Postobón. The other Colombian team. (Part 1)

It was a bit chilly at the start of this year's Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Although I don't normally wear a cycling cap off the bike, it was all I had to keep my head warm, so I reached into my bag and put one on. Since the cap had the Colombian flag across the top, and I was creepily hanging around the Sky bus with dubious-looking accreditation around my neck for way too long, a forty-something year old man stopped and asked if I worked for a team. Then he asked if I was Colombian. "I don't work for a team, but yes, I'm Colombian", I responded. The man was Belgian, a long-time fan of the sport. He went on to detail his favorite memories of Colombian cyclists, and I did likewise. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he excitedly blurted out, "Lucho Herrera!" He clasped his hands in a show excitement. "The Dauphiné Libéré! Two times...Cafe De Colombia!" He brought this up since we'd already covered Lucho's other victories.

I told him that yes, he'd won the Dauphiné twice...but the second time was with Postobón, not Cafe De Colombia. He squinted a bit and his forehead wrinkled up. "No...No...Cafe De Colombia!" I let it go, and we continued to talk. No harm, no foul. But in the end, I realized what had happened. In the shadow of the mighty and memorable Cafe De Colombia team, the other Colombian team from the 80s and 90s—Postobón—had been forgotten once again. Like Rodney Dangerfield, Postobón gets no respect.

Omar "El Zorro" Hernandez, one of the leding riders in the Postobon team. Hernandez rode with the Pierce Watches team earlier, who were known for buying favors from rival teams with their sponsor's watches. After he retired, Hernandez became a drug addict, and also developed an alcohol problem. He was nearly killed in violent attacks several times before getting clean, and becoming a preacher in order to help others beat their addiction. You can read more about him and his Pierce team here.

When we think back to European cycling in the 80s, it should come as no surprise that Cafe De Colombia remains such a memorable team. They were there first professional Colombian team, and it was in that jersey (or an earlier version, when the team was not professional) that Herrera and his teammates claimed their first international victories. Cafe De Colombia's name, its sponsor, jersey design and colors were so tied in with the country they represented, that they became iconic. In that sense, Cafe De Colombia may always remain more memorable than Postobón.

But in the long run, Postobón's victories were nearly as impressive as Cafe De Colombia's, and it was there that many of Colombia's greatest riders finished out their career. Nevertheless, they were, and still remain, the other Colombian team, despite the fact that their history was just as interesting.

A tale of two families
To understand Postobón's place in cycling history, you have to first appreciate the importance of Cafe De Colombia, as well as the relationship between the two. Similarly, in order to understand the man behind Postobón (the team and the company), you must first understand his greatest business rival. A man named Julio Santo Domingo.

Recently deceased, Julio Santo Domingo was often listed as one of the world's wealthiest men (with a net worth of 8.4 billion dollars before his death in 2011). Santo Domingo and his family own or have owned an impressive list of companies in Colombia, including the biggest magazine, the second largest newspaper, Colombia's biggest airline, and its largest beer producer (among others). Santo Domingo's involvement in cycling was substantial, but it's not him we're concerned with. We're actually interested in the guy who owns everything else...all the other stuff that Santo Domingo didn't own: Carlos Ardila Lülle. The relationship between these two men would go on to shape the reason why Lülle wanted to own a cycling team, as well as the way he wanted it to be run.

Carlos Ardila Lülle. For those who are artistically inclined, note the painting behind him. It's by Colombian painter Alejandro Obregon. In Colombia, those with wealth and power, tend to prefer modern art and architecture, in stark comparison to some Americans in that position who tend to see amalgamations of older European art forms as preferable (architecture in particular). Consider Donald Trump's apartment as an example.

Without going into Lülle's entire life history, I can simply tell you that he owns the largest textile mill in Colombia, the second biggest media/broadcasting company, a beer company, sugar refinery, nearly all GM dealerships, the Atletico Nacional football team, and many, many other companies in every sector you can think of. In many cases, if Santo Domingo bought a leading business in one sector, Lülle just bought its competitor in order to compete with him. It was an economic arms raise that lasted decades, and shaped the Colombian economy. So while these two men competed almost blindly at times, they each had companies that were near and dear to their hearts. The ones they took the most pride in for one reason or another. In Lülle's case that was Postobón, Colombia's larges soft drink company. It was in soft drinks, after all, that Lülle first made his name.

He was a plant manager for a small soda company (Lux) when a vendor shared an apple flavoring chemical with him. Lülle noticed that no company in the world had an apple-flavored soft drink at the time, so he created one, and it was wildly successful. Because of this, he went on to manage the company he worked for, and then bought a rival company: Postobón, whose name was derived from the last names of its founders (Gabrial Posada, and Velerio Tobon).

Ryalcao-Postobon musette from this collection.

In 1986, after Colombian riders had proved their ability to be successful when racing at the highest level in Europe, Lülle saw cycling as a great investment with huge advertising potential. He wanted a team of his own, one that could rival Cafe De Colombia's dominance over European mountain passes. So he recruited that team's old director (Jose Raul Mesa) to manage the team. Mesa had started as a rider himself, both on the road and the track, but transitioned quickly to directing teams. His first big victory as a director came in 1980, when his team won the Tour de l'Avenir with Alfonso Florez. Subsequently, he led the Cafe de Colombia team until 1985, so his time with that team included some of the most significant victories in the country's cycling history. Lülle trusted Mesa to recruit the best riders available, in order to dominate the sport that had stolen the hearts of the Colombian masses. But that would mean having to pry riders away from Cafe De Colombia.

Due to his well known track record in the sport, Mesa was an obvious choice for the new Postobón team. To Lülle, this was little more than another corporate battle, one fought on European roads, and under the banners of two beverages. Coffee versus soda. Much in the way that he'd battled Santo Domingo in every business sector, he now wanted to dominate cycling, even if he was late to the game by a couple of years. Since Lülle took sports, and business, seriously he chose one of his company's most successful products for the team's name. He chose the product that was closest to his heart, and had helped him rise to power: Manzana Postobón (Apple Postobón).

During the ten years that the team operated, however it often changed names. At times it was simply Postobón, then back to Manzana Postobón, and sometimes Ryalcao-Postobón. Ryalcao being a brand of milk-based drinks in Spain (mostly chocolate milk), which I've been told Lülle was at least part owner of.

Pablo Wilches, who is part of Colombia's most prolific cycling family. He was one of four brothers who raced professionally. Two of his sons have also raced professionally.

Learning from others
The choice of Raul Mesa as a director was a smart one. Mesa was, and still remains a great strategist, which earned him a nickname that roughly translates to "the chess master of cycling". More importantly, Mesa was well liked by riders. This is something that Henry Cardenas, who raced for both Cafe de Colombia and Postobón remembers well. I spoke with him about both teams and their directors, and Henry said:

"[Cafe De Colombia director] Rafael Niño could have a very bad temper at times. So the change for me was good. Raul Mesa, at Postobon, was very different by comparison. He's a person who's very considerate, very aware of a cyclists needs and on top of that he's very organized. The teams had different personalities and overall moods as a result of this. At Postobon, you felt calm. It was easier to work for that team, and you were more willing to work for them also. That was all because of Mesa's personality. He was the kind of director who would come to your hotel room to see how you were doing. He wanted to know how you were feeling during a race, or if you needed anything. This is hugely important to a rider during a long race, like a grand tour, that can be so taxing physically and mentally."

After hearing this description of Mesa, I asked Cardenas if perhaps riders in the Postobon team saw him as a close friend, or maybe even as a caring father figure within the team. Before I finished asking the question, he responded emphatically.


Raul Mesa, in one of his first jobs as a director, driving a team motorcycle for the Freskola squad.

To be fair to Niño and Cafe De Colombia, however, Cardenas acknowledges that Niño was under great pressure when he led that team. Not only was he a great champion (having won the Vuelta a Colombia an impressive six times), and was thus used to winning, but the sponsors also expected great things from the team. Cardenas remembers:

"At times, their expectations were unrealistic, and all that pressure fell on Niño. They [sponsors, management] wanted us to win every European race, and to do so against the very best, most well-funded and experienced teams in the sport. In reality, being in the top ten should have been celebrated for many of those races. But that was not the case."

But, Cardenas adds that it wasn't just the the sponsor who put this pressure on Niño and subsequently on the riders. It was also the fans.

"After winning the Vuelta a Colombia with Lucho [in 1987], the team was expected to win everything, and do it easily. That just wasn't realistic. That was the pressure in Cafe De Colombia."

Cardenas during his Cafe De Colombia years.

Considering the situation at Cafe De Colombia, it's not surprising that Cardenas was happy to join Postobon. To do so, he negotiated his contract with Raul Mesa directly. He noticed how differently the team operated right away. Perhaps that's because aside from Mesa's calming demeanor, Postobon benefited from Cafe De Colombia's difficult learning experience in Europe. Postobón replicated the Cafe De Colombia model, but didn't have to endure the growing pains of the original Colombian team. In a way, it was a similar approach to how Lülle had taken on other business ventures. Let others go in first, make the necessary mistakes, and he'd go in later in order to benefit from their experience.

The team had its own record? Yes, and it was called "To the Rhythm of the Pedal". Why did they have an album? Because—wouldn't you know it— Carlos Ardila Lülle also owned what at the time was the biggest record company in Colombia, Sonolux.

So unlike Cafe De Colombia during their first years, Postobón came into the sport with a large budget, and knowledge of how to run an international team. From the start, they had a clothing sponsor (Castelli) as well as a bike sponsor (Pinarello), and benefited infinitely from the many business contacts that their sponsor had in every type of industry.

In Europe, their service course was located in Madrid, while the team was headquartered in Bogota. It was there that a single team camp would be held early in the season, allowing Bogota resident and sponsor Carlos Ardila Lülle to sometimes stop by and meet the team's riders. Henry Cardenas remembers arduous training rides, even by Colombian standards, during those team camps in Bogota. All their training rides focused on climbing the high mountains surrounding the capital city. During those camps, their weights and body fat levels were checked, as the team would then fly out to Europe in order to compete in early season races, usually in southern Spain.

Lucho Herrera wins the Dauphine under the Ryalcao/Postobon colors.
The team's first season was relatively quiet, as they raced a mostly Colombian calendar. During that year, Pablo Wilches earned the team's first victory, a stage at the Vuelta a Colombia.

In 1987, Postobón made its intentions to ride in Europe known, and the lure of yet another team full of explosive Colombian climbers was too much for race organizers to pass up. That year, Postobón was invited to the Vuelta a España, where they helped show the absolute domination that Colombians were capable of. Postobon won a stage there (Omar Hernandez, stage 20) and the team classification, as Cafe De Colombia's Lucho Herrera took the overall, as well as the mountains classification.

Postobón's director would later reveal that during the last week of the Vuelta a España, team mechanics installed two-way radios, which allowed the Postobón and Cafe De Colombia team cars to communicate with one another. They worked as one, in order to have Lucho win the GC, and have Postobon take the team classification. In the end, eight out of the top twenty riders was Colombian at the Vuelta that year.

If, by the way, you are curious about the 1987 Vuelta, and Fignon's assertion that the race was paid for, please read my interview with Henry Cardenas here.

Omar Hernandez wins a stage at the Vuelta a España. Note the enthusiastic commentary, which I've translated.


Later in 1987, Postobón went on to win the Vuelta a Colombia, as well as stages in that race and the Clasico RCN (all with Pablo Wilches). In subsequent years, the number of wins that Postobón claimed was impressive. Five national road championships, the Dauphiné Libéré, the Vuelta a Murcia, Vuelta a Aragon, Vuelta a Colombia, plus stages in most of those races, as well as the Giro d' Italia. But by the early 90s, the team began to experience difficulties, both on and off the bike.

This Thursday, I'll post the second part of the Postobón story. In it, I'll discuss how the team benefited from Cafe De Colombia ending, how they performed in the face of the rising use of EPO, and shed some light on where some the team's key players are today. For Part 2, go here.