Who was the elusive mother-figure in the Colombian peloton? A conversation with photographer Horacio Gil Ochoa

The moment I saw the series of pictures, they intrigued me. Far from the expected subject matter of a sports photographer, the images captured the essence of Colombian cycling and its social milieu all at once. Yes, something like what was depicted could have happened in another country. But the strength of the series of images, I think, was partially based on the fact that each viewer can instantly project their own thoughts upon them. The photographer who took these pictures is Horacio Gil Ochoa, a fixture in Colombian cycling who lovingly captured the sport for many decades.

With Ariel Betancur

With Manuel Puerto, winner of the first U23 Vuelta a Colombia (1968)
(All photos by: Horacio Gil Ochoa)

Since I published this series of images on the blog, that post has proven to be very popular, being mentioned in several other blogs, as well as a few tweets. But most of all, I received emails asking just who the woman depicted was. She cared for riders, bringing them each bags with snacks, and treating them each as though they all were her sons. She served as a mother of sorts, the patron saint of riders who traveled throughout the country without a mother figure (one must keep in mind that Colombia is a deeply matriarchal society). She seemed happy and mournful at once, and the riders clearly knew her well. But who was she? I wasn't the only one who wanted to know. The images prompted Bicycling Magazine's Bill Strickland to ask the following in his Twitter account:

"@TrueBS great lost character of cycling—anyone know anything?"

Sadly, I knew no one would answer Bill's question. Colombia is a place that is at once connected with the world, but also incredibly distant in many ways. This is particularly true when one takes into account when these pictures were taken. Some of the people depicted in the images are long gone, either literally, or simply by vanishing into the kind of thin air that many in Colombia seem to disappear into. Large cities that function like any city around the world, give way to nearby towns and rural communities where time has, in many ways, not changed a single thing in many decades. The drop from industrialized civilization to nothingness is precipitous in Colombia, something I've always loved deeply about the country.

With this mind, I knew there was only one person I could speak with in order to get some answers. The man who took the pictures: Horacio Gil Ochoa. At first, however, it appeared as though he too had vanished, and I was unable to find him. But one phone call led to another, which led to another person's phone number, and eventually I was talking to Horacio himself.

82 years old, and living in Medellin, Horacio Gil Ochoa is a pleasure to talk to. This series of photos aside, there were so many things I wanted to talk to him about, and we did. Horacio was witness to some of the most amazing moments in Colombia's history (cycling and otherwise), but also world cycling in general. 

During our first conversation, we spoke endlessly. Time passed, and the amazing stories flowed effortlessly out of him. We laughed about the numerous characters in Colombia's history, and I listened intently, as another great story was always around the corner. 

Soon, I will have the full interview. But in the meantime, here's a bit of a teaser. Below, I ask this great fixture of Colombian cycling about one of the more unusual characters he photographed. The woman he kindly refers to as "la viejita de Manizales" (the little old lady from Manizales). Thanks to Horacio for his time and patience.

You took some wonderful shots of all kinds of characters and riders during your time. One of my favorites is a series. They are of a woman who would come out to the races in Manizales, and greet the riders with bags of food as though she was their mother. They are beautiful images, because of what they convey, but also because they allow me as a viewer to fill in the blanks as to what is going on in those images...though perhaps incorrectly. Can you tell me about those images, and about the woman in them?
Oh my god! Those pictures! That was something you don't forget. She's one of those events, one of the characters, at the Vuelta a Colombia that reach into your very heart, as you think back on them. I wrote about those pictures, and thought what they did best was represent the human condition of a woman, and what it means to be a woman in the traditional sense. To me, that was the most beautiful thing about her and her behavior, is that in the end, she represented one thing: woman.

There's something joyful but also sad about her. She's dressed in black, perhaps in mourning. 
You can see that she's not dressed in ragged clothing, but being from Colombia you can still tell that she's poor. And yet she dressed elegantly. But the important aspect there is that she was poor—clearly—but she's the one giving. There's wealthy people that don't give, but there she was giving her food and her love. Giving what she could to the riders she loved. It was so beautiful. The little lady showed up every single year to the race.

So all the pictures were not taken in the same year, correct?
No, I'm pretty sure they weren't. Every year, she would just appear in Manizales.

Was this at the beginning of the races, since she was giving food to the riders before the start? I spoke with one rider in Bogota that seemed to remember that being the case.
No, this was at the end of the stages into Manizales.

I guess to me, there's something charming about this woman caring for the riders. These men who, like most Colombian men, missed their mothers terribly. They were so young, and they traveled throughout the country without a mother figure, which is a huge part of Colombia as a matriarchal society.
She was a unique and beautiful character. Seeing her then, and thinking about her now still moves me. I would watch her closely, often putting my camera down to really look at her and what she was doing, because I found her to be so interesting. I would look at her as she gave a little bag with food to one rider, and then slowly move toward another rider. She once even sought out Carlos Arturo Rueda [radio personality considered the voice of the Vuelta a Colombia].

It would be possible to dismiss her as someone who did this type of thing all the time to everyone, perhaps because of her mental state or some other reason.
No, she knew cycling. You could tell that she completely involved in the sport. She knew who each rider was.

And you never spoke with her?
No. I looked at her from afar, and I admired her actions. But that was all.

So now I have to ask, do you know who she was. Her name?
I was told once that she was the mother of a rider known as "Peluca" López.*
*"Peluca" means wig. If you want to read more about nicknames in Colombian cycling, go here

Right, Luis Arturo "Peluca" López. Was he from Manizales?
I think so, but maybe he was from Pereira [Pereira is the capital of the department of Risaralda, and is not far from Manizales].

"Peluca" López, died when he was very young, I've often read references about that fact. So maybe she was actually in mourning over him?
I don't know. I don't know that she was really his mother. I was just told that once. And I think he was from Pereira too. I was never able to confirm that she was his mom.
[Update: In a video from 2010, Colombian legend Cochise Rodriguez remembers her as "the mother of a cyclist from Manizales who died on the bike", though he does not remember the rider's name.)

Was he, Peluca Lopez, alive when you took those pictures?
I think so. I think he was still alive. You know, maybe in that situation, I lacked a bit of curiosity on the matter. I say that in retrospect. As a photographer, I stopped and looked at her, her expressions, her actions. I photographed her, and what she was doing, but never stopped to wonder who she was. Was she someone's mother? I never really wondered about that. What got my attention was the event. But admit that now, as the years have passed, I'm very curious. Do you understand what I mean?

I do, and that's probably your way of looking at things as a photographer. Documenting the moment, the event and the emotion. I think my interest is that of a viewer, an outsider trying to find further meaning in an image.
Yes, but maybe I should have been more of a journalist, and asked more questions. Who was she? Where did she work? Was she someone's mother?

I like to think of her as the mother of the whole Colombian peloton. That sounds silly, but it suits my way of thinking I suppose. It's a nice thought.
You know who could have answered this question, and given you every bit of information about her that you'd like to know?

With Carlos Arturo Rueda, "The Voice of the Vuelta a Colombia"

Ruben Dario Gomez [the radio broadcaster photographed with her while wearing the "Caracol" cap]. But he also passed away.

Right, it's sad that so many of these people are gone.
But you know, I ran into Ruben Dario's cousin, who was very close to him just days ago. I let him borrow a book that was published with some of my pictures. He owns a little stand on the side of the road where he sells food and drinks. Since I'm now intrigued about this myself, I'll ask him to see if he knows. He was close to Ruben Dario and cycling.

So there you have it. Perhaps this raises even more questions, but may eventually lead to more answers about this most unusual and elusive figure in Colombian cycling. I will try to have my full interview with Horacio up soon.

Lastly, I should mention that the Vuelta a Colombia, where these very pictures were taken many years ago, is going on right now. You can watch daily video highlights here. Videos are usually uploaded mid-afternoon (EST).