Alfonso Florez. Tour L' Avenir winner, cycling pioneer, murder victim.

,(Si alguien de la familia del estimado Señor Alfonso Florez lee esto, por favor mandenme un email. Mi direccion de correo electronico esta a mano derecha, bajo el nombre "Klaus". Seria un GRAN honor poder saber de su familia. Muchisimas gracias.)

Alfonso Florez was born in Bucaramanga (in the Santander department of Colombia). From an early age, it was clear to many in his family that Alfonso had the build of a cyclist, but he badly wanted to play soccer/football. Like so many of Colombia's future cyclists, Alfonso's legs were thin and seemingly weak for football. He lacked the necessary power to play competitively, so he turned to cycling after he won a touring bicycle in a raffle. Alfonso rose quickly through the ranks of the sport. In 1979, he won the Vuelta A Colombia, and in 1980 he won the Tour L'Avenir in France. He would later win the Vuelta A Colombia again, and would be the first Colombian to wear the polka dot jersey at the Tour de France. In many ways, Florez was a precursor to many of Colombia's victories in Europe, but he's often forgotten amongst the names of giants like Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra.

In 1983, Colombian riders participated in the Tour de France, with five out of ten riders from the National team abandoning the race early due to exhaustion caused by pave, time trials and flat stages. Florez, the team captain, stubbornly hung in, but eventually retired before the race reached his beloved mountains. While many saw their performance as a failure, the seeds for Colombian success in France had been planted.

Florez (on the right) celebrates winning the Tour L'Avenir during it's last stage.
Click on the image to see it bigger. Photo by Horacio Gil Ochoa

After winning the Tour L'Avenir, Florez (middle) and his teammate Patrocinio Jimenez give a leader's jersey to Ernesto Colnago (right), who had graciously lent bikes to the small Colombian team for the race.Click on the image to see it bigger. Photo by Horacio Gil Ochoa

As with so many other legends in Colombian cycling, however, Florez' story had a tragic end. On April 23, 1992, Florez was shot and killed as he drove his wife's Mazda sedan through the streets of Medellin. Florez, who was by all accounts a devoted family man, had just picked up his wife's car after having it serviced. He was on his way to a department store to buy his daughter a new backpack for school. The last words he said to his family were "Honey, I'm going to buy you a new backpack today". Only hours after he left his home, Florez' body was showered with bullets, and no eye witnesses ever gave information about the assailant/s. Based on the overwhelming number of such assassinations that occurred in Colombia in the 80s and 90s, however, it's probably safe to assume that the shooting was orchestrated in a similar fashion as the many, many other killings (probably in the thousands) that took place during that time in the streets of Colombia. In nearly every such assassination, a gunman would ride on the back of a high-powered motorcycle (a BMW in almost every single case, for some odd reason) facing backwards. The motorcycle would would pull up next to the car (or in front of it) at a stoplight in order to get a clear shot at the victim. In many cases, a smaller automatic weapon (like an Uzi) would be used. As the last shots were fired, the person driving the motorcycle would accelerate rapidly through city traffic, making a getaway within seconds. The pattern became so common and predictable, that certain motorcycles (particularly those with high-end torque, and many BMW models) were banned in Colombia. Also outlawed was having a passenger on any motorcycle for any reason. Lastly, all motorcycle drivers were forced to start wearing day-glow vests with the license plates of their vehicles printed on them, so that eyewitnesses could more easily identify and remember the license plate numbers. This law remains in Colombia to this day, and you can see a picture of the vests here. Such was the fear in the streets of Colombia back then, that I still remember being a kid on the passenger's seat of my mom's car, while actively looking for any motorcycle that had a passenger on it.

The reasons why Florez was gunned down remain murky, like so many other assassinations in Colombia during the 1990s. The most widely reported account states that Florez had somehow upset one of Pablo Escobar's men. In the 90's, cyclists were often used a drug mules (sometimes unwillingly), due to their high level of fitness, how accustomed they were to international travel, and their celebrity status within the country. While some professional cyclists were killed for refusing to take on such tasks, or for getting caught (like Juan Carlos Castillo), it's also entirely possible that Florez was shot for another reason which circulated years after his death. It's possible that Florez had become involved with a trafficker's offense almost as reprehensible as refusing to take drugs into the United States inside your stomach. In the end, Florez' story is a quintessentially Colombian one, and the plot line is eerily commonplace to those of us who grew up there. As such, the details of his passing seem almost inconsequential to most of us, while his accomplishments in the sport remain intact in our minds.

If you'd like to read about other Colombian cyclists, you may enjoy
these links:

Interview with Colombian legend Ramon Hoyos

A post about Pablo Escobar, his involvement in cycling, and what happened to many cyclists who crossed his path

Interview with Cesar Grajales, where he discusses his time at Rock Racing very openly

Post about the magic potion that Colombian riders had in their bottles during the 1980s

A post regarding the elation and misery that was the 80s in Bogota, and how cycling played a role in it, as well as the extreme emotions displayed by Colombian broadcasters during cycling races.

A little story about the isolation that Colombian riders felt in Europe during the 80s

An interview with the proprietor (a frame maker) of one of Lucho Herrera's bikes

Quick change of subject:
For all you Jens fans, enjoy this video where he gives us a tour of his room, and shows off his sleeping t-shirt, which features a picture of of his kids. The video is a little slow to load. Thanks to Kyle for the heads up on this video.