The myth of Laurent Fignon as an intellectual, the importance of beating Coppi, and just who does cycling belong to? A conversation with Matt Rendell.

Herrera and Fignon.
Photo: Le Dauphiné Libéré/Maxppp

This is the second in a three-part series of conversations with author and journalist Matt Rendell. Matt is also a TV commentator and one half of the Real Peloton podcast. His latest book is Olympic Gangster, and he has also written Marco Pantani's biography, and Blazing Saddles: The Cruel and Unusual History of the Tour de France.

In this installment, we discuss Laurent Fignon's relationship with Colombian cycling (something I have written about before), as well as deals between teams at races, and the importance of beating someone like Coppi. We also talk about who cycling belongs to, and we'll try to figure out how and why Colombian cycling declined in the early 90s.

What did you make of Laurent Fignon's relationship with Colombians? He appeared to detest Colombian riders.

He did. He used any opportunity he could to disparage them. First of all, Fignon hated Colombia and the Colombians. So bear that in mind, there was real antipathy there. [While some have suggested that Colombian riders made themselves out to be victims, Jose Beyaert agreed with them based on comments he heard Fignon make, and threatened to break his jaw at the Tour de France one year, as Matt recounted in part one.]

I find Fignon's take on the 1987 Vuelta to be interesting. He said in his book that Herrera bought the Vuelta. That arrangements between teams are made is known. But Fignon's take on it [that Cafe De Colombia bought the race] seems unsettling because of how selectively told the story is, and how it's framed, since it probably didn't differ from other races. It's also worth mentioning that both Colombian teams [Cafe De Colombia and Postobon/Ryalcao] which were pretty dominant, were working for Lucho.
What he had to say about the 1987 Vuelta is…well…it's taking a deeply European piece of cycling culture, i.e. the idea that when the lead group is down to four, well...who will pay most to win? You only have to look at Merckx's career to see it. It was in the '71 World Championship where Gimondi offered him fifteen times Merckx's monthly wage, if he would just sell him the World Championships. Merckx prided himself in being the only rider who did not sell races, while all the other did. So for anyone to say or claim that this has anything to do with being Colombian is actually getting it completely wrong! If anything, Colombians eventually learned how racing worked and works in Europe.


I've worked for companies who have produced bike races in different parts of the world and I can remember having conversations where the boss would tell me, "we're going to lose this one because I don't know who to bribe, how, or how much."

Photo: Le Dauphiné Libéré

It's a part of the sport that people don't talk about. I thought it was interesting that Robert Millar talked about it very plainly in the documentary that was made about him [The High Life]. He talks about arrangements between teams to help protect a rider, not attack, and the like. I found Millar's account of it to be very candid, particularly for the time, but some fans are unaware of it. To crucify Cafe De Colombia as a result strikes me as odd.

Yeah, yeah.

Herrera with his parents (both peasants from the town of Fusagasuga) at the Vuelta a España. Today, Herrera lives in a farm on the outskirts of the town where he was born. His parents live in a separate house, but also on the same property. It was near that house, and in front of his mother, that Herrera was kidnapped in 2001 by guerrillas.

There actually must be some rules for how you conduct such "business", and they can vary. But people don't really talk about this. It's taboo.

Well, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if some unspoken rule was broken at that race ['87 Vuelta]. It wouldn't at all surprise me. What we are talking about is someone from another world, entering the world of, not just Europe, but European road racing and seeing how things are done. Then trying to adapt themselves to it. So once again…Fignon sins through his lack of sophistication I think.

Millar and his director discussing deals between teams. According to the book In Search of Robert Millar, the team in question at the '85 Vuelta was Panasonic.

In his book, Fignon also speaks a good bit about Colombian riders giving out cocaine at European races…but my question is, who was consuming it? Ignoring that point is parallel to castigating Colombia for supplying drugs, but ignoring the fact that the United States and Europe are buying them.
There's another side to these stories.

There's always talk about it, and I know that Fignon mentioned that in his memoirs… that Colombians distributed cocaine that they brought in their bicycle frames. It's true that small quantities came over with teams in the early 90s. With that cocaine story, people have to be aware of how different Colombian culture is, especially among the very, very poor. And most of the riders who came over were from desperately poor backgrounds. Very early on, they were exposed and aware of the wild enthusiasm that white Europeans had for cocaine. So keeping in mind that cultural difference, and wanting to offer a cultural gift of sorts, which is a concept that is largely dead in Europe, is how these things happened. That whole drug story has to be understood in those terms. Not in terms of how a European would see it, which is to blame another country and another culture for the fact that this [Europe] is the biggest market for drugs, and the fact that there's an insatiable hunger for drugs here. To me, it's clear that Figon took that option.

The perception of Fignon in Colombia, even down to his obituary last year, is that he really didn’t like Colombia, and that there was some cultural motivation behind it.

Fignon didn't travel well. I, for example, try to push the barriers of who I am, and try to get to the other side of things if it's possible. Of course, it's not. I enjoy putting myself in situations where, even if it's only a matter of geography, I'm distant from my culture. When you look back, bits of yourself become visible. Fignon was not one of those people. He was praised as an intellectual because he came from Paris and wore glasses. But he wasn't an intellectual. But he was one of the most extraordinarily gifted cyclists of all time, winning the Tour on his first attempt at 22.

Article from the Ciclismo A Fondo magazine. The text reads: "A Colombian domino effect in a Vuelta that will go down in history...Lucho Herrera. A victory for an entire nation"

In your podcast, you recently mentioned sending your bike to Colombia to be worked on, after shops in England either caused the problems, or were unable to work on your bike. Does Colombia, in a sense, represent an earlier or better time to you, when things were done differently and perhaps better in some ways?

I don't know how things are in the U.S. but in the UK, there are many gadgets, as well as white goods, things like fridges and washing machines, that you simply can't get mended.

They are now disposable

Correct. So our dumps are full of things like washing machines that perhaps have a filter that could be washed out. So what happened with the bike was this: I have a Kuota, full carbon frame. It's a magical machine. I took it to a bad mechanic, but I'm an even worse mechanic! He changed the bottom bracket. He either put it in with no grease, or it wasn't square. Either way, I rode the bike for three hours and I could hear clicking. So I took it to another mechanic, and he says it has to come out, since it likely went in there without any grease. This was a reputable place, with proper cycling people. They couldn't take out the cranks. Turns out it was cross-threaded, and they simply couldn't get it out. So I found the wonderful Tino Hincapie [no relation to George Hincapie], who is a legend in Medellin. He's a true master frame builder, and his shop is opposite the entrance to the velodrome there, together with Micho…who was Rigoberto Uran's old coach.

Really? Small world.

Yes, yes. You know this as well as I do. In Colombia, the moment cross the threshold into the world of cycling, you are immediately at the very center of every significant thing that has ever happened in the sport in the past, as well as everything that is happening right now. All the people you meet have lived every minute of their lives for the sport, it's a real passion for them. It's for this reason that I feel that it's to them that this sport really belongs. Cycling does not belong to sponsors, or to organizing committees. It also doesn't belong to people who choose to associate themselves with it. It just doesn't. Cycling belongs to the people form whom it circulates through their veins naturally. It's all they've ever known.

Herrera talks to the press

They are, in a sense, keepers of the sport at its truest.

Yes, and Tino is one of them. When I told him about the bike, he told me to strip it down and send it to him with Daniel Echavarria, the mechanic of the Colombian track team. He was going to be in Manchester for the World Cup. I was there working, so I took it there, and gave it to Daniel. Three weeks later, he took it to Tino in Medellin. Three weeks later, he took it back to the track World Championships in Holland, where Chris Boardman picked it up for me and put it on the television truck. Once it came to the UK, I went to pick it up, and it was fixed. I sent Tino an email to ask what the charge was, and he said there was absolutely no charge. His feeling was that because I had written a book about the history of Colombian cycling, I had already done so much for him and Colombia, that he couldn't charge me. To say I've done that much was not at all true. But that's Colombia, it's a culture that values goods, and where tradesmen are not going to simply tell you to throw things out.

Colombia has retained a culture of craft in that sense.

But it's also a deeply, deeply honest culture, in the same way that I belong to a deeply dishonest culture.

Ramon Hoyos

In speaking with Ramon Hoyos during my recent visit to Medellin, I realized something about the Colombian psyche, particularly in the realm of sports. It's something that also presents itself in the very fact that Jose Beyaert was invited to Colombia in the first place. I'm referring to the constant need to justify our existence, or our accomplishments in comparison to those from other countries. I see this in sports, music, literature and many other fields. It's as though we don't exist unless we are seen in the context of foreign competition. Competing against foreigners legitimizes our accomplishments. Have you sensed this during your travels in Colombia or similar countries?

Yeah, it's true, but it's certainly not unique to Colombia. Everyone does it. Conversely, colonial powers do the same. There's a kind of export there too, by that I mean that when something becomes internationally recognized, it becomes a means by which the ruling class can differ themselves from the poorer classes, and thus enter an international cosmopolitan culture. For example, during the first World War, Argentina allied itself with Germany because of its meat exports. As a result, France expelled all of the Argentines. Once they got rid of all the Argentines, the French in Paris redeveloped tango according to their own taste. After the first World War, relations between France and Argentina were re-established. It was then that tango was re-exported to Argentina in its now exoticized guise. And the ruling class of Argentina, who had previously regarded tango as a lewd pastime because it came from the poor and was danced in the brothels, well they now loved it. So much so that it became a symbol of Argentina, but only once it had been imported from a colonial power.

Newspaper clipping from the El Colombiano newspaper. Headline reads "Coppi and Koblet challenge Ramon Hoyos this Saturday". He had beaten them both the year prior on the Doble A Pintada race, and they had come back to Colombia for a rematch. [Courtesy of Ramon Hoyos]

Sure, they loved it because it came from France in its latest iteration. It was European, and thus sophisticated.

Right. So I think its common for people to try to validate themselves with reference to a bigger, international, global reality.

Would you say that the value that we Colombians place on Hoyos' victory over Fausto Coppi [Hoyos beat Fausto Coppi in the Doble A Pintada race in 1958] plays into that? As a symbol, it's a powerful win, but when you understand cycling, you know that Coppi may have been training, may not have even been there to win. But the importance of the win remains, because Hoyos was a young man from Colombia, and Coppi was a giant from Europe.

I agree with you as far as that victory. Coppi was an old man in cycling terms. He wasn't really in racing form, the conditions were against him, and for Hoyos it was the biggest race of his life. So that was the case, but you can't really think of it in those terms. For example, I was thinking recently about the Vuelta a España in 1985. You know the one that Perico Delgado won, while Pacho Rodirguez was let down by Javi Minguez, his director sportif, who gave him no support. All because he thought it would be better for a Spaniard to win.

[On the subject of deals between teams, and Pacho Rodriguez: listen to the newest episode of Real Peloton for Matt's telling of what—by all accounts—happened at the Dauphine, when Hinault paid a huge amount of money for Rodirguez to withdraw from the race with a non-existent knee problem. This was done since Rodriguez was going to win the overall. Pacho retired, but in a show of Colombian stubbornness and getting-the-one-that's-gonna'-get- you, his teammate Martin Ramirez took up the lead. Hinault and his teammates were insanely angered by this, and desperately tried to make Ramirez crash throughout the race as a result.]

Millar in the leader's jersey at the '85 Vuelta, Fabio Parra wearing the mountains classification jersey on the left.

Sure, and Robert Millar played a big role in that too. He felt he was robbed. It was a strange Vuelta.

In fact, the Robert Millar story is the only one like it in Britain. But I was talking about it with someone recently, and said that it was even worse for Pacho because it was his own team who let him down. Pacho was only ten seconds from the leader, who was Millar. But Pacho's own team said "we're not going to help you win this, because we want a Spaniard to win this." Of course, that's invisible to the British. The amazing thing about that was to think that Colombian cycling was amateur until 1984…and a year later they are within a hair's breadth of winning the Tour of Spain, you suddenly have a completely different perspective.

So when you think back to Coppi, and the fact that he was ridding in a nation that had a comparatively small history…well...the victory over Coppi was ridiculously overstated, and yet how could it not be? This was a country that didn't exist in the international cycling world. And this little man had beaten Fausto Coppi! For me, the onus is always on the privileged, like me, who attempt to see the world through the eyes of people who are less privileged. I think if you don't do that, you won't understand the way the world works.

And thus miss the value and importance of that kind of victory too.


As fanatical as Colombian cycling fans are and were, during the 1980s riders who were in European teams were largely forgotten about when compared to the adoration that riders on the Cafe De Colombia team received. Pacho Rodriguez, and his near-win at the Vuelta, are a perfect example of this.

Cycling in Colombia has always been a sport that mostly attracted the very poor. People that often live in conditions that don't even exist in many other countries. And yet, the sport has attracted presidents and the most powerful in one way or another. Colombian politicians always took great interest in cycling and cyclists, more so than politicians even in other poor countries. Did you find this to be unusual in researching your books?

You know, I think you're right. It's a symbolic exchange whereby by the head of the ruling, i.e. the president, makes a direct communication with the kind of elected representative of the poor people.

Yes, when we saw Lucho Herrera and the president…well, they were two heads of state actually. Each representing a group with unique values and interests in the other. This is more significant in a place like Colombia than in others, because of its social make-up is unlike that of the United States.

So it's almost anthropological in that sense, it's a way of re-knitting the social contract.

Nairo Quintana, with his parents, meeting Colombian president Manuel Santos, after Quintana's victory at the Tour de L'Avenir last year.

In the '87 Vuelta, 9 out of the top 21 riders in that race were Colombian, with two Colombian teams competing. That’s a disproportionately high number for such a small, poor country. I know this is a huge question, but what do you think happened to make Colombian cycling decline to the point where last year's Tour had no Colombian riders? Was it the economy, bad management, or the rise of football in Colombia? At the rate things were going, Colombia could have been headed to complete domination of the sport…maybe even like Kenyan's dominate long distance running. Looking at the numbers, it seemed possible.

I honestly don't know. I spoke with Carlos Betancourt after the Giro. He was fourth on that penultimate stage to Sestriere. He was the youngest rider at the Giro, 21 years old.

Carlos Betancourt

He was amazing in that stage, and hung in there with Rujano for a good while.

Yeah, and when you think of him and four or five riders in Colombia Es Pasion, aside even from [Tour de l’Avenir winner] Nairo Quintana…well. Those times and possibilities are always there. Just around the corner. But I really can't explain the downfall of what could have been in the late 80s and early 90s, although I think the general downturn in the economy then affected things. But you're absolutely right, Colombian cycling should be to cycling as Kenya is to running.

It certainly felt that way back this huge explosion was going to happen for us in the sport.

Absolutely, but there was also EPO in the European peloton then, and that made things tougher for them. Which is ironic now because domestic cycling in Colombia is doped up to the eyeballs. But Colombia Es Pasion is amazing, because I see them as one of the most important projects in world cycling. This is the only team from a relatively poor country which is spending a quarter of its budget to ensure that its riders are clean, and protecting them. All this is done in spite of the UCI, because the UCI is no help at all. They can't have a biological passport in Colombia because the infrastructure isn't there.

Which reminds me, Henry Cardenas, who was in the same team as Pantani and Chiappucci, said he was winning races in Colombia back then. But when he would go to Europe, he couldn't ride away from people. Sprinters were passing him on climbs. So eventually he said "I can't do this."

Henry Cardenas

Part three of my conversation with Matt Rendell can be found here.