quite reach the heights that it could have.
2011 was a horrible year for cycling. It was marred by three tragic accidents, the last of which was Soler’s. It occurred just three weeks after his teammate Xavier Tonda was killed in a non-race incident, while two weeks before that Wouter Weylandt died instantly in a terrible crash at the Giro.
Soler survived but his injuries are such that his professional career is over and his quality of life will never be the same.
Soler burst onto the scene during the 2007 Tour de France riding for pro-continental squad Barloworld. The South African sponsored British registered but Italian run team had gained a wildcard entry to the Tour after ProTour team Unibet.com were banned from all ASO managed races because of its non-French internet betting links.
For Soler, a farm boy from a village nestled high in the Andes, to ride the Tour was a dream come true.
“The Tour is going to be a voyage of discovery for me,” he said at the time. “I can still remember when I was a boy and I listened to the race on the radio in Colombia every afternoon. I’ve got to learn a lot but I also hope to show myself so that one day I can be in the thick of the action.”
In fact, he leapt straight into the thick of the action. As soon as the race had done with its flat opening week, Soler stretched his legs, and the gangly figure in the distinctive red and white jersey of Barloworld, was more often than not mixing it with some of the best climbers in the business.
Halfway up the Colombiere on stage seven, the Colombian broke away from the main group and set off in pursuit of Linus Gerdemann who had broken away earlier and established a substantial lead. Over the last eight kilometres of the climb, with gradients fluctuating between seven and ten per cent, Soler averaged 25km/h, gaining a minute on the peloton and ripping three minutes out of Gerdemann’s lead.
He finished fourth on the stage, but there was better to come. On stage nine, A Yaroslav Popovych led breakaway started the Col du Telegraph climb with a 2 minute and 40 second lead over the peloton.
Soler jumped clear of the main field and attacked the climb with gusto. He bridged the gap in double time and just kept on riding. By the time he had reached the summit of the Col du Galibier he had two minutes over the Ukranian. In a little over one hour and twenty five minutes, Soler had climbed for 35 kilometres and ascended 2090 vertical metres.
While Cadel Evans battled manfully behind, attempting to bridge across on the 36 kilometre downhill run to the finish in Briancon, Soler soloed to victory, the radios in his home village of Ramiriqui undoubtedly broadcasting the result to ecstatic family and friends.
A third placing in stage 14 behind Alberto Contador and Michael Rasmussen, and a fifth in stage 16 followed, and the young Colombian claimed the polka-dot jersey before finishing eleventh overall on general classification.
It was a remarkable Tour debut but perhaps not surprising considering his upbringing. Soler’s inspiration to ride was set in 1995, when, as a 12-year-old, he travelled with his family to the nearby town of Duitama to watch the world road race championships, which were being held in the southern hemisphere for the first time. The legendary figures of Indurain and Pantani were in full flight and a wide eyed Soler was mesmerised. His fate was sealed.
It wasn’t long before the youngster had procured his own racing bike and was making short work of the one and only road out of his village – a 20km drop to the valley floor below, which of course became an arduous climb for the return journey. With his home town sitting at a vertigo inducing 7000 feet above sea level, it is little wonder that Soler became so adept in the mountains.
Sadly though, the 2007 Tour remains the highlight of his career. Luck deserted the talented Colombian and a series of crashes and injuries kept him from displaying his very best.
He crashed out of the 2008 Tour and his palmares remained relatively modest until a new lease of life on the Movistar team saw him take his first win for four years on stage two of the 2011 Tour de Suisse.
It had been a long time between drinks for the man they once called El Lancero (The Lancer), but with his body finally right and his confidence blossoming, he began stage six of the Swiss race in second position overall.
With the general classification firmly in his sights, and a position at the Tour de France all but assured, things were looking up for Soler. But it was all about to come crashing down. Mid race he hit the curbing of a footpath at over 70 kilometres per hour and was hurled heavily into a spectator and then a solid fence.
He lay unmoving on the ground, a crumpled, broken mess. A fractured skull, severe lung trauma and a cerebral oedema headed the list of life threatening injuries that he had sustained.
He would never ride again.
Soler’s recuperation is on going. Initially placed in an induced coma by the doctors, and kept in intensive care for three weeks, he was unable to speak upon awakening. Despite talk of serious cognitive impairment, Soler has progressed, albeit slowly.
He regained his speech and increased his movement, although he suffered greatly from fatigue and dizziness. It took six months before it was deemed safe enough for him to return home to Colombia, where he now walks for up to twenty minutes at a time. Small steps on a long path to recovery.
It is a credit to the man that he holds no bitterness towards the sport of cycling. “He’s sad of having left bike racing that way,” says his wife Patricia, “but he is also convinced there’s another way to enjoy the sport. No one could ever hear bad words from him towards this sport. For him, the most important thing is being alive and enjoying life with his son. Not everything was bad, because all these things made him feel love shown by so many people.”
The man who poetically described his Tour stage win as ‘a victory from Heaven’, bravely announced his retirement from the sport on July 17.
We wish him well.