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Escarabajos Rise Again
Words: Klaus cyclinginquisition.com | Photos: ©Horacio Gil Ochoa
A presidential matter
The phone rang in a nondescript hotel room in Vals-les-Bains, France. Martín Ramírez had just won the 1984 Dauphiné Libéré and Colombian President, Belisario Betancur, was calling to congratulate him. The significance of the call was not lost on the young cyclist. Born into a family of Colombia’s peasant class, Martín Ramírez was suddenly one of the most famous men in Colombia. The country’s obsession with cycling saw his victory in France elevate him to a god-like status. He was a hero to an entire nation, and most of all those who, like him, were from impoverished backgrounds.
Belisario Betancur may have seen this call as a symbolic gesture, the elected president from the upper class reaching out to a rider that Colombia’s impoverished classes suddenly saw as their own leader. But Ramírez, rightfully seeing himself as an equal to Betancur, saw things differently. He saw this as an opportunity to relay a message on behalf of those that he, in a way, represented. After Betancur offered his congratulations, Ramírez voiced his concern.
“Our athletes need constant recognition and support, not solely in their moments of glory.”¹
Martín Ramírez spoke from experience. His win in France was one of the first in a long list of triumphs that Colombian riders would go on to achieve during the 1980s. But this victory, like those others, occurred in spite of the Colombian government, not because of it. Where had the President been when many of Colombia’s greatest riders went hungry during their formative years? Where had the government been when entire families sold off prized possessions in order to buy bicycles for promising young athletes such as Lucho Herrera? More importantly, where had the Colombian government been when riders like Martín Ramírez carefully placed loaded revolvers in their jersey pockets, to protect themselves during lengthy training rides?
Betancur never acknowledged or voiced Ramírez’s concern publicly. But a Presidential Decree, which was released shortly after Ramírez returned home , appears to have been influenced by their conversation that day. Suddenly, Colombia’s obsession with cycling was an official matter and part of the nation’s permanent record.
Belisario Betancur, President of the Colombian Republic
Bogota, 11 June 1984
The national government considers cycling a sport of special significance in Colombia, and in promoting Colombia abroad. Consequently the government, by means of the Colombian Institute of Youth and Sport, and the relative regional sports administrations, shall encourage the practice of cycling, as a recreational activity and in the organization of competitions and sporting events in all their forms, in accordance with the regulations emitted to this effect.
This decree shall take effect from the date of expedition. To be communicated and implemented.²
The effect of that 1984 decree, like that of any such mandate in any country, was certainly questionable when it was first released. But it codified Colombia’s passion for cycling. In a deeply Catholic nation, one with a taste for heroics and martyrdom, no other sport managed to tap into the Colombian need for spectacle like cycling. While the popularity of certain sports has come and gone in Colombia, the love and understanding of cycling has always remained. The escarabajos (the Spanish word for beetle, which the press and fans alike used to describe the tiny but determined Colombian climbers) forever remained in the minds and hearts of Colombian fans.
The pinnacle in Colombia’s triumphs during the 1980s was without a doubt the 1987 Vuelta a España. Luis “Lucho” Herrera won both the general and the mountains classifications in the grand tour. He was second in the points classification, while the Ryalcao-Postobon team (one of two Colombian teams in the race) won the team classification. In the end, nine out of the top twenty-one riders was Colombian, a disproportionately high number for such a small and mostly necessitous country. On paper, it would appear as though 1987 should have been a turning point for Colombian cycling, a gateway into absolute domination, much in the same way that Kenyan athletes have come to dominate long-distance running. But it was not to be.
Lucho Herrera thrills Colombian fans at the Clasica Itagui in 1987
As the 1980s came to a close, sponsorships waned as the Colombian economy suffered. Many Colombians began to turn their attention to football, as the national team’s abilities rose miraculously. Sadly, this happened as talented riders like Alvaro Mejia, Oliverio Rincon and Chepe Gonzalez rose to prominence on the world stage. That they would go on to capture some of the same impressive titles that propelled riders like Fabio Parra and Lucho Herrera into stardom mattered little to a country so enveloped in the extreme violence that blanketed the country throughout the 1990s. What’s more, Colombia’s pure climbers had a hard time adapting to a changing climate in the sport, which largely favored multi-talented all-arounders who could not only climb, but time-trial and occasionally, even sprint. The era in which Colombian riders would flirt with self-immolation while riding through the French Alps had passed.
Luckily, the ability to dream and having a sense of wonder are (in today’s parlance) a renewable resource in the South American country that gave cycling fans so much to cheer for throughout the 1980s. Today, in a far more stable and upbeat Colombia, the passion for cycling comes from a place that is much simpler, perhaps even purer. No longer driven by the need to distract Colombians away from daily violence, today’s interest in the sport appears to be rooted in the aspect of cycling that first captivated the Colombian spirit: the inherent beauty of the climber in the mountains, or a rider’s solo attack against the peloton. That drama, large and small, has always been part of the ongoing narrative in the sport, particularly in places like Colombia where every road turns steeply upward sooner or later.
“There are still opportunities for pure climbers to succeed. I think organizers want more of these riders to excite their races, and I think South America can produce them.”
In 2012 four Colombians are riding at the ProTeam level, with a substantially higher number in the Professional Continental level. This is largely due to the Colombia-Coldeportes team, an all-Colombian outfit managed by Italian Claudio Corti. The team boasts experienced riders such as Victor Hugo Peña (the only Colombian to ever wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France), and Luis Felipe Laverde (winner of two Giro d’Italia stages). Moreover, it features a wealth of promising talent, with an exceptional focus placed on climbing. Fabio Duarte (former U23 World Champion), Jarlinson Pantano (podium at the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir) and Johan Esteban Chaves (winner of the 2011 Tour de l’Avenir) are just some of the riders in the team, which is backed entirely by Colombia’s government. What’s more, state-run athletic programs developed most of those riders from amateur to neo-pro. The decree that Belisario Betancour issued some 28 years ago appears to have paid dividends.
The Colombia-Coldeportes team gives these young riders an opportunity that has not been afforded to Colombian cyclists since the 1980s: to race at a high level along with fellow countrymen. This may seem like a small matter, but it’s not. Many talented Colombian riders were sadly lost in the shuffle as they transitioned into roles as domestiques on international teams. They became parts to a bigger machine that favoured GC contenders and clipped the wings of pure climbers who were recruited as mere assistants in the high mountains. Colombia-Coldeportes represents a unique change for fans of that romantic and almost extinct type of rider: the pure climber. Lucho Herrera agrees with that concept. More importantly, he believes that European race organizers are looking for that type of rider to animate the race once again.
The very system that neglected the grimpeurs is now in need of pure climbers, as racing has become more formulaic and guarded.
But can these climbers excel as they did in the 1980s? The benefits of living and training at altitude are now well known and understood, and GC contenders today are often as slim as only pure climbers were then. But the fighting spirit that seems to inhabit every Colombian rider remains alive and well, and is difficult for others to replicate. Additionally, there’s a hunger in Colombian riders that is both figurative and literal. This was explained to me by Giovanni Jimenez, the first Colombian professional in Europe:
“When a young Colombian rider becomes a professional, it’s not just him who’s earning a salary. Because these riders come from such poor families, it’s actually a whole extended family who benefits financially. He’s riding for many people back home. It’s an unusual aspect of Colombian professionals, particularly when compared to riders from most other countries. It’s part of the tenacity in Colombia’s riders.”
Others, it would appear, agree. Team Movistar, for example, now funds a Professional Continental team in Colombia, in order to scout out South America’s most promising climbing talent.
Whilst things like steel frames, no race radios, plain black shorts and simple jerseys are of a bygone era, one of the most significant features of cycling from the past may very well be here again: the pure climber. More interestingly, it’s the pure Colombian climber that may bring this aspect of the sport back into the foreground, as the escarabajos rise once again. All that’s left now is for the phone to ring in a nondescript hotel room, as the Colombian president congratulates a young rider on his latest victory once more.
1,2 Rendell, Matt, Kings of the Mountains, London; Aurum Press Ltd, 2002
Though short, the Doble a Union race in 1963 is often remembered because of stretches of road that were unbelievably difficult, as a result of winter rainfall.
The unbelievably long climb of Alto de Letras becomes even harder.
The Vuelta a Colombia arrives into Riosucio
Top image: Roberto "Pajarito" Buitrago leads a breakaway group through the town of Anserma, at the Vuelta a Colombia in 1962.
Solo breakaway at the Doble a San Jeronimo race