Dusting off the trophies, going through the old jerseys

One day before I was set to travel to New York City in November of 2004, I finished reading the biography of architect Philip Johnson. As I closed the book, I shook my head in disbelief. Johnson's life was an odd, fascinating and at times wildly scandalous affair (I'll skip giving you proof of this for the sake of brevity, but believe me..."scandalous" doesn't begin to cover it). I set my alarm for the early morning flight, and wondered what it would be like to sit down and speak with Johnson, then aged 98, an iconic man widely credited with changing the worlds of architecture, art and design (or ruining them all, depending on who you speak to).

I had endless questions that I'd like to ask him, issues that I'd like to challenge him on, and yes, I had some praise to throw his way (despite his long, long list of faults). The next morning, on my way to the airport, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could actually speak with Johnson. Why not? I was headed to New York (where Johnson lived), he was still very much alive, and reportedly working out of his office in the Seagram Building, on Park Avenue. I thought it was worth a shot.

Upon my arrival to New York, I wrote a short email to his architecture firm stating my request. I included my phone number. Amazingly, my phone rang shortly thereafter. It was an associate in the firm, and I was invited to come down and meet the man. I shook my head in slight disbelief once again.

I arrived to the office in the Seagram Building, and was kindly greeted. I looked over the shoulder of the man who opened the door for me, in my attempt to find the man who I was actually there to see. But I saw nothing. I was quickly told that Johnson had "just stepped out and gone home". My heart sunk.

"He was not feeling well, and decided to go up to Connecticut for the weekend a bit early today. I'm very sorry."

I had missed him by less than five minutes, but was invited back to perhaps meet him another time. My next trip to New york would be in the late spring of the following year (2005).

Johnson died in Junuary 25, 2005 at 98 years old.

Johnson at this Glass House in New Canaan, CT. (Photo: Annie Leibovitz)

So I never met the man, and there's not much I can do about that.

But in retrospect, I'm still surprised by how warmly I was received at his office. I was given a tour, several mementoes, and then sat down to speak with partners in the firm who had worked with Johnson and Mies van der Rohe as far back as the early 60s.

As excited as I was to be there, it seemed like everyone around Johnson, and perhaps Johnson himself, was happy to see me there too. It was an unusual, but positive feeling, which I prolonged by staying there as long as I could.

Ramon Hoyos in front of this bike shop in Medellin.

Because of that day in New York City, I've decided to replicate that experience many times over, always aiming to actually meet the person I search for. Is it sad of me to do this? Perhaps. But in the context of cycling, I excuse it as merely doing work that I'll be paid for once the article is written. But the reality is that sitting there with the person is a wonderful feeling, and one I enjoy deeply. 

So when I'm back in Colombia, I make a habit of paying such visits to cycling icons from different eras. I look around for clues as to where they might live these days, I ask around for phone numbers from past contacts, and eventually speak to the man himself (whoever "the man himself" happens to be during said trip).

I've never been greeted with distrust. The reception is usually overwhelmingly good, and I soon find myself sitting with them, speaking for hours. Yes, I'd like to know a bit about their time racing, about the difficulties they faced during that time, but more than anything I just want to know them.

I've sat in their living room couches, I've had breakfast with at least two of them, and have even gone along as one elderly retired rider dropped his granddaughter off at school.

As we got in the car, the son of the retired rider said to his very young daughter:

"This man came all the way from another country, and is here just to speak with your grandfather. Isn't that great? Can you believe that?"

The young girl tightened the straps on her tiny pink backpack, and stomped hard with one foot for effect before saying  "No. I can't!"

Despite this exchange, we drove and laughed, and I asked numerous questions. I listened intently to stories that he clearly loved telling. The ones that no one around him wants to listen to anymore. That ones that the young girl with the tiny backpack couldn't imagine me wanting to hear.

Later on, back in his house, a voice from the other room said, "Oh that one again, about your time in Italy huh?"

But these are new stories to me. So I ask to see the trophies, and for the first time in god knows how long, they are brought down from the shelves. I want to open up the boxes that contain the old pictures and jerseys, even as yet another family member rolls his eyes.

"Do you really want to see what's in all those boxes?" the son asks. Soon, he realizes that I most certainly do, and he also remembers that his father does as well. I'm a captive audience that he no longer has.

We go over every picture, and every newspaper clipping in great detail. These are distant memories, ones that brought him momentary fame, but seldom any long lasting rewards (aside from bringing a creepy stranger like me into his living room decades after). The adventurous trips to far away lands no longer have much significance to those around him. The trophies are covered in dust, as some corrode, and others fall apart. His achievements relied so heavily on youth and physical strength, that they take on a sorrowful meaning as his age advances, and his health declines.

There's a melancholic feeling in the air as the juxtaposition of the figure telling these stories, and the one that achieved those historic wins (the one in the pictures that he's flipping through) becomes more obvious.

Regardless, I keep listening with undivided attention. But as we open another box full of jerseys and memories, I start to wonder if I'll ever achieve something—anything—that strangers will know about and remember well into my old age. I also start to worry about the prospect of no one wanting to hear my old stories one day.

But I'm getting distracted, and there's still two more boxes to be opened. I have a lot more listening to do.


Photo from the Tour of California by The Athletic, thanks to Brett for sending it my way.

There were, undoubtedly, some big news in Colombian cycling this weekend. Rigoberto Uran's hair continues to grow and look awesome at the Giro, as Henao shows that he's capable of climbing like a champ and takes over the young rider's jersey from his Colombian teammate (you can read my interviews with both riders here and here). Atapuma and Duarte put on a superb show in California as well, which I hope earns them an invitation to Utah and Colorado (the more Colombians the merrier).

Be that as it may, the real excitement was actually in New York, as a group of riders gathered in Nyack to recon two climbs of the New York Gran Fondo with Pacho Rodriguez. We were a motley crew to be sure, a fact that was only further emphasized by the inclusion of a retired professional of Pacho's stature. At 51, he's been off the bike for nearly 20 years. He decided to start riding again only a few months ago. Despite this, Pacho remains incredibly strong on the bike, and has retained a beautifully fluid climbing style (which is oddly similar to Lucho Herrera's). The same can be said of his descending, for which he was legendary (he once gained nearly three minutes on the peloton while descending into Bogota at the Clasico RCN, in order to win the stage).

Since the ride was casual, so was his pace, but you could still see the young man who traveled to Europe all those years ago (and beat the best professionals in the world as an amateur at the Dauphine) within the Pacho of today. Watching him ride away from me on the climbs was, if I may say so, an honor.

Pacho is funny and outgoing. He's full of stories, though he's humble and soft spoken at the same time. Because of all this, it was a fantastic and surreal experience to be sitting next to him on the subway, and suddenly hear him say, "What you mentioned a minute ago reminds me of this one time when I was starting to go down a long descent with Hinault behind me at the Tour...."

Any story, and I mean any story, that begins that way is bound to be good. As you can imagine, neither Pacho, his stories, or his answers to my endless questions managed to disappoint. 

Thanks to all those who came out, particularly to my brother, Mike Spriggs, and Emiliano Granado.