Thu, Jul 19, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Colombia hails Tour stage winner as national hero


Juan Mauricio Soler was celebrated as a national hero in Colombia after the peasant-born cyclist won a tough Alpine stage in the Tour de France on Tuesday.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe called to congratulated Soler, the latest symbol of the Andean nation's climbing prowess on the Tour.

"You've given a huge gift of happiness to all of your compatriots. We're very happy and proud of you," said Uribe, according to a transcript of the phone conversation provided by his office.

Highlights of Soler's victory were broadcast throughout the day on radio and television, along with images of his family, dressed in traditional woolen ruanas -- like thick ponchos -- crying in joy over his achievement.

Competing in his first Tour for the new Barloworld team, Soler finished the 159km ride from Val d'Isere to Briancon in 4 hours, 14 minutes, 24 seconds, after attacking in the last of three major ascents.

In an e-mail interview, 24-year-old Soler told El Tiempo newspaper he didn't know until later it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who congratulated him on the winner's podium.

"I think he came to see a Frenchman win, he didn't expect a Colombian to do it," Soler said.

Soler's victory was the 13th by a Colombian on the Tour since two-time King of the Mountain Luis Herrera put the country's cycling "beetles" -- for the determination with which they haul themselves up any mountain -- on the world's cycling map by winning the Grenoble-Alpe de Huez stage in 1984.

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