Sharing bikes, and getting by with very little. An interview with Santiago Botero, director of Gobernacion De Antioquia-Indeportes Antioquia

Photo: B. Kaminski

It's a story that repeats itself, and one that sadly seems to change very little with ever new iteration. In 1982, a team of Colombian amateurs was invited to the Coors Classic race. Several institutions, as well as riders and directors pooled their resources, and the team was able to make the trip to the United States. On that occasion, Patrocinio Jimenez won the race. Other riders and the press asked just who these riders were. Where had they come from and how come they'd never heard of them?

The same thing had happened at the Tour de l'Avenir in 1980 (where Alfonso Florez was victorious), and later in 1985 as Martin Ramirez won the race once again. As Colombians showed their abilities in grand tours, the narrative changed little. The budgets were small (though they grew), and the press always asked just who these unknown men were. Victories seemed to change very little, as these riders constantly remained lumped under a single moniker. The Colombians.

Patrocinio Jimenez at the Coors Classic. I've always loved this picture because of the sad a haunting expression on Patrocinio's face. As a side note, along with Winner Anacona, Patrocinio Jimenez is the Colombian rider with one of the greatest first names for a cyclist. Why? Because Patrocinio means "sponsorship". But in true Colombian/Catholic tradition, however, the name "Patrocinio" actually comes from that word's alternate meaning: that of a person who is cared for, or has sought shelter in a higher power.

To some extent, the financial difficulties, and the relative obscurity of Colombian teams have changed little over the years. This was clearly visible at this year's Tour of Utah, and later at the Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado. The Gobernacion De Antioquia-Indeportes Antioquia team was invited to both races, while the EPM-Une team was only invited to Colorado. Their invitations were questioned by many. How could it be that a team of "nobodies", ones who they'd never heard of, was being invited to these races while American teams were left out?

In the end, it was the Colombian teams who managed to stir things up at these races (the Tour of Utah in particular), sending their competitors—Levi Leipheimer included—scrambling to look up who these Colombian riders were on the internet. While it's certainly true that some of these riders are largely unknown in the United States, the press still touted Sergio Henao as having a "breakout performance" in Utah. Funny how Henao had signed a contract with Sky almost nine months earlier, but this was his "breakout performance".

At the center of the press coverage that the Colombian teams received was how small their budgets are, and how both teams shared many resources throughout the trip. An article in Velo News detailed the financial difficulties experienced by the team. Due to the interest that the teams generated during their time in the United States, I thought I should reach out to Santiago Botero (now director of Gobernacion De Antioquia-Indeportes Antioquia) and ask about the logistics and realities of traveling to and racing in the United States. But I also wanted to know how these things reflected the fighting spirit and ambitions of the team.

Interestingly, the international invites that allowed Botero's team to race in the United States are ones that the Vuelta A Colombia (the country's premiere race) cannot extend to visiting teams, thus seeing the legendary race cut from the UCI calendar. Why? Because current UCI regulations state that the race must provide all expense paid trips to at least five members of visiting teams, something the Vuelta A Colombia simply cannot afford. Even when it gathered the money to make such an offer last year, no international teams wanted to come to Colombia. So as Colombian teams raise their notoriety while competing internationally, Colombian cycling is unable to grow within the country's boundaries.

Simpler times at the Vuelta a Colombia
Rafael Niño wins his first ever stage at the Vuelta in front of a crowd of sixty thousand

One last thing. Before I'm accused of ignoring the veritable elephant in the room while conducting this interview, let me clarify that I spoke with Santiago before Oscar Sevilla's suspension was announced. Additionally, I'd like to say that my interest in speaking with Santiago Botero came as a result of the team's performance in the United States. So my focus was not on anything other than the team and their performances. Look, my head is not completely buried in the sand, although I'm short enough that many Americans believe that my lower half must surely be buried below ground, in order to account for my scant height.

Henao in yellow at the Tour of Utah

Your team's performance in Utah received a significant amount of press. How difficult was it for the Gobernacion De Antioquia-Indeportes Antioquia team to come to the United States?

For us, the first step was to even get an invite. We are a professional team, but we really race in Colombia and Latin America for the most part. Once we received the invite, we met with the team management and started working on getting riders their visas.

I think people here in the United States and in Europe may not understand just how difficult it is for a Colombian citizen to travel due to visa restrictions. Getting a visa for a Colombian citizen to travel abroad can sometimes take many months, or even a year. Even then, you don't know if you'll be denied up until the very last minute.

That was very difficult for us. It took a long time for the embassy in Bogota to get back to us, then we had to get individual appointments for each rider. We had to get each one of them down to Bogota, where the embassy is, for each appointment [the team is based out of Medellin. The flight to Bogota is about an hour and a half, or 8-10 hours by car]. It was expensive and time consuming for the team to do that. We had to be patient and hope for the best.*

Once we cleared the hurdle of getting the visas, we had to start thinking about the economic realities of the trip. Luckily, we had set aside a bit of money in our budget in order to attend an international race, ideally one in North America. But for us, it was still very, very very expensive to go. It was tough, but I think it was worth it. As soon as we arrived to the United States, people wanted to know about the team, who the riders were, and we got a bit of press. People wanted to understand who the sponsor was, since the team is part of a program funded by the department of Antioquia. The program is not just intended to create cycling champions, but also to better our community, and help individuals here in Antioquia better themselves as well. So for us, it's always great to tell people what the team is about, and what it's bigger mission is. It's bigger than cycling.

*For an interesting account of how tough it can be for a Colombian citizen to travel due to visa restrictions, read Matt Rendell's book A Significant Other. In it, Rendell details how Victor Hugo Peña struggled to make it into France the year that he wore the yellow jersey at the Tour. Days before the race, he was held up at gunpoint in Colombia, and his pasport was stolen. Without a visa, Peña considered sneaking into France through Spain, but was saved at the last minute when the Colombian ambassador, and other high level politicians had to get personally involved. The issue was not so much his passport, as it was his visa.

The team celebrates in Utah

How do you feel about the team's performance in both the Tour of Utah and in Colorado?

On the sporting side, I think the riders from the team performed very well. We went there to agitate the race, to make things happen and to be seen. And the riders did just that. It was our riders that were stirring things up, and I'm very proud of that. They showed their climbing abilities, they did great teamwork. But in general, I think the riders performed well in areas other than climbing, which is all that Colombians are known for. So that was a great thing to see. We continued doing well after Utah and into Colorado. But Colorado didn't suit our riders as much. The climbs were far too gentle, too easy. The stages didn't really finish in any peaks, and the time trial was very flat. But overall, we did very well.

Do you think that the trip helped raise awareness of the team, and perhaps can help you secure some sponsors?

We made some great contacts during that trip, and I reconnected with riders, directors and sponsors that I knew from my time as a rider. So that was important too. I think the doors are open for us to come back next year, and perhaps come with a more solid financial footing. It was very tough for us this time around, so those contacts will be helpful to have. We also learned a great deal about the logistics of traveling and racing there. We only traveled with two staff members, and for Colorado we shared most resources with EPM-Une. It's all we could afford. But for us, with our meager means, the whole trip was still a success.

Photo by Hincapie Sportswear

The team was invited to the Tour of Utah based on its track record, and the substantial amount of wins it's earned. And yet, sponsorships are hard to come by in Colombia. What is your situation as far as bike sponsorships? Several people noticed that the team uses different brands of bikes and wheels, as well as helmets. It was also reported that goods like bar tape are purchased by the riders.

We buy our own bikes. The big bike brands of the world have a limited presence here in Colombia, so we merely go through local distributors. They are kind enough to give us a bit of a discount, and that's what we buy. We buy whatever is most affordable. So for us as a team, a substantial part of our yearly budget goes to just to buying bikes and wheels. This is something that even smaller and perhaps mediocre teams in the United States and Europe don't have to do. Most of their budget doesn't go to buying bikes, because they get sponsorships from bike, wheel, and even component and nutrition companies. That's just not the case for us. Sponsoring a team is all about marketing, and here in Colombia...well...we are a country with less resources. So I think most companies don't see value in sponsoring our teams. But I think there's a great deal of value actually.

So you are on your own when it comes to items that other teams have supplied

Yes, we are on our own, and we buy everything ourselves. But we're hoping that through some of the contacts we made in the United States, we might be able to get a bit of help. That would allow us to use our budget for things like better salaries for the riders, for travel, and for developing young riders.

The team's kit is made by Hincapie Sportswear in Medellin, where the team is based out of. Medellin is also the capital of the department of Antioquia.

I saw that some of the Giant bikes the team uses have the Rabobank logo on the frame. Did they come from Rabobank?

No, that's because the bikes we buy are just what the distributor brings to Colombia to sell at bikes shops. So even though we're a professional team, we simply buy what's available. Sometimes they're not the high-end models, they are just what we can get our hands on at a good price.

Did some of the riders share time trial bikes while racing here in the United States?

Well, we used just a few bikes. We brought the ones that we thought could accommodate the most riders. Beyond that, we simply had to make do with what we had...mixing and matching, patching things up, and doing the most with what we had. We had to do things...well...we did things the way we know how: the Colombian way (laughs). Getting by with very little, but trying hard and fighting the whole way.

Botero at the 2003 Tour de France

Do you think this lack of equipment, and having to share bikes that may not fit hurts the riders in a discipline like the time trial? Time trials have historically always been the Achilles' heel of most Colombian riders. I say "most" since you yourself were the time trial world champion. So you understand how difficult and unique the discipline is.

Time trialing is an area in cycling where American and European teams are not just years, but almost centuries ahead of us. But there's a reason why. A lot of it has to do with funds. Even in smaller American teams, riders have their own time trial bikes. They have their bike set up just for them. Riders get to work on their position as they train on those bikes, so they can tweak things on it. Some smaller professional teams around the world even get to go to wind tunnels. For us, we simply don't have enough bikes so that everyone can fine-tune the bike's settings and their position. We're at a huge disadvantage. But all these are challenges that we're working on, and we'll continue to work on to make the team and its performances better.