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Robbery, landslides, and adventure at La Vuelta Colombia

In 2009 contributor Gregg Bleakney document La Vuelta Colombia. It was an adventure with plenty of twists and turns.

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Due to the cancelation of last week’s Colombia Tour 2.1, we have a host of features, interviews, photo galleries, and other stories to celebrate Colombian cycling as part of “Colombia Week.” This feature story appeared in the October, 2009 print issue of VeloNews magazine. 

It was 9 p.m. on my third night in Bogotá. For two hours, I sat silently in the waiting room of a police station, a dingy concrete mass wedged between a back alley on 167th street and the main autopista bisecting the city. A middle-aged officer sporting a faded grey uniform and budding Che Guevara mustache summoned me into the claims office.

He pushed a one-page mimeographed form and pen across his desk, saying, “Por Favor.” The top line read: “How were you robbed/assaulted?” Below were three checkboxes: 1) “Gun” 2)“Drugged” and 3) “Other.” The rest of the page was blank with the exception of a small table to list the value of stolen items.

I ticked box 3 and lined out $12,000 worth of camera equipment — enough cash to make the cop raise an eyebrow, but not lift a finger to track down the crooks or my camera gear.

He made me a copy, shuffled the report into a filing cabinet under his desk and waved me out the door, “the problem with you gringos is that you all trust too much — adios!”

It was early 2008, and I was in Colombia for a month to research a story about the country’s rich cycling history. That morning, I had set up an interview with Santiago Botero at the National Cycling Federation’s annual press event. In the foyer of the posh downtown social club, I handed my camera bag over to the club’s uniformed guard — he assured me that it was in my best interest to leave valuables in the security locker. Minutes later, I was penning away as Botero discussed his goal of winning Colombia’s 15-day stage race, La Vuelta Colombia, which he claims to be the world’s toughest bicycle race.

2011 USAPCC Brad Kaminski gallery: A day with Gobernacion
After retiring Santiago Botero directed Colombia’s national team. Photo: Brad Kaminski © VeloNews

In 2009, La Vuelta’s route would crisscross the Andes, from Bogotá to Medellín and back again, passing coffee country and cobbled Spanish colonial towns through the soul of this largely misunderstood place. I excused myself to grab my camera bag and make a few portraits.

“Where’s your bag?” Botero questioned. “I left it with the guard.” His eyes shot quickly around the room; the guard was long gone.

“I’m sorry friend, but this building does not employ security guards.”

After leaving the police station in a taxi that night, my knee-jerk reaction was to give up on Colombia. I peered down at the check boxes on that unapologetic form: “Guns. Drugs. Other.” Perhaps surrendering to Colombia as a green journalist with a copy of an empty police report was not the kind of farewell I wanted to make. I thumbed through my journal until I came across a line scribbled during my interview with Botero.

“To know La Vuelta is to know Colombia.” It became strangely obvious — at the same time that I was being robbed, I had discov- ered the perfect cycling muse — the 59th it- eration of Colombia’s national stage race.

Baggy lycra and empanadas

Fabio Duarte was the star of Cafe Colombia-Colombia es Pasión, having won the under-23 world title in 2008. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

About a year later, I was standing alone in a cold drizzle at 6:00 a.m. in a gas station park- ing lot on the outskirts of Bogotá. This was the meeting point for the Monday morning training ride of team Café Colombia-Colombia es Pasión. My plan was to embed myself within this group for the duration of the Vuelta and shadow their practice sessions in the weeks leading up to the race. A stream of bicycle commuters pedaled along a section of the city’s 215 miles of bicycle paths, the largest in the developing world, designed to connect the urban core to the city slums and demarginalize the city’s poorest residents.

At 8,660 feet, Bogotá is the third-highest major city in the world. It’s bordered on the east side by the Andes, providing the ultimate hilly playground for blood-thickening training rides. A group of 30 stringy development cyclists, clad in baggy Lycra on secondhand road bikes, began to mix through the commuter traffic and form a circle in front of a tricycle selling empanadas. Shortly after, the sponsored team riders started to arrive. They were easy to identify, decked-out with the latest Specialized bikes and bright red Café Colombia-Colombia es Pasión jerseys. Newly crowned world under-23 champion Fabio Duarte led the group out of town.

Duarte grew up on a farm near the base of the day’s first climb, the 9,100-foot Altos de Vino Pass. Good looking and well-spoken, with a unique ability to both climb and sprint, he’d become the country’s next great cycling hope. A mile into the ascent, he had already dropped the entire group, with the exception of his 17-year-old brother, who grimaced behind his back tire for another half mile. I sat next to coach Olivero Cárdenas as he pulled the team car alongside Duarte, now churning at 20mph. Cárdenas began to shout out the window. “Fabio… look ahead, not behind. Ahead are the big champions, the world’s biggest champions. Go with them!”

Duarte immediately hammered out of his saddle. Accelerating to 25mph, he outmaneuvered a stray dog, bunny-hopped a breach in the pavement caused by a small landslide, and passed an ailing cement truck spewing black diesel fumes. Along the roadside, sawmill workers, machine-gun toting soldiers, men tending to broken-down cars, farmers, and cheese vendors dropped whatever they were doing to cheer him along. A kid on a 1980s vintage Huffy look-a-like was surfing behind a public bus with the assistance of a makeshift towline he had tied to the bumper.

He pumped his fist as Duarte blew by, yelling, “Go, champion, go!”

The group gathered at the top of the pass. From villages along the route, they had picked up a handful of new development riders, three local enthusiasts, and two paralympians — one of whom was without hands, but tucked the ensuing downhill at 50mph. They chatted over cups of Agua de Panela, a hot tea made from concentrated cane sugar — the Columbian sports drink. There was no attitude, no rub, and no hierarchy; instead there was a group of smiling people out doing what they loved. It was cycling in its purest form.

Café Colombia-Colombia es Pasión is the brainchild of Ignacio Velez, a businessman from Medellín. His dream is to field a Colombian-only team at the Tour de France within four years. In doing so, Velez hopes to rekindle the national pride and glory that Café Colombia inspired in the mid-1980s, a team that racked up multiple Tour de France stage wins, King of the Mountains jerseys, and an overall Vuelta a España victory from riders Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra.

Since Café Colombia was scuttled in 1990, national heroes like Santiago Botero and Víctor Hugo Peña have come of age, gaining serious street cred through hard-earned grand tour stage victories in Europe. Still, as is the case with most successful Colombian cyclists, they’ve ultimately ended up as hardworking domestiques, jumping from team to team while serving up overall wins for European and American point men. Each has dreamt of an opportunity to shine under the Colombian flag, but with sagging coffee prices and economic unrest caused by guerrilla violence in the mid-90s, sponsorship dollars have not been there to make it happen.

Rider Alejandro Calderon rests atop the Alto de la Linea, a climb of 8,800 feet. Photo: Gregg Bleakney

In the past five years, partially because of billions of dollars of U.S. military aid, violence has decreased markedly throughout Colombia and tourism is on the rise. The Colombian Ministry has recognized the potential economic windfall that tourism will bring and has initiated an aggressive global marketing campaign called Colombia es Pasión.

Their goal: to attract foreign visitors and re-brand the global image of the country, from “cocaine, guns, and kidnappings” to “beautiful national parks and friendly locals. A place where the only risk is wanting to stay.”

The primary branding vehicle for this marketing campaign is their national cycling team, which they also dubbed Colombia es Pasión.

In May of 2009, with coffee prices on the rebound, a No.1 UCI America Tour U-23 ranking and Chris Carmichael scripting their training regimen, Velez decided that it was time to re-visit negotiations with the Colombian Coffee Federation. The coffee farmers bit on his proposal and decided to co-sponsor the team with the Ministry of Tourism. After an 18-year absence from the cycling scene, Café Colombia was in the game once again and the 2009 Vuelta a Colombia would be their first showcase.

Ask any Colombian cycling fan about the Vuelta and their first response will be a non- verbal one — a hand positioned at a 45 degree angle in front of their face meaning “big climb.” This year, stage 3’s beyond-category climb, Alto de La Linea, was the first to truly  validate the big climb hand signal. Geographically, Colombia rests a stone’s throw north of the equator, and unlike the U.S. or Europe, there are no seasons.

To experience a change in climate, Colombians simply change altitude. Ibague, the jump-off point for the climb over Alto de La Linea, is a popular weekend getaway for Bogotános. It rests 4,300 feet lower than Bogotá and offers a spring-like climate 365 days a year.

Ibague’s Plaza de Armas was abuzz with energy on the night of the race’s arrival. I slurped down a fresh-squeezed lemonade and chatted with the juice store owner.

“To see the real Colombia, all you need to do is turn around,” she said, and then offered my drink for free after learning that I was writing about the Vuelta.

I rotated my swivel highchair and took another gander at the Plaza. An old man wearing a straw hat swept the street in front of the church, trucks sputtered, keys jingled in pockets everywhere, and fathers walked with their children perched upon their shoulders. It was such an idyllic community scene I would have had a hard time picking out the thieves who robbed the Colombia es Pasión support car of the team’s petty cash fund a few hours earlier.

What really counts

A rider pauses before stage 2 to pray in the church of Mosquera. Photo: Gregg Bleakney

The climb up Alto de La Linea was Fabio Duarte’s moment to shine. He took his place near the front the peloton during the first 20 miles through the 90-degree heat in a valley extending out of Ibague. As the route topped 8,800 uninterrupted vertical feet into the chilly heights of the Andes, Duarte stomped out the field by over two minutes. Yet, his time in the leader’s jersey was short-lived.

Two days after besting La Linea, he blew a tire in a mellow section of one of the Vuelta’s rare flat stages. Upon learning of his flat, a rival Colombian team attacked. The peloton followed. Coach Olivero sent six teammates back to help make the bridge, but their efforts came up short. Duarte ultimately lost seven minutes to the lead group and Café Colombia’s hopes for landing him atop the podium for this year’s Vuelta were toast.

That afternoon in Cartago, a crowd surrounding the podium chanted Duarte’s name in protest of the unethical attack as the new race leader was awarded his jersey.

The following day, Luis Guillermo Páez, the Colombian Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, invited me to photograph the race from his private car. This stage hosted another brutal beyond-category climb, Alto de Minas, which twisted through coffee farms flanking Colombia’s second city, Medellín.

The first miles ripped along a lowland river through the searing tropical heat at 2,300 feet. Then, the road ratcheted up 8,000 feet in 20 miles. The President of the organizing committee for the Vuelta had granted Luis free rein along the course. He sent two police motorcycle escorts to help move our car through the peloton to a scenic overlook farther up the hill.

After passing the Vuelta’s midway point in Medellín, it became clear that the race wasn’t merely wearing its participants down, it was destroying them. During stage 9, a massive landslide smothered the road after the initial batch of pilot and team cars had passed. The peloton arrived a few minutes later and a state of total chaos ensued.

The cyclists sweated it out for two hours while the General of the Colombian National Police ordered a tractor in to clean up the slide. After a path through the rubble was cleared, race officials asked the cyclists to complete the stage. Botero and Peña led a protest, arguing to annul the stage. After nearly an hour of hand waving debate along a river valley in the middle of nowhere, both sides finally agreed to cancel the stage.

A contingency clause negotiated by the General insisted that team cars drive the cyclists to a meeting point a few clicks away from the day’s finish in Manizales. From there, participants were asked to pedal to the finish line and greet the thousands of fans lining the course into the city. These devotees had been waiting for hours to cheer for their heroes, whether the stage counted or not.

Police clear a landslide from the road that stopped the race. Photo: Gregg Bleakney

Utter exhaustion

The following day, the course plunged 50 miles and 10,500 feet downhill from Alto de Letras Pass, through pothole strewn construction zones and cliffs lined with waterfalls that trickled onto the road.

The first carnage of the downhill was Café Colombia’s Jairo Salas. Near the small town of Mariquita, he slammed head first into the trunk of a chase car that lazily pulled into the route during his 50mph descent. Village rubbernecks shrieked in horror, huddling around Salas as he writhed in pain, fading in and out of consciousness on the concrete sidewalk. The fact that he walked out of the hospital unscathed and under his own power a few hours later, earned him the new nickname of “Superman” from the peloton.

Next, the route climbed to the small village of Guaduas. The mid-afternoon heat had reached 100 degrees. From the Café Colombia team car, I watched in awe as the gruppetto struggled through the stage’s final miles. They passed La Vuelta’s regular roadside attractions — grazing goats and chickens, batches of drying cacao, and schools of children waving Colombian flags.

That afternoon, Duarte dropped out of the Vuelta after coming down with a stomach bug. The next morning, Botero followed suit, listing “utter exhaustion” as his reason for pulling the plug. In the end Venezuelan Jose Rujano, 2005 Giro de Italia King of the Mountains winner, emerged as the overall race champion, only the 3rd foreigner in history to win the Vuelta.

Oddly, amid the hordes surrounding Rujano, Sevilla, and Peña at the finish line, it was Kiwi sprinter Glen Chadwick who captured my attention. He was encircled by fans still thrilled over his winning the rolling 142km penultimate stage into Bogotá the prior afternoon. I asked Chadwick how he was holding up at the starting line on the morning of his victory. Clearly trashed, he bit his lip, starred off into the horizon, and responded, “F__k…”

After the crowd thinned, Chadwick turned to me and asked, “Do you speak Spanish?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Cool mate, because I don’t speak a lick of it. I’ve been answering ‘si’ ever since I got to Colombia and it seems to be making everyone happy.”

Maybe before the Vuelta, a guy like Chadwick would have eluded my interest. Now, the crowd’s delighted response to a foreign participant taking a stage victory from a Colombian was starting to make sense. In an uncanny way, this was exactly the kind of scenario that both Colombians and the Ministry of Tourism have been hoping for: A first-time foreigner traveling through their country on two wheels, experiencing its culture in the most unfiltered way possible. In the end, he didn’t give in to its steep climbs and epic descents, but rather simply, smiled and said, “yes” to it all.