In part one of my interview with Team Colombia's Alex Cano, we discussed the difficult realities that led him to ride a bike for a living. Cano, to me, is perhaps one of the most self-aware cyclists I've ever interviewed. In part two of the interview, we discuss his introduction to European racing, aspects of the sport that fans seldom see or understand, his time with Colombia Es Pasion (with teammates like Quintana, Henao, Chaves and Atapuma), and the way in which Colombian riders are rolling bike shops in Central American races. Really.
Before turning professional, you raced as an amateur in Italy (2006, Maltinti Lampadari Salgomma and 2007, Unidelta Arvedi Bottoli). How did you adapt to living and racing in Europe?
It was very hard for me. You go to Europe with all these dreams, all of them about cycling. You come up with plans for how you’re going to train, and how you'll work hard to win races and be good for the team. But you never put an ounce of thought about all the other stuff. You never consider the cultural isolation, or how it might affect you. You only think about riding and racing, and then you get there to realize that all these other complex factors play into it. You are hit by that reality, and it hits you very hard. Training you can understand, but life off the bike gets hard very quickly.
For me, it was early spring when I got there, really cold weather. I had never experienced that. Then the season started, and I had a bad crash. In it, I severed the fourth phalanx on a finger in my left hand, and was hospitalized for a month. I was young, didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone, and I’m there alone in a hospital, wondering what on earth I’m doing. Pain and suffering on the bike is something you understand as a cyclist, but obviously. But everything else that happens off the bike, and due to the realities of having to be abroad, and all that comes with it, those things are harder to take.
You said earlier [part one of the interview] that a Colombian laborer who sees his reality reflected in that of a cyclist understands his struggle. And yet, I don’t think the average cycling fan really thinks about the reality of laying alone in a hospital in a country where you don’t know anyone, and can’t speak the language. Or of going to buy food in the snow, in a small town in northern Italy, and not being able to communicate with the shopkeeper. These are tough situations for a young person, but tougher still when you come from rural Colombia. And yet they are simply part of cycling for all non-Europeans.
Absolutely. And you have to be in that person’s shoes, and understand their upbringing, to understand the depth of some of those struggles. Once you’ve lived them, you know why riders sometimes do well, or don’t do well in races. It’s not just about physical form, there are countless others things at play, especially because we are running our bodies so close to the edge of what they can do. It’s heartbreaking to think that a cold, or a small fall can completely and fully negate the training you’ve done for six or more months. It’s just awful.
I think as fans, we are generally of that fragility, but haven’t experienced it to the extremes that you have.
And it’s not just that fragility, it’s a fine balance overall with things off the bike, and with others aspects of racing. For example, I raced with Nairo Quintana for a few years in Colombia Es Pasion. Admittedly, he was younger then and had probably not fulfilled his full potential yet. But even with that, it was clear that he was an amazing talent, you could just see it. In some races we did in Europe, we could loose the entire thing if we weren’t well placed at a certain point of a race, the start of a climb or something like that. Watching those races, someone might say, “why aren’t they at the front?” Well, to do that, you need a system and a team with riders that can do that for you. You need a team that can literally bump elbows with the biggest professional teams in the world, and take them out of their spots in the peloton, which are more or less designated for them. That’s not easy to do. It may sound like it is, but trust me, it's not. Even for us in Team Colombia. Fans here [in Colombia] think we are a big team in Europe, and can do those things…but the reality is that we are a very small team, and achieving certain things with a small team is very difficult. Again, this isn’t just about form, it’s about all these other things.
Let’s go back to Colombia Es Pasion. The amount of talent that came out of that team is amazing. Nairo Quintana, Sergio Henao, Darwin Atapuma, Jarlinson Pantano, you were there of course, and so was Esteban Chaves.
It’s amazing when you think back, because that team and the riders that were there are the backbone of Colombian cycling today. And more importantly, the team was built with high moral standards, and doing things cleanly.
You are referring to the team’s stance on doping, internal testing and the like?
What memories do you have of racing with guys like Quintana, Henao and Atapuma? You were all so young back then.
We were. We were young, we were clueless and we didn’t know about the difficulties and the realities we’d face. But that was beautiful. I remember that we’d travel to Europe, and before the trips we’d talk about going over there to "conquer Europe", we felt we were going over there to win, and we were so absolutely sure of ourselves. But we were absolutely clueless about what we were getting into, but that immaturity is sometimes helpful. And it certainly served us well then, because we just went with that attitude. It’s something you loose with age and experience, because you start to be mindful of the obstacles, you are more measured because more is at stake. Not so when you are young. I remember that quality in Sergio Henao and Nairo Quintana. And in the end, we were just kids. We had nothing, and were completely unaware of the obstacles that stood in front of us. But we had the ability to dream big, and that's always important.
But you eventually saw the obstacles.
We did, but because of youth, we still didn’t think too much of them. The team was small, and its budget was small. So to compare us against another team in the same category, continental and then pro continental, is crazy. It wasn’t because of our talent or ability, but just because of money. Looking at what others had is a futile thing to get into, because you can become envious. But you could see the differences between our team and others from a mile away. Those teams had big buses, and all these cars, and a big service course. They’d get to races in the bus, and their bikes were in a big truck properly packed.
By comparison, we’d get to a race in a tiny little van, all the bikes were stacked on top of each other, and we’d be there on top of the bikes. All of us in there, getting cramps as our legs fell asleep because of the bikes…but we’d laugh about it, never complain, and just loved the whole thing. We knew that those teams had more money, but so what? I remember laughing with Chaves and Henao about all that stuff, and I also remember standing on the podium of a race with pride, and then saying, “Ha! You see what we’re capable of? All their fancy stuff didn’t get them the win. Our hard work and spirit got us the win!” Sure, the way we traveled was very Colombian, but so was our attitude about it. Always dreaming big.
The way you traveled was very Colombian, sounds like you were getting around in a chiva!
(Laughs) Yes! Exactly, we were parading through Europe in a Colombian chiva, with chickens and fruits strapped to the top. Oh man, that’s so true!
Colombia Es Pasion, in a way, split into two teams. The government more or less decided to make it into what Team Colombia is today, but the organization that was Colombia Es Pasion continued as 4-72, and is today Manzana Postobon. Yet when all this happened, you went to Orgullo Antioqueño.
I did. They are one of the biggest teams in Colombia. I needed a breather, a truce if you will, from the whole situation.
What do you mean?
That last year was very stressful. The team was split, and there was a lot of politics involved. Half of the riders were going to Team Colombia, the other half were loyal to the original team and wanted to stay with 4-72. It got ugly. Orgullo Paisa gave me a better offer, financially, than either 4-72, or Team Colombia. Though I never formally sat down with Team Colombia to figure out an offer. But a few years racing there, I was able to show off my potential, did well, and now I’m in Team Colombia, which feels very good.
But let’s go back to how ugly things got. Does that add to the aspect of cycling that fans don’t normally understand?
Oh absolutely! Look, it’s bad in cycling, for sure. But it’s really, really bad in Colombian cycling, where almost every single team is supported by government money, which in turn is at the mercy of politicians, and yearly budgeting. So every team is hanging by a thread, because if a new politician gets voted in, that changes everything, and the team can end. Again, I know this is true in all of cycling, it’s not stable, but it’s actually worse here. This all trickles down to the riders, and makes for very difficult situations.
Colombia is, without a doubt, a real cycling superpower in terms of talent and ability. But do you think the way Colombian cycling is run, the way teams are funded, and how races are organized; is that of a cycling superpower?
Oh, absolutely not. Not at all. And it’s not just funding. For example, and this is something that I hear from many, many riders. When you negotiate a contract here, everyone knows that you are doing it, and everyone, including all the other teams, is privy to all the financial details of the contract. It’s almost public information, even when you are negotiating. To the point that if you are looking to sign with a team, that manager will call the manager of the team you are in, and give him the full rundown of what they’ll be giving you, for no reason at all. This in turn makes your current team, management and those riders mad at you, and it creates a system where riders are constantly burning bridges, by no fault of their own. It’s crazy to me that this can happen, while we are also capable of exporting some of the best riders in the world. There’s a huge gap between what the riders are doing, and what organizers and the people behind the sport are up to. They are years, maybe decades behind what the riders are accomplishing.
And you see that in how things are managed, races, and how the sport is run?
At every level, and some things you notice, they are almost funny, and it’s not until later that you really grasp their meaning. For example, I know of riders here who throughout the whole season ask me about kit I may not be using. They find out that you switched teams, and instantly they call to ask if they can have your old jerseys or whatever. I always tell them the same thing, that I don’t keep that stuff, I give it all away to friends and people I know who can use it. But these guys insist, and really, really want the stuff. I wondered why, since they themselves race for teams, but I eventually figured it out. They go to these late season races in Central America. They go there, not so much to race, they go there to set up shop, and sell everything they’ve collected throughout the year. That's how they make ends meet. They race for the highest level you an race in Colombia, but still have to have a rolling bike shop at races, in order to live.
I came to realize all this when I went to do a race in Costa Rica. I was racing, and I had local guys say, “hey, what do you have to sell?” And I honestly had no idea what they were talking about. Then another guy comes up to me, “do you have any helmets?” I tell the guy that I don’t, and then another one asks about cycling shoes. Well, sure enough, the stage ended, and these Colombian riders went to their team car, and they set up a shop. I’m talking about a full cycling shop on wheels, like a supermarket. Clothing, helmets, shoes, and the locals riders are shopping to their heart’s content. It was a feeding frenzy. It was very unusual, to say the least.
So it’s a whole economy. I talked to a German rider who did the Vuelta a Colombia last year, and he told me that during stages, he was getting offers and inquiries about almost everything that was on his bike. Sure enough, after the last stage, he sold everything but the frame. The Lightweight wheels were the first to go. So after use, some of those things Colombian riders bought, may end up in Central America being sold off again.
Oh yeah. So it becomes this whole economy, and riders rely on that money. It’s very strange when you see it in action. But there’s something quintessentially Colombian about it.
Alex Cano had a difficult start to the season, but managed a fourth place at the Tour of Turkey. He’s now back home preparing for his primary goal for the second part of the season: the Vuelta a España. It will be his first grand tour, the fulfillment of a life long dream that began when his father first shared his passion for the sport with him when he was just a kid. Thanks to Alex for his time.