Today I find myself in Holland, for reasons I'll explain at a later date. Holland is a wealthy nation where bikes are a common mode of transportation. Forever bound to see the world as the Colombiano that I am, I can't help but think about how differently bikes and the act of riding them is viewed around the world by different people. Bikes are objects of desire, and fetishes, but also necessities, or mere tools to those who use them. Similarly, riding a bike is a passion, and a hobby, or a simple and inevitable fact of life.
For many in Colombia, bikes and riding them are also seen as a way to escape. They are tools with which you can reach a better life, both for yourself and your family. This is true in other countries as well, where cycling appeals to those who are from extremely poor families. In Colombia, cyclists usually come from the most impoverished regions, so their drive to succeed (as well as the sacrifices needed to even own a bike) are extreme. Consider Johan Cardenas, the young rider from Boyacá (a Colombian department that I've written about before) who was profiled recently by National Public Radio. His parents sold their home in order for him to have a bike. Such stories are not uncommon in Colombia. Lucho Herrera's first bike was purchased after his entire family—aunts and uncles included—pooled their resources to make the young man's dreams come true. It was for that reason that men like Herrera commonly trained with revolvers in their jersey pockets, in order to protect an entire family's investment. It's this type of difficulty that helps strengthen the bond that fans and riders have for the sport in Colombia. Cycling is not merely a hobby, it's much more than that, as the video below illustrates.
You can listen to the full story as it aired on the radio here.
It's worth mentioning that the price quoted for the bike that the young man rides (six thousand dollars), should give you a clue as to how expensive imported goods can be in Colombia. Particularly when you consider that the bike in question is a relatively "lowly" GW.
But road cyclists are not alone in their struggle when riding in Colombia. Bike Magazine ran a great story not long ago, featuring a national mountain bike champion who works as a coal miner under terrible conditions, and shares a bike with his ten year old son who also competes. You can see a video about that story—which I've posted before—below.
Colombian riders are not alone in their struggle. Cycling is a demanding sport where suffering has always been thought of as a currency, and often expands past physical pain while on the bike. But the level of poverty and difficulties that many in Colombia face are unique, and often unlike those experienced by individuals who live in industrialized nations. Even very low-level cyclists in Colombia can often earn more than the rest of their family combined, so winning stages and races really is a matter of survival at times. I've never questioned the competitive drive of a professional cyclist, and certainly wont now. But when you see Colombian riders turning themselves inside out at an international race, remember that they their struggle is more complex than that of others. They are often fighting for their lives, for a home, to help feed their extended families, or perhaps to finally buy their mom a refrigerator (a very common purchase for Colombian riders from the 1980s who won stages, and proudly announced their plan to the press).
As EPM-Une and Gobernacion de Antioquia-Indeportes Antioquia are set to start at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge (what a name), look for both teams to attack relentlessly in the mountains. They will do so in order to prove naysayers wrong, those who thought "obscure" teams from South American shouldn't be invited. They will attack due to conviction and their competitive spirit. But they may also attack and ride in order to live. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I assure you...it's not.