Interview: Ramón Hoyos, Colombia's first great champion

One of the most difficult things about being a foreigner in any country is that no one around you has the same cultural points of reference. If you come from a vastly different country than the one you live in, as I do, this issue is further exacerbated. People who are hugely important to me in the fields of sports, literature, music, philosophy, broadcasting, art, architecture and politics , are completely unknown to everyone I know today and everyone I will meet. I could spend years telling just a few people about these figures and their importance, but it wouldn't even begin to explain what the Colombian zeitgeist was and is. It wouldn't even begin to frame what Colombia was like for me as a kid, or explain the extreme differences I continue to see and experience while living here in the United States. This is not only frustrating, but incredibly sad. It's as though the struggles and lives that these people live/d not only don't matter...but it's as though they never even happened. This is no one's fault. I can't blame Americans for not knowing about these people and their value. How could they? Our ignorance about each other's cultures is simply a part of how the world operates, and how information travels. It's for that reason, I believe, that I try to write about Colombian cyclists whenever I can. Yes, you read right. I think so highly of myself, that I believe I can somehow single-handedly reverse the way the world operates, and the manner in which information travels. Not really, but it's worth a try. How can I not share these people's stories, their struggles and what they meant and continue to mean to me?

As the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez stated during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: one of the most difficult struggles that people from small nations like Colombia have is that of rendering our lives to be—not just important—but even real in the eyes of wealthier nations. This, he said, is why he we shall forever remain in eternal cultural solitude.

(Our Colombian reality) is not one on paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.

About this post
Last week I began to write a profile of Ramón Hoyos for the blog. Hoyos was perhaps the first great champion in Colombian cycling, a huge star and a celebrity in the 50s and 60s. His biography was written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, due in great part to his legendary victories in the sport. Hoyos rose from poverty to great fame and mythological grandeur within just a few years. It's for that reason that I wanted to write about him. As I finished the post, I began to wonder just where Hoyos could possibly be today. So many of Colombia's sports figures have gone on to live in absolute and utter misery, that I began to wonder about Hoyos. I became concerned that his path in life had been like that of the great Colombian boxer Kid Pambele. After being an international star in the world of boxing, Pambele sadly went on to be the homeless guy who looked after parked car's outside my aunt's restaurant in Medellin. The world of sports in Colombia, sadly, is filled with stories like this.

With Pambele's story in the back of my mind, I started to look for information about Hoyos and his whereabouts. Sure enough, I found some information, including a phone number for a small bike shop in Medellin with his name. I called. I was told that Señor Hoyos no longer went into the shop much, but that I could call him at home to talk to if I wanted. They gave me his home number. Suddenly, I found myself sitting in front of my computer, talking to the man himself through Skype. My excitement could hardly be contained. From the time I was a little kid, I had heard his name only in the context of sports legend. There was Jesus, there was Moses...but in Colombia there was also Ramón Hoyos, Cochise Rodriguez and Efrain Forero. I was on the phone with a legend of biblical proportions.

As I quickly found out, Hoyos in now 78 years old. He lives in a small country home outside of Medellin. His kind voice is heavily marked by the accent of someone who grew up in the Antioquia region of Colombia, a "paisa" as they are called. His tone was extremely friendly and upbeat. Although clearly elderly, Hoyos remains both nimble and humorous. Even after all these years, the man remains competitive, and will not shy away from telling you how great he was on the bike. He was a climber, like most Colombians, and still takes great pride in his accomplishments. After speaking to him for some time, it became clear to me that your body may deteriorate with age...but if you raced at his level, your competitive spirit always remains.

One last thing: the green annotations that you'll see in the interview are my attempt to explain certain things that came up in his answers, which I believe could use a little background information for those of you who are not from Colombia. I hope they make the interview a bit more enjoyable for everyone.

Update: Since I wrote this post, I had the great opportunity of meeting Ramon Hoyos in person while in Medellin. You can read a short account of that meeting here.

Señor Hoyos, how old were you when you started riding a bike?
I started riding a bike when I was about 13 years old. Wait no, 12 years old.

Was your family able to afford a bike for you? I'm sure it was very difficult to buy one.
You're right. It was difficult. It was a rented bike that I first rode actually. Mr Trujillo had a bike rental business in Marinilla, Antioquia. This must have been around 1943.

Marinilla, Antioquia is the small town town where Ramón Hoyos was born. You can see it on Google Maps here.

What was your first race?

My first race happened when I moved from Marinilla, to Medellin. They had a race right after the very first Vuelta A Colombia. It was a circuit. In that race, I was up against Pedro Nel Gil and Roberto Ramirez, who were the very best cyclists in Antioquia at the time. They raced in the Antioquia-A squad. They had just raced in the Vuelta A Colombia. By the time I got to the finish line, the judges were all gone, so they didn't even catch my time. If they did, they didn't publish it or pass it on to the press.

Medellin is the second biggest city in Colombia, with a population of 2.5 million.

How old were you at the time of that first race?
I was only 18. It was 1951.

How were you able to get the funds necessary to travel and or even have a bike for your first races?
I was sponsored personally by Ramiro Mejia. He was the owner of the Tropical Dry-Cleaner business. His shop was located in the Colombia neighborhood, in Medellin. He helped me so I could go to the Vuelta for the first time, in 1952. But before that, he helped me for a circuit race in Manizales. It was a race to commemorate the 100 years of the founding of Manizales. I won that race, and I took the trophy back to Medellin and gave it to Ramiro Mejia. I told him that it was his, because he had made it possible for me to race and win. When I gave him the trophy, he started to cry because he was so excited. But the trophy was his, he had paid for me to make that trip. It wasn't mine to keep.

The Colombia neighborhood, in which he lived, is now part of a larger area within Medellin called
El Poblado. The neighborhood is now a very wealthy one, which is very different from what it was like in the 50's.

Manizales is a city near Medellin, with about half a million people. It was there that Pablo Escobar's brother ran his Ositto bike company.

How were you able to race your first Vuelta A Colombia? Did you have to qualify?
Ramiro Mejia was very vocal and well known in the Antiquia Cycling Federation from back in the 40's. Once I won that race in Manizales, he started to talk to people in the Federation about me. He wanted to see if they would perhaps let me race in the Vuelta. I hadn't qualified to race, I just didn't have the necessary results. But he helped me, and I was allowed to race.

And that was for 1952?


And you won the race in 1953, in your second year at only 19?


What bike did you race in that first Vuelta?
It was a touring bike, a Monark. I had no sponsorship for that first Vuelta really. After that, I started working hard and saving up all my money. With the money I saved up, I was able to finally buy an Automoto bike for 280 Pesos.

One of the very few pictures of an Automoto bike that I was able to find.

I've seen pictures of you wearing a green Coltejer jersey. When did they sponsor you?
That was not until later. At the beginning, I just worked there at Coltejer as a laborer, but no one at the company really knew that I raced bikes or anything.

Coltejer is probably the biggest employer in Medellin and its surrounding areas. It's a huge mill that makes fabrics for the clothing manufacturing trade in Medellin. They have the tallest building in Medellin's downtown.

Hoyos wearing the green Coltejer jersey

What was your job at Coltejer?
My position was called "Various Jobs", which basically meant that I did whatever they needed me to do. I would move cars, I would move large spools of thread at the mills, I operated a large elevator they had, and cleaned up. Whatever they needed. Back then, the whole company would be given a vacation at the same time, like school. It was during that time that I went to race the Vuelta, during vacation.

Note the Monark jersey. Monark, as far as I can tell, was bought out by Huffy in the early 50s or so.

Once you started to win races, a huge rivalry started between you and Efrain Forero. I always heard it described as a Latin American version of the Bartali-Coppi rivalry in Italy. How were you treated when you raced in Bogota, where Forero was from?
At first, it was bad when we raced through Bogota. They threw small rocks at me, and bottles as well. Over time, people saw that I was very good, and everything was forgotten.

Part of the severe rivalry between the two was the fact that they each came from drastically different parts of the country. While Hoyos came from the warm low-lands of Antioquia, Forero hailed from the area around Bogota. The two regions have drastically different cultures, cuisine, music and ways of speaking. The rivalry was really a battle between paisas (what people from Antioquia are called) and cachacos (what those of us from the capital city are known as).

But did you get along with Forero personally?

Yes we did. We got along fine.

In 1952, some international riders began to come to Colombia for the Vuelta, like Jose Beyaert from France. How did the Colombians measure up against the international riders at that point?

Very, very well. We pretty much beat them all the time.

Efrain Forero on the right, with Jose Beyaert on the left (wearing glasses). Beyaert won the Vuelta A Colombia in 1952, and won gold in the 1948 Olympic games. Forero won the first Vuelta A Colombia.

Based on how well you guys did against top Europeans at the Vuelta, do you think Colombians would have won races in Europe, had you been able to travel?
Oh yeah! We would have won lots and lots of races. We were very good, but just couldn't get the funds to travel. The best we could do was try to get the Colombian government to sponsor us and send us. But it was very hard.

You did travel abroad twice to race though, to the Olympics. In 1956 in Melbourne, and 1960 in Rome. Was being in such remote places hard or odd for you since you came from such a small town?
No. Not at all. I was a figure in the sport by then. They knew me there.

These days, cyclists and coaches worry a lot about nutrition during and before races. I assume things were pretty different then. What did you guys eat off the bike?

I think that cyclists should eat the normal food they eat at home. Home cooked food.

Like a good Bandeja Paisa? [see image above]
Yes, yes. Bandeja Paisa. Lots of rice and beans. Cyclists should eat like hogs.

Bandeja Paisa is Medellin's best known dish. Once I tell you what's in it, you'll have to laugh about the fact that he agreed with my half-joking assertion that this is what cyclists should eat. Bandeja Paisa is a huge platter of food. "Bandeja" actually translates to "serving tray", so keep that in mind in terms of size and the quantity of food that we're talking about. Although there are some variations, the dish consists of: white rice, red-ball beans, sweet plantains, fried pork skin, ground beef, corn cakes, steak, sausage, avocado and fried eggs. The portions are usually gigantic. The picture above is of a pretty small one, and is missing a few things.

What did you guys eat while you were racing?

We didn't really eat much food during most races, even long stages. We'd eat before the stage. During the race, we'd eat a little bit of panela. Sometimes, we'd have little bread rolls, which we'd soak in agua-panela, or plain water.

If you want to know what "panela" or "agua panela" are, read my earlier post about panela and cycling.

Hoyos demonstrates his healthy appetite. Next to him are a teammate (left) and his proud sponsor, Carlos Echavarria, the CEO of Coltejer. Based on the bottle, I'm pretty certain that Hoyos is drinking a Postobon soft drink. Postobon would go on to sponsor one of the biggest cycling teams in Colombian history, who along with Cafe De Colombia, made history in European races.

That was all?

That was it. Nothing else. Well, sometimes fruit juice.

Was there a lot of doping back in your day?
There's always been doping in cycling. Always. I think there was less doping then, now I feel that there's much more of it.

Hoyos after winning the road race at the Pan American games

What were people using?
I really couldn't begin to tell you. I don't remember what people used. I never consumed that stuff. I did keep track of who was doping though, because it became a challenge for me to see if I could beat them. I liked that. I liked beating the guys who were doping.

I'm sure you took great pride in beating guys who were doping, right?
I did! I was a badass!

I thought for a long time about how to translate his use of the word "berraco" which is how he described himself. Based on the humorous and over-the-top tone of his voice as he said it, I feel strongly about the translation I ended up using. If you're curious, here's someone else's take on the word, which I feel does not fully encapsulate the meaning behind it.

Many of the great cyclists in Colombia's history managed to rise out of poverty, only to fall back into it after they peaked in their sport. You were able to open up a bike shop and keep it going as a successful business. When did you open the shop?
I opened the shop in October 29 of 1959. We just had the 50th anniversary celebration for the shop a few months ago.

Do you still have your own brand of bikes and frames?
Yes, we still sell them.

Where do you have the frames made? At your shop?
No, we have them made in the place where the best frames come from, Itagüí. That frame maker sells frames to other shops as well.

I asked this question in fear that perhaps even Colombia had fallen prey to simply buying frames from China. I was happy to hear that that was not the case. Itagüí is a small town on the outskirts of Medellin. It's a densely populated town of about 250,00 people. It's mostly known for it's industrial production. I've seen pictures of the frames on a Colombian equivalent to eBay. They are lugged steel frames painted one color, with Hoyos' signature on the top tube.

Next time I'm Medellin, I have to stop by and get a frame then!
Perfect. Stop by, I'll make sure I'm there.

Painting by Fernando Botero. Notice how Hoyos dismissively gives a backhanded slap to one of his opponents. That fellow cyclist (bottom right) still clutches the flowers from a previous podium ceremony. Perhaps it's Efrain Forero?

The great Colombian painter Fernando Botero did a painting of you titled "La Apoteosis De Ramón Hoyos". Did he approach you about doing the painting? Did you know him?

Yes, I knew him. I was a messenger in Medellin. So I would deliver canvas and paints to his house on my bike.

So he knew you before you won your first Vuelta?
Yes, I was racing a bit...but I was still young. I was still a bike courier when I met him. Once I started to win all the races, he wanted to do the painting of me. He remembered me as the bike courier, so he did the painting.

Do you like the painting?
I do. I remember seeing it and liking it, but you know what? He gave it to me, and then took it back! We went to the Parque De Los Periodistas in Bogota, right by Jimenez Avenue. That's where it was unveiled. Later, he asked to borrow it to show it to some friends or something, and he never returned it.

The painting was exhibited as part of a Botero retrospective at the Copenhagen Art Museum in the 90s, but is now in a private collection. Based on the price of other Botero pieces today, it's probably safe to assume that the painting is now worth a few hundred thousand dollars.

You were also immortalized by the Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He wrote your biography. What was it like working with him?
Yes, he wrote my life story. It was done in 16 installments for the Espectador newspaper in Bogota. He lived at my house in the Alejandro Echavarria neighborhood. That's where I lived at the time. He had to live with me because I told him I couldn't give him more than two hours a day to tell him my life story, so he had to move in.

The multi-part biography was a huge success. Thousands waited outside the newspaper's presses waiting for the next installment for a solid 16 weeks, since copies of the newspaper would often sell out as a result of the Hoyos biography being featured.

The Alejandro Echavarria neighborhood is now part of the greater Buenos Aires area of Medellin.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, receiving the Nobel Prize for literature. Marquez famously chose not to wear a tuxedo to the ceremony, a first for the famed award. He chose instead to wear what is considered formal attire in his native coastal region of Colombia.

Were you too busy training to give Marquez more than two hours a day for your biography?
Not just training. Actually, I had my Ham radio duties to take care of. I had to be on the air everyday at a certain time.

Aside from Ham radio, what was your training schedule like?
The way you have to train is to do it every other day. Three to five hours, mostly climbing.

What should riders do during a rest day from a two-week stage race? Play a game of dice with rival cyclists of course! Note the money on the table. Hoyos is furthest to the right.

Did you have an off-season, or maybe take it easy doing the rainy months?

No. You have to go out. Doesn't matter if it rains or pours. Rain, thunder, lightning... doesn't matter. You have to go and train.

Did you like training alone, or with friends and teammates?
There was always a few of us training. Sometimes it would just be friends from around the neighborhood. Sometimes I would have training partners, who would get paid a tiny little salary by the government of Antioquia or a small company to train with me.

What about you, were you paid well? You were a huge star on the national stage.
I was paid little, but I was happy. It's not like I could buy a car or anything fancy like that, but I was able to eat and pay for a place to live.

Hoyos after a crash in Bogota. The man with the sunglasses is his team director, Ricardo Zea.

Diomedes Diaz mentions you in the song "El Lider", do you like the song?
I think I know the song. There was also a full record made about me, fourteen songs by different musical groups from around Medellin. The Trovadores Del Recuerdo also did songs about me. Two to main people in the group died, but their sons are still around and they have a trio.

In the 1980s, Colombian cycling became very well known around the world because of the victories of the Cafe De Colombia team in races like the Dauphine and the Tour. Was that a happy time for you? Did you feel like that generation was fulfilling the dream of Colombian's winning in Europe? Did you have contact with Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra back then?
Well, I would always cheer them on, and I always congratulated them and hugged them when I saw them. But I'll tell you, I knew that I had been better than them in my day.

What do you think is the secret that made and continues to make Colombian cyclists so good?
The mountains. That's what it is. You have to climb mountains any way you go here. It made us better, it made us race harder and made us better in every way. It made us superior.

Speaking of climbing, what was your climbing style? Did you climb sitting down?
I always climbed sitting down, I never stood up. If I stood up, it would be very, very brief moment. I only did it if I had to in order to use different muscles, but only for a very short while.

Do you still follow cycling?
I hear about it a little from time to time, yes.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
It was my pleasure.

I think I'm going to be in Medellin around November of this year. I'll make sure I stop by your shop and maybe we can chat.
I would love that, yes. It would be my pleasure my friend. Just call me, and you can come by the house. You can come and see all the keepsakes I have from those days.

I'll make sure to call and let you know when I'll be there. Thank you for your time.
Sure. Thank you sir. I appreciate it.

His Wikipedia entry in English, sadly it's rather short.

Compilation of Garcia Marquez' journalistic work (Spanish only), including the biography of Ramón Hoyos.

Eat like a Colombian cyclist, or at least like Ramon Hoyos. Here's a recipe for bandeja paisa.

The undisputed Bible about the history of Colombian cycling is Matt Rendell's book Kings of The Mountains, which has a significant amount of information about Hoyos and his victories.

Come on, leave a comment.