1995: The year that the world championships and the Madonna del Ghisallo came to Colombia

As yesterday's win by Cavendish becomes part of the history books, and as some Americans rejoice because Richmond was awarded the 2015 World Championships (while others debate whether nepotism was involved), I can't help but look back to 1995. I look back to 1995, not because that was the landmark year when Coolio released his tour de force Gangsta's Paradise, though that was certainly a highpoint for all of humanity. No, I look back to 1995 because it was then that the world championships were held in Colombia for the first and only time. The race that year did not finish in Bogotá, or Medellín. Though convenient and rather cosmopolitan, these locations would have seemed disingenuous. I say this because it's in smaller cities and towns like Duitama, in the department of Boyacá, that Colombian cycling has always flourished (something I have written about before). So it was there, in Duitama (population 120,000) that the world championships were held in 1995. An underdog town, in an underdog nation.

The UCI awarding the event to Duitama was considered a great triumph for Colombian cycling, but some in the city resented the lack of involvement by local politicians and dignitaries. As the interest in football (soccer) grew, some claimed that the World Championships were not getting the support needed from the government at any level. Furthermore, some were troubled by the manner in which the course was changed to suit the riding style and needs of European riders. Due to Duitama's altitude, European riders would have trouble coping with the difficult climbs.

In an editorial published in the El Tiempo newspaper, Carlos Velásquez Gómez, a councilman in Duitama, served as a unifying voice regarding these concerns:

How can it not be that on such an occasion, we in Duitama receive no support from our mayor in order to plan out how we are going to meet the demands that have been imposed upon us by the UCI? And I do say "imposed" because that's what has happened. The UCI will take our money and leave Colombia with it, and they simply leave us with demands and obligations that we must meet. In other words we have been colonized again 500 years later. They've also added insult to injury by robbing us of any chance we had of seeing one of our own riders do well in this race. A race that we are paying for, and that we're hosting, but those chances are gone, since they've now demanded that we change the route to suit their European riders. Can you see your chances magically disappearing into thin air Oliverio*?

*This is a reference to Oliverio Rincon, the Colombian rider from Duitama who rode with O.N.C.E. at the time, and who would have performed very well at altitude.

Diagram of the circuits around Duitama. The top of the climb shown is at an altitude of over 9,000 feet.

In the end, however, the event was a success...even if Colombian riders were in fact affected by the changes in the final circuits. The world championships were seen as a huge accomplishment, especially considering the severe unrest that Colombia was dealing with at the time. Additionally, the elite men's road race proved to be one of the most exciting in the history of the world championships. And as if that weren't enough, Duitama also received a distinct honor, partially as a result of hosting the world championships.

The Madonna del Ghisallo comes to stay
On October 7, 1995, Father Luigi Farina traveled from Como Italy to the town affectionately known as the "Pearl of Boyacá". He brought with him the greatest gift that a hugely Catholic town like Duitama (which also happens to be insanely devoted to cycling) could ever receive. Father Farina brought with him the Madonna del Ghisallo, the patroness of cyclists (as designated by Pope Pius XII). In an event that had been discussed and negotiated over many years, The Madonna was permanently installed in the Inmaculado Corazón de María church, in the humble Gruta neighborhood of Duitama. The priest at that church was a huge fan of the sport, and considered this event to be a true blessing. The festivities were hugely popular, and also served as a moment for the Gruta neighborhood to announce its intentions to erect a monument to all cyclists.

It was only a few years later that the monument would go up, only yards away from the chapel, and on one of the very streets used during the world championships. The monument was intended as a celebration to the fighting spirit of cyclists, and to forever commemorate the day in 1995 when the best in the sport graced the streets of Duitama with their presence.

Finish of the 1995 road race in Duitama. Note Abraham Olano riding to victory on a flat tire.

And although it didn't take place in 1995, here's a video of Fabio Duarte (now with Geox) and his U-23 world championship victory in 2008.