This is the first of three conversations with author and journalist Matt Rendell. Matt has written extensively about cycling, including books like The Death of Marco Pantani: A Biography, and Kings of The Mountains: How Colombia's Cycling Heroes Changed Their Nations's History. Matt is also a TV commentator and one half of the Real Peloton podcast. In his latest book, Olympic Gangster, Matt details the life of one of the most enigmatic and interesting figures in all of professional cycling, José Beyaert.
Author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that because he was born in Colombia, a place full of seemingly fantastical experiences and unbelievable characters, he's had to ask very little of his imagination. One such such character, who was perhaps more Colombian and more unbelievable than any other, was José Beyaert.
Beyaert was a cyclist. He competed in the Tour de France, raced on the track, and won the gold medal at the 1948 Olympics. But the depth and complexity of the life that he lived is staggering, and not easily contained within cycling, or the world of sport for that matter. He was a cyclist, true. But he was also a gymnast, a boxer, an arms trafficker during the Second World War, and he was also friendly with some of the most ruthless and violent criminals of the last century. But he was not Colombian. The French cyclist went to Colombia as a guest, to help inaugurate a new velodrome in the early 50s, and decided to stay. He became enamored with every aspect of Colombian life. Beyaert lived in Colombia as an athlete, and a coach, but also as a businessman, restaurateur, hair dresser, logger, smuggler, flight attendant, emerald-trader, and (more than likely) hired assassin for the mob. So while the title of this post may appear to be purely sensationalist on my part, it's actually accurate.
Beyaert won the Vuelta A Colombia in 1952, and would then further Colombian cycling by coaching teams, and bringing European training practices to South America. He would also help take Colombian cyclists to Europe for some of their first trips across the Atlantic. But even in the midst of competition, Jose's presence was larger than life. After one stage of the Vuelta a Colombia, he was accused of getting help from a team car during a climb. The argument that ensued ended in one particular naysayer being stabbed to death. When you were around Beyaert, anything could happen. Anything.
Over the years, Beyaert grew to love Colombia and its people. He lived there until 2001, when he was nearly kidnapped by guerrillas (at a time when other retired professionals like Lucho Herrera and Oliverio Rincon had been kidnapped). He slipped away, narrowly escaping his pursuers, and thus went to France never to return to his beloved Colombia. Beyaert was witness to an astonishing number of events in Colombian history. Through his thirst for adventure, he would come in close contact with some of the world's biggest and most violent criminals, as well as highly regarded politicians, and members of the ruling elite. Beyaert's life was so wild and (in many ways) so Colombian, that it bordered on being a caricature. Even Gabriel Garcia Marquez could dismiss it as farfetched and implausible. But it was real.
Amazingly, Beyaert's story—like most in Colombian cycling—remained untold until Matt Rendell chose to write about it. And for that, I thank him.
You have written a great deal about Colombian cycling. How did you first become interested in it?
During the 1998 Tour de France I was on call for Channel 4, which was the British station that was carrying the Tour then. At the end of one of the stages, Paul Sherwen interviewed Chepe Gonzalez. What language Paul was speaking, I don't know. I don't even think it was a language. But my job was to translate [back into English], for the subtitles. Chepe was interviewed since he had won a stage a couple of years prior at Valance. He'd won that stage in front of a bunch of big, powerful sprinters, and it really should have been a sprint stage. There was a little dip before the few closing kilometers. Chepe had dropped back in the group, and pretended to be ill. Coming into the last kilometer, he made a little darting attack, and everyone ignored him. How could this little Colombian climber win a stage like this, which suited the sprinters?
In the interview, I was fascinated by the way that Chepe spoke. Everything he said was prefaced with "Si Dios quiera" [God willing], "…con gracias a Dios" […thanks to God]. It was incredibly Colombian of him. He had these incredible, dark, backlit eyes. So for the purpose of the interview, as I was translating, he used the phrase "pisos termicos". As in "tenemos comunidades en varios picos termicos". In the end, I translated it as, "we have people who live at every altitude in Colombia."
I ended up telephoning Radio Latina, a station in Paris owned by Caracol [a large Colombian broadcasting company]. When I called, I spoke with the director, his reaction was—I would later learn—was typically Colombian. He greeted my enthusiasm and curiosity, and with unbelievable enthusiasm of his own. He actually sent me a CD of Yuri Buenaventura singing "Colombia Tierra Querida", and he finally explained to me the whole "pisos termicos." [around the equator, temperature is regulated by altitude, not seasons. Vegetation, and plant life are thus affected by altitude as well. The zones that are created by the difference in climate, are called "pisos termicos", literally meaning "thermal floors". ] And because Colombia had the terrible stigma, I just had to find out more, and I wanted to go to Colombia.
Chepe Gonzalez. Two-time winner of the mountains classification at the Giro, stage winner at the Tour, and winner of the Vuelta a Colombia
And you went to Colombia
That's the sort of person I am. I had to find out more. The way Colombia had always been depicted was a bit like the dessert in the south of the Sudan, but this is a place with 40 million people. As I see it, cycling tells you a great deal about a place too. If a country has a lively cycling culture, particularly if it’s a poor country, it should immediately tell you that the roads are good. It tells you that their bridges are intact, it tells you that the roads aren't covered in mines, and that there aren't snipers on the side of the road. It also tells you that along the road, you can safely get food and drinks as you ride. This is also true in regards to racing. You don't have big international races on unpaved goat tracks.
It's for this reason that I'm quiet sharp with people, especially those involved in or who are fans of cycling, who equate Colombia with drugs or violence. They really should know better, if they thought about this. What they need to know is that Colombians ride in races like the Tour de France often. Just that should automatically dispel all the clichés and horribly prejudicial, and almost racist, ideas that float around about Colombia. So it was out of all this that my initial enthusiasm came from.
When I think you, as a foreigner traveling through Colombia, I can't help but think of José Beyaert, and his insatiable need for adventure. When I've met foreigners who end up in Colombia, it always seems to me that Colombia fulfills a certain need for them. This was certainly true for Beyaert. While you certainly haven't done the many things that Beyaert did, would you say that Colombia satiates a need that was always in you for adventure, or something else?
Well, no matter how hard I try to distance myself from the ideas that my culture tries to deposit in me about a place like Colombia, ultimately you never really step outside of your own culture. You simply end up making it more inclusive. But what you say is true, with the proviso that José Beyaert was doing these things in another time. In 1997, when I first went to Colombia, it was another country from what it is today. Right now in 2011, the country has been utterly transformed. But the emerald mines, back in José's time, were very, very violent. Horribly violent places indeed. That's absolutely not the case now, at a time when I was there. Even trekking into Barrancabermeja, and going into the forest around Barrancabermeja [where José was a logger], up until recently was incredibly dangerous.
But you still went to places to research your book that even some Colombians wouldn't dare set foot in.
Karl Marx suggested that all great events in history happen twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. I'm the farcical end I think [laughs], José was the real deal. I loved him very deeply…and you know….he loved Colombia very, very deeply. It's for this reason that José threatened to break Laurent Fignon's jaw on one occasion at the finish line in the Tour de France, due to Fignon swearing about them [Colombians].
Bayaert's life in Colombia was amazing, in part because he interacted with some of the best known political figures, but also some of the most dangerous human beings in the world. When I bought the book, I thought nothing of the picture on at the bottom of the cover. Just Bayaert with some miners or loggers. It wasn't until I got well into the book that I realized he was standing next to José Rodriguez Gacha [Gacha would eventually become one of the leaders of the Medellin Cartel, and was on Forbes Magazine list of the worlds billionaires. Known to be ruthless, Gacha started his life in crime as a hired assassin in Colombia's emerald mines. He would eventually be involved in the assassinations of several politicians, including the Minister of Justice, and a presidential candidate]. It's amazing to me that Beyaert always found himself around these types of people.
Absolutely. José was very interesting. He spoke very, very good Spanish. When I think about it, I've had so many advantages in life, and he had none of these things, and yet he managed to make a life for himself. He was a great guy, but he was also a son of a bitch too, you know? He was also a very bad man at times. But he took these things on, and dealt with these types of people, always in the spirit of adventure. I tried to make that point in the book. There was an aspect about him that was very French, that of being the adventurer. So he was living out his own fantasy in Colombia, as many people do.
Gacha's fame in Colombia extended well beyond his position in the Medellin Cartel. His friendship with Bayaert was not his only contact with Colombian sports. Gacha was a supporter of the Millonarios football/soccer team in Bogota, and funded the team almost single-handedly for many years. Above is the best known picture of Gacha, with a picture of a recent Millonarios game underneath. In that picture, you can see one of many banners with Gacha's face that are often displayed by fans.
Beyaert's life reminded me a bit of the Woody Allen movie Zelig. He managed to be at every important moment in Colombian history, or nearly every one, during his lifetime. In that sense, he also become more Colombian than some Colombians. You could almost open up any history book about Colombia, and perhaps find him lurking in the background of any picture. That's how omnipresent he was.
But that's a very Latin American thing. I mean, I've recently been writing a book about Salsa [Salsa For People Who Probably Shouldn't]. It's partly about my wife's family, and how different things are in Latin American countries. Here in the UK, and possibly in the U.S. as well, we live in tiny social networks of individuals. Increasingly, young people have a nighttime persona that they adopt. So we live in a rather anonymous culture where you can get on a train or a bus, you really feel like you don't know anyone. That's not the case is most of South America. There, when you go to a night club, let's say, you don't experience the same sense of liberation. It's not like it is here [in the UK] where you can do whatever you want, and get drunk, grope people, and get into fights or whatever, because no one knows you aside from those you are with. In those settings, there's a kind of identity loss here. Not in Colombia, and I noticed that. There's a massive community, large families, people who you call "uncle" who are not actually related to you, all of which have a level of interaction and knowledge that doesn't exist in other places. And you are very much included in that network.
You're absolutely right about Colombia. Even in a city the size of Bogota [9.5 million], you know everyone. You really do. Your parents will absolutely know the family history of anyone you may consider dating or becoming friends with. It's amazing.
Right. In Colombia, that connection is very real, and the way people communicate is different. So you can act a certain way in a seemingly anonymous place, but someone who knows you or your mother will absolutely be there. It's amazing. Some visitors can merely look into that network, but José very much became part of it, and became part of the culture and its connections. But yeah, I have that feeling as well, you never knew where José would turn up. And being a sports figure, he was a bit like a Medieval saint in Colombia.
Cyclist, gymnast, boxer, logger, emerald trader, hair dresser, business man, and perhaps paid assassin. Beyaert's life was so varied and at times outlandish, that the only place where he could have lived most of it was Colombia.
Saints and sports figures, two things Colombianos take very seriously. Cyclists in particular, because they have this air of martyrdom about them.
Right, and to him, it meant that he could speak and relate to the poorest people, and they related to him. But he could also interact with the rich and powerful, and they loved him too. You can be around presidents and the ruling class, as Beyaert was.
In doing so, he became deeply Colombian. His life and drive reminds me of the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's biography which is "Living To Tell The Tale"...a very Colombian way to see and describe life. That you live only because it will make for a good story.
Yes, but you could also say that he was deeply French as well. It's in keeping with some of the great French raconteurs. It was one of the many ways in which he was largely camouflaged in Colombia, because he grew up with many of the same values. The same can be said for his involvement in the criminal underworld, and this is something I make clear in the book, it was both very Colombian, but also deeply French of him.
The media often forgets the American and French traffickers who were pioneers in the drug trade in the 50s and 60s. In saying this, I don't mean to exculpate the Colombians who got involved in it, but it's something that is often forgotten. We [Europeans and Americans] have been slow to understand our involvement in all this. After all…my wife has an uncle in Colombia who was a truck driver. He was killed for refusing to take a shipment of drugs to the port in Buenaventura. And that story can be told of thousands and thousands of people in Colombia who did not want to be involved with drugs. But that's not a facile conversation to have over breakfast, when you are dealing with taking a stance that will cost you your life.
I spoke with Jose Duarte [legendary frame maker in Bogota] about this very topic. I asked him if he had any offers from the likes of Pablo Escobar to put "merchandise" in frames. He told me that when he was working as a mechanic for a team on the Vuelta A Colombia, Pablo asked him to come over to a certain restaurant on a certain day of the race. He'd seen that Duarte was working very long hours for almost no money, so he told him to come by to talk, about a business opportunity that would make him lots of money. Back then, it was only sort of known what Escobar was really up to. Duarte went to the restaurant, it was crowded, and thought better of it, and left without speaking to Escobar. He told me that he later realized it was the smartest thing he ever did. You agree to help with a shipment once, and if you ever refuse down the line…you're dead. Or if they don't need you, or if they consider you a liability you're dead. Apparently others took him up, and they all got killed.
Yeah. Yeah. There's only one way out of that business really.
In Olympic Gangster, you bring up what many consider the golden years of Colombian football, a time commonly known as El Dorado when Colombian teams were not controlled by FIFA or anyone else, and were thus able to spend unbelievable amounts of money to bring in the best foreign talent. Pablo Escobar would use a similar approach years later when he financed the club Atletico Nacional to have the best Colombian talent, to the point that Nacional [the club] and the national team were one and the same. Same players. Do you think that he also played a similar role with his investments in the Cafe De Colombia squad, and that he was interested in individual riders?
I don't think so. For the simple reason that the money involved in cycling is very little compared to football. Yes, Pablo's brother was a very good cyclist, and won a medal at the 1965 Pan-American Games. But I think the interest in cycling among the narcos had two dimensions. One was a simple enthusiasm for it because they had grown up with it. The other was that races took them all over the country, so they could get into their helicopters, and be seen. Cycling has always been a sport of the people in Colombia, and people like Pablo Escobar were populists. But the only real use of cycling as part of a criminal endeavor was when Roberto [Pablo Escobar's brother, who was also a coach, team owner, and heavily involved in his brother's business], took the national team to the Tour of Cuba, so he could look for routes to get cocaine into the United States. Besides that, I don't think it was ever any kind of criminal front.
Roberto Escobar, signing autographs as a young cyclist on the left, and post letterbomb on the right. As a result of the blast, he's now legally blind and partially deaf. Roberto surrendered to police in 1992 for numerous charges (weapons violations, trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, illicit enrichment, connections to the death of 4000 people, and having escaped from the Catedral prison along with is brother)
[Pictures scanned from Matt's book Kings of The mountains]
[Pictures scanned from Matt's book Kings of The mountains]
Read part two of this conversation with Matt here.
A few other things
Ever wonder what team directors do during long Tour de France stages? If you're Rolf Aldag, you talk about books like Olympic Gangster