In his book 100 Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez writes about the town of Macondo, and it’s fight with “the quicksand of forgetfulness”, as its population is stricken with an unexplainable plague that makes them forget everything they ever knew. Some have seen this theme in the book as García Márquez’s nod to Colombian’s ability (and perhaps willingness) to forget their past in order to move forward. A defense mechanism of sorts. Even if that was not his intention, like much of García Márquez's work in fiction, Macondo's plague has an oddly similar counterpart in the real world.
At the end of the 18th century, a single Basque man settled in the small Colombian town of Angostura, in the Colombian department of Antioquia [I have written before about the effect that Basque settlers had in this Colombian region]. He went unnoticed by the local population, largely as a result of the high number of Basque immigrants that had settled in the area. But this particular man was different. Unbeknownst to those around him, and to himself, he carried a genetic time bomb within, a rare genetic disorder produced by changes to the 14th chromosome. It was a variant of Alzheimer’s that is known today as the “Paisa Mutation”, and has made the small town of Yarumal, one already troubled by a long history violence, "the largest pool of Alzheimer’s sufferers in the world". Locals call it “the curse” or “the stupidity”, with some old-timers believing that it was a curse cast upon the local population by a priest who had caught parishioners stealing from the collection boxes.
Today, significant medical research and funding in the town aims to understand this genetic variant of Alzheimer’s, as those well-versed in García Márquez’s work realize that the mountainous town is a real-life Macondo. One drowning in “the quicksand of forgetfulness”. And while it may seem crass to say this, it could be said that Yarumal, like so many other towns in rural Colombia, actively seeks to forget parts of its past, just as some there can't help but fall into the forgetful darkness that their illness brings on.
It's from this town, and this milieu, that two fixtures in Colombian cycling hail. Mauricio Ardila Cano, and his “primo hermano”*, Team Colombia's Alex Cano Ardila, who just rode to an impressive fourth place at the Tour of Turkey.
Speaking with Alex, this concept of wanting to forget, of wanting to move forward despite (or because of hardship) is one that keeps coming up. Just as it did when I spoke with Rigoberto Uran about the assassination of his father when he was 14 years old. It’s an interesting quality that is increasingly common among Colombians who have faced hardship and violence in their lives. Their willingness to forge ahead, and not get pulled into that other pit of quicksand (one of revenge that leads many to take up arms ) has helped change the Colombian narrative significantly. Alex's story, both the hardship he's endured, and his unwavering spirit, are exemplary of the Colombian mindset of today. Forging ahead, and fighting for a better future, despite the difficult past that so many have experienced.
*Primo Hermano in English means double first cousin. Alex's dad has a sister, and his mom has a brother. Those two siblings married, and had Mauricio Ardila, making them cousins through both sides of their family.
Why did you become interested in cycling as a kid?
In Colombia most cyclists come from the countryside. They come from families of field workers and laborers who have very difficult lives. The hardship that they experience from an early age translates very well into cycling for those start to race. They can take the suffering, because it's all they've ever known [you can read my interview with Juan Pablo Villegas where he touches on this very subject here]. Likewise, I think Colombian farm laborers who don't become cyclists are fans, because see they see their lives; ones of backbreaking work and lonely hours toiling, in professional cyclists. So there has always been affinity between the two. My dad was part of that. He worked in a dairy farm, milking cows. He would leave the house at 3am, and would carry a small transistor radio with him so he could listen to the stages of European races. He worked in remote farms, sometimes traveling as much as six hours by horse through the mountains just to get to work. So he introduced me to cycling, and passed that passion down to me.
“Traveling as much as six hours through the mountains”, that has a certain cycling ring to it. It’s no wonder he saw his life reflected in the sport. Soccer is a beautiful show, compared to the arduous reality of cycling. It makes sense that someone in his situation would connect more with cycling.
Yes, absolutely. Cycling is like life, perhaps not everyone’s life, but for him, it was a mirror image of his suffering. Just getting to work was hard, and then going through the mountains for hours with large containers of milk on the side of a mule, so a tanker truck could come by and pick it up.
Do you think this plays into the sport's popularity in the Colombian countryside?
Yes. I mean, there’s the topography, our physiology and all that. But most Colombian cyclists come from very poor backgrounds, and often from the countryside, up in the mountains. I dont discount that others are from cities or higher social strata, but it's a rarity. So, there’s a bit of a paradox there, which is that cycling is a very expensive sport. We are talking about people who scarcely have the means to get by, and have just enough to eat. So to buy the equipment necessary for cycling is very difficult. The amount of physical work, and sacrifice necessary just to buy a bike only reinforces that union between the working mentality of a Colombian in the fields, and the sport of cycling.
How did you get your first bike?
My cousin Mauricio [Ardila, who went on to race with Rabobank] was friendly with Mincho, who owned a bike shop in town. Mauricio was already racing for Orgullo Paisa at the time. With Mincho's help, he was able to piece together a bike with old, mismatched parts for me. It was a great ordeal just to get that bike, and lots of people gave parts, and helped with everything that was needed to put it together so I could ride.
Your family's financial situation was difficult. Did you see cycling, and that bike, as tools to help you out of that situation?
Yarumal, where you are from, has a violent history. So things weren't just tough in financial terms.
Things have been tough there, and our family was touched by that. The area surrounding Yarumal has been part of Colombia’s armed conflict for a long time. My cousin Mauricio’s family was displaced from lands that they owned [Colombia has the highest population of displaced individuals in the world next to Sudan].
Did the guerrillas simply get there and say “this land is now ours, and you have to leave or else”?
Exactly. They can claim it as their own. In other cases they can say you are a collaborator of the paramilitaries to run you out, or they can simply murder you. So you have to leave. My family was faced with that, but also the assassination of my uncle. Because things were getting so bad, my dad decided to leave the countryside, and come to Medellin to work as a construction worker.
But yeah, to get back to your earlier question, I knowingly viewed cycling as a way out, and also as a way of channeling my anger and my sadness about our situation. I had to forget those things, and put them behind me, while never forgetting those people and what they meant to me. But I had to do something positive with that anger.
If you don’t mind, can you tell me a bit about your uncle’s assassination? Was his death related to the armed conflict?
Yes. The farm where he worked at with my dad was very remote. No roads went there, so it was a long stretch, hours long, through the mountains by horse. Because the route was so long and remote, they’d run into the military, and then up ahead the guerrillas, and later on the paramilitaries. That was just part of going to work. On that route, guys would come out, and say "hey, give me your food". They would ask for the dairy products they were carrying, or canned ham, or whatever they had with them. They had no choice but to comply. That happened to him with paramilitaries, and he gave them the food. He had to.
So later on, the guerrillas came to his house, accused him of aiding the paramilitaries, of being a “sympathizer”, and assassinated him in front of his entire family, including his children. So he was killed because he was asked by armed men in the mountains to give them small cans of ham. That was his crime. And because of a small, stupid thing like that, he lost his life.
So this was your uncle through your dad’s side, and Mauricio's uncle through his mom's side?
Right. And when that happens, you are faced with a decision, do you move ahead, or get caught up in that violence, and that pit of hate and revenge. You have to make that decision. You have to forget those things.
That sounds oddly like Rigoberto Uran’s view on the choice he had to make when his father was murdered too. He chose to look forward, and move ahead, while never forgetting the memory of his father, of course. It’s a complicated and dichotomous way to live.
It is, for sure. But when your family is being displaced, and someone is assassinated, you have a choice to make. You can do what so many others have done historically in Colombia, which is to take up arms to avenge the death of that person, and to be consumed by anger, or you can put that memory behind and forge ahead for a better future. But that’s a big recruitment tool for armed groups. If the guerrillas killed your family, then you join the paramilitaries, or the other way around. Luckily, much has changed in Colombia.
In my case, or that of Rigoberto, we were lucky enough to encounter cycling as a way of moving forward. And in that sense, cycling is not just a way for us to deal with all this, but it also gives us the means to help out our entire families as well. That's a huge part of our lives.
Let’s talk about that. I don’t know if cycling fans in some countries understand that in places like Colombia, cyclists provide for their entire extended family through their work. This makes the impact of their earnings substantial, but also heightens the drive and sadly also the stress that they are under.
That’s true. In my case, I’ve been able to pay for my siblings to study. My father, through unbelievably hard work and sacrifice, paid for their education up until high school, but through cycling, I was able to pay for their college educations. One of my brothers is a civil engineer, another is about to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, and my sister is also starting her studies in civil engineering. I was also able to provide for my wife, who is now a chemical engineer, with a master’s degree in environmental studies.
You are now surrounded by engineers. You have single-handedly changed, and re-shaped the lives of your whole family through cycling. No small feat.
It makes me really proud and happy to know that. When you start cycling, you may do it for the pure love of it. But if you see that it provides an outlet for your feelings, but also a way for you to provide for those you love, it really changes your motivation. You are riding for everyone around you. I think that helps frame the quality and quantity of Colombian riders that have excelled. We are products of our environment. We are never simply riding for ourselves. Cycling means so much to us for that reason.
In part two of this interview, we discuss Alex's time in Colombia Es Pasion, and his fond and humorous memories of racing with riders like Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves, and Sergio Henao, back when they were all complete unknowns. We also discuss plans for the rest of his season, his first grand tour, and the politics that make up a large part of the sport that fans seldom see.