Postobón. The other Colombian team. (Part 2)

This is part two of the Postobón history. For the first part, go here.
The end of one team
In 1990, the Cafe de Colombia team came to an end. There were rumors of a possible merger with Kelme, but they never materialized. By that point, Colombian riders were having less success in Europe (if you want to know one reason why, read this interview with Henry Cardenas). To make matters worse, the price of coffee in the world market dropped significantly. With that, Cafe De Colombia's sponsor (the Coffee Growers Association) decided to end the team. Riders were told to look for jobs elsewhere. For Henry Cardenas and Lucho Herrera this simply meant going to Postobon, after representatives of the team contacted them.

Finally, after years of trying to persuade Herrera to join Postobon, Raul Mesa and Carlos Ardila Lülle had the most prized rider in Colombian cycling (Herrera), along with one of his most talented and promising gregario (Henry Cardenas). Postobon had tried to sign Stephen Roche in '89, with the deal falling through at the last moment. Without a true GC leader, the team had long wanted Herrera in its ranks.

Rogelio Arango, who raced with Cafe De Colombia in 1985, won the Vuelta a Uruguay and also won a stage in the Vuelta a Colombia. He was part of the national team that won the Tour de l'Avenir in 1980 with Alfonso Florez.

Back to Colombia
Although the team had some impressive European wins after Herrera joined them (like theDauphiné Libéré), the 1992 Tour de France proved to be the beginning of the end. As the team rode into Paris with only two riders left, director Raul Mesa began to cry in the team car. He was overcome with anger and sadness. He didn't understand what had happened. Even today, Raul Mesa remembers that day in the Champs-Élysées as a crushing defeat. Though it may be a simple case of oversimplification, the fact that EPO use had become rampant in the European peloton didn't help matters. Cardenas' insight into those years is powerful. While his form remained the same, everything around him changed.

"...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...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."

With the disastrous 1992 Tour behind them, the team quietly went back to racing in Colombia. But there was another incident during that time which only made matters worse, something that (according to most accounts) forced team benefactor Ardila Lülle to begin backing away from cycling slowly. That episode, however, is a complicated one, which I will deal with in the coming weeks, in another post. So forgive me for being cryptic, and let me put that aside for now.

As the team went back to Colombia, they performed well, claiming overall wins at the Vuelta a Colombia, Clasico RCN, as well as the national championships. Once in Colombia many within the team began to see an obvious difference between the European and the Colombian pelotons at the time. Put simply, the EPO era had begun in Europe, while Colombia remained clean at the time (when it came to such advanced methods of doping). Still, the team had hopes of returning to Europe. But that didn't go as planned.

Reynel Montoya Jaramillo during the team's first year. Like many others, he too switched from Cafe De Colombia to Postobon.

Motorola? Donnay?
In 1993 Postobon sought to take on a Belgian sponsor (Donnay, maker and retailer of sports goods), in an effort to get back to racing more often in Europe. As late as April of that year, a final agreement had not been reached, and the team was on hold. All riders were housed in a Spanish hotel north of Barcelona, though rumors about them being left in Europe with no money or a way back to Colombia were commonly reported in the press. Eventually, the deal fell through. And it's there that matters get a bit confusing.

Alvaro Mejia, during his Motorola days

The team's most prolific rider, Alvaro Mejia, was recruited by Motorola as the Donnay deal fell through. Frustrated by his inability to race in the early part of the year, Mejia signed with the US team. That much is clear. What's unusual is that thereafter, the Colombian press continued to refer to Motorola as "Motorola-Postobon". This was not the case in the US or European press. Even Andy Hampsten didn't remember that when I asked him about it, though he said Postobon was on the Motorola jersey. It's likely that Postobon asked for their logo to be there, as part of Mejia's contract being bought out, and the Colombian press ran with it enthusiastically, almost treating it like a merger of the two teams. But in reality, the Colombian Postobon team raced in the 1993 season.

So were there two Postobon teams in 1993? Not really. In fact, 1993 proved to be an unusual year for the team, since it decided to take on some non-Colombian riders, notably a number of Lithuanian riders who had completed the Vuelta a Colombia as part of the Soviet Team, and subsequently under their own flag. They were hired to help protect the Colombian climbers on the flats, which worked relatively well as Postobon strived to become a more well-rounded GC team. Additionally, Postobon sponsored a Lithuanian amateur team for a short while.

With names like Arturas Kasputis, Arunas Cepele, Remigius Lupeikis, Naglis Ciplijawskas, Vadim Kravcenko, some Postobon riders were certainly not Colombian.

1995 and the end of an era
Sadly, one tragic event late in the team's existence is why many in Colombia remember the Postobon team. In 1995, during a training ride, three of the team's riders, Nestor Mora, Agustino Triana and Hernán Patiño were struck by a car and killed. Easily one of the biggest tragedies in Colombian cycling, the passing of the three riders came only a year before the team would finally end. Much like Cafe de Colombia, Postobon ended rather unceremoniously. Riders were asked to return their bikes, extra tires and luggage by the sponsor, but were not told why. Eventually, assistant director José Alfonso López got the call. Postobon was ending the team as a result of budget cuts, and there was nothing to be done about the matter.

For director Alfonso López, the end of the team was particularly difficult. He had been the one to urge the three riders (Mora, Triana and Patiño) to train that morning when they were killed. It was raining, and most riders didn't want to go out in such bad weather. He scolded those who stayed behind, praising the three who opted to train. Because of that day, and the horrible events that took place, José Alfonso López spent a solid year in a terrible state. He would cry uncontrollably in his bedroom, while his wife and kids were unable to help him. Just as the pain finally started to subside, the team ended. In all, 30 riders and staff lost their jobs. Since Postobon hadn't raced in Europe much, and the other prominent team in Colombia (Pony Malta) ended at the same time, many were unable to find work. Finally, it seemed, the glorious days of Colombian cycling had come to a close. It would take years for the sport to recover, and large sponsors to once again come into cycling.

Postobon's assistant director José Alfonso López still remembers the friends that he lost in that training accident in 1995. That, he says, is a memory he'll always carry with him. Soon after the team ended, he started delivering gravel with a dump truck that he already owned, mostly to concrete plants within Bogota. Eventually, López went on to direct smaller Colombian teams, some as recently as 2007. He even worked with Gianni Savio briefly in what is now Androni Giocattoli.

Over time, Carlos Ardila Lülle's focus shifted away from cycling and into soccer/football. Today, his companies sponsor several teams as well as tournaments. He also bought the Atletico Nacional team which was at one point owned by fellow cycling patron Pablo Escobar.

Alvaro Mejia is now a  doctor. It took him seven years to finish his studies in medicine, which he admits felt odd at times, considering that his classmates were substantially younger than him. He currently works as the team doctor for the national team, as well as the continental Movistar Team in Colombia.

After a long professional career, Rogelio Arango lives a quiet life in a small farm. He milks his cows on a daily basis, and rides his bike three days a week. He doesn't do this to stay competitive, but mostly to prevent what he calls "the dreaded belly" that plagues many retired professionals. He coached his son, a promising young talent who raced on several teams with riders like Jarlinson Pantano. Like his father, however, Arango's son didn't excel at climbing (by Colombian standards), something that he attributed to being raised in the relatively flat Valle Del Cauca department. That, Arango joked, "is the greatest crime that a Colombian cyclist can commit, being from Valle Del Cauca. We are known as good riders, but only on flat roads, so we'll always remain peons to be used by those [climbers] from Antioquia and Boyaca!"

Henry Cardenas

Henry Cardenas retired from cycling in great part due to the changes he saw in the European peloton in the early 90s. He owns a bike shop in Bogota called Todo Bici, and his son just finished his first Vuelta a Colombia.

Lucho Herrera was married, had two kids, and later divorced his wife. He now lives in a large piece of land in his native Fusagasuga, where he also built his parents a home (though his father passed away recently).

After fifty years in cycling, Raul Mesa still works as a director. He currently leads the EPM-Une squad, which will compete in the United States this year at the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. He's considering retirement once the sponsor's contract is up. He also owns a bike shop in Medellin.

Raul Mesa discusses his 50 years in cycling (in Spanish). Audio is bad at first, but improves.