Victories, bittersweet memories and how EPO changed the peloton in the early 90s. An interview with Henry Cárdenas.

In a country where almost every cyclist has a nickname, you eventually stumble upon some nicknames that are rather unusual. There was The Witch, The Rooster, Movie Screen, and Mister Courage. The list goes on and on. But among all these nicknames, there was one that always stuck with me: Cebollita, which means Little Onion. That was Henry Cárdenas' nickname.

Cárdenas' time in the peloton bridged two significant chapters in Colombia's cycling history. He was there during the original explosion of the "escarabajos", riding with Lucho Herrera as he won the 1987 Vuelta a España. But Cárdenas was also there after the fact, as one of the riders who many expected to inherit the throne left vacant by the likes of Parra, Herrera, Martinez and Rodriguez. Why this didn't happen is more a tale about cycling in the early 90s than it is about Cárdenas. His accounts of the time he spent as a professional are unusually honest, down to being up front about issues and personal feelings that most riders seem to hide well into retirement. That includes his description of changes in the peloton as a result of the widespread use of EPO.

This interview was originally conducted by the Altimetrias De Colombia blog for the magazine Desde La Cuneta (issue #6). With their permission, I've translated it, and now publish it here. I edited the original interview down, and then contacted Henry myself as well, since I had further questions lingering in my head after reading the original interview, and in other cases simply wanted more information about a certain topic. I've added those answers, while sticking to the original format. Thanks to Altimetrias de Colombia, and also to Henry for his time and honesty.

The beginnings of an escarabajo
My nickname as a cyclist was "cebollita", but I'm not from Aquitania in Boyaca, a place known for growing onions. I'm actually from Sogamoso. What happened was that my father, who really loved cycling, had grown tired of sponsoring his sons—my older brothers—and them getting poor results. So I had to test my luck with regional teams. One team from Aquitana gave me my first chance. For that reason, everyone thought I was from there, and hence the nickname.

Cafe de Colombia
Things went well for me in junior races, and I got a spot with the CAFAM team. At the time, that was the U-23 team for Cafe De Colombia. To me, it was a great honor to be in the same team as Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra. But this also had some great disadvantages. We were never even allowed to even think of riding for ourselves. We had to work for the riders in the elite team. We followed the directors' order blindly.

(Photo from Cycling Archives)

Super domestique at the Vuelta a España
In 1987 I was selected to ride the Vuelta a España. It wasn't in my plans, but many of the primary riders in the team were hurt or not in good form. For me, this was not good news, because at that time the Vuelta was in April and May. It was far too cold and rainy for us Colombians. So even though it wasn't in my plans to go, I had to. Lucho was going just to get some kilometers in his legs, and wasn't even planning on finishing the race.

In the first mountain stage, (Grau-Roig), our director Rafel Antonio Niño ordered us to attack. I jumped on Patrocinio Jimenez's wheel, in order to mark an attack by Vicente Belda from Kelme. I started setting the tempo, and it didn't take long for Ol' Patrocinio to give me a scolding because the pace I was setting was too fast. I can only imagine that he was angry about the fact that a teammate who was only 21 was setting too fast of a tempo for him. I didn't want to hear his insults and anger anymore, so I upped the pace even more. I was left alone with Belda. Then, Lucho [Herrera] appeared out of nowhere, like ghost. He attacked, and took Belda with him. I was fifth that day. Because during the first week Lucho had lost over a minute and a half, I was suddenly the best-placed Colombian. I was seventh to Kelly by 2:21.

Cárdenas climbs with Belda, starting at around 5 minutes in.

The next day, in the stage to Cerler ended on an hors catégorie climb. I had great expectations. At the foot of the first climb, Lucho sent me to get him a bidon. I don't know why he did that. That day, the climbers attacked the climb early, in an effort to put Kelly under difficulty. When I finally caught up with the peloton, I had no energy left to keep up with the climbers in the front. Lucho was gone. Cubino won the stage, and I arrived at 3:16. After that, I had to work exclusively as a domestique for Lucho. Now I know that was his plan. He could see that I was strong, and felt I was a challenge to his leadership. But I wasn't going to attack him, or anything like that. I was there to take orders. He didn't need or want that bidon, and I'll never forget that about Lucho. But he was the leader, and I was just starting out.

Victory in the '87 Vuelta, and Fignon's claims about that race
What Fignon said in his book is a lie [about Cafe De Colombia buying the race]. I think Cafe De Colombia made a mistake by calling on him the last day of the race to help us. By then he had no chance of winning. We didn't really know that the last stage would just be for fun, to celebrate [much like the Tour's last stage, where the GC is not contested]. Throughout the race, we were stronger, in the mountains too. Cafe De Colombia wouldn't have paid Fignon, certainly not early in the race either, because Lucho was only set to do about 15 stages as he prepared for the Tour. He was going to retire after that. But because he was doing so well, and he was leading the race, he kept going.

In that last day, we were scared. It was a flat stage, and we thought they could try to crack us. But that last stage in grand tours is just a celebratory spin. I don't know if Cafe De Colombia asked him, if they did, it was a huge mistake [since the stage wasn't really contested]. But that was the only day we were told that Fignon could help us if we had a problem. Up until then, I can tell you that we had to defend ourselves like crazy. I think Fignon wanted to increase booksales, but that Vuelta was won cleanly. And the final result couldn't have been better: Lucho won the Vuelta, and I was ninth overall in the GC. At only 21 years old, I was ready for big things in Europe.

(Photo from Cycling Archives)

Bittersweet victory in the queen stage of the Dauphine Liberé in 1987
A big opportunity would come my way that very season at the Dauphine Liberé. The envy between teammates was part of the competition. I remember that in the first stage, I felt great, but foolishly abused my legs in the early part. Later, in the last climb, I felt terrible. I told my temmate Omar Neira how I felt, and he immediately took off, taking Charly Mottet with him. I arrived to the finish in the second group, more than a minute down. In the end, that cost me the race.

In the next mountain stage, I felt even better, but didn't want to waste my energy foolishly. I told Omar Neira again that I was blowing up, and luckily, he said he was also dead. I used this same strategy with my other teammates, Agudelo, and the others in the team. But they all said they were feeling good. No one was going to do me a favor, and set a fast pace to make a selection in the group. So I attacked in all the climbs, to blow the group apart. In the second to last climb, one of the hardest climbs in Europe (Col de Glandon), I went over the top alone. As I descended, Mottet, Claveyrolat, Roux and Pensec bridged up to me. The race was completely blown to bits by the beginning of the last climb. There, I upped the pace, and no one was able to follow me. By then, the gaps were huge. Roux, who had been with me up until the second to last climb, was fifth and lost 4:57. Had it not been for the time I lost in the first stage, I would have won the Dauphine over Mottet that year.

(Photo from Cycling Archives)

Disappointment in Europe: Changes in the peloton
I was then 25 years old. I thought it was time for me to try my hand at being a leader. I saw myself winning big races in Europe, but cycling was about to change in a radical way as a result of doping. All of a sudden, many patacones [which literally means fried plantains], as we used to call the faceless riders who were pack filler, started leaving us behind in the mountains. On the flat, the speeds became became astonishing. In one stage that was completely flat, without as much as an overpass or bridge, my speedometer read 50 miles an hour (80km/hr). I simply couldn't believe it, so I went to a teammate and asked to look at his speedometer. They all showed the same, we were really going 50 miles an hour.

There was an obvious change in the early 90s. When you train, you have ways of measuring your performance, best times and records in climbs. So you know how you're doing. I was training, doing well, but I would go to Europe and everyone would be so much faster all of a sudden. They were using something strong, something serious. It started with just a few riders, but then it seemed like everyone, just everyone could beat us. They could all climb faster.

I remember in one race, a Giro I think, I found myself in great difficulty in a climb early on in one stage. Dimitri Konyshev, who was a sprinter, told one Italian rider: "Look at this Colombian, just a couple of years ago he would have humiliated us in the mountains, and now he can barely keep up with us!" He didn't know that I spoke Italian, so I answered: "I prefer being dead last clean, than win and later find myself in a hospital bed!" Konyshev told me I was right, and that cycling was rotten to the core.

Pantani and his girlfriend Christine Johansonn, in the iconic Carrera denim kit

As hard as I tried, I couldn't win. But my efforts helped me get a spot with Carrera, Chiappucci and Pantani's team. In Carrera, no one made me inject anything, and I never saw any drugs, which was very good for me.

It was incredible how they were able to ride at that time. In one occasion, I was training with Chiapucci. After riding 124 miles (200 kilometers), we stopped and had lunch. I was amazed by how much food he could put away. Once he was done, he said to me, "Cebollita, how about another fifty kilometers?" I told him he was insane.

In 1992 I was greatly disheartened by racing in Europe. I was sick and tired of being humiliated by cyclists who were doped up to their eyeballs with EPO, while I had no opportunities of winning anything while racing clean. But even more maddening was the way I was criticized by the press, at least certain Colombian journalists, who were not capable of understanding the fundamental change that was happening in cycling, I'm speaking of the new types of doping that became popular in the 1990s. They didn't have the guts to explain Colombian fans why our riders could no longer ride and compete like in the days of Lucho and Fabio Parra. They accused us of being lazy, and of having become bourgeois over time. It was incredibly unfair. 

[Note: Surprisingly little has changed in the Colombian press, in regards to their understanding of the bigger picture. There is no analysis or meaningful discourse that I've seen regarding doping, aside from shallow articles reporting on matters like Armstrong. In the meantime, the sport in Colombia today is—by reports of those in the know—rotten to the core. Afraid to disturb prominent figures, even the likes of Victor Hugo Peña remain unquestioned, while their involvement in the US Postal doping scheme are well documented, including sources like the book Secret Race].

Sadly, it was then that they ended the Cafe De Colombia and the Postobon team [Cafe De Colombia ended in 1990, Postobon survived, albeit racing a national calendar, until 1996. If you want to read about the history of Postobon, you can read about it here and here]. That was because we Colombians insisted in winning, and the fans did too, so the teams ended. We couldn't win. We'd won the Dauphine, the Vuelta, stages in grand tours…and suddenly we were coming in 30th. People don't like that. That's no good to a sponsor. But people didn't realize that the speeds in the peloton had become absolutely inhuman. On the flats it was insane, on the big climbs it could be 25 miles an hour (40 km/hr) or even more. It was impossible to even stay on their wheel. 

Changing times lead to a changing climate in Colombia
Wins became harder to come by, as things over there changed. People in Colombia simply didn't understand the sport, and didn't know what was happening in the peloton, the speeds at which people were now able to ride and climb. All of a sudden, we were being treated very badly, even out in the street when we went out training. I remember little boys, almost babies who were barely old enough to speak, yelling all kinds of things to us in the street, cursing at us. It was impossible to argue, or even talk to people in those days.

When we were racing here in Colombia, people would yell at us, insult us, and say every single bad word you can think of, all because we weren't winning any more. I can remember perfectly one time, I was racing with Cafe De Colombia here. I was having some knee problems, so I raced in Colombia, while Lucho and others did the Dauphine in Europe. During the race we did here in Colombia, everyone was insulting us. They threw beer at us, and heckled us as we went by. We were hated. One day, going through Medellin, we were getting the same treatment. Insults, screaming…but then it all turned into applause. They were cheering us on, and the change was eerie because it was so sudden. Mid race, I went back to the car and asked what on earth was going on. Our director, Roberto Sanchez, said, "oh, Lucho just won the Dauphine in France". We were very happy to hear the news, but at the same time it was sad to see how fans of cycling could behave. 

Return to Colombian cycling
Eventually, I chose to retire. I didn't touch a bicycle for a full year, from the extreme disappointment that I felt. I was offered deals with other teams in Europe, but I knew what that would mean. I would have to inject the same things as everyone else on those teams. I didn't touch my bike at all in 1993. In 1994, I came back to racing, but only in Colombia. I didn't want to know anything about Europe. It took me some time to get accustomed back to racing, but I was finally able to be competitive again. I won a number of stages and the Vuelta a Tolima racing with the Gaseosas Glacias team. In 1995, I was nearly able to get my biggest victory in Colombia, in the Clasico RCN.

Fellow Colombian Abelardo Rondon riding for Gatorade (Photo from Cycling Archives)

Memories of great champions: Pantani, Fignon and Delgado
Pantani was a great person. I met him soon after I arrived to Carrera. With his first paycheck, he bought himself a brand new fancy car that was all the rage in those days. I would joke with him, and tell him, "What is it with you guys who are small, you always have to drive such big cars!"

Chiappucci and Pantani were very simple people. During the world championships in Duitama, I went to their hotel to say hello. As I stood there, arguing with the security guard, and telling him to let me in so I could talk to them, I heard Pantani call out my name. He gave me a wonderful and friendly hug, and told me (in his best Spanish), "I read all the newspapers in Italy, and I always see that in Colombia 'Cardenas wins!'" But I hadn't achieved anything compared to what Pantani had already won.

Other cyclists who I remember very well are Fignon and Delgado. When Abelardo Rondon raced with Gatorade, I asked him about how he got along with Fingon, who had always spoken badly of Colombians in general. He told me that, curiously, he was one of the best teammates he'd ever had. I really didn't believe him until one day I bumped into someone in the peloton. I didn't know who it was, so I turned my head, and saw it was Fignon. I thought this was going to end in a fight. I apologized, and from that moment we talked during the entire stage. We became friends within the peloton. His death hurt me deeply.

Delgado was also very special. I really think he's easily the friendliest cyclists of any that I met in the peloton.

In retrospect...
I feel frustration about the fact that I was part of a generation of Colombian cyclists who didn't shine as we could have, had it not been for the explosion of EPO. We were called upon to replace Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra. We worked hard, but also had blood with naturally high values as a result of living and training at altitude our whole lives. No one understood that at first, and when they did, they tried to replicate our levels through drugs.

But for as many sad memories as I have, I also have many happy moments in my life that I owe to cycling. Today, I have my own bike shop in Bogotá. It gives me enough to live a good life and enjoy my family. I hope Colombia returns to Europe as we did in the 80s with a team like Cafe de Colombia. I think we have a chance once again due to better doping controls. It would be great for our cyclists to be at the front of the pack during European climbs once again, as it happened during the 1980s.

Today, Henry Cárdenas owns and runs a bike shop in Bogota called Todo Bici (Diagonal 127 A No. 29-39. Phone: +57 1 637-1751). His son is a professional cyclist as well, and his name is also Henry Cardenas, although his nickname is not "Cebollita" (little onion) like his father, but "Cebollin" (scallion, or green onion). He just finished his first Vuelta a Colombia yesterday, riding for the Fuerzas Armadas team. If you are in Bogota and in need of a bike or repairs, pay Henry a visit at his shop.