Colombia Cycling School

In Colombia, cycling is much more than a sport: it‘s as Latin American as the Sacred Heart, the condor of the Andes, the panela brown sugar loaf, the carnivals, and melodrama itself. It represents a dream for many young people, a kind of passion that reflects the national soul. Here is a brief portrait of those who wake up every day at dawn to pedal in a quest to become the new stars.

By Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino

Setting: The Velodrome del Salitre.

Sunny weather. A clear, cloudless sky on a Saturday morning in January 2017.

Cast: A large group of young cyclists.

For decades, history has repeated itself, time and time again, as in the ancient myth of the eternal return. In the 1950s, when the Vuelta a Colombia was inaugurated, young novices came from the Cundiboyacense plateau, Antioquia, Caldas, Santander, and Huila. They were children of the radio; their parents and grandparents listened to stories of cyclists’ heroic feats while doing their humble chores as farmers, shopkeepers, pharmacists, messengers, chicken and turkey farmers, cheese makers, tailors, small traders… When they rested over a beer or a game of hopscotch, their favorite subject was the cycling races. Each one had its sharp sports commentator. They loved Efraín Forero, better known as “El Zipa,” and they were willing to do anything for a bicycle, a jersey, and a chance.

In the 1960s, after the appearance of Martín Emilio Cochise Rodríguez, who opened the gate to the old continent and proved that the velodrome, not just the road, could nurture the feats of cyclists, the kids lost some of their innocence. They saw the first champions go on to launch lucrative post-victory businesses, start prestigious brands (many specializing in sports items and cycling), or travel to distant lands to wear their professional jerseys. The following decades brought new zeal and expectations. At one time, the sullen, inexperienced kids were named Fabio Parra, Alfonso Flórez, Luis Herrera, and Nairo Quintana. On the track, they all remember these stories like an inner refrain; they are the fables that nourish them and fill their mornings with yearning.

Will there be a new Cochise here? A Lucho Herrera, a Nairo Quintana? The trainers hope so. They resemble, in a certain way, the mystics who dedicate themselves to awaiting the advent of a new messiah. A bicycle always appears in the imagination of these youth, as do the roads of Europe. Although they may be immersed in the dawn of a South American country, their imagination is far away: in gallant France, in Spain perfumed with tuberoses and olives, in Italy full of chattering voices, on high competition tracks, racing the races of the greats and looking out on huge, exalted crowds. They cling to their dreams of golden trophies, beautiful girls smiling in the stands, and lucrative economic rewards.

The data and numbers on cycling are strong and speak of an outlook that, at least for its governing institutions and organizations, is upbeat and optimistic. According to reports from Coldeportes, cycling is “the biggest billboard or stadium in the world,” with more than 3 billion pesos annually in sponsorships that crystallize into laps, turns, tours, and the classics that run them.

Almost all the trainers and coaches once attempted to become stars in this vital sport themselves, but never quite became the crowned victors. Some accident, an unexpected injury, bad luck, or economic adversity ended up halting their ascents. Sometimes, a young cycling student leads them to experience some uncomfortable, tense moments when they realize that the student doesn’t have a chance in this sport and that, if this truth is not communicated to him, he will lose precious years of his life, which will feed a future of crisis and frustration. It’s not easy to endure these moments, but the masters face them with a sense of obligation.

“We all want to reach Europe. That’s the idea. Of course, becoming a cyclist is a very demanding business. We have a life full of sacrifices, where we stay away from the parties, the alcohol, the all-nighters, the excessive waste of energy, and all those things that lead to dissipation and can undermine the body, the sacred temple of the cyclist,” says Juan Carlos Cadena, a young and talented cyclist.

“To transmit to the young cyclist all of the wisdom and cunning required by this art, you must teach him to listen to the wind. What I want to say is that it’s not simply a problem of legs or a sporting matter: the true cyclist must be clean, a good person and a bearer of the most positive energy. If a person doesn’t have these qualities, I think it will be very difficult for him to achieve his goal,” says Giuseppe Vargas, a young trainer who has recently been leading the way for cyclists ages 11 to 13.

“There should also be something of the psychologist and confessor in the trainer. And of course he must be a great and sensitive observer. Many of the kids who come here with the illusion of becoming great cyclists are solitary, taciturn, and quiet. Some come from complicated family situations. Often their families are wanting; others are unsuccessful youth who are desperately seeking a door out. All of this has to be understand as you observe their objective and merely muscular qualities,” says Vargas.

José and His Disciples

“Mr. Beltrán, what you want, if I understand you correctly, is to write about Colombian cycling and its athletes, but not from the vantage point of those who are already established, like my friends Lucho Herrera and Nairo Quintana, but rather these others —anonymous, unknown, poor, and full of dreams— who wake up daily to pedal like crazy and who you observe with this gesture, which is a mixture of surprise, admiration, and discovery,” began José Parra, a man committed to his passion for cycling, a sport in which he has been immersed for more than thirty years. He assures me that his years show both the light and dark sides of this great discipline.

Born a peasant in Chocontá, Cundinamarca, he has dreamed of bicycles ever since he was a child and recalls that everyone in his household was sure that the most important thing to happen in these lands since Independence was the Vuelta a Colombia, and the most famous character after Bolívar was none other than Lucho Herrera, the gardener from Fusa who became the first to dominate, without question, the roads of Europe.

“I arrived in Bogotá when I was nine years old, not with the intent to study but to become a cyclist. It’s a story that, time after time, is always the same. Young people come from the countryside with a great love for the bicycle, and a desire to compete and swallow the road. My story is like that of a great many people who, since childhood, have loved cycling. Most of us are from the country and only those who know the country well can understand what the bicycle means to us: it’s a means of transportation, a work tool, a glorious instrument for a sport that has brought fame to a couple dozen professionals and, ultimately, it signifies a way out of a life spent with gorse and skinny cows.”

“When I realized that this sport was my destiny, I came back with more energy than before. Thanks to that, I now have two daughters, Jessica and Paola, who are currently professional cyclists with brilliant accomplishments. Jessica has an impressive resume and is a youth world champion,” says José Parra, unable to hide his pride as a trainer and a father.

“In Colombia,” says José, while his face becomes circumspect, “there is a lot of talent but very little help, almost none. If you are not related to someone or a friend of some manager or an already recognized cyclist (these also don’t help much), or if you don’t know an entrepreneur with money, things get complicated and failure begins to lay in wait, and that’s how the dreams of many of these young people are broken. Cyclists need support, because what we do requires equipment, time, and investment. Most of these young people come from quite humble circumstances. But from there come the champions.”