Missing friends, family, and mom's cooking. An interview with Andres Diaz and Carlos Alzate of Team Exergy

Andres Diaz and Carlos Alzate

As a kid, the international nature of professional cycling greatly contributed to my love for the sport. Races took place in other continents, with cyclists from around the world riding on bikes made in countries I had never been to. As I listened to races attentively on the radio, commentators used words in foreign languages to describe aspects of the sport that I didn't understand. Slowly, I became aware of small details about other parts of the world thanks to cycling. I learned that there are differences in topography between the Pyrenees and the Alps. I suddenly found myself studying detailed route maps of countries that other kids my age barely knew existed. I became aware of the separatist struggles that raged on in different countries (as well as the different flags and symbols that each of these groups used).

In the end, I enjoyed and sympathized with the manner in which many riders were outcasts of sorts, living and racing in cultures that were often vastly different from their own (something I have written about before). Today, technology has helped ease some of the cultural differences that riders faced when I first became attracted to cycling. Technology has also eased the difficulty of being away from home for long periods of time. But the fact remains: many riders spend a large portion of the year away from home, and away from family and friends. It’s with this in mind that I spoke to Andres Diaz and Carlos Alzate from Team Exergy about their experience racing in the United States. Both Andres and Carlos are natives of Colombia who have raced successfully both on the track and the road.

Where are you from in Colombia?
Andres: I’m from Cartago, Valle Del Cauca
Carlos: I’m From Tuluá, Valle. About an hour’s drive from Cartago.

Cartago, the fourth largest city in the Valle del Cauca department (which locals often shorten to "Valle") in Colombia. Cartago has a population of 132,000

How did you first get involved with cycling?
Andres: I did my first race when I was ten or eleven. I entered the race along with some friends, because of the prizes they were offering to the winners. I came in third in my first race, and won the second one. I became a big fan of Miguel Indurain, and kept racing.

Carlos: Like many in Colombia, cycling has always been a part of my life. My dad always rode his bike recreationally, so I’d see him wake up at 5 or 5:30am to go train. That’s what I grew up with, from the time I was a kid. My cousin was also really into mountain bikes, so it was always around me. Still, I mostly played soccer as a kid, but eventually I started to borrow my dad’s bike to take it around the block. Then I started to borrow it after he was done training, so that I could go on longer rides. Eventually my rides got long enough that my dad would follow me on his motorcycle. I did my first real race at 14, and it was then that I realized that it would be cycling, not soccer, that would be my sport.

So you knew each other before ending up in the same team here in the United States?
Andres: Yes, we first raced together for our department of Valle. Then we were in Colombia Es Pasion. We’ve always been good friends, and since last year I started telling Carlos how I’d like for him to come to this team. The director agreed, so we’re now on the same team, which I think has worked out very well for us.


How long have you guys been racing in the United States, and how did you end up in riding for Team Exergy?
Andres: I’ve been racing in the United States since the end of 2009. I first came here to ride for the Mengioni team, and then switched to Exergy.

Carlos: I’ve been here for three years also. I first came here to race with Toshiba-Santo. Last year I was with Rock Racing briefly for the Vuelta a Mexico, right as the team was ending. That’s how I ended up with Exergy.

What was your experience with Rock Racing like? The team was coming to an end at that point.
Carlos: For me, it was very rewarding actually. To be on the same team as Francisco Mancebo, Oscar Sevilla and also a fellow Colombian like Victor Hugo Peña was a big deal. I was happy to work for them during that race.

How have you adapted to living and racing in the United States, and what are the biggest differences between racing in Colombia and in the United States?
Andres: Everything is different here. Racing in the United States is different for me in part because of the fact that I come from a track background too. But racing in the United States can be more technically demanding, with things that you don’t often think about in Colombia, like side winds and things like that. Here in the United States, I actually do very well on climbs, which is not the case in Colombia. Different type of climbing due to the length, steepness and that sort of thing.

Carlos Alzate (right) racing for Colombia es Pasion (Photo: Jaime Saldarriaga)

Is there a significant difference between how races unfold, or how riders treat one another?
Andres: To me there isn’t. As I see it, cycling is a bit of an international language. I guess the biggest difference is that in Colombia the mountains are interminable. Every race has to have mountains at all times, and every stage has to have a mountain top finish. This is at every level. In Colombia, there’s really no room for sprinters, or rouleurs. That’s just how things are: all climbing, all the time. In the United States, there’s a bit of everything. Sprinters can have their day, those who do well in shorter climbs can do well also.

What’s the thing you miss the most from home while you’re in the United States racing?
Andres: The food, for sure the food. But also family, my girlfriend. It’s a drastic change being here, but as soon as I get off the plane, I have to put those things behind me. I have to focus on training and racing here, because otherwise things would be very tough. I have to remember that I’m here racing and working hard in order to make a future for myself, and in order to help my family. But I also miss the food, I really miss being able to eat a bandeja paisa. I miss that a lot. But I also miss the fruit juices. Here there’s such little selection, and everything comes in a container. I miss the fact that in Colombia everything you drink is fruit juice that was made from the actual fruit only minutes beforehand.

Carlos: I miss my mom’s tamales, arroz con pollo, empanadas, sancocho, and eating a good portion of beans on the weekends.
[The type of beans that Carlos is referring to are not commonly available in the United States or Europe. They are sometimes called "red ball" beans, since they are almost round. Their taste is different from beans found in other countries, and they are usually served with avocado, sweet plantains and white rice.]

It’s a sacred part of growing up in Colombia. Beans on the weekend. In my house it was on Sundays. Huge portion, so that we’d all become useless for the remainder of the day. It's a tradition.
Carlos: Yes, these are small things, but when you’re here in the United States, they become a big deal. You start to realize how much you need that kind of food, real food. Because here in the United States, the food is really bad. Even when you don’t eat fast food, it’s not great. When you do eat fast food, you end up eating sandwiches, burgers and things like that. Many of the things that people eat here don’t register as food for me, but you have to adapt to living here in an effort to do well for the team, for yourself and for your family.

Now that you guys have raced in other countries, and you’ve seen how races work in the United States, what do you think could be done to improve races like the Vuelta a Colombia and the Clasico RCN? The very best riders in the world commonly visited those races during the 1980s. Hinault, Lemond, Millar, Hampsten, and Fignon all raced in Colombia. That’s not the case now. What could change?

Andres: In some cases, I think better prize money would help, particularly when you consider the difficulty of those races. I also think that the Vuelta a Colombia is set in its ways. How can it be that a two week race is all just climbing? It’s all mountain stages exclusively, and pretty much every stage has a mountain top finish. Those climbs are absolutely eternal. So what the race ends up being is a prologue, a time trial that is sometimes uphill, and then it’s just nonstop climbing every single day. The race should be open to other types of riders, not just the two or three big climbers in Colombia. I think other teams would consider it if they changed it a bit.

Hinault racing in Colombia

In a way, the Vuelta A Colombia is perfectly…well….Colombian, because of its inability to change. The race directors have been so stubborn in keeping it as a monumental challenge of nothing but climbing, so it’s almost unlike any other race in the world.

Andres: Yes, but I think that in order to attract more teams, it would have to change. It should be in line with what the rest of the world is doing. You have to let other types of teams and other types of riders have their moment. It’s how races work.

What’s it like having Fred Rodriguez in your team now, in particular because he’s also from Colombia? Do you feel a bond of sorts with him?

Andres: Having him in the team has been great. He clearly has an amazing amount of experience, and is very well respected. Fred is great to have around, and he’s always asking us questions about Colombia, and how things are there now in one way or another. Similarly, we have endless questions for him about races, and racing in general. So we have lots to talk about, and things we can learn from him.

Fred Rodriguez, a Colombian-born American champion

Whenever I speak with Colombian cyclists I have to ask this question: are you guys superstitious? Cyclists already tend to be into rituals and superstition, and Colombians are even more into that sort of thing than cyclists. So a Colombian cyclist is a potentially dangerous combination. At the Clasico El Colombiano in Medellin last year, I saw riders pouring Holy Water on themselves, kissing their necklaces, and praying over their bike. It was an amazing scene.
Andres: I’m not too superstitious, but before every race I go ahead and say a prayer. I ask for strength, and also ask God to protect me, and to look over me.

Carlos: I do the same, a short prayer. I’ve seen other guys who are way more religious than I am, far more Catholic. But I pray, I ask God to watch over me and guide me as he protects me from any harm that may come my way. But I don’t have anything that I put on my pockets or carry with me. I think what I do is pretty normal among riders.


Have you seen other Colombian riders who perhaps have rituals or things they carry with them?
Carlos: This year when we raced in Philadelphia I saw that Freddy has a little red pillow that he carries. It’s small, like a keychain-sized pillow. He carries that in his pocket. I’ve also seen many guys who put religious cards and pictures under the gripper of their shorts or in their jersey pockets, as well as pictures of their families. Actually, lots of guys race with pictures of their families on them. Those are the types of things that I’ve seen the most of in Colombia.

Where do you guys prefer to train in Colombia, and what areas would you recommend to potential visitors as being ideal places to ride?
Andres: I think that the area around Bogota, going into Boyaca is ideal. It has what pretty much everyone is looking for, including being at altitude. So the savannah around Bogota would be a great place for people or teams to have training camps, be they Colombian or not. The area of western Antioquia, west of Medellin is amazing. The terrain, the roads, and the weather are all great.

That’s exactly what Rigoberto Uran said when I asked him the same question.
Andres: I can see whey. It’s great there. The weather is perfect because it’s warm, but not really hot, and you’re pretty high up.

The topography in Antioquia is varied, but like in much of Colombia, there's always climbing to be done if you so choose

What has it been like for you living part of the year here in the United States as Colombianos, considering the overwhelming stereotype that exists about us throughout much of the world? Our country’s reputation often precedes us.
Andres: Yes it does, that’s absolutely true. We’ve had plenty of comments made to us about drugs, violence and that kind of thing here [in the United States]. But you know, the reality is that the kind of violence that we are talking about is now something that many countries are enduring. Mexico, for example, is enduring a great deal of hardship right now, but so are many other countries. But still, that image about Colombia remains, and we remain the country that has this horribly sad image around the world regardless of what the reality is. The reality is that the country has beautiful places to see, and they are perfectly safe. Western Antioquia, where I highly recommend that people go ride in, is amazing. The coffee growing region of Quindio is also beautiful. Cartagena, all of Boyaca, as well as Barranquilla would be great places for foreigners to visit. I hope some do, because their perceptions of Colombia would change greatly. It would only take one visit for people to see what the country is really like, and how kind and welcoming its people are. That’s what I hope people see overtime. I hope they see and learn what Colombia and its people are really like.