Lawson Craddock (EF Pro Cycling) is not a stranger to the Colombian climate and altitude, having started his season here last year. But the 2020 edition of Tour Colombia 2.1 has taken the elements to an even higher extreme, with all of the stages in the Boyoca region that is hosting this race taking place above 2,500 metres.
"I had high hopes after last year and then got here and you're sleeping on the floor just to get two feet lower to oxygen," he told Cyclingnews on Friday before the start of stage 4 in Paipa. "But it's fantastic being here."
Craddock and EF Pro Cycling are in the driver's seat at the race after dominating the opening team time trial, and they've now got Jonathan Caicedo in the race lead, followed by teammates Daniel Martinez, Sergio Higuita and Tejay van Garderen.
The US-based team has had to defend Caicedo's lead on a series of sprint stages that are not exactly straightforward, as they've started with a series of climbs before long, flat runs to the finish for bunch sprints.
"This race is very challenging, and I think that's mostly due to the altitude," Craddock said. "If you look at the parcours compared to last year, it's probably quite a bit easier, but a day like yesterday was very difficult."
On stage 3, EF Pro Cycling had to keep a breakaway in check that included Oscar Sevilla (Team Medellin), a dangerous climber who should fare well in Friday's summit finish and again during the Queen stage on Sunday. But the team pulled together and kept things in check, bringing the breakaway back before UAE Team Emirates' Sebastian Molano won his second sprint stage of the week.
"We're in kind of a good and bad situation," Craddock said. "We dominated the team time trial so now it's really kind of up to us. That's what it was yesterday. We were on our own and were able to answer the call. It gives us a lot of motivation for today to set our strong guys up for the finish."
Friday's stage is the first real mountain test of the GC riders, with a category 3 climb that tops out just 2.9km from the small and charming town of Santa Rosa de Viterbo.
"With today's finishing climb, we'll probably see a Colombian showdown," Craddock said. "It's one of the harder stages this week."
Three of those Colombians are currently racing for EF Pro Cycling, with Martinez, Higuita and Rigoberto Uran all motivated to do well in their home tour. Uran lost a chunk of time in the opening effort on Tuesday, but he's still in the mix for a potential stage win.
"Clearly these guys are just incredibly strong," Craddock said. "Between Dani [Martinez], Sergio [Higuita], Tejay [van Garderen] and Caicedo in the time trial, I mean those guys just absolutely drove it, and we saw the end result there.
"I think the team really did their homework coming into this race," he said. "It's going to be difficult; these other teams aren't going to make it easy for us. But fortunately, we do have a couple of cards to play, and we just have to be smart on how we use our guys and try and get someone on the top step of the final podium."
The plan is to set up their climbers for a top result in today's stage, keep them safe on Saturday's stage, which will likely end up in a sprint, and then set them up again for the final climb on Sunday up Alto del Verjón, which tops out at 3,290 metres [10,794 feet].
"That's a simple way to say it, but it's a lot harder once you get out there and everyone is throwing everything they've got at you," Craddock said. "It's good, though. We have Tejay, who was absolutely incredible yesterday. He threw all of his personal ambitions aside to help the team out, and also Rigo [Uran]. I mean the guy is the people's champion here in Colombia, and he was the first guy to get up there and start doing work yesterday.
"That's pretty incredible for us to see," Craddock continued, "and it just goes to show the great team spirit that we have – all in for one."
For Craddock personally, Colombia has become a favourite way to start the season, even if he ends up sleeping on the floor of his hotel room in Paipa.
"I love to start my season here in Colombia," he said. "It has great food and good weather, and it's a solid block of altitude training to start the season."
The only drawback for the 27-year-old Texan is being separated from his wife and young daughter on Valentine's Day.
"I'm missing the girls on Valentines Day," he said, "but my wife and daughter just flew over to Girona, so I'm looking forward to getting back and seeing them after this race."