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Klaus of Cycling Inquisition writes about his encounter with Colombia's original cycling champion, Ramón Hoyos.
As the car speeds through the lush undulating terrain that surrounds the city of Medellin, my heart races with anticipation. I begin to tap my foot nervously, and ask how much longer until we arrive…
“We’re almost there, just a few kilometers more. Since we’re close by, I thought I should give you a word of warning. The old man has a sharp tongue, so I apologize in advance on his behalf. He means nothing by it.”
Through the haze of my excitement, I hear little aside from the fact that we are only a few kilometers away. How could I not be nervous? Like other Colombians, I was taught from an early age that the man I'm about to meet, Ramón Hoyos, is a deity. As Hoyos’ son drives me to his father’s home, I ask a multitude of questions about his father’s character, his temperament, and also about the realities of running the bike shop that bears his father’s name.
My mind, however, keeps going back to Hoyos and his numerous victories during the 1950s. Regarded as Colombia’s first cycling champion, Hoyos’ major wins were largely contained within South America due to a lack of funds from sponsors. In his prime, Hoyos won the Vuelta A Colombia five times, including his victory in 1955, when he won twelve out of its eighteen stages. Hoyos participated in the Olympic Games, and won the gold medal for the road race at the Pan-American games in 1955. He also raced against the likes of Koblet and Coppi.
Sport and physical tenacity aside, the conditions under which these races took place in Colombia were deadly due to the country’s meager infrastructure. Few (if any) roads were paved, and many were mere trails, so landslides and flooding were common. The narrow paths that were ridden by cyclists hung precariously off the sides of mountains throughout the Andes. While racing was difficult and dangerous in Europe at that time, in places like Colombia racing was an act of defiance against common sense. Still, men like Hoyos battled on and Colombia’s future in the sport was better because of it.
Much of what Colombian cyclists would go on to accomplish in subsequent decades was built upon the victories and experiences of riders like Ramón Hoyos. It was perhaps for this reason that fans of the sport so often mentioned his name as I was growing up. In his prime, Hoyos was so highly regarded that Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote Hoyos’ biography. The young cyclist from the town of Marinilla was still in his 20s at the time. Published in nineteen installments by the newspaper El Espectador, the series was wildly popular, and large crowds gathered outside the paper’s printing presses in order to buy the newest episode in his life story. Around the same time, another Colombian artist, painter Fernando Botero (best known for his rotund depictions of the human form), painted a portrait of Hoyos. The painting shows Hoyos as a menacing figure, riding over opponents, as he slaps one dismissively out of his way. Now I was about to meet the man in that painting. Although I seldom elevate others to such a grand status, I admit that Ramón Hoyos is an exception.
As we navigate through the long unpaved driveway that leads up to Hoyos’ home, I see a figure through the trees. There is Ramón Hoyos, 78 years old; standing on the brick porch that surrounds his modest home. As I step out of the car, Hoyos greets me with a stern handshake, and welcomes me into his home by merely nodding in the direction of his front door. His demeanor is serious, but also open and welcoming, an unusual mix that would be tough for anyone other than a paisa (as Colombians from this region are known) to pull off.
As I walk into the living room, I ask about the two bikes that hang on the wall. Hoyos recounts his victory riding one of these bikes at the Panamerican games. His son interjects, “You have all the newspaper clippings about that race. Why don’t you show him?” Hoyos shoots his son a look through thin slits. “The man didn’t come all the way here to look at a bunch of newspaper clippings, right?” I nod my head gently as to not disagree, but I do want to see the clippings. “Fine, fine”, he says.
I sit on the porch, flipping through the massive books that hold clippings about his numerous victories, I ask questions about nearly every headline I read. As I do this, Hoyos paces around the porch slowly, looking out into the mountains. He remembers each and every win with astonishing detail. I’m also amazed to see how serious these events still are to him. They are not mere memories, regardless of what the yellowing color of the newspaper clippings may suggest. Regarding one stage at the Vuelta A Colombia, Hoyos emphatically states, “I was stronger, faster and better. I suffered in ways that the rest of the riders simply were unwilling to.” As he speaks, it becomes clear that Hoyos’ body has aged, but his mind and his competitive spirit remain intact.
Looking through the clippings, which have been lovingly organized by his sons, I find one with the headline “Coppi and Koblet will challenge Hoyos this Saturday”. I ask about the race, and Hoyos explains. The year prior, he had beaten them both at a road race in Colombia. Troubled by the loss, both Koblet and Coppi had extended their stay in South America the following year in order to challenge Hoyos to a rematch at the Clásico El Colombiano race in Medellin. “They came back that year looking for a rematch. Koblet and I set a furious pace. Coppi couldn’t match it and retired. At the finish line, Koblet beat me.” As he says this, Hoyos’ face tightens a bit. It becomes clear that the loss still bothers him, if only a little. Again proof that his competitive instincts remain as sharp as the day that he beat both Coppi and Koblet to the finish line at Pintada, thus prompting the rematch a year later.
Asked how he felt about Coppi, Hoyos tells me that they got along well, and that Il Campionissimo invited him to train for a full summer in Italy. “How do you think you measured up to Coppi as a climber?” I ask. Hoyos thinks for a few seconds. He tells me that Coppi was without a doubt one of the best cyclists in the world, if not the very best. He was kind and generous, and Hoyos remembers many afternoons spent eating grapes from Coppi’s vineyard after long training rides. Suddenly, Hoyos flashes me a devilish grin, and asks me, “Sometimes, when you're ridding with someone, you just know that at that moment—perhaps not always, but at least at that moment—you might be stronger than them. Right?” I quickly realize that Hoyos is not asking me a question, but rather answering mine about how he compared to Coppi as a climber, so I nod in agreement.
I'm obviously aware of the fact that the competitors we are each thinking about at that moment vary wildly in their strength and skill level. As I nod I realize that the decades that separate us, along with Hoyos' many victories and accomplishments, have suddenly vanished. As the afternoon wears on and we continue to talk, we are just two cyclists sitting on a porch remembering some of the great moments we’ve had on the bike.
- For more stories about Colombian cycling, visit: Cycling Inquisition
- For a Colombian take on professional cycling, listen to: Speed Metal Podcast
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