Culinary secrets of Colombian cycling, Part 1: Powered by Panela

Lucho, what's in the cup?

European riders reported it to the press and to Tour officials. The newspapers ran with the story: Colombian riders were doping at the Tour in 1985. But were they?

In the mid-80's, Colombian cyclists burst on to the European peloton with unbelievable force. Due in great part to the extreme gains in elevation that the Andes provide, Colombian cyclists were all accustomed to unbelievable amounts of climbing. Because of Colombia's proximity to the Equator, the country has no seasons and temperature is regulated by altitude. This means that in a 100 mile ride, along with the altitude, temperatures can swing wildly from 35°, to 90° and back down to 40° (1°, 32° and 1° Celsius). In higher elevations (10,000 feet and above), streets and plants frost over at night, and as morning comes, winds and cold rain are common. The cold bursts of wind at high altitudes are so miserable that even Belgian riders who eventually came for the Vuelta A Colombia would retire early on in the race. Near the Andes, you can start a 100 mile ride in the morning hours in freezing temperatures due to high altitudes. Within an hour of riding in the cold, you will reach scorching temperatures and high humidity of the low lands. Climbing has the opposite effect, and is a reality of simply getting around in Colombia's mountainous regions. You simply can't get from one town to the next without doing a significant amount of it. Thus, the extremes that are common in Colombia (altitude included) had prepared the Cafe De Colombia riders to an extent that even they didn't fully comprehend. Europeans at the Tour didn't know this, and they all began to wonder just how a tiny farmer from meager upbringings could climb like Lucho Herrera did.

Herrera's nickname was "Jardinerito", little gardener, as a result of having worked in a flower plantation in his native Fusagasuga. All the other riders on the team had similar backgrounds, with some having even worked in coal mines. Herrera's success surely didn't come about as a result of his team organization or equipment. It didn't add up. Who were these guys from Colombia, and what were they up to? Most importantly, what was in the bags that they constantly brought out of their pockets and emptied into their mouths during long stages? What were the brown cubes sloshing around in their water bottles? It was those cubes, and whatever they were putting into their mouths that had been called into question.

The substance was not a banned drug. It wasn't even a sophisticated dietary aid or energy bar. It was panela.

Panela is basically unrefined sugar. Nearly as hard as a brick, panela is sourced from sugarcane, which is commonly grown in Colombia's warmer climates. When the sugarcane is ready to be harvested, it's ground in order to make the watery contents of the stalks come out. As they are squeezed between metal wheels, the liquid that comes out is boiled again and again in copper pots, until the thick syrup is poured into molds.

Panela has long been a part of Colombian culture, and has always been a part of Colombian cycling. To this day, Colombia retains the highest consumption rate of panela per capita...and is also it's primary producer. So what does panela taste like? Much in the same way that brown sugar has a more complex flavor than refined white sugar, panela has a much more distinct and complex flavor over brown sugar. This is due in great part to the level of caramelization that panela undergoes. Flavor aside, panela has fewer calories than refined sugar, but also contains things sugar does not. Calcium, potassium, glucose, fructose, vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, C, D2, E as well as protein. Panela is perhaps the greatest culinary equalizer in Colombian society, enjoyed both by farmers as a morning beverage, and by high class socialites as a post-dinner drink. In areas of Colombia with extreme poverty, most caloric intake is through panela, due to its very low price. This was certainly true in the impoverished regions from where Colombian cyclists came from in the 80's, and continue to come from today.

1986 Cafe De Colombia team, already cleared of doping allegations from 1985

Usually made by simply letting a chunk melt off in boiling water, half a lime is squeezed into the hot drink right before it's served. This is called aguapanela (a contraction of two words that basically mean "panela water"), and it's precisely what Lucho Herrera was drinking from his water bottle during the Tour, after having allowed the mixture to cool. It's aguapanela, not coffee that most Colombians regard as their national drink. As a matter of fact, most Colombian coffee drinkers are not particular about their coffee, and most often drink instant. Panela, however, is a different issue...and everyone has an opinion about the right and wrong way to make it. Some prefer panela with milk, not water, and some (like Colombian cyclists at the tour) simply suck on chunks of it as a continued source of energy during a hard day of work in the potato or flower plantations.

Cafe De Colombia riders and their scorched legs during a Tour de France transfer. Colombians will sometimes reference panela when explaining the tone of a person's complexion. (Photo from Competitive Cyclist)

Although I often mock cyclists for their obsession with the past, and the amount of nostalgia with which they see the sport's history...I must admit I'm not above this. To the contrary, I steep in it, and how could I not? I began listening to the Tour on the radio with my brother when I was only six years old, and the mythology of our ill-prepared teams and riders drinking aguapanela was part of the folklore that surrounded the sport. In mountain-top finishes, Colombian reporters who traveled by motorcycle with the peloton (this sort of thing was allowed back then) would openly weep on the radio as they described the victories of Colombian riders. Grown men crying on the radio can certainly leave a lasting impression when you are only six years old, particularly when they keep uttering phrases like "powered only by panela, the Colombian rider has defeated all of Europe." Panela was, and continues to be a symbol of our meager roots. As Colombian citizens we are aware that our national drink, our pride and joy, and the fuel that propelled our heroes to victory, was and is simply sugar water. But it's all we have.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that yesterday, before heading out on a long ride in the midst of the wind and snow, I stood in my kitchen making hot aguapanela. In hot summer days, I prepare two bottles. One water, one cold aguapanela. I know no other way to ride. If you'll excuse my over-the-top sentimentality, aguapanela helps me feel closer to my compatriots, and closer to home. The last time I was in Colombia, I spoke briefly to the owner of a high-end bike shop. I was surprised to hear him talk passionately about riding long miles, and drinking panela during those lonely hours. He spoke about the subject in a tone that American cyclists usually reserve for idiotic subjects like white shoes and white handlebar tape. His passion was for the struggle of riding. Not the kind of riding that is or could be documented in black and white photography, but the kind that is lonely and never seen. The kind of riding that Colombian riders did when preparing for the Tour, back when they were first allowed to ride as an amateur team. Perhaps it's silly to dwell on the past–any past–but this is constant inspiration for Colombian riders. We are a poor country, and you'll find few people who ride there that will be willing to talk to you about equipment, nutrition or things like embrocation. In Colombia, you shut up and you ride.

"El Viejo Patro", as Patrocinio Jimenez was known.

Asked about panela, and its misunderstanding at the Tour, Patricinio Jimenez (who was in the first Colombian team to ever ride the Tour) commented:

"Everyone bothered us, and asked us about panela. They all asked what it was. I remember that Pedro Delgado even asked if he could try some. I gave him a piece, he bit down hard and began to laugh uncontrollably as he nearly cracked his tooth. At that time, we didn't understand that cycling was even remotely possible without panela. Later on we realized that perhaps it was possible to ride without it."

Panela was not the only thing that made Colombian cyclists different. The issue of race and ethnicity was always there. Jimenez remembered that Laurent Fignon was hard to deal with, and openly disliked the Colombian team:
"He was extremely unpleasant to us. I remember a journalist asking him what he thought of us (Colombians) and he said we were from an inferior race. I remember him purposefully throwing elbows in the peloton, and speaking badly of us during stages. It was for that reason that we kept attacking him in the mountains. Even still, the fucker won the tour that year."

Monument to Lucho Herrera, in his hometown of Fusagasuga.

Lucho Herrera has also commented on his memories of panela at the Tour and other races:

"In a feed zone, I put a piece of panela in my mouth. The moment I put it in, a wasp got into my mouth and stung my tongue. I bit down, and my bridgework went flying. I got to the hotel that day after the race, and I was pretty scared. The team sent me to a local dentist, and I came back to the hotel at 5 am, with brand new teeth."

Fabio Parra, and his distinctive hunched-over riding style.

Fabio Parra, the only Colombian rider to ever stand on the podium at the Tour, has commented that Colombian cycling began to change–and not for the better–when riders stopped eating and drinking panela. Teams began to buy into the nutritional bars and beverages that European and American teams were using. Although the simple act of not eating and drinking panela could never be fully blamed (obviously), it was simply a reflection of the changing times. Things began to shift for Colombian riders, and many (Parra included) moved on to European teams. Misunderstood, and often facing language and cultural barriers, Colombian cyclists who were capable of winning grand tours, went on to become domestiques. It was the end of an era, the end of Colombian-run teams with Colombian sponsors and riders.

Nevertheless, a new Cafe De Colombia team has started once again. The future is bright for Colombian talent with this new team. Let's just hope they have panela, and not some stupid sports drink in their bottles.

Panela is a bit of an acquired taste, but if you'd like to try it out you can order some online. A recipe (in english) for aguapanela can be found here. Aside from drinking or sucking on chunks of it, panela can also be used for sugary reductions that can be poured over meats or vegetables.