"Appropriation and reinvention of cycling as a Colombian practice." Corey Shouse Tourino Ph.D. speaks about the cultural significance of cycling in Colombia

After spending the summer of 1986 at a summer camp in Michigan, 16 year-old Corey Shouse Tourino came home with an unusual request for his parents. He wanted to go live in Bogotá, Colombia for a year. His plan was to live there with the family of one of the camp counselors he’d met that summer. As one might expect, Corey’s parents refused. But a seed had already been planted. He was determined to see Colombia, he wanted to understand a place that seemed so foreign to most Americans. 

Eventually, Corey earned a BA in Political Science and Spanish from Western Michigan University, and an MA and Ph.D. in Latin American Literature in the post-National Front period in Colombia. During his studies, he managed to live in Colombia over several periods, including his Fulbright doctoral research fellowship in Bogotá.

Currently, Corey is an associate professor of Hispanic Studies and the director of the Latino/Latin American Studies program at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota. He has done almost all his scholarly research on contemporary Colombian film and literature. 

As a cyclist, Corey finds Colombia’s interest in bike racing fascinating, particularly the way in which an entire nation has managed to appropriate and shape the sport in its own image. He plans on documenting this process, as well as the cultural significance of cycling, in a book about the Vuelta a Colombia.

Corey's insights into Colombia and it's culture are interesting, in part because he's not Colombian himself. He's able to see patterns and pinpoint areas of interest that I've missed while staring directly at them my whole life. In doing so, he also raises interesting points about American and European cycling milieus.

Corey's love and respect for Colombia, as well as its people and culture are obvious. I think him for that, as well as the time he spent putting up with my endless questions.

A still from Corey's talk earlier this year titled "Sport Obsession and National Reinvention: The Spectacle of Professional Cycling in Colombia", which I'll be posting on Thursday.

How were you first introduced to Colombian cycling?

By chance one of my co-workers and roommates while living in Bogotá in 1994 Consuelo Giraldo, was selected to represent Colombia in the World Championships held in Duitama, Cundinamarca that year. This was a huge moment of recognition for Colombian cycling, and Consuelo worked incredibly hard to get ready for the championship. She was so proud to represent her country on such a big occasion. I wasn’t into cycling at that point, and remember razzing her for getting up at 4am to ride her trainer for several hours—rrrh rrrh rrrh—, only to come home and either go out for a road ride or ride her trainer again.

I rather stupidly didn’t go watch her race (I was probably studying). But I do remember the buzz of the event, the media coverage, the hype at school about what this meant for the country. I also remember the streams of weekend riders going up and down to the big climbs around Bogotá. The climbs are just as crazy as the drivers in Colombia. I’ve always been impressed with the sheer tenacity of Colombian cyclists.

This is a big question, but one I must ask first. From your experience living in Colombia, and your academic research, what makes Colombia's relationship to cycling unusual, or at least interesting?
That is a big question. The most obvious thing about Colombian cycling is its popular character (as in of the people) and organic presence. Sure, it is an imported activity, but it is one they have made their own, one that they have shaped and reinvented to suit their own terrain and cultural reality.

So while it is true that the first big races were organized by the political and economic elite with a keen awareness of cycling’s value as political theater of national unity during the 1950s, an equal amount of cycling’s success in Colombia came from the fans and athletes themselves that embraced and reformulated cycling into the dance of the escarabajo.

I love Lucho Herrera’s well-known quote about how the Alpe d’Huez was just too short for Colombian climbers…if only it were 25 kilometers longer they would always clobber the Europeans. Colombians ride the bike their own way, and aside from their impressive successes – unequaled by any other Latin American country – this is why it is such a ‘big deal.’ Certainly ‘the Colombian way’ of riding and racing emerges from Colombian physiology and geography. They’ve got lots of mountains and a population that produces many with an ideal climber’s build. But most importantly, the success of the ‘Colombian way’ on the bike is the end result of their appropriation and reinvention of cycling as a Colombian practice. In this sense, Colombians cycle the way Brazilians play soccer – we have o jogo bonito and el escarabajo.

"If only the Alpe d'Huez were longer..." Alto de Letras, one of Colombia's most famed climbs. 50 miles long, finishing at 12,000 feet. Reader of the blog Duncan's Garmin data can be seen here.

What do you see as the fundamental differences between cyclists (of the road variety) in the United States and Europe, to those in Colombia?

As I said earlier, cycling is now a deeply organic part of Colombian culture. Americans, however, ride bikes the same way they drink wine: these are prosthetic acts that require special gear and a ‘rarified air’ of intention and pretention. Cycling for many in the U.S. is indeed enjoyable but artificial, not organic, like making a big fuss over that ‘special bottle of fermented grape juice’ that Italians put on their tables every single afternoon without thinking about it. I say this knowing I am over-generalizing, but the observation holds true in all too many American cycling circles.

In an old post you joked about not being able to find dozens of brands of embrocation or even a proper cross bike in Belgium, no matter how hard you looked. Yet in the fall it is THE sport to follow there. In the United States we find the opposite – gear and magazines and consumer products galore without a correlating public visibility or cultural presence.

Argentine anthropologist Néstor García Canclini wrote a book about how in the global age we increasingly pronounce our sense of citizenship through consumerism. In Colombia riding a bike is not so easily reduced to a consumer identity badge. Perhaps this is due to the working class origins of cyclists – they simply can’t afford the equipment and ‘lifestyle’ that American cyclists can. A more compelling answer might be that Colombians – like the Dutch or French or Danes – don’t make such a fuss about riding a bike, they just do it, and they do it well.

[Corey's point—and thus Garcia Canclini's—about asserting a sense of citizenship through consumerism reminded me a great deal about a comment that Matt Rendell made regarding a similar topic. As he sees it, the Anglo-Saxon tradition both favors and values choice above all else. As such, it's those things that individuals buy into, the ones they choose, that they feel define them. Colombia, is substantially different. There, it's those things that are innately a part of you, the ones that you didn't pick and cannot control in any way, that define you.

This helps explain the lack of obvious markers of cycling fanhood that you may encounter in some countries that love the sport.]

No need to make a fuss. In Bogota, as in much of Colombia, bikes are simply an organic part of life. As much as 75 miles of roads have been closed to car traffic since the late 1970s every single Sunday and Holiday for Bogota's Ciclovia.

Why do you think Colombians have taken to cycling, in a way that other similar countries in South America (both topographically and culturally) haven't?

Some of this comes down to simple dumb luck: the right events (the smash success of La Vuelta a Colombia), the right charismatic cyclists (Forero, Hoyos and Arrastía Bricca) and the right promoters (El Tiempo, Bavaria and Avianca) all came together at just the right time in the 1950s to make things take-off.

But I have another itchy hypothesis here: some of the reason why it was cycling and not another sport to captivate Colombians has to do with particular economic conditions. Certainly the more wealthy countries in Latin America emulate the United States and Europe in a more ‘upscale’ manner than Colombia. Think Argentina and Venezuela – they have had similar experiences with imported sports that are strongly associated with modernization and progress. Venezuela with all of its oil and Miami dreaming is a hotbed of baseball, and Argentina is a place where rugby, polo and motor racing have bloomed. These can be pretty capital-intensive sports to promote.

In the Colombian case, while geography and physiology certainly help, the relative poverty and fragmented geography of the country in the 1950s made the French/Italian import of cycling a much more accessible and practical import, perhaps like a ‘poor man’s formula one’ that helped reinvent the idea of Colombianness. Colombia didn’t get a Juan Manuel Fangio, it produced instead el sastre de Envigado [the nickname for Roberto Cano Ramirez] and el jardinerito de Fusagasugá [the nickname for Luis Herrera] who literally raced their bikes around the borders of the country in an invigorating display of modernity and nationalism.


Roberto Cano Ramirez, whose nickname translates to, "The Tailor of Envigado"

I’ve always thought that there’s a connection between Colombia’s obsession with sport, and difficulties that the country has lived through.
Colombian cycling is also the product of more concrete historical conditions: the boom years of cycling in Colombia also came during the depths of the Violence in the 1950s and then surged again during the darkest years of the expansion of narcotrafficking in the 1980s. These were two periods that together produced half a million politically motivated deaths in Colombia. This is roughly twice the number of casualties the U.S. had in World War II. Predicting the successes of the generations of Colombian cyclists during these periods would have been next to impossible, but understanding why they would be so meaningful to the people when they did emerge, or grasping why the political and economic elites would be so eager to promote them is a quite simple matter.

The language of symbolic prosperity, unity and accomplishment of any sporting success in any context of crisis – think the boom of the Steelers during the collapse of the steel industry – is going to have a much greater metaphorical value to both fans and promoters. On the other hand, the issue of who benefits most from this is unclear. Lucho Herrera didn’t help put food on the table for hungry Colombians, nor did he get Pablo Escobar to turn himself in. Radio Caracol didn’t provide revenue sharing with its listeners that earned them multi-million dollar ad revenue during the 1980s. However, Lucho and Caracol did help provide a powerful salve to viewers and listeners that they weren’t getting anywhere else.

It would be naïve to ignore just how symbolically important Colombia’s symbolic success was during some of its bleakest history and irresponsible to simply cheer this as moments of great national unity. 

Efrain Forero, during the first stage of the first Vuelta a Colombia

Media outlets have always been linked to cycling, since the sport as we know it was largely created by newspapers to grow readership. What role do you think media coverage of races like the Vuelta a Colombia had in furthering regionalism in Colombia, and in creating a wider sense of national identity in a country that is so incredibly hard to navigate?
After studying a good chunk of the coverage of cycling El Tiempo archives from the 1950s-80s it is pretty clear that spectatorship of cycling – both in person and through the mass media – were hugely important to creating a much broader sense of nationhood for Colombians. The millions of spectators who turned out to watch stages or listen on the radio or TV, the constant use of maps, the long detailed narration of stages and the course routes, the celebration of the people and cultures of the places visited and departments added to the Vuelta over the years – all of this constitutes both implicit explicit attempts to articulate a sense of ‘Colombia’ for the national audience. Like suffering through Phil Liggett blabbering about the wines of the Loire during the Tour, you’d have to try hard not to get a sense of place and culture when following the Vuelta a Colombia. Through bicycle and typewriter Colombian cyclists and sports journalists were literally stitching the country together. Not a small feat in such a large, mountainous and divided place and during the most violent decades in Colombian history.

Most historians talk about Colombia as a nation of regions, and Jesús Martín Barbero goes as far as arguing it remained a nation of nations until radio broadcasts united Colombians with a shared invisible sense of belonging to a shared space and culture. Given that cycling was both the most important sport and national spectacle (at least of a positive and popular nature), first the Vuelta and the Clásico RCN, and later the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta a España were essential to convincing Colombians that Colombia existed as a singular concept that was worth defending and celebrating at home on the world stage.

Efraín ‘el indomable Zipa’ Forero called the Vuelta the best history lessons most Colombians ever had, and I’d agree with him. ◼

Part two of our conversation will be posted this Thursday. In it, we speak more specifically about the possible connection between Catholicism and cycling in Colombia, as well as the manner in which the aesthetic qualities of cycling (climbing in particular) connected with a part of the Colombian mindset that was already well versed in very literal pain and suffering. 



As you may know, a small race called the Giro d'Italia is happening right now....in Denmark of course. In said race, there are four Colombians competing. They are:

Miguel Angel Rubiano ( #27) and Jose Serpa Perez (#22) From Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela, and Rigoberto Uran (#189) and Sergio Henao (#184) from Sky. Like last year, Serpa Perez is at the Giro, but his mustache isn't. So he begins today's stage sans mustache, and with a broken finger as well.

Serpa is worth checking out on Twitter. If you speak Spanish, you'll notice that he has a certain poetic side to him. He tweets:

"There are only two days out of the year in which there's nothing you can do. One is called yesterday, the other is tomorrow. So today is an ideal day."


"I'm like hunger, as I come and then go...now back to Italy after seeing my kids"

Even his profile on Twitter has a pleasant and unusual ring to it. "Born in Sampues, baptized in Corozal, childhood in Villanueva, youth in Bucaramanga, maturity/adulthood in Italy"

But back to the Giro. Another sad omission is Nairo Quintana, perhaps the most promising young talent from Colombia, who was left off the Giro squad by Movistar. By all accounts (particularly those who have ridden with/against him), Quintana's talents are astonishing. Perhaps we'll get to see him shine elsewhere this season.

Lastly, I've noticed that news outlets in Spanish proclaim Rigoberto Uran as the leader of Sky, while the English press gives that title to Cavendish. Whatever the case may be, I was asked by the kind folks at Universal Sports to weigh in on this year's race, and some possible winners (which you can read here). As you'll see, this was written before team rosters were announced, but my genius manages to shine through nonetheless.

4 Days of Dunkirk (which should probably be called "4, 5 or maybe 6 days of Dunkirk)

How can you not love a race that incorrectly tells you how long it is in its very name? Though the terrain it traverses isn't perfectly suited to Colombians, Carlos Betancur (Acqua & Sapone) continues to prove what an impressive season he's having. He's third in the young riders classification, and is probably awaiting his big victory this year...which will inevitably come at some point. Meanhile, Colombia-Coldeportes' Carlos Quintero leads the KOM competition. All is well in the world when Colombians are wearing polka dots.