Culinary secrets of Colombian cycling, Part 2: Bocadillo

This is part two of an ongoing series into the gastronomic secrets of Colombian cycling. Part 1, about the magic beverage that is aguapanela, can be found here.

In Bogotá, there are fifteen armed security guards for every policeman. These armed guards are usually paid for by individual city blocks (at all income levels), who pool their money together and pay for the security services of these uniformed men. Security guards in Bogotá spend their hours pacing up and down the block they are caring for, usually with a .22 riffle on one hand, and a transistor radio on the other. While these guards ("celadores", as we call them) are a symbol of safety—real or perceived—by adults, they embody something totally different to children. To those of us who grew up on Bogotá, security guards served as a link to adulthood. We got to know them over the years, speaking with them for hours, playing soccer with them, but also discussing adult matters, and often buying cigarettes from them. They answered the questions that young people were afraid to ask their parents. In a strange way, security guards became important figures in our lives, and we held their opinions in high regard.

Typical security guard in Bogota. Still from a short film called Bogota Imaginada

Before I became interested in the words of wisdom regarding adulthood (or adult activities) that security guards could share with me, I mostly spent my time discussing sports with them. They listened to every soccer game and every sports talk show. They read every newspaper, and listened to every stage of every cycling race. Part guru and part sensei, security guards knew all...and when they spoke, we all listened. It's for that reason that I took it very seriously when one security guard in particular said the following about Colombian cycling in the late 1980s:

"It's over"

Why was it over? Colombian cycling was over? What did he mean? I asked, and eventually got an answer.

"I heard that the riders are no longer drinking aguapanela during races. They have special sport drinks in their water bottles. Even worse, they are eating some kind of candy bars, not bocadillo. It's over. They're becoming like the Americans and the Europeans."

It was true. I'd heard about it also. Colombian teams were experimenting with "proper" sports drinks, and even products like Ensure at the time. This was seen as a sign of progress by the press, but many Colombians saw it as a negative symbol of the changing times. In their eyes, Colombian riders had won in Europe's biggest races in spite of being Colombian, not because of it. They had won because they did things differently, and because they ate bocadillo. It was the lack of bocadillo in the musettes that had put many over the edge, this particular security guard included. And since he was angry about it, I became angry about it too.

What is a bocadillo?
So what is this mythical food, that one that sent the security guard, and me over the edge? Although Wikipedia would have you believe that a "bocadillo" is merely a sandwich, in Colombia a bocadillo is something completely different. Made from guava paste and sugar, bocadillo is Colombia's original PowerBar. Inexpensive, sweet and damn good, bocadillo is a staple of Colombian cuisine. It was also one of the foods that Colombian riders took with them to Europe in the 1980s when they first competed in the Tour and the Dauphine. Bocadillo is small, packable, and traditionally comes wrapped in a dry, thin leaf. Good bocadillo will have both red guava paste, and white guava paste, and is usually enjoyed with a slice of white farmer's cheese that is equal is since and thickness to the bocadillo. In the context of a race or a lengthy ride, it's simply packed in a jersey pocket and enjoyed along the way.

Asked about the importance of both bocadillo and aguapanela (which I've written about before), Colombian Cochise Rodriguez, who won stages at the Giro and once held the hour-record, said:

Well, I think that both panela and bocadillo had two very important and undeniable effects of Colombian cyclists. First, the physical effect. It gave us calories and nutrition, but there was a second effect, and that was mental. Of the two effects, I think the most important one was....well...maybe both of them were equally important.

Rodirguez was not alone in seeing the importance of bocadillo. In the 1980s, the sweet snack became a symbol of the tenacity and stubbornness that propelled Colombian riders to the forefront of the sport. With every stage win in Europe came the cries of the overly enthusiastic commentators from Colombian radio and television.

"Powered by panela and bocadillo, the Colombian rider has shown all of Europe what we as a country are all about."
The fanfare was patriotic, and since the entire nation had always taken food seriously, bocadillo became part of Colombia's cycling narrative. It was their/our secret weapon. The local press touted the food as a symbol of the Colombian underdog. Compared to the technologically advanced bars and nutritionally balanced meals that European riders ate, bocadillo was simple. Humble. But it was ours, and we all suddenly placed even more value in the simple snack that we'd all eaten since birth. We all bought in. Both figuratively and literally. As a matter of fact, I still eat bocadillo on almost daily basis, and seldom ride without one in my jersey pocket.

Me eating bocadillo in Flanders, showing the guy in the sleeveless jersey, and the guy with the CamelBak how its done.

What to look for
As a cycling food, bocadillo works very well. It won't melt with heat, tastes great and gives you the strength of ten men. Okay, that last claim is still being tested at a Swiss lab, but the stuff tastes good. In order to make it something you can take on the road, however, you should be careful about what you buy. Some guava paste comes in large blocks, is sticky, and hard to pack. Ideally, you should look for a certain type of bocadillo, called bocadillo veleño. It's also good to look for bocadillo that is soft, and individually enclosed plastic or cellophane. Once you find a brand that you like, stick with it. Bocadillos can be found through online retailers, as well as in latino and Mexican markets, where its often referred to as "guava" or "guayaba" paste.

As you watch the Giro over the next few weeks, keep an eye out for the five Colombian riders who are competing in this year's race. If you look closely, maybe you'll catch one popping a reddish block of food in his mouth. If you do, let me know. I'd love to go back and tell that security guard that he was wrong, and Colombian cycling is not over.

Other stuff

Bocadillo can be enjoyed off the bike. For a great dessert, consider making this amazing dish. The picture on that site makes it look less than appetizing, but it's actually supberb.

Lastly, if you don't feel like you're getting enough of me here on the blog, feel free to follow my posts about the Giro in the Universal Sports website.