Beeld: Emily Maye
Behind the stripes: Julián Arredondo
“Here, I’m a VIP,” Julián says as he hops into his viper red Jeep Rubicon just outside the arrivals terminal. Right from the gun Julián unbridles himself as a sparkling master of ceremony and makes Colombia an untroubled and welcoming home. The car parked on the curb and he’s convinced a police officer not to give him a ticket. “People envy the life I lead, out in the world and all. Don’t get me wrong. With one or two euro you can buy a round of drinks here. I own an apartment that I couldn’t possibly afford before I turned pro. I worked hard to get here.”
It won’t be the last time he refers to cycling as work. Julián speaks much more rapidly than when he’s in Europe. It sounds like rocks careening off a canyon wall as they randomly hurtle down a ravine; it’s impossible to follow, a fickle sound. It is hard to grasp the differences between the places cycling’s traveling circus usually frequents and Colombia without actually going there. Julián’s accomplishments shine a lot brighter once you realize the path he’s followed.
In town, the roads teem with people. Julián salutes almost everyone as he zigzags between his fellow Bolívareños. The men and women on the square are colourfully dressed, adding zest to an already flamboyant scene. They gather under the large, green crowns of the saman trees and around the red, blue, yellow 4×4 taxis parked in front of the Church of Immaculate Conception. “Let’s have a coffee,” Julián suggests as he leans his Trek against a tree. I point out the statue of the Virgin Mary on one of the hills overlooking the town and ask him if he feels she is keeping him safe when he’s away. “Surveying me, yes,” he laughs. Julián is a man who likes to live a little. “Nothing feels more like home than this square,” he says. “Not even my own apartment. This is where life is, right on this square. It’s where I meet my friends. This is home. That,” and he points far beyond the mountains, “is work.”
I think of the Tour of Spain in 2014 when Julián dropped out after 14 stages, feeling ‘bad and empty’. That night, he told me about Ciudad Bolívar and how he misses the town when he’s in Europe. He admits that his life has changed since signing with Trek-Segafredo.
“Occasionally, I miss the life I had before. It was a lot simpler. I know that my life will never be like that again, but I can still have moments where I dream about owning a little farm with some animals to care for. Just like my dad. Tranquilo.”
And, as if on cue, he arrives. Tulio Arredondo parks his motorbike close to where we are sitting and signals the bartender for a coffee as he walks over to greet us. His initial appearance is young, almost boyish, his crew cut, blue jeans and black T-shirt defy his fifty years, but his weathered, chiselled face speaks otherwise, the years of toiling the land evident in every crease. “Tulio was a racer, too,” Julián comments, as the waiter brings over a large coffee, a Café Americano. Tulio looks like he still races, he is lean, fit and taller than Julián. “El flaco,” chuckles Julián. “The skinny one.”
“I never got to race outside of Antioquia. I had some talent, but there were no opportunities back then. Coffee was my calling.” When Tulio speaks his words are carefully measured. “That’s why I’m so pleased to see Juli do so well. God must have big plans for him.”
Julián turns the Jeep off the main street and up a very steep dirt lane. “My own version of the Mur de Huy,” he smirks. The road leads to his father’s farm, the house is a humble structure built with clay brick held together with large joints of cement and overlooks the town.
Tulio Arredondo is there, as is Manuela, Julián’s girlfriend, who just came off work. He gives her a kiss and asks about her day. Tulio guides us up the steep trails of the coffee plantation. “My brothers and I manage about 36 hectares of coffee and I own another 6 hectares personally,” he says, and he adds that this sets them slightly above the average farm size. “It’s hard work. When we harvest from October to December we have up to 60 men working on the plantations.”
“I was destined to be a cafetero, too,” Julián says quietly. “But bicycling brought me further than my father ever dreamed of going.” Cycling literally lifted Julián above his coffee destiny. “I recently bought terrain where I will start building a house in the next months. It’s up there,” he gestures to the very highest point of the valley where a dirt road is barely visible, snaking upward.
Emily and I tell him we’d like to see it and he glances at his watch. “I think we can make it before it gets dark,” he says, and signals Manuela that we’re leaving and mutters to his father that we’ll meet him later at his place. “The road west is under construction, but we can pass,” he says, although he’s hardly driving slowly. The road turns to gravel at the edge of town and construction workers, finished for the day, amber down both sides of the road. Right before the top the gravel turns to thick, red mud and the Jeep can’t go on. We continue on foot for another 200 metres; our shoes are heavy, covered with the damp red clay. Beneath us lies a new world. The valley runs in a straight-line east, a deep green gorge filled with coffee trees all the way to the edge. Side valleys extend at right angles to the main valley, like emerald curtains pulled open from the main stage.
“Beautiful, right?” Julián breaks the silence. The view is breathtaking. Behind us the sun has crept behind the Chocó flank of the mountains; it’s time to make our way down. We are invited to dinner at Julián’s parents’ home. Julián weaves the car through the crowded streets and parks the car diagonally, with his trademark one wheel resting on the curb. Julián’s mother, Mariella, is an absolute tesoro, a treasure. She’s beaming as she welcomes us in with open arms. She retreats to the kitchen where she’s preparing a sudado, a traditional Colombian stew.
Their home is modest: the sky blue walls of the living room embellish a large flat-screen TV, a print of Jesus Christ curiously hangs next to it, and a few ominous wooden masks roost on an adjacent wall. An open door leads to a bedroom. Tulio invites us to sit at the table. If Julián has the smile of his mother, then he has the eyes of his father. I’m intrigued to see where Julián was raised. At the age of 18 he left his family to take a daring leap into an unknown world. I think of the huge differences in cultures and can understand it must have been hard to leave this all behind. “I didn’t know anything about Italy when I moved there,” Julián says, and he looks his father in the eye. “He is a tough man, but he was crying when I left. I had never seen him cry and I thought that Europe must be a living hell. I thought I would be cold and hungry, that I wouldn’t be welcome. Luckily, I had the people of a small cycling club looking after me and taking me in their home. There was nothing to be worried about, I told my family.”
“Mucha emoción! We are very, very proud of Julián,” Mariella says as she points out the framed pictures in the staircase. “As a boy he dreamed of becoming a professional rider, but of course you never contemplate that it can become reality,” she giggles.
It’s early morning and we have an appointment at Julián’s former cycling school Cicleb, where Julián (and Carlos Betancur of AG2R-La Mondial) first learned to ride a bike. It isn’t until we get there that we really begin to see the size of his fame in the town.
“They have been expecting us,” he chuckles as he parks the car, both wheels surprisingly on the road. A couple of dozen children rush toward us. Cheering, they surround Julián and ask for his signature and a picture. Oscar Herrero, who manages the school, greets us and says he’s honoured to have us visit. “We run everything with gifts: the bikes, the clothing, the helmets, and shoes. Everything is passed along as the kids grow.” The lessons are run on a concrete track. It’s not a typical oval; rather it’s almost square with rounded corners – a track built for safety, not speed. I quickly assess the school is not necessarily there to rear professional bike riders. The main mission, Oscar agrees, is to get kids to ride bikes. It’s clear the bike is not seen as a ticket to fame here, rather it’s a means out of town first of all; most of the kids have barely been outside of Ciudad Bolívar.
It’s time to hug our farewells, also for Julian, who’s leaving for his next race. Despite leaving his beloved homeland, Julián is excited.
“This is my work,” he says, once again, then adds, “I feel responsible towards what God has given me and towards my family, who have supported me all along. I feel great things are about to happen!”
If you liked this story consider ordering Soigneur Cycling Journal 15 where it was first printed.