Half of the world supplies the raw materials and workers, the other half enjoys the spoils. That’s the global system, and sport is just the most visible example: East Africa contributes distance runners, the Pacific islands supply rugby players, Argentina and Brazil send footballers. And remember Qatar buying an entire Bulgarian weightlifting team? Colombia’s most conspicuous exports, meanwhile, are its cyclists.
In Nairo Quintana, known universally as Nairo in order not to confuse him with another sporting export, the Chicago White Sox pitcher José Quintana, and Fernando Gaviria, Colombia can claim one of the sport’s greatest Grand Tour contenders and most formidable young sprinters. Esteban Chaves and Rigoberto Urán have, between them, conquered the podiums of four Grand Tours. Sergio Luis Henao, Miguel Ángel López and Carlos Betancur have all won WorldTour stage races. Jarlinson Pantano is a Tour de France stage winner. Darwin Atapuma has led the Vuelta a España. Add Manzana Postobón’s 2017 Vuelta wildcard, and Egan Bernal’s status as one of the most coveted 20 year olds in the sport, and the future looks bright too.
The question is, how did Colombian cycling begin, and what sustains it? Certainly not lottery funding or applied science or any useful effort on the part of the government or sporting authorities. In Colombia, at least, cycling starts with the landscape.
The gods of plate tectonics and the demons of erosion fought bitter wars over its emerging form. The resulting terrain, a paradise of biodiversity, is ill-suited to the twin designs of nationhood and industrialisation. Enter Colombia’s racing cyclists: sporting alchemists, athletic engineers of a nation’s soul, they invert the natural order. In their hands, inconvenience is offset by pride and the geology, so disruptive to the state-building project, becomes a compelling symbol of national identity. The races that take place on its slopes are as much culture as sport.
Colombian cycling has always had a paradoxical quality. The 1951 Vuelta a Colombia, the country’s first national stage race, took place amid widespread civil violence. The 1964 Vuelta tiptoed between rebellious rural territories that declared their independence from the nation. In the 1980s, the sky above the Vuelta a Colombia grew dark with the cocaine lords’ helicopters, led by Pablo Escobar, whose brother Roberto had been a champion cyclist and gold medallist in the 1965 Panamerican Games.
If Colombian cycling had a founder, it was the ‘Indomitable Zipa’. Even at a distance of half a century, most Colombians know his real name. Efraím Forero Triviño’s sobriquet was as hard-earned as his race titles. Before the conquistadores, his hometown of Zipaquirá, 48 kilometres north of Bogotá, had been a Chibcha Indian settlement. Each Chibcha chieftain was a ‘Zipa’ — a warrior with a formidable reputation.
He recalls, “When I began racing in 1949, I read about the Tour de France and the mythology attached to the Alps and the Pyrenees, and I though to myself, ‘With a landscape like ours, a Colombian national tour would be something extraordinary.’
“The national paper El Tiempo promised backing if I could prove it was physically possible. We chose the hardest stage of the proposed route, and early one morning in October 1950 I set off from Bogotá. The newspaper man followed in a truck.”
They left the capital and descended into the heat of the River Magdalena valley. Between the towns of Honda and Manizales they faced the western slopes of the Andes’ central cordillera, breached only by a 3,679-metre col known as Letras. For every 180 metres gained in height, the air temperature drops by an average of one degree centigrade. From Honda to Páramo de Letras, an increase in altitude of 3,463 metres, the temperature loss is twenty degrees. Wind chill can easily double that.
“Chilled to the bone, I coasted down into Manizales. The vehicle arrived two and a half hours later. The driver, a local man, told his friends I’d ridden up by bike. They picked me up on their shoulders and paraded me through the town.”
Now they knew it could be done.
Having created the first Vuelta a Colombia in 1951, the Indomitable Zipa went on to win it and start a tradition of champions who reinforced talent with experience abroad that strengthened the tactical base of Colombian cycling. Ramón Hoyos, the winner of five Vueltas a Colombia in the 1950s who was admired by Fausto Coppi, raced in Europe and brought that precious experience home. Years later, Rafael Antonio Niño, who won six Vueltas a Colombia in the 1970s, rode in Europe for Giovanni Battaglin’s Jolly Ceramica and took European race tactics and organisation back to Colombia. By the 1980s, the trickle had become a flood, and today, young riders benefit from the advice of dozens of former elite riders who have competed at the highest possible level.
Indeed, in many Colombian towns and villages, the Tour de France veterans represent the pinnacle of a vast pyramid of international, national, regional and local riders. Long genealogies of riders that can be drawn up on the basis of informal family and community ties.
Take, for example, the town of Sogamoso, perched at 2,740 metres above sea level on a high plateau atop the Eastern chain of the Andes mountains, between the emerald mines and the coalfields. At Colombia’s first Tours de France in the 1980s, Sogamoso provided many of the athletes: Rafael Acevedo (12th in the 1984 Tour de France), Edgar Corredor (fifth in the 1984 Vuelta) and Fabio Parra (third in the 1987 Tour de France) all hail from the town.
But Sogamoso’s cycling community goes back much further. In the 1968 championships of the surrounding department of Boyacá, Epimenio González beat his cousins Ezekiel Pinto González and Humberto Parra González, and their friend Joselín Peña. Ezekiel Pinto is thought to be the first rider from Sogamoso to compete in the Vuelta a Colombia. His brother-in-law Humberto Parra was the second. The newspaper El Tiempo tipped Humberto Parra as a podium contender at the Vuelta a Colombia but, with no finance and a family to support, Humberto Parra had to entrust his sporting dreams to his three sons. The eldest, Fabio, made the podium at the Tour, the middle son, Humberto Jr., was a decent professional, and the youngest, Iván, won two back-to-back mountain stages of the 2005 Giro d’Italia.
Epimenio’s nephew José Jaime González, also know as Chepe, won three Grand Tour stages as well as the Mountains category in the Giro d’Italia. Chepe’s great rival in the 1994 and 1995 Vueltas a Colombia, Álvaro Sierra, is Joselín Peña’s nephew. Sogamoso’s tradition continues with Astana’s current Tour de Suisse champion Miguel Ángel ‘Superman’ López, who was coached through the youth categories by 1980s star Rafael Acevedo.
The high altitude of towns like Sogamoso is clearly relevant in Colombia’s cycling success. Multiple Grand Tour winner Nairo Quintana grew up about 60 kilometres from Sogamoso, at rather more than three thousand metres above sea level.
The towns and villages between the coffee plantations on the central chain of the Colombian Andes lack the extreme altitude of the eastern plateau, but they too are a theatre of dreams. At the northern end, rising from 1,500 metres above sea level, lies Medellín, Latin America’s textile capital in the 1950s. With a precocious, high quality road network as early as the fifties, Medellín has produced not just climbers and sprinters but fine time triallists like Honorio Rúa, a South American hour record holder in the 1950s, Colombia’s first world hour record holder and Grand Tour stage winner Martín Rodríguez, as well as time trial world champion Santiago Botero.
Of course, the metropolis is a magnet for young riders from the surrounding countryside. Marlon Pérez, Junior World Points champion back in 1994, moved to Medellín from the rural village of Támesis. Fernando Gaviria, twice world Omnium champion, moved from La Ceja, known for its flower production; Carlos Betancur, Best Young Rider at the 2013 Giro d’Italia, and Julián Arredondo, King of the Mountains at the 2014 Giro, moved to the city from another agricultural centre, Ciudad Bolívar.
In Colombia, as in Europe, cycling has traditionally been the sport of second-generation peasant-farmers affected by rural population flight to the cities, brought up on the outdoor life with early mornings, long working hours, rude health and physical tenacity, qualities quickly lost after a generation or two in urban families. The urban, pizza-and-Coke generation is no doubt growing in Colombia, but the riders of the current generation know the harsh mentality of the countryside, but are the products of Colombian development, with parents who want their children to flourish in the new Colombia.
Giro and Vuelta podium finisher Esteban Chaves, who grew up in various parts of Bogotá at something over 2.6 kilometres above sea level, describes the generational change in his family, which is probably typical. “My grandfather told my father: ‘What are you doing, riding a bike? You are going to be a carpenter like me. You have to work.’ But my father was born a dreamer and decided, ‘I want my children to have the opportunities that I did not have.’”
The rider who identifies most closely with peasant-farmer culture is Nairo Quintana. The fourth of five siblings born to a family of small farmers and market traders from the Boyacá village of Cómbita, at an altitude of 3,200 metres, had acquired from his parents an iron work ethic, the custom of hard physical labour and the indomitable determination of a father, Luis, who, despite constant pain from a disabled leg damaged in a childhood fall, had bettered the family’s circumstances and sent his three youngest to the best school in the area, the Alejandro De Humboldt Technical Institute in the village of Arcabuco.
One day, for the fun of it, Nairo decided to forego the school bus and cycle the 16.5 kilometres from his home to the institute. The homebound ride included a breathless climb on a heavy mountain bike from Arcabuco, already at 2,575 metres, to the cusp of the Alto de Sote at 3,300 metres. It became a daily routine, perhaps reinforced at school by the discovery of another pupil passionate about cycling: the future professional Cayetano Sarmiento, two years Nairo’s senior.
From the start, racing allowed Nairo to contribute to the family coffers. Despite his obvious talent, Nairo was ignored by the departmental development team Boyacá es para Vivirla (‘Experience Boyacá!’) and, from the age of 16, rode for whichever team offered him the most.
Nairo’s story, and those of his close friend Esteban Chaves and the other cyclists of their generation, seems to show a balance between backwardness and development that is optimal for the production of racing cyclists.
Together with the unrelenting work ethic of the Colombia peasantry — a definable social class that barely exists any more in the developed world — another factor, probably the hardest to define, and possibly also the most important, contributes to the mental resources of Colombia’s cyclists. It is the national variant on Catholic spirituality.
After all, Colombia is a nation of hilltop Madonnas installed by the church on the sites of pre-Columbian mother-and-child icons. By placing finishing lines beside them and sprinting up the mountains, the cyclists paid homage to both strands of their spiritual heritage. A statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe keeps watch over Bogotá much as her more celebrated son Christ the Redeemer guards Rio de Janeiro from his hilltop. In the 1950s the Indomitable Zipa raced up to her vantage point over the city. In the nearby basilica of Monserrate, a statue of the Fallen Lord gazes from above the altar, his contorted face mirroring a cyclist’s pain as he lies in pain on the asphalt or struggles on the steepest stretches of the climb.
At the village of Morcá, a few kilometres from Sogamoso and several hundred metres higher, is the site of a sanctuary where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared on a hillside 300 years ago. The village is a place of pilgrimage for Sogamoso’s cyclists, for whom religious devotion and training rides on the gruelling slopes that lead up to the basilica are often indistinguishable. And each time a Vuelta a Colombia stage ends in the town of Buga just north of Cali, the peloton decamps to the Basilica del Señor de los Milagros to pray before the Lord of Miracles.
Little wonder that, in 1987, Luis Herrera took the trophy of the Vuelta a España to the town of Chiquinquirá to receive the blessing of Colombia’s patron saint, the Virgin of Chiquinquirá. Just as the absence of an intact peasant culture in Europe can make Nairo seem impossible to comprehend, so an idea of the Colombian interpretation of Catholicism, whose sanctification of suffering and blood is plain to see in the national symbol, the Sacred Heart of Christ, is essential to understand the psychic grip cycling has over the nation, and the spiritual resources that drive its cyclists on.
Cycling’s deep cultural and psychic roots meet cutting-edge science and organization in another team which has forged a reputation for blooding talented young Colombians before they reach the WorldTour ranks: Colombia Es Pasión, created in 2006 as part of a project financed by a consortium of trade organisations and intended to improve Colombia’s image. Colombia Es Pasión pioneered much that was new in Colombian cycling: the latest in sports science and psychology, training methods based on the use of power meters, a no-needles policy, internal anti-doping controls and staff brought in from outside the sport, including two more staunch anti-doping activists, Luisa Fernanda Ríos as General Manager and Luis Fernando Saldarriaga as principal coach.
By equipping their protégés with a credible biological passport, these teams helped riders like Sergio Luis Henao, Nairo Quintana (winner of the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir with CEP), Jarlinson Pantano (King of the Mountains at the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir with CEP), Esteban Chaves (winner of the 2011 Tour de l’Avenir with CEP) and Darwin Atapuma progress into the WorldTour.
In the ranks of Colombia Es Pasión’s current manifestation, Manzana-Postobón tradition and tight community networks meet sports science, modern structures and a rare combination of Colombian intelligence, as well as Colombian muscle. The team is keeping the production line rolling: at the Tour of the Algarve in February, 21-year-old Juan Felipe Osorio, training partner of Sergio Luis and Sebastián Henao, won the mountains competition, while Aldemar Reyes, from the Boyacá village of Ramiriquí (like 2007 Tour de France polka dot jersey Mauricio Soler) and coached as a junior by Rafael Acevedo (like Miguel Ángel López), finished 6th in a WorldTour race, the final stage of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya.
To understand Colombia’s cycling success completely, a million other factors would need to be considered, some simple, like Colombia’s rural diet, some almost impossible to account for, like the ambition all Colombians seem to have to show off their country and its many talents in the best possible light. It would take not one book but dozens. But don’t worry: Nairo, Fernando, Esteban, Sergio and Sebastián, Darwin, Jarlinson, Miguel Ángel, Egan and, thanks to Manzana-Postobón’s wildcard for the Vuelta a España in the autumn, Juan Felipe, Aldemar, and an entirely new generation, are writing those books, chapter by chapter.
It’s going to be great reading.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.