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He's never won the Tour de France, but he's Colombia's best known cyclist


Athletes who want to be branding superstars usually need to do two things - win championships and avoid doing anything that upsets sponsors. Think Tom Brady, Michael Jordan or Roger Federer, all masters of milquetoast in front of the microphone. But in Colombia, the top athlete-turned-pitchman is a foul-mouthed free spirit who's never won the big one. Reporter John Otis has more.

RIGOBERTO URAN: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The crowd roars as Rigoberto Uran takes the stage at the Giro de Rigo, a massive cycling event that he hosts here in Colombia.

URAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In this cycling-mad nation, Uran, universally known as Rigo, is one of Colombia's top cyclists and salesmen. He sells his own brand of cycling gear called Go Rigo Go! He operates Rigo-themed restaurants, and he's a constant presence on TV, endorsing everything from mattresses to mobile phones.


URAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Ironically, he's done all this while never winning his sport's biggest races. Other Colombians have won the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana. But Uran has fallen just short. He nearly won the Olympic road race in 2012 but instead took the silver medal. Uran tells NPR that his status as perennial bridesmaid is part of his appeal.

URAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I think lots of people identify with me because they want to win but don't quite make it," he says. Whether he's winning or losing, Uran always seems to be savoring the experience.

URAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Most athletes get really stressed and don't enjoy anything," he says. "But to ride in the Tour de France is very special." Uran also stands out because, in an era of scripted, risk-averse celebrity athletes, he's unpredictable. He jokes around and sprinkles his speech with vulgarities.


URAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Here he is on a Colombian talk show, explaining how, during long races, cyclists relieve themselves from their bikes, peeing while pedaling 25 miles an hour. Uran's sense of humor helped him weather a tough childhood. He grew up in an Andean mountain town where, during the height of Colombia's guerrilla war, his father was killed by paramilitary gunmen.

MATT RENDELL: There was this pall of mourning over the whole town.

OTIS: That's Matt Rendell, who has written several books on Colombian cycling.

RENDELL: And Rigo - somehow or other, he came out of that. And that has to be a kind of genius.

OTIS: Though just 14, Uran became his family's breadwinner.


URAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I did everything," Uran says. "I sold lottery tickets. I worked on a bus. But when I began cycling, I was able to help my family even more." Indeed, he began winning prize money in local races. Eventually, he moved to Europe to ride for the top pro cycling teams.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: His finest hour came at the 2017 Tour de France, where he earned a spot on the podium as the race's runner-up. If his improbable story seems made for television, well, it has been.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Spanish).

OTIS: A TV series called "Rigo" is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Now 36, Uran plans to retire from cycling next year to focus on his many business ventures. To promote the next generation of cyclists, he holds his annual Giro de Rigo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: It's a wildly popular race in which amateurs, like Colombian dermatologist Andrei Enciso, get to rub shoulders with their hero.

ANDREI ENCISO: Rigo is that person that - you feel like you are his friend or his family.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: I took part in the latest Giro de Rigo, held last month near the Colombian town of Girardot. It drew 5,000 cyclists. Uran was the last rider to begin the race, but he zipped past nearly everyone.

OK, that was Rigo. And he just passed us here on the highway, going about three times faster than most of us.

He may never win the Tour de France, but the guy can still go. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Girardot, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE SONG, "LA BALLADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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