This past December, as his professional team in Colombia lost it’s sponsorship, 28-year-old Juan Pablo Villegas had to make a decision. He could sign with another Colombian team, or he could retire and go back to the tough, but simple life that he’d known as kid in the Colombian countryside: coffee farming.
Considering that Juan Pablo grew up dreaming about being a professional, and that as a boy he’d do hours of hard manual labor in the fields—hauling coffee beans up mountains—in order to get back home in time to watch the Tour de France, the choice he'd make seemed obvious. But instead of taking another contract, he chose to retire. The reason? After having raced as a professional since 2011, he knew that outside the confines of Team 4-72—Colombia, doping is commonplace in Colombia. He knew that in many other teams, he’d be expected to get results in Colombia’s two biggest races, and the only way to do that would be to dope. Villegas never considered that an option, so he calmly decided to go back to farming with a clear conscience after a successful year that saw him win the Tour of Mexico in decisive fashion.
But two weeks into his retirement he got a call from Nate King. King, who raced professionally with Competitive Cyclist in 2012 had befriended Villegas during his extended stays in Medellin, told him about an American team that might be interested in signing him. The thought of racing outside Colombia peaked his interest. With that, he agreed to a contract with SmartStop for 2015. He will race with a team that accomplished a great deal last year, while so many expected very little of them. A perfect match for a rider who, as you’ll no doubt see in this interview, is used to doing things his own way, regardless of how difficult that path may be.
Thanks to Juan Pablo for his time and unbelievable honesty, especially regarding subjects that few (if any) like to talk about. This interview is long, but what you'll find here is perhaps the most honest depiction of professional cycling that I've heard in a long time. Which in turn makes the choices that Juan Pablo has made throughout his life even more impressive.
Where did you grow up, and how were you introduced to cycling?
I’m from the municipality of Pácora, Caldas [population 22,000], in the mountains of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. There, I was introduced to cycling through stories that my father would tell me while we worked together. He would tell me about the glory days of men like Herrera, Parra, and back to Cochise Rodriguez with great detail. I would listen to him, and try to imagine these races, and try to imagine what cycling actually looked like, since I had never seen such a thing in my life.
You mentioned working with your dad. What kind of work were you doing?
As far back as I can trace my ancestry, I come from coffee-farm laborers on both sides of my family. So I started working in the fields when I was seven or eight years old, usually carrying heavy loads of coffee or plantains.
Were you working full-time as a laborer at seven or eight years old?
I would work full days from time to time then. But I didn't really start working full-time until I was eleven. Luckily, I was able to keep up with my studies, and I finished high school. I would work in the day, and study at night. I would read the books on my own, and borrow notebooks from other kids. I took all the tests, did well, and graduated.
What is a day of work in the fields like when you are eleven years old?
Wake up at 4:30am, and walk to the farm where I worked. The walk was long, sometimes close to two hours. Work started at 6:15am, and ended at 5:30pm. You take a break just long enough to eat.
What kind of work did you do?
During coffee harvest, I picked coffee, and carried it to where it was processed. During other times of the year, we cut down weeds, carried firewood and plantains up the mountain and tilled the soil. But the primary job was to carry loads up the mountain.
How heavy was each load, and how long did each trip take?
Trips usually took half an hour uphill. You carry as much as you can, to avoid making more trips. I could carry 70 kilos (154 pounds).
And how do you go from being a laborer in a farm, to seeing cycling for the first time, and wanting to race?
Around 2001, the Tour de France was shown on Colombian television. I finally got to see cycling, and I was mesmerized. It was so different from what I had imagined after hearing my dad’s stories. The uniforms, the bikes, the team cars. I knew that as a laborer in the Colombian mountains I couldn’t be a cyclist, but that didn’t get to me. I didn’t feel bad for myself, and I just decided to be a cyclist in my own way. I had a very inexpensive mountain bike, which was all my father could afford, and I rode that bike around. I pretended to be in races, with the people in the fields that I passed as the fans on the side of the road. If anything broke on that bike, it would take my family a long time to save up to get it fixed, but it became my link to cycling. I did things my own way, regardless of what I saw on TV.
And from dreaming about it, how do you get to actual racing?
I was invited to do a race in a nearby town. I didn’t have the clothing or the right kind of bike, but I was strong, and a gentleman from the town who was a big supporter of the sport recognized that. He asked if I could use his backing, and he began to help me. Eventually I made it to Medellin with his help, which to me felt like the biggest city in the world, the center of the universe. It was unthinkable. I did well in the races there, and I was picked to be in the Orgullo Paisa junior team, with Rigoberto Uran. Suddenly, the world became bigger for me.
And when did your first professional contract come about?
2011, with Colombia Es Pasion, [which became 4-72 Colombia and is currently being renamed Manzana Postobon. For the rest of the interview, Juan Pablo refers to the team as "4-72"]. My teammates that year were Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves, Jarlinson Pantano, and Robinson Chalapud [Sergio Henao, Darwin Atapuma and many others went through that team as well]. We had an amazing amount of talent, it was something special.
4-72, even back then, was known for its tough stance on doping. They devote a big part of their budget to an internal bio passport program, and are outspoken on the matter, which has made them rather unpopular with some people. Was their stance on doping something that attracted you to the team?
Yes. Because even as a young man coming up in the sport, I learned early on that there’s a dark side to the world of sports.
When did you first learn and figure out how common doping was? That's what you're referring to?
Yes. I came into cycling being very physically strong, due to the hard labor I had done in the fields. That helped me at first, just winning through brute force, but then I learned that other things win races. Team tactics, racing smart, training and being focused. But I also saw the dark side of cyling, and that there are two paths one can take. One where an athlete can dope, win some races and make some money for a limited amount of time, while harming his health and being unethical. The other is to continue down the correct path, and to live out the dream that you had as a kid. One where you earn every result, even the bad ones, through hard work, only through the air that goes into your lungs.
I chose that path, and it’s been a tough one at times. I came to realize that although to many people, “sport” stands for health and well being, there's actually this other side that is the exact opposite. People that are willing to harm their bodies for results. And these athletes wake up one day, and have to retire because they are sick. Their health starts to deteriorate because of doping, and to make matters worse, they didn’t get the big contracts and really big wins they thought they’d get. They leave the sport sick and poor.
I have to ask, are you talking about specific cases that you know of, or are you speaking in generalities? Do you know people that this happened to?
Yes, I do. And if you extrapolate that, the cases I know of in Colombia are merely a reflection of what is happening in the whole world. This is not a Colombian problem exclusively. My aim is not to reveal the names of these riders, or to single them out. What I want to do is point out that there’s this almost-invisible force at play. That’s because in many teams, the answer to performance issues is doping. And it’s the athlete that puts his body on the line. It’s the athlete that risks being suspended. So on top of everything, the athlete is also the only one who faces the consequences, while the people who encouraged it, the people in the team who led him there and got him these products walk away like they had nothing to do with it. In that sense, the athlete made the decision, and yet he is also exploited.
You use that word, “exploited”, in the sense that this is bigger than the rider?
Yes. So let’s talk about this in a current and actual context. A team like 4-72, and those who have joined them in their initiative for clean cycling in Colombia [called Por Un Ciclismo Etico, which includes GW-Shimano and Orgullo Antioqueño] are doing things correctly, ethically. They want to race and know that every result is real. But there are others in Colombia, teams, trainers and directors, who have the Vuelta a Colombia and the Clasico RCN as their primary objectives. In those races, the level is supernatural, just crazy, all in very difficult terrain and circumstances. So there’s an unspoken factor in play, which is that if you want to do well in that race, you won’t be able to do it on panela alone [the English equivalent of saying “on bread and water”].
Now I’ll tell you this, things have gotten better at those races in the last two years in terms of testing. But there’s an ingrained reality to that kind of racing, which takes a very long time to root out. And it’s one I saw around me when I started to race, before I joined 4-72 Colombia. I saw it.
You say that things have gotten better in the last two years. But prior to that, what percentage of the peloton would you say was doping at those races?
I can't give you an exact number, but it would have to be very, very high.
But you think things have gotten better?
A bit, yes. Because there have been some positives, and sponsors have put their foot down. That along with testing, and internal controls have made things better. The initiative that 4-72 started, and others joined [GW-Shimano and Orgullo Antioqueño] has helped as well. I can’t give you a percentage of how many people are using now, simply because in the last couple of years, I haven’t done those races, since I was racing abroad with 4-72. I can tell you that it’s gotten better, but there’s still a long, long way to go.
Did coming to that realization crush the beautiful image of cycling that you had after watching the Tour de France on TV? And oddly enough, the image you saw on TV in 2001 was itself a farce.
I came upon that reality early on as an amateur actually. Many trainers and people from teams saw my natural talent, and my strength. Of course, I couldn’t always win, because the human body is fragile, I wasn’t and am not a machine. But even with that, they saw my potential. As a U23, when I was the favorite in many races, trainers in particular came up to me and said, “Hey, I heard you weren’t taking anything. Man, if you let me get you on some stuff, you’ll easily be the best in the country.”
And they may have been correct. But at what cost? Win some races for a short period of time, become known, and then live with health problems, and no sense of pride or dignity? No. So I made a conscious choice never to go down that path, knowing that I would be losing often, and that my results would be far worse as a result, but at least they’d be real.
It’s a tough stance to take in an environment where you tell me that a very high percentage is using. Was it hard to be in a team like 4-72, in the sense that the team has always been so outspoken against doping? Did that lead to you guys being taunted or mocked within the peloton?
Yes, absolutely. The team has always been very proud of taking that stance, and of doing so in an environment where nothing like it had ever been done. We talked openly to the press about it.
Well, when you talk about that topic, other teams get angry, because they feel like, “hey, if they say they are the only ones doing this [doing internal testing, and taking a stand against doping], what does that say about us?” But as the saying goes, “if the shoe fits, wear it”. So yes, we were taunted and laughed at. In races in Colombia our best rider could sometimes lose 20 minutes in a stage. In the GC, our best rider would be 30th. Still, many felt that we were accusing them, and on top of that, they’d see that we weren’t getting results, and make fun of us. It wasn't easy. Of course, we’d then go race abroad and win races, and win stages, which was interesting to say the least.
The team had trouble in Colombia, but did well abroad. You certainly did in the Vuelta a Mexico.
That’s right, but let’s think in a broader sense, so that I'm not telling you about me, and what I won. Think back to when I first joined 4-72. Nairo was there, Esteban Chaves, Pantano, it was just an amazing amount of talent, all with internal testing, with a huge focus on clean sport, and strong ethical component to team. A team of guys who, we can see now, are capable of winning big races among the best in the world. And yet, that year in the Vuelta a Colombia the best guy in the team was maybe 18th in the GC. So that data point should serve as your answer. We won nothing, not even top ten.
To make matters worse, when we raced abroad, getting the news out about our wins was nearly impossible. The cycling media wanted to isolate us further. Because the cycling media is driven by money.
What do you mean by that?
It’s how the game is played in Colombia. The teams with the biggest budgets, often backed by government entities, pay members of the cycling media to also act as their press officers. Just imagine if I have a big team. And your website is the biggest cycling website in the country, and on top of that you also own a radio station, let’s call it Klaus FM, that is the lone radio voice about cycling. And then I pay you 100 million Pesos to promote my team and my brand...I’m just making up a number by the way...but let’s just say that. Well, you own the media outlets, and are being paid by teams, so you ensure that they get their money’s worth, and you leave the others out of the coverage. It’s that simple. There are conflicts of interest, and teams who don’t pay suffer and are not talked about. Period.
Hence your comment about wins abroad not being reported on.
Of course I understand that you don’t want to use specific names about any of these things, including doping and such.
Right, and that’s just because the way I see things, those people are doing what they are doing, and I don’t agree with it, but it has nothing to do with my life, and the way I choose to live. They can do whatever they want to do. I merely mention these things as a statement of fact, of what I have lived through and have seen in the sport.
But is it hard to see the world in that way, when riders who have doped have won races ahead of you? They’ve gotten results, prize money and maybe contracts that should have been yours.
The way I see things is that…I’ve always known that acting honestly, in the proper and honest way can lead to great and more meaningful success. But you can’t live merely searching notoriety and wealth. So, yes, it’s been a tough life in sport for me. Now, if you look at the world of business and politics, there are always those who will cheat to get ahead. Same in cycling. But for me, happiness comes when you do things correctly, and cleanly. And I’m not alone. There are many others like me. I know them, they are my friends, and some of them have had to retire with their hands empty, not wanting anything to do with the lies and deception that are common in the sport. But I live life my way, and that's what matters to me.
That’s a fundamental difference from how many in the US see things. I’m referring to the fact that doped riders came ahead of clean ones, took money, contracts and opportunities away from them. Some are angry as a result, and I understand why. Because it’s theft. But your way of seeing things, and maybe I’m editorializing here, seems quintessentially Colombian. The notion that people will cheat, and you almost expect that, so you’re aware of the perils that come with competing cleanly. So you do your thing, and you know, and almost expect, that others may cheat.
Yes, exactly. But I'm at peace.
But it's not that simple. It can’t be easy.
No. I’ve cried, I’ve suffered, and look at me. I’m 28 years old, and I’m here in the United States, taking a chance and trying to get to a good place in cycling, much like a young cyclist might. I’m still struggling after a decade of doing this. So this is my last chance, my last attempt at trying to get to where I thought I could get, after ten years of hard work. And my dream keeps me going, and it remains as pure as when I started, regardless of what goes on around me.
From the time I was young, people have told me that with my natural abilities, I would become wealthy, and would get to go to Europe, and be famous and all those things. But you have to do it for the love of it, and not for personal gain. Because you get to a team, and you have to understand that you are now part of something bigger. Like now, in SmartStop, they are not going to say, “Hey, look the new Colombian is here, let’s drop everything and do everything for him.” No. I’m here to work, and I hope that I can help them, and if I get my chances that will be great. Because I know that at the end of the day, when cycling is done with me, I may have to walk away with nothing, just empty handed. But in reality, I have a huge amount of knowledge, lessons and things I’ve learned that are all in my head, and in my heart. I’ve learned beautiful things about work, about ethics, about respecting my opponents, my body and my health. Because see, I have to go back to that, sport is supposed to be about health, and that’s still how I see it, despite the fact that there are these dark undertones around.
Forgive me for going back to this subject, but I don’t often, or ever, find a cyclist who is willing to talk about this. So let me ask you, from what you overhear, how easy is it for cyclists to find and buy doping products? I’ve often wondered, since there’s been a clampdown in some cases, and the products themselves are becoming more extreme. And of course, I say this knowing that this is not anything that is happening in Colombia alone. This is an issue that is facing the sport as a whole.
Look, it goes without saying that if there’s people using these products, there are those who sell it, who distribute it, who transport it. That’s obvious. So it’s bigger than the riders. I would be lying to you if I told you that I knew the person or the specific places where people buy this stuff. I have no idea about specifics. But what I can tell you is this: it’s very common to hear riders discuss this subject openly. That’s why I hear and know these things. During my time, riders started using EPO at first, and they talked about the specifics of how they used it. They would talk about how much they took, their dosages, when they took it, and all that.
Riders talk openly about taking AICAR and GW1516?
Yes. I’ve heard about this team bringing this stuff from Spain so they could use it, and how they use it. So people talk about the subject openly, and in hearing about all this, you become aware that there’s a big network, one that crosses national boundaries, behind all this. And it’s a network that is also more prevalent where there’s wealth. Because—and maybe this is an aside—I hear amateur riders talk about doing this as well.
Yes, they talk about taking products for a weekend race where, of course, there’s no testing in a race like that. So these are people who don’t make their living racing. They have jobs, and a family, and they are taking stuff. So those people have their own network of dealers who supply them, as well as other endurance athletes, and bodybuilders. And in that sense, Colombia is merely a reflection of what goes on in the rest of the world, because that black market must exist everywhere.
Did your knowledge about all this play into your decision to retire once 4-72 ended its professional team?
Yes. I had offers from other teams in Colombia, but I knew what that meant. If I raced in a Colombian team, and the team’s primary aims were the Vuelta a Colombia and the Clasico RCN, I wouldn’t have a job for long. Because I know that getting results there cleanly is a tall order. It’s gotten better, but it’s not to the point where I can go and know with certainty that I'll even do a good job. So the decision was clear. I chose to retire. I decided to go back to the world of coffee farming. And it was then that Nate King contacted me, told me about SmartStop, and helped me make the deal with them.
But there were offers in Colombia, this despite the fact that some people there don’t really like me, because of my stance on these issues. Perhaps I’m stubborn about it, but at the same time, as I said before, this is my personal choice. I don’t think about others or their choices. That’s their thing. But I’ve won races, I’ve won stages, and there was no denying that, so there was interest, yes.
Now you’re in the US, you will race this season for SmartStop. It’s a different climate, a different culture, and a different country. What are your goals for the season, and what do you hope to accomplish with the team?
You know, I’m not thinking of specific goals like a race or a stage at this or that time of year. I’m new to the team, and I’m here looking for an opportunity just like a young U23 rider from Colombia might when he goes to Europe to try out his luck there. So I’m here to show all the years of work I’ve put in, and it feels like I'm starting from scratch. But I'm here to work. If I’ve been a good time trialist, I want to be better this year. If I’ve been good at stage races, I want to be better this year. If I’ve been a good teammate in the past, I want to be even better. I want to see this year as a pinnacle of what I’m capable of, a review of everything I’ve learned and accomplished with integrity. Doing things properly and cleanly. I want to my racing to be an expression of those values and of my hard work. I hope that in that way, I can get great results.
Now that we’ve talked about all this, the good, the bad, and everything that cycling encompasses, let me ask you a final question. Say one day you have a kid, or a young cousin, or friend’s son asks you about cycling because they want to pursue it. Would you tell them to go for it, or has the sport been spoiled for you because of what you now know?
I would tell them to go for it. And here’s why. When I was getting started, and when I first saw the Tour de France, things were really, really bad then. And if I had asked someone in the position that I'm in now, they could have told me, “no don’t do it, let me tell you why.” But look at what I’ve achieved. Regardless of the status of things and the world around me, I’ve raced clean, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve learned amazing lessons, traveled all over the world, met great people, and my world has become broader as a result. Yes, it’s been a struggle, and a frustrating one at that. But the lessons I’ve learned are huge, and have changed my life. I’m thankful for that every day, I learned all of that through cycling.