All around the world, it's the same song. A race report from Medellín, Part 1

Before I start with today's post, let's just get something out in the open. Let's talk about the proverbial elephant in the room: Yes, the name of this post is loosely based on the name of the classic Digital Underground song. Digital Underground were a group of pioneering musical artists who most of you probably only know from their song "Humpty Dance", but unlike you...I celebrate and value their entire body of work. I have chosen that title for this post, since it helps illustrate the overarching similarities that exist within cycling around the world.

So,with that out of the way, let's now move on to the business at hand.

In the past, I have written race reports for this blog about races such as the Tour de France, and Paris-Roubaix. It was at those events, that I took a close look at both the race participants as well as audience members with a keen photographic eye that only I have.

This cycling fan at the 2009 Tour dressed for the occasion. His neighbor told him that what professional cyclists wear is "basically like underwear", so he went ahead and tried to dress like them...much in the same way that Spike Lee looks like he could play center for the Knicks when he goes to their games, should the team be in need of a 5'4" center.

When American cyclists talk about something being "Euro", they're usually talking about Pippo Pozzato's greasy hair, his mustache, or his white handlebar tape...but the only image that comes to my mind when they utter that term is this guy. Just look at that face, he's so euro, he's in physical pain as a result.

Having covered major races such as the Tour and Roubaix (that's what those of us in the cycling biz call those races), I wanted to take my readers inside a smaller and more intimate race this time around. It's with that notion in mind that I chose to cover the 37th edition of the Clasico El Colombiano, here in Medellin. The event encompasses a multitude or races, ranging from time trials, road races, criteriums, as well as many events for mountain bike and BMX enthusiasts. The races are for amateurs of all ages, but also include events for professionals in every discipline. Being that this blog focuses on bikes with goofy handlebars and big wheels, I decided to attend both the criterium, and the road race. Below are some of the images I took during those events, at least one of which will surely get me a Pulitzer Price in photography.

The Sky Cycling Team has a much talked-about bus, which is probably worth more than the GNP of Colombia. I'm sure that bus is great, particularly since its wi-fi capability allows Wiggins to shop online for new cravats. But Sky has nothing on this team, which uses the most Colombian of all team buses. Colloquially called "chivas", these windowless buses are commonly used as transportation in rural areas of the country. While a city like Medellin has a great Metro system, people who live in small villages use chivas to get from one town to the next. The top portion of the chiva is used for cargo, such as small livestock, and recently harvested goods like potatoes, oranges and bananas. Rarely seen in city environments, this chiva was the team bus for several riders from rural areas outside of Medellin. Apparently they pooled their resources, and rented it. The black tarp on top of the bus covered the rider's bikes, which were tied together with twine. Eat your heart out Team Milram, with your fancy chromed, custom-made racks.

A couple of entrepreneurial fans brought trainers and rollers, which they rented out for a small fee. A couple of riders also brought their own homemade rollers, which worked amazingly well, considering that they looked like they were welded together from pipes they'd bought at the hardware store.

The bike pictured above is a GW, which is a company with no relation to the ex-American president (thanks to my brother for bringing up this possible link.) Their tagline is "made for winners", so unless you're a winner...don't buy one of their bikes. They mostly make low-end bikes, but a few people had carbon GW frames and wheels at the race. If you want to look at the company's site be my guest....I hope you enjoy the awesome music that will greet you.

Another business opportunity was capitalized upon by several taxi drivers, who had bike racks installed on their cars. In order to get to the race, several riders will share a cab and will always call this particular driver since they know that he has a bike rack. Some of these taxis can even be hired as team vehicles during the road races, due to the driver's experience with the sport, and due to his bike rack. So, for a relatively small fee, several riders can rent a team car, including a driver who will help you with a wheel change. Not bad. This particular taxi had multiple large stickers on its windshield, from the road races where it had been used as an official vehicle.

Although there's certainly riders who have high end bikes and components here in Medellin (professionals certainly do), many use old steel frames with downtube shifters. These range from beat up old frames, to Colnagos and Pinarellos that are being raced just as they were purchased back in the early or mid 1980s. These bikes are not used ironically, or for retro sentimentality. Speaking with the owner of one such bike, it became clear that this was a large investment...and once you buy a bike like that, you have it and use it for life. That's your bike, you'll never have another, and you use it with the components it came with. Period. So even though they use technology that would be considered dated for racing in the United States, these are some of the most aggressive and hard working riders you'll ever see...even if I saw one of them put tape around his shoes in order to bind his feet to the pedals.

While many have steel frames, some also have generic non-branded aluminum frames, which they simply buy decals for, like the Trek one in the picture above. By buying these decals and applying them to their frames, riders get to make their frame into a Trek, Orbea, Pinarello, or a Shimano (the distinction between frame and component makers is blurred often). Before the race, a few young men were selling decals for all the major bike manufacturers around the world. Among the cyclists competing, at least one of them decided to go from a Colnago bike, to a Bianchi minutes before his race....all by simply taking off the decal on his bike and applying a new one. Why buy a new bike...just buy a new sticker.

It's also worth mentioning that the other sticker on the downtube of the bike above (the one near the headtube) is for one of Colombia's most storied football/soccer teams, Atletico Nacional. Many of the riders had stickers like this one, proudly showing which team they are supporters of.

A year ago, when Rock Racing launched its line of bikes at Interbike, I sorta' laughed when Michael Ball said that his intention was to sell the bikes in Latin America, where Rock Racing had what he called "strong brand equity". Did Michael Ball picture us Colombians as having such low standards that we'd buy his wares? Well...turns out that he was pretty much right. Although I laughed then, I have to admit that I was amazed to see how many little kids were wearing Rock Racing t-shirts at the race, and how many people own Rock Racing kits or water bottles. I also saw one guy racing in what looked a whole lot like Rock Racing jersey...but wasn't. I was unable to photograph him, but then looked around at the websites of several Colombian clothing manufacturers, and found the jersey, which is pictured above on the left. Note the striking similarity to the Rock Racing kit on the right. I guess the only thing worse than wearing a Rock Racing jersey, is wearing a knock-off Rock Racing jersey. Damn, how could my fellow Colombians betray me like this?

Greasy Michael Ball - 1
Awesome Cycling Inquisition - 0

Speaking of jerseys, this guy asked his wife for a cycling jersey as a christmas gift. When she asked him what kind of jersey he wanted, he said "I don't know... like a cycling team know, like from a cycling team." So that's exactly what he got as a gift...a cycling team jersey. Sadly, I forgot to check if his bike had a "Bike Company" decal on its downtube, which would be pretty damn cool.

His jersey, by the way, reminds me of the welfare cheese and peanut butter that my grandmother used to get, which always came with a white label that generically stated what the product was in large, black, helvetica type: "PEANUT BUTTER."

What makes Colombian bike racing different? The food. This was the small lunch portion you could buy in a tent near the race. As many riders prepared for their race, this is exactly what they ate...sort of different from all the potions, Cliff Bars and gel packets that are common in other places around the world. Who the hell needs that stuff, when you can buy a portion of beans, rice, plantains, corn cakes and avocado that can blow a hole through your colon big enough that a Buick can drive through it?

This concludes part one of my report about the Clasico El Colombiano in Medellin. If you'd like more information about this race, please visit the blog later in the week for part two, or feel free to contact me directly by calling the Cycling Inquisition toll-free line. My extension is #226. Thanks.