Cesar Grajales. Brasstown Bald, Bahati Foundation and The Vuelta A Colombia (Part 2)

This is the second part of the Cesar Grajales interview. In the first part, Cesar discussed Pablo Escobar's brother (Roberto), and his relationship with cycling in Cesar's hometown of Manizales. He talked about his turbulent years with Rock Racing, and how he was treated by the team. We also discussed his introduction to cycling back in Colombia, and how he came to race in the United States. For the first part of the interview, go here.

Cesar doing an interview in 2004. (Photo courtesy of Fonda)

One huge moment in your career was the stage win in the Tour Of Georgia. You attacked Armstrong, Jens Voigt, Chris Horner and Bobby Julich. Do you remember the moment when you chose to attack? It was in keeping with other great Colombian mountaintop-finish victories.
You know, that stage win is interesting. I think I could have won all kinds of races in the United States, but none of them would have added up to that stage win. It seems like wherever I go, people who are into cycling know about it. A lot of people remember me because of that stage win, which is really nice. Many people have told me that my win that day was something special and incredible.

Cesar attacks on Brasstown Bald

When you attack on a climb like that, do you keep an eye on the other guys. Do you pay attention to their breathing or their cadence? Were you watching them to find the perfect moment to attack?
No. I wasn't. On that day, I was just concerned with myself, and trying to find the right moment for me to attack. At 3 kilometers to go, it felt like the right time. I had to attack. I just went, and I had a small gap pretty quickly. Later on, I would see the video of it, and see it how it happened. That year was when Lance was going to beat the record of having won the most Tours, so they had two ongoing TV series about him. There was the Road To The Tour, and The Lance Chronicles. Both series did episodes about that stage, which was pretty interesting to watch. In seeing the video, I later saw how Lance tried to attack and get back to me. I saw how Julich was dropped and how Horner was also. In watching those shows, I was able to see how they were clearly going at full speed. I didn't know that. On that day, I was afraid to look back. All I had as reference was the crowd. I would go by and hear their cheering. I would then hear a gap of silence, and suddenly yelling again. That's how I kept track of the gap. But aside from that, I just kept thinking about the win. Just the win, nothing else. The last 800 meters are the steepest in the climb. I remember counting down the meters with the signs along the road. 300 meters, 200 meters, 100 meters. Finally I saw the finish line.

Photo courtesy of Fonda

I always wondered how closely professionals paid attention to those signs in most stages.
Well, I did. It was an incredible experience.

Did Bob Roll put a newspaper under his polo shirt for the descent from Brasstown Bald inside a press car? Hmmm. (Photo courtesy of Fonda.)

I'm surprised to hear you say that you didn't pay much attention to the other riders at the end of that stage.
Well, that's how things work when there's only five guys left. It was Lance, Jens Voigt, Horner and Julich and me. I looked around, and saw who was with me on the climb. These guys were monsters, huge figures of cycling...and yet I realized that I felt just fine. I felt good actually. Once I realized who was with me, and how good I felt, I just worried about myself and when would be a good time to attack. I knew my legs were great that day.

Here's the episode of the show that Cesar is referring to. Go about 3:30 in to watch the portion about that stage.

How does Brasstown Bald compare to the bigger climbs in the Vuelta A Colombia?
Well, you'll simply never find 82 kilometer (50.9 miles) climbs like Letras in the United States. The climbs in Colombia are just monumental. Still, there are some good climbs in the United States, but they don't get used in any races. That's just not the kind of racing that they do here, plus I've been told that it's very hard to get the permits to race on those climbs. Here, almost every race is a criterium, or a short time trial. In Colombia, every single race is a stage race. There's nothing else. But there's some good climbing in the United States. When I'm in Georgia, I do a ride once a week that is called Six Gaps. It has six climbs, including Brasstown Bald. The ride is about five and a half hours, and none of it is flat. I would say that it's just as hard as any training ride that you can do in Colombia. Of course in Colombia, there's also the altitude to deal with.

Brastown Bald, the highest point in Georgia

It's amazing to me that with all these amazing climbs, the Vuelta A Colombia hasn't grown. At one point, every major European professional was going to Colombia to race at altitude. We have great terrain for racing, but the races haven't grown.
You know, I've spoken with people from the Colombian Federation about this very thing. I've tried to explain to them that cycling in Colombia hasn't grown or changed. Its' stuck in the 80s. The racing hasn't evolved. Why would they do a race like the Vuelta, as hard as it is, for two weeks during the middle of the summer? Who will go there to race it? It's to the point where a team from Venezuela and one from Cuba showing up is a big deal. Compare the Vuelta A Colombia with the Tour of California, which is a very new race...and next year will be a Pro Tour race. How can the Vuelta not be Pro Tour after such a legendary run? They don't understand how things work. They should make the race one week long, make it right after San Luis in Argentina, and everyone will come to Colombia on their way back up. You have to schedule it and in a way that will make it easy and convenient for teams to come. It's like they don't know about the Pro Tour, they still think its the 1980s. They should cater to the bigger teams, their schedule, and do it at a time when there's no soccer in Colombia, which would be early in the cycling season. They would get so much press and attention within the country, and coverage worldwide. They need to evolve, they're like dinosaurs in a way. Think about American cycling, when you look at it, you realize how they've evolved since the 80s. People here [in the U.S.] sometimes complain about the lack of racing and cycling, but look at their growth, its great actually. They have three teams in the Pro Tour [Garmin, HTC, Radio Shack, and BMC which is Pro Continental]. They have big races. Why can't Colombia have that? It's so sad to me to see Colombia, with such a huge history of cycling, such passion and such potential, and still be stuck in another era.

Stamp for the 1957 Vuelta A Colombia

It's funny that you mention the potential that Colombian cycling has. I was just thinking about that recently. If Colombia had followed the route it was on during the 80s, we would completely dominate the sport today. If you look at the top 20 in the Vuelta A España General Classification of 1987, I think almost half were Colombian [I double checked, 8 out of the top 20, and 9 out of the top 21]. Can you imagine? That's incredible. In those years, we would have two or three teams in the grand tours. It's so sad that it died down. Meanwhile, American cycling kept growing.
Right, right. But today, you look around...and it's the same people who were running cycling in Colombia back in the 80s. Same people, same ideas. Nothing's changed. They're putting a race for Colombian teams only. They're not concerned about the growth of the sport. They're stuck in their ways. They don't look around to see what's going on. How on earth can it be that San Luis can get seven Pro Tour teams, and the Vuelta A Colombia can't get even one to come? It's unbelievable. I've tried talking to people, but they won't listen. What makes me really sad is that this is something that even I could fix. It's that simple. What team would want to leave Europe mid-summer to go race in Colombia? That's not how things work anymore.

Glen Chadwick winning a Vuelta A Colombia stage in Bogota

Was it a big deal when Rock Racing was there for the Vuelta? When I was in Colombia last year, I saw lots of Rock Racing kits in Bogota.
It was a huge deal, and Rock was just a Continental team. The amount of press and attention was wild. Can you imagine what the race would be with Pro Tour teams? It would bring Colombian cycling to the forefront once again. People in Colombia would love the race, and outside press would report on the Vuelta.

Vuelta A Colombia

How did the Vuelta A Colombia compare to other races for you as a rider? How well is it organized, and how are the crowds different?
It's absolutely amazing how many people come out to see the Vuelta. It's just unbelievable. Everyone in Colombia has cycling in their blood. The race may not be as well organized, when you compare it to the Tour of Georgia, Missouri, or California. But any of those races would do anything within their power to get half of the crowds that come out in Colombia. My teammates were amazed, and told me they never imagined how many people would come out to see a race in Colombia. So the Vuelta is made by the crowds more than anything else.

Rahsaan Bahati

So now you're racing for the Bahati Foundation Team. How did you sign with the team? Did you and Rahsaan become friendly during your time at Rock Racing?
Well, Rashan was also a victim of Rock Racing, I guess you could say. Can you imagine, the guy is the National Criterium Champion, and they put him the amateur squad? So he wins the Champion's jersey, and the next year the team rewards him by making him an amateur. We were both victims of the same thing, and during our time on the team we became good friends, we were always joking around and having a good time. Last year, when we both went to the big criterium in Charlotte, he was working on the idea for a new team. So even then he asked me what I was thinking about doing for the next year. He told me he didn't want to get anyone too excited, or sign anyone until the money was in the bank. At the same time I was speaking with Rick Crawford. Through him I was keeping an eye on Colavita, and Fly V Australia. So I had a couple of options. It just so happened that Rick and Rahsaan ended up getting together to do one team together. It was perfect, since it was the two people I wanted to work with. I also liked the idea of the team's mission, which I don't know if people have fully understood. I don't think people understand that the foundation is the title sponsor, but the money that they may give to the foundation doesn't go to the team. The team's budget, 92% of it, comes from sponsors. From companies, or individuals that have contributed to the team. The foundations pays the team to be its title sponsor.

Bahati in front of the high school he attended, Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles

Were you attracted to the team because of its link to the foundation, and its goal to reach out to kids in LA's underprivileged neighborhoods? I suspect a good portion of the kids in such neighborhoods are probably latinos.
Yes, I enjoy that aspect of it. Reaching out to kids and helping out in some way. I look forward to going to those schools, and I like the idea of speaking with latino kids. I think it would be good for them to see that they could achieve whatever they want. Back in Georgia, I once went to a school to speak to young kids. I went with the team manager, and with Rebecca Larson to a Middle School. I thought the kids wouldn't be interested at all, but they were. Two kids actually started riding seriously, and still do. It was great.

Is there anyone you'd like to thank or acknowledge in particular?
Well, I want to thank Rashaan. I have to thank Steve Owens and Rick Crawford for giving me the opportunity to race again. I also have to thank my wife, who is the most important person in my life, Chamblee Abernathy. She's been very patient. Having a cyclist as a husband is hard, since I live out my suitcase more than I live at home.