They rode with revolvers in their jersey pockets

A quick note before today's post:
As with the Giro, the people at Universal Sports have somehow thought that it would be a good idea for me to write my insights about the Tour for their website. My priceless commentary will come in the shape of bi-weekly posts (as well as a pre and post race reports). So if you simply need more of my wit, intelligent insights or boyish good looks, go to their website to get even more of me.

As the Tour de France approaches, I can't help but think back to my childhood, and the days when my brother and I would wake up at dawn to listen to the race on the radio. Those were magical years for Colombian cycling. So magical, in fact, that I often think perhaps some details have become obscured or exaggerated in my mind over the years. Since little record of that era in Colombian cycling exists, it's always a great joy to come across any detailed accounts or interviews of the time, particularly when they prove that things were as I remember them. Such was the case when Mike of Gage + DeSotto sent me a PDF of an article from Winning Magazine that he had recently scanned. Much of the article, which is from October of 1985) is an interview with Ruben Dario Gomez, then director of the Varta team, which eventually became Cafe De Colombia. The article is full of interesting bits, and also includes some troubling comments from the author. If you want to download the PDF of the article, which is a relatively small file, you can do so by clicking here.

First, some interesting things that come up in the interview:

- Winning Magazine asks, "Rumors say that the team fills their bidons with a kind of magic potion. Is there something to that?" Gomez explains that it's merely aguapanela (which I've written about here).

- In order for Luis Herrera to have a bike, his entire family (parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles) had to save up to buy one.

- Luis Ocaña, the retired Spaniard who Varta hired to help direct the team at the Tour, told Colombian riders not to drink Coke, because "it's poison!"

- Ocaña tried to change the Colombian riders into being more European in their style of training and racing, including changing the times at which they ate. Ocaña was eventually let go due to numerous disagreements, and the team decided to bring Colombian food with them to the Tour, and stick with their Colombian routines.

- According to Gomez, most riders in the team kept revolvers in their jersey pockets, in order to protect themselves, and their bikes.

- The author of the article says that Varta, the team sponsor and battery maker, saw a huge spike in sales since the "small, dark haired climbers" began to ride and win in Europe. He says Varta were behind this "Indian cycling success", something that struck me as an oddly xenophobic statement. Additionally, he says that in Colombia "electricity is still a city luxury, and TV is a show window rarity." Both of these comments are insanely misguided and false. But then again, I guess that's how outsiders viewed a country full of small, dark haired Indians with no access to electricity.

As misunderstood as Colombians and our teams were back then, it's amazing to me that we sometimes had as many as two teams in some Grand Tours, plus several riders in other teams. To think that as many as twenty Colombians could be at a Grand Tour seems absolutely unbelievable to me now. That number is even more significant when you take into account that this year's Tour will have fifteen Italians and fifteen Belgians.

Leonardo Duque

As the Tour de France nears, it seems likely that only two Colombians will race this year (Uran for Sky and Duque for Cofidis). The third rider should have been Mauricio Soler, who showed promising form at the the Tour de Suisse, but is now fighting for his life. But both riders who will be there are worth keeping an eye on, and will be followed closely by all of Colombia during the month July (you can read my interview with Rigoberto Uran here).

So even if there aren't twenty Colombian riders at the Tour this year, I suspect that somewhere in Bogota, a young set of brothers will be waking up to listen to or watch the race at dawn in order to follow Uran and Duque, much as my brother and I did back in the mid 80's. That alone, is enough to make me smile.


1. If you want to see more of Mike's Winning Magazine collection, you can do so here.

2. On the subject of Colombian riders in Europe, it certainly appears that one of the worst kept secrets in cycling is that Sergio Luis Henao will be going to Sky next year. He briefly led the Vuelta A Colombia last week, and is one of the country's most promising talents.

3. A video recap (with more sponsors at the beginning than an Androni Giocattoli jersey) of the last stage at the Vuelta A Colombia yesterday. The race was won by Felix "El Gato" Cardenas, who spent four years at Barloworld, but went back to Colombia after the team ended.