You know the feeling you get when you are showing someone a movie you love for the first time? They've never seen it, so there's a certain mild anxiety leading up to particularly good jokes or poignant moments in the film. You pay far more attention to the person's reaction than to the movie itself. That, more or less, is how I feel when I'm in Colombia with someone who has never been there before. I watch their every move. I follow their eyes as we drive down city streets, to see what they're looking at. This may sound creepy, and maybe it is. But the need for validation in the eyes of foreigners is an innate part of being Colombian. Perhaps "validation" is too strong a word, so let's just say that we love understanding how others view us. In my case, it's a curiosity that can often consume me. Wile I'm not overly self conscious in my everyday life, culturally, I'm extremely so.
It's with this in mind, that I always ask endless questions of non-Colombians who visit the country. The latest person to endure such a grilling is Kyle Murphy in the last Vuelta a Colombia (with Jamis-Sutter Home, but he'll be racing with Cylance this season). After the race, he stayed in Colombia for a while, training with Janier Acevedo in the outskirts of Medellin. I had to know more about his time there, so I asked Kyle to write about his experience. Thanks to Kyle for sharing.
Thanks primarily to Alps&Andes, I had a few preconceptions coming into La Vuelta Colombia. I was just as focused on getting my hands on a bar of El Rey as I was on the race, and one of the most memorable moments for me was unraveling a bar of bocadillo on Stage 3. Besides food and soap, I had also been told how incredibly difficult the race was going to be. Tales of caution included the story of Botero racing la Vuelta after returning from European racing scene and being driven to self doubt and insecurity when his frequent attacks on the climbs had no effect on the sprightly Colombians. Luckily for the two foreign teams participating in 2016, the organizers were aware of la Vuelta's reputation. So, to the dismay of some Colombian cycling fans, the race started off relatively easy. We started on the coast, at sea level, in Cartagena, with several stages shorter then 130k.
Here are some notes and reflections from a 'lost gringo' in Colombia from my all too brief experience with La Vuelta Colombia:
-I got a little too excited at the open buffet in the resort hotel in Cartegena where we stayed the few days we spent in Colombia before the race. We weren't riding much beyond openers, but I needed to try everything. Arepas, buñuelos, guanabana, perfect papaya, and more. By stage one I was packing a few extra pounds.
-Thanks to the aforementioned ballast I'd taken on, I ended up in the 'Mejor Extranjero' jersey after a 12th place on the mostly downhill stage 1 ITT. There were a total of 9 jerseys on offer at one point, but I think the UCI stepped in and lowered this number after a few stages. This jersey was one of many concessions to the foreign teams. Is there a historical precedent for this jersey? If not, it certainly underlines the Colombian dominance on their home tour, that it is necessary to recognize the best foreigner. The jersey kept slipping lower and lower down the standings as the race marched into the mountains.
-I am fairly certain we, along with the other foreign team, Team Rwanda, were put in some of the nicest hotels on offer. I think this, but cannot confirm, because at dinner, or checking in, I would see the same politcal-ish guy who gave the longest speech at the team presentation, the podium girls, and the oldest most important seeming race officials. The hotels were great for the most part. It is nice to have a break from the standard La Quintas and Holiday Inns in the US. After one stage we showered in a Chinese themed hotel that had maps of Japan in the bathroom (oops), another time we stayed in a hotel with an outdoor pool and jacuzzi. We stayed at one 'Hotel Paradains' in Yarumal. It was impossible to find. Google maps kept bringing us to 'Hotel Paradise' and I was confused, with my limited Spanish, if this was a mistake or a Spanish word I didn't know. This was probably my favorite hotel. Yarumal is incredible, the steepness of the streets makes San Francisco seem laughable. There was so much going on, horses, motorcycles, team cars, delivery trucks, that I didn't see the hotel until we were 3ft away from it. Just a single door with a small sign, up a narrow set of stairs, and then maybe 12 rooms. The roof was corrugated plexi- which meant the light was better then it was in the street. It was fantastic.
-On that note, on being a foreigner, it was sort of fun to feel like I was at a disadvantage. I felt like the 'gordo gringo' and for the first race in quite some time, I found myself going backwards every single time the road pitched above 6-7%. Anyone with decent fitness thinks they are a climber when they are a Cat 3. When I was a Cat 1, I was still pretty sure I was a climber. Now that I am a Pro, I have shown instances of being a fairly capable climber. However, now that I have been to Colombia, I am certain I am not, and may never be, a climber.
-Stage 2 was the first summit stage. It featured a series of punchy-ish rollers in a general upward trend that climaxed with a very difficult 3k climb. On every steep pitch, guys would go berserk. I would see uphill efforts that could win races in the U.S. from guys in the back, riding in the grit and gravel on the shoulder to move up maybe three spots. If someone nuked a hill that hard in the states, it would probably string the race out. Instead, the road was completely blocked, side to side, 10 wide. It was as if the peloton was gauging their effort by average speed, not effort or power. Or maybe that is just how you ride when you weigh 95 lbs.
-No race buffets once the race started. Instead, we were served a plate of food. Pretty consistently it was about a cup of rice, a cup of pasta, a small salad, a portion of meat, and two or three small potatoes. And a cup of juice. The juice in Colombia is excellent. Absolutely excellent. Fruity combos so good, so yummy. I confirmed with a team mate who actually finished the race that this was the norm for the entire two week race.
-Don't drink the juice until after the race. Or only drink it in places you can trust the water. Obviously. However, last year at Tour of Qinghai lake I went 2 weeks without a single fresh vegetable or piece of fruit, and by the end I felt just as shitty as if I had had the shits (or so I thought). In Colombia, I threw caution to the wind, drank the juice, reveled in the salads, relished the deserts. And paid the price with an early abandon due to a terribly debilitating stomach bug.
-After Seba (Sebastian Haedo) won stage 5, I gave him a giant bottle of Kewpie mayonnaise from Sunrise Mart in Soho, NY. He'd told me earlier that in his Saxo-Tinkoff days, he would smuggle in packets of mayonnaise (which was a strictly forbidden condiment) right under Riis' nose to distribute to his team mates during dinner. I don't always travel with Mayo, but I did specifically bring this for the team after remembering Seba's story.
- Oscar Sevilla is polarizing. On several occasions I was told the mythical tale of how he'd left his wife in Spain, met the love of his life in Colombia, and then fell for the country, too. It was told more as evidence of Colombia's allure and charm then anything, but it still painted him in a sympathetic way. Before coming here, I knew of his involvement in Operation Puerto and was told of his effective banishment from European cycling. So, did he run away, or fall in love?
-I am still not sure how much better the riders in Colombia are on the climbs then those in the States. Yes, I did get dropped by everyone, including Janier's mechanic, on an extremely hilly group ride to Abejorral. But by the third week of riding here I felt I had adapted to the Colombian riding and training style. Which is to nuke the hills, and coast over the top. If you treat it like an interval, and anticipate the rest, and adapt to it, its not so insane, just different.
- Training in Colombia has been fantastic. The one tradeoff I really noticed in Colombia versus the rural areas of the states that are usually considered great for training has been the cars. When we first drove into La Ceja from the airport and Janier was pointing out where we would be training in the coming days, I was mildly alarmed at how busy the roads were. Mostly two lanes, with a decent shoulder, but definitely more traffic then I would expect to see in a road I would seek out to train on in the US. The difference, as Janier pointed out and I later experienced, is that the cars are very, very respectful towards cyclists in this area.
- Colombian food sometimes felt like a contest to see who could combine platanos [plantains] or cerdo [pork] in as many ways as possible, with the diner being the one to benefit. Arepas in general were a revelation, but certainly Arepa de Chocolo was an especially fantastic new taste for me. Crispy on the outside, warm on the inside, use it as a shovel or a plate. Colombian pastries are excellent fresh, Buñuelos, Empanada Arequipe con Queso, Pastillito Guayaba. If it is a smaller cafe out in the countryside with low turnover, better to go with a packaged treat like a Choco Ramo- I learned this the hard way in Guatape with a Pastillito Arequipe that disentegrated into dust in my fingers.
- The only other races I can compare the Vuelta to in terms of scale are probably the US Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado, and the Tour of Qinghai lake in China. Qinghai was equally insane, but with much more control. That is, the race travelled together in one giant convoy during transfers, we were all usually in the same massive hotel, meals were controlled with a ticket system. In Colombia, sometimes it seemed like it was up to Janier and Seba to find the hotel.
-Stage 5 started with a gnarly 3k descent that transitioned straight into a nasty climb. I was in the box after the supposed end of the climb, huffing and blowing along over a series of rollers before the descent. Something about not speaking my native tongue in awhile had given me an awkward tendency to maybe exclaim quietly in muffled english while suffering. After one of these uncontrolled (but still quiet) outbursts, a rider from Pinturas Bler began to coach me up the climb. He would trace the profile of the climb with his hand, indicating a roller here, a small descent there, and offer what I'm fairly sure was encouragement. In retrospect, it was indicative of the hopsitality and warmth I would come to see as uniquely Colombian in the coming weeks.