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Diana Peñuela has broken through cultural barriers on her path to the pro ranks

Colombian rider Diana Peñuela faced cultural bias and sexism during her journey to the professional ranks.

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.”

When Diana Peñuela signed with UnitedHealthcare cycling team in 2016, she was, in a sense, giving the metaphorical middle finger to the people that had told her, ‘No.’

The 34-year old who now rides for Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank had always dreamed of being a professional athlete. And, like many women who aspire to the same, Peñuela also had a university degree and a career outside of sport. It was ultimately a work-related incident, or rather a series of them, that convinced her that not everyone believed in her dream.

“For years, I studied graphic design and I was working at a PR agency,” Peñuela told me. “I was working so hard, and I was young, so they didn’t pay me the correct salary. It was a lot of, ‘Oh this is a great opportunity, this is the best agency in the city, this is your biggest opportunity.’ But, they really supported the men who worked there and also their interests in cycling.”

“I started to ride seriously during that time, said ‘hey I want to go to this race and follow my dream, I feel I’m good at this.’ My boss said, ‘No, this is not possible for women.’ But they supported any of the men who worked there and said things like, ‘Oh, you can go to Europe!’ But to me, they just said ‘no, no, no.'”

diana penuela
Peñuela is entering her second season with Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank. Photo: Courtesy Diana Peñuela

So, Peñuela quit the job and found work doing things more adjacent to cycling — selling sports nutrition, teaching spin classes — as well as competing in the races she’d been discouraged from attending. And, in 2016, when UHC sport director Rachel Hedderman asked Peñuela to ride for the team, Peñuela didn’t waste any time saying ‘I told you so’ to her detractors.

She just packed her bags and moved on.

Cross-training for speed skating

Colombia, I learn from Peñuela, is a nation of inline speed skating fanatics. It is therefore the sport that young children aspire to excel at; unlike the also-popular fútbol, both boys and girls grow up dreaming of becoming professional skaters.

Peñuela trained as an inline speed skater for nearly 20 years. Cycling was always a part of her cross-training, but it wasn’t until she became plagued by knee and ankle injuries that she began to put more miles on the bike. Peñuela grew up in Manizales, a university town nestled in the folds of the cordillera central, where cycling has always been a popular sport; in recent years, mountain biking has eclipsed the scene. The city hosts the punishing La Leyenda del Dorado stage race, and in 2018, the Enduro World Series hosted a stop there, as well.

Needless to say, friends and fellow skaters put Peñuela on a mountain bike, and she hated it.

“I was good at the downhill, but really bad for climbing,” she said. “I was so skinny and so light and all the girls were so big. I was like, ‘how come they can go uphill?’ I started to ride a road bike because they said ‘you need more endurance.’ My first race on a road bike, I won, so I was like, ‘OK, I think this is my place, not on a mountain bike!'”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t as if Peñuela simply skipped from the pro-inline speed skater development track to the pro cyclist one. Opportunities for young speed skaters didn’t just heavily outweigh those for young cyclists, there really weren’t any bike development programs targeted toward girls.

“There are more now, but in the beginning there was nothing,” Peñuela said. “Some cities like Antioquia have really good programs for kids, young girls, so yea, there are some clubs and leagues that the government supports. Before it was only the government, the cities, who would support the girls. Now more companies are interested in us.”

Throughout her late twenties, Peñuela had the persistence and patience to stick with cycling, even though she was often swimming against the current. More frustrating than the lack of opportunities for her was the abundance of them for boys — or at least an acceptance that becoming a pro cyclist was a suitable goal for a male.

“We have talent here, very good girls, but it’s not a profession,” Peñuela said. “Our culture is more…the girls need to be in the house. People still think like that. So the process is really slow. Just like four or five years ago, we started to go and race in Europe, but only like two or three girls.”

 Culture shock

Peñuela is one of the only riders from South America in the women’s peloton. However, the shock of coming from Colombia to Europe to compete wasn’t necessarily related to language, homesickness, or weather. Rather, Peñuela says, racing in Colombia had done very little to prepare her for the realities of life in the pro peloton in Europe.

Initially, Peñuela couldn’t even identify what exactly was wrong.

“It was just really, really, really hard,” she said. “I was in a big team with all these really good girls, and I was like, ‘Oh I’ll learn from them, see what they’re doing,’ but nothing worked for me. The food wasn’t working, training wasn’t working, everything was bad. One day, it’s like, ‘I won’t finish this race because I feel empty so I need to eat more.’ Then the next day I eat more and I feel slow. Nothing was working!”

“For sure, I felt really alone and desperate. What do I do? That’s the hard part for the young girls. My advantage was that I was older. I had more maturity. So it wasn’t like, ‘I need my mom or my home or my boyfriend,’ but I really felt lost without the right information for racing there.”

At 2016’s La Course, Peñuela revels in the boisterous love of Colombian supporters after finishing the race. Photo: Velofocus

Racing in Colombia, Peñuela said, didn’t hold a candle to the challenges of racing in the pro peloton in Europe. Furthermore, what qualified as success at home meant nothing once she was riding in the bunch among WorldTour teams and seasoned veterans.

“The first races for me, I felt, ‘ok I’m really good, I’m really fast,'” she said. “Then after 50k, I was in the last group or I was lost or I never finished. And I was like, ‘c’mon, I was good in Colombia!'”

The discrepancy between being good in Colombia and competing at the highest level in Europe can be traced back to the dearth of opportunities for young female riders in Colombia. Although Peñuela found races to compete in back home, the caliber reflected how Colombian society felt in general about women’s cycling. So, while Peñuela excelled in national competitions where she was riding against women who’d come up in cycling the same way she had — as former skaters with lukewarm encouragement to become pro — she encountered a dramatically different landscape in European racing.

“It’s really different the level that we have and the level we race than the level in Europe,” she said. “We need more contact with those races, the hard races. Normally the races here are 70-80k, it’s nothing in comparison to Europe. I think that’s the slow part of the process.”

They think they can, and they really can

Peñuela’s own process of adapting to racing in Europe took time, and she credits Hedderman — now director at Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank — for sticking with her throughout the past six years. When Hedderman took a job with Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank in 2018, she brought Peñuela with her.

After two challenging years in Europe, Peñuela finally found her stride in 2018, her final season with UHC. She won stages of Tour of the Gila and Joe Martin Stage Race, and made it onto the podium at the Winston Salem Classic. Hedderman, she said, was integral to her success.

“She always made me feel confident, like ‘don’t worry this is a process, this is normal. You are learning,'” she said. “All these things that made me feel like, ‘Ok, if my director says that to me, then maybe there is something good in me.”

Peñuela is bubbling with excitement to be back racing with Tibco in 2021; one, she says, “because I’m really bad at Zwift,” and two, because her 2020 season was cut extremely short. Like everyone, she raced in Belgium at the season openers in early March when the pandemic sent everyone fleeing back home. When she returned to Europe in August, she was only able to race at Strade Bianche and La Course before crashing out during the first stage of the Tour de l’Ardèche.

To hear Peñuela say that she is most excited for worlds in Flanders this year because she loves the Classics — “they’re tough races and I love to suffer” — makes me even more impressed with how far she’s come. Becoming a professional cyclist as a woman is hard enough, what with wage disparity and limited opportunities, but in Colombia, the obstacles include cultural bias and even fewer chances to compete.

Yet Peñuela isn’t hung up on the challenges of the past. In fact, she’s helping to cultivate the future.

“My boyfriend is a speed skating coach, so I train with the girls and boys when they train on the bike,” she said. “All the girls now are turning into cyclists because they feel they have more opportunities. They have a good example in me and they think they can, and they really can.”