The excitement of European triumphs, the realities of Colombian life during tumultuous times. An interview with Oliverio Rincon (Part 1).

Photo in which I blew the focus: Alps & Andes

Photo in which I blew the focus: Alps & Andes

As riders like Quintana, Uran, and Betancur continue to rise in importance through their performances, the history of Colombian cycling has been referenced endlessly by fans and the press alike. I'll spare you the details, but basically the history as seen today goes more or less like this:

Herrera, Parra  >fast forward>  Quintana, Uran and Betancur

That's pretty much it, in great part because through omission, the story becomes tidier, and works better within the forced narrative of rebirth that is often touted in terms of Colombian cycling. But where does that leave men like Oliverio Rincon, and others from his generation?  Rincon raced in Europe for seven seasons ('91-'98), winning stages in every grand tour, while also being second at the Dauphine, fourth and fifth at the Vuelta a España, along with a fifth spot in the Giro as well.

Rincon, along with men like Henry Cardenas, formed the second wave of Colombian cycling. They benefited greatly from the work of Herrera and Parra, while transitioning into a more modern era of the sport.

Rincon's story, like so many others in Colombia, is a fascinating one. He rose quickly through the ranks of the sport by beating some of the best professionals while he was still an amateur. He enjoyed the highs of the sport, as well as the brutal realities of living in Colombia during a difficult time, and what that could mean to someone with the level of fame that he enjoyed.

Today, his life is a more calm and slow-paced one. After a stint working as a directeur sportif for Team Colombia, Rincon is back home, tending to the business he loves: dairy farming.

Thanks to Oliverio for his time.

How did you first become interested in cycling?
I first became aware of cycling through my older brother. But then it was through my work that I really became involved in cycling. I was a bike messenger for a pharmacy in Bogota. From doing that job, I ended up racing, which was really common for messengers to do. It was a racing category called “turismeros”, which was really for messengers. We raced on city bikes with one gear, the bikes we worked on. The race I did was called the Clasica Nacional de Turismeros. The race still exists today, it’s for beginners, but people use road bikes on it now.

In any case, 450 of us did that race, though some years it was 500 or more. Huge. It was a four-day race, and the winner got a proper road bike, with gears and drop bars. And I won.


And what was the bike you received?
A Colombian one, a Duarte.


A fantastic bike to start with!
It was great, and Duarte usually sponsored races like that, giving as a prize a frame or a full bike, which was great because so many people couldn’t afford a road bike. It was their opportunity to step up to something with gears.


So from that you went on to pursue racing?
Yes, it was a logical progression. I suddenly had a race bike, so I began to train, got onto little teams and that began my path toward putting work aside, and training to race. I was sponsored by little office supply shops, a distillery, and just worked my way up.


And what was the first real team you signed with?
It was Castalia, which was the amateur development team for Postobon [Postobon and Castalia are both soft drink brands owned by the same company].

Vuelta a Colombia, 1989

Vuelta a Colombia, 1989

And with Castalia, as an amateur, you won the Vuelta a Colombia in 1989. An astonishing result.
That year I won all the big U23 races early in the season, and then was able to win the Vuelta a Colombia.


Who was your rival at that race?
Fabio Parra, who was back home racing with Kelme [it’s worth noting that Rincon, as an amateur, beat Parra at his prime. Parra was 2nd at the Vuelta a España that year, and won two stages at the Vuelta a Colombia itself].

The route was front-loaded, with lots of climbing in the early stages. I won the first mountain stage, and also won the uphill time trial between Fusagasuga and San Miguel. Those two wins added up to a four-minute gap over Parra. By the time the flat time trial at the end came, he couldn’t make up the difference. He won the flat time trial, but I was second that day, and I won the overall.

[Another sidenote. The 1989 Vuelta a Colombia was unusual in that it had two stages that didn't count toward the GC. One was considered a prologue, the other a team time trial. The reason for this is that the Postobon team was coming back from the Dauphine, and the Vuelta a Colombia overlapped with that race. So they had two days that didn't count, and the race actually started once Postobon arrived.]


So you beat Parra, and you’re still an amateur. I’m sure some teams took notice.
Yes. Actually, it was during that race that I first made contact with Kelme. The director and team staff were all in Colombia for the race with Parra, and they spoke to me, which lead to me signing with them a year later.  


And that’s when you were able to start racing abroad?
That’s when it really picked up, but while still with Castalia, we raced as the Colombian national team, and I was able to race in the United States. I did two editions of the Coors Classic. Postobon would go as the pro team, and we went as the amateurs. In the Coors Classic, I won the mountains classification, and I remember being second in an uphill time trial. Andy Hampsten beat me on that one.


What was it like for you, as an amateur still, to be racing against established names like Andy Hampsten?
It was amazing for us to be able to even see riders like Hampsten and Alcala in person. And then to be racing against them was great. We were just starting out, and guys like Hampsten were these acclaimed figures in cycling. My contact with riders like that in races like the Coors Classic was limited, but it’s something that was very special to me.

With Kelme, you began racing in Europe full time. How was that transition for you?
It as a dream come true. For me growing up, the thought of racing in Europe was so outlandish, that to be there was amazing. I adapted well to living and racing in Europe.


That’s a topic that comes up every time I interview a Colombian rider, the cultural transition to Europe.
I know for some it was hard, but we were the second wave of riders after Herrera and Parra. So we benefited from that. Sure, the stigma or myth about every crash in the peloton being caused by a Colombia persisted…but overall, I was treated well. And I adapted well to living there. I mean, you have to get used to their food, but I was fine living there.


That's a big change from the days of Herrera, when the entire team would just go to Europe one or maybe two days before the Tour de France. No one lived or stayed there back then. They all came right back.
Right. I was one of the first, if not the first Colombian to spend my whole season living and training there. It was a big change from that first generation that went over there with Café De Colombia. And part of it was the lack of support from Colombia's private sector, which meant that those of us that wanted to race in Europe, did so for European teams. It’s what we had to do. We missed the idea of an all-Colombian, or almost all-Colombian team racing, but mostly for the young kids that were coming up, because we knew what it could mean to them. But my generation did the best it could to keep that flame alive, and to keep the idea of Colombian cycling very much in the forefront. It was, in a sense, a mission of ours. We were aware of our place within that historical context.

With the big wins you had in Europe, it's clear that you had great days on the bike. But what was your hardest day?
There are so many when you race professionally. But there’s one that sticks out in my mind, because it’s one that everyone who was there remembers well. It’s one that if you run into someone who was there, and raced that stage, you simply sit and reminisce about it, because undoubtedly it will be as strongly imprinted in their mind, as it is in mine. It was a stage at the Vuelta a España in 1991, into Andorra. It was horrible.


Was it the weather?
Yes. 240 kilometers long, and even at the start, it was already really cold and pouring rain. As we made it up toward Andorra, it started to snow. We went through this long tunnel in Cadi. It’s 5 kilometers long, and in there, sheltered from the winds, we almost managed to warm up for a bit. But at the other side, it was even colder. Horrible. We were so cold then, that it was hard for anyone in the peloton to keep their bike upright. I had never seen anything like it. Everyone forgot about the stage, about the GC, and we all started holding each other up, forming a chain of sorts, with our hands on the next guy's back, just so we could keep riding and make it to the end. It was more or less a flat run in to Andorra, with some circuits. But they canceled the circuits, and the peloton shattered because of the horrible conditions. The gaps were drastic, like a huge mountain stage instead of one that would have finished in a sprint. We were just trying to survive, honestly.

In 1995, the world championships were held in Duitama, your hometown. That they were in Colombia seems amazing now, and on top of that in your small town. What was that like?
To be there, in my hometown, around my family and friends was amazing. I was part of the technical committee for the championships, so I worked on the course and helped out. But at the same time, the whole thing is bittersweet, because I was unable to train and prepare for the race. I had the worst Vuelta a España that I ever raced ] that year, and spent much of the season after that sick. By the time I arrived in Colombia, I was not in good form. It was heartbreaking.


And yet, an amazing reminder of you and the world championships in Duitama is there permanently. A huge monument was put up and it's modeled after you. It’s your face, and your body. You are the face of cycling in this statue that is a permanent fixture for people in Duitama. Not bad.
Yes, and it as amazing honor. For someone from Duitama to go win the Vuelta a Colombia, to go race and win in Italy and the Tour de France…it was a big deal. And in turn, to have that monument there is a huge honor for me. 

In part two of this interview, I talk to Oliverio about his current life, as well two horrible episodes outside of cycling for which many in Colombia will always remember him. Being kidnapped twice in the course of two months in 2000.


1. As the cyclocross nationals here in the US were cancelled, and then postponed for reasons that may strike people in other countries as humorously American, I saw pictures of a fight that occurred after a stage in Venezuela's Vuelta a Tachira. I'm sure some in the US may likely find this whole ordeal humorous, for the same reason that others found the Austin debacle to be funny. The fight, by the way, happened because a Russian rider pushed a Venezuealan mid-race, causing six riders to crash. This was reported in the Venezuelan newspaper Meridiano. Since the riders involved were Russian and Venezuelan, the humorous possibilities (in a political sense) seem endless.

2. If you want to get a good sense of how active, and what type of a cycling community a city or town has, look at its Craigslist listings for bikes. Some cities are nothing but Spiderman bikes for kids, and motorcycles incorrectly listed as bicycles. Others are recumbents as far as the eye can see. In some cases it's all high end mountain bikes, while others have an unusually high number of titanium road bikes. It's like a petri dish of what cycling is like in that place.