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Q&A: Oscar Sevilla discusses Bernal, Sosa, and Colombian cycling’s growth

Spanish cycling veteran discusses the young Colombian stars, the cycling culture in their home country, and more.

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On Sunday, Oscar Sevilla, 42, will start Argentina’s Vuelta San Juan as the defending champion, a title he earned after the race’s original champion, Gonzalo Najar, recorded a positive doping test.

A native of Spain, Sevilla may be best known for his involvement in the 2006 Operacion Puerto scandal, which ensnared a long list of cycling’s top riders. These days, Sevilla lives far from cycling’s public eye, in Medellín, Colombia. He continues to train and race, and says he enjoys cycling today more than he did decades ago.

Sevilla has seen Colombia’s riders advance to the pinnacle of the sport. He has taken on a mentor role for many of the young talents in Colombia like his training partner, Egan Bernal. VeloNews spoke with Sevilla during the Vuelta a Costa Rica about his controversial past and the state of Colombian cycling.

VeloNews: You were attacked and robbed a few months ago on a training ride in Colombia, do you feel safe living and training there? 

Oscar Sevilla: It’s not dangerous. Okay, so this happened to me [Sevilla points to his wrist]. I had left my house one Sunday morning to train, feeling good. I ran into these four guys that were drunk and on drugs. They wanted money from me in order to let me pass and so that’s how it happened. But generally, it’s pretty safe. I have been living in Medellin now for 10 years; I have my [daughters] there. We go out to restaurants, to the parks, out to the movies, nothing bad happens. It has improved a lot. Ultimately, of course, you need to be careful. Like we say in Colombia, “No dar papaya,” in other words, don’t be flashy. If you are, you are giving thieves the motivation to rob or hurt you. Generally though, Medellín is very nice. There is also a lot of respect for cyclists.

VN: How would you describe cycling’s current popularity in Colombia?

OS: I would say it is the reigning sport. Of course, there is football, they have a lot of support from the people and television but the sport that is the most practiced is cycling. The people go to the races and they look for you. Popular artists will invite you to their concerts.

There are people with money and then others living a humble life, but you see cycling everywhere. It’s a beautiful thing to see so many people out riding. Now, we are seeing people pay a lot more attention to style in the sport. Even though the economy is low, cyclists are upgrading their wheels or cassettes. They have money, and those that don’t, live more to the day. I too have learned that you enjoy life much more this way.

 VN: How does cycling’s popularity in Latin America compare to what you see in Europe?

OS: It is very different from Europe, that is something that my wife has changed a lot in me. For example, when I go to Spain I go out with my friends. They do well, with their houses, their cars, we go out to a nice restaurant but they never enjoy it, they always say, “No this is bad for you, or this is horrible,” everything is bad for them. How beautiful it is to always want to do better, but we need to be grateful for what we have, that we are well. If you are always thinking that things are bad, then everything is bad.

If you save and worry so much about what’s to come, problems arrive. Okay, at the same time you can’t go crazy either, but enjoy life. You see that in Colombia, that people enjoy life, they travel, they go out to the gran fondos, and you think how do they do it? They work to live, they don’t spend their time thinking — if I make it to 80 years old I need to have so many millions of dollars, no. For me, Colombia is a joy.

Oscar Sevilla
Photo: Rebecca Reza

VN: You train a lot with the young talent in Colombia, you started riding with Egan Bernal very early. What are your thoughts on Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa?

OS: Sosa is young, he sees Sky and he sees them like he’s signing with Real Madrid for example. It’s not that it’s good or bad. I think he’s a good talent for Sky, if he went with another team and he races well, it would have been too much. Maybe he won’t have the pressure in Sky that he would on another team because they have so many stars, he’s not under pressure to win. Sosa I think is a great talent and very strong.

I know riders with a lot of talent, they have a lot of potential but they lack discipline. They don’t take advantage of what’s in front of them. They think, I’m skinny but they’re still eating bad. It has a lot to do with their mentality. One who has surprised me is Egan (Bernal).

Egan got a really great contract with Sky. He is getting so much money but it doesn’t matter to him. He bought a home for his mother, his father, he’s humble, that’s the way he is. He eats the best things he can eat, why? Because he knows he must take care of his body because it takes care of him. He didn’t have a car so he went and bought a car, but something normal like a Kia, just to get around. He lives in the same place, has the same friends, he does the same thing. He’s only thinking about racing, enjoying everything, and winning.

He pays attention to the little things that, in that moment, you will not notice the difference but you arrive in Europe a few months later ready to race and you will see it. This is where he differs from Nairo [Quintana]. Nairo trains the same way he has his entire life. Nairo never changes a thing. Egan, when he’s training he’s a monster. When we go training, he surprises me for as young as he is, the motivation and focus that he has. The work that he does, the attention he pays to recovery. If he’s tired, he doesn’t train that day. He’s very methodical, and speaks with his coach every day.

I have trained with him now for five years, before anyone knew him, and even back then he impressed me a lot but in the last year and a half? Ooof! I hope he wins the Tour one day! Wow. We have seen really talented and strong riders in the past, but they lack the mentality that is needed or maybe they don’t have the support at home. Bernal is very, very good.

He knows that things can change. When you are winning? It’s beautiful! You win money, people love you, you gain notoriety, the entire world is watching you but when you fall? The world will turn on you so you have to be mentally strong. There are three words to go by — illusion, discipline, and sacrifice. When you’re on top and winning, it’s beautiful, but when you’re down? Everything is the opposite, you don’t want to train, you lose motivation but you must stay focused, continue training and working for what’s to come.

Oscar Sevilla
Photo: Rebecca Reza

VN: It’s been roughly 13 years since Operation Puerto. How do you feel about it now after all this time?

OS: Recalling that time, I suffered many years, emotionally, physically, mentally, everything. We were seen as criminals, not as human beings. It was hard for my mom and dad. It was very hard economically; I lost a lot of money and in the end to win nothing. I’m telling you this because, after everything, I went to Colombia and was much happier. When you destroy your life sometimes you find destiny. I could have stayed living in Spain with my family. I had my house, my family and country, which I never forget, but it was a good idea to go to Colombia.

At times, some people will look at me like I am a robber because of it. I have a few detractors but I stay quiet. I tell the riders you need to work because Operation Puerto stamped me.

VN: What do you tell younger riders when they ask you about Operacion Puerto?

OS: I speak a lot with them; those that know me know I was in the middle of all that. They know I was on Kelme, they know it brought down a lot of big names, and affected us, that it cost us a lot. I try to share what we suffered because of it. Going through all those years made me better. Those who know me well, they see how I work, when I arrive to a new team how I am with my teammates, the relationships that I have … this is a sport that is very hard but also very beautiful.

I like to share my experiences, with my teammates, but also with my rivals and people in general. I tell them during the time that you race, you have to live like a professional cyclist. It’s your time to do what you want with it, whether it’s five, 10, or 20 years, but as long as you are racing, do it professionally.

What I felt in Latin America, when I first arrived was that the mentality was very bad, though it has improved a lot. The riders ate badly, and I would call them on it. Even now, some don’t know how to eat right, nor do they care to know. There is no importance given, nor to recovery either. So it’s changing the mentality, paying attention to these sorts of things to take care of their bodies.

Now in Colombia the young riders dream to go to Europe, always to arrive in Europe. I tell them, educate yourself well, ask questions, and don’t believe in miracles, don’t believe stupid things. People will show up and want to get in and will tell them, “I coached Nairo or Rigo, I trained him so believe me take this,” but they don’t understand anything. No, don’t believe it, the best thing you can do is work hard, train and take care of yourself.

VN: Latin America is also going through its own problems with doping. Have you seen a change in the culture?

OS: The issue of doping overall is improving a lot in these countries — Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Colombia — more change is needed because there has been a lot of corruption. Doping has many levels, but outside of the sport, people don’t know the reality. I support the fight against it but I think the most important thing we need is education.

It’s not that the federations don’t have the money to do the controls, they have money but they steal it. In Colombia they have better controls than other countries in Latin America, the continental teams like us (Medellin), EPM, and GW Shimano are tested often. For example, I have a biological passport from the UCI since 2008 with controls by WADA. On our team we have three who have the passports – Robinson Chalapud, Nicolas Paredes and me, the rest have the federation passport. It’s a different system through Coldeportes that is supervised by the Ministry of Sports.

Things have changed a lot but then what happens? They control these teams but they need to do more. Sometimes composite teams are put together for big events like the Vuelta a Colombia or Clasico RCN. These riders don’t have contracts and are not paid. They come together before the Vuelta, it doesn’t matter to them if they test positive or not, because they don’t make a living in cycling, they don’t care. They don’t know what’s coming; these are the people who are falling, the majority of those who do.