From presidents to the most feared criminals of the 20th century. Frame builder José Duarte remains a keeper and rightful owner of Colombia's cycling patrimony.

This is part two of the article about José Duarte, one of the most storied and prolific frame makers in Colombia (to read part one, go here).

Pablo Escobar and Ositto Bikes
In 1980, the Ositto Cycling Team was set to compete in the Vuelta A Colombia for the first time. The team was owned and operated by Roberto Escobar, brother and right-hand man of Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin Cartel. Roberto had been a successful cyclist himself, earning a medal at the Pan-American games and coaching several teams after he’d retired. For Pablo, who saw himself as a populist, his involvement with the team allowed him to travel throughout the country to both see and be seen. Like many Colombians today, Duarte is uneasy speaking about Escobar. There’s a certain amount of shame involved when the topic of drug trafficking and the violence that once permeated the nation comes up.

There’s also a bit of fear in some people’s voices when they discuss Escobar’s dealings. That Pablo Escobar is long gone matters little to those who lived through the assassinations, bombings and endless kidnappings that were common then.

So when José Duarte speaks about the drug lord, he peppers his speech with phrases like “well, you know the guy I’m talking about.” There’s even an unwillingness to mention his full name if it can be avoided. It’s for that reason that when I ask him if he made frames under another name, he takes a deep breath before answering.

“Well…I only made frames under another name once. It was for a company that belonged to two men. You may have heard of them, one was called Roberto and his brother was a certain Pablo. I don’t want to say their last name, because surely you know it.”

Like any other Colombian, I immediately know who he’s referring to. Duarte’s tone, and his inability to even say Pablo and Roberto’s last name, speaks volumes about the terror the drug lord caused in the lives of all Colombians. Roberto Escobar would eventually be convicted of weapons violations, trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, illicit enrichment, and was also connected to the deaths of over 4,000 people. But Duarte is quick to point out that his dealings with the two men, and Pablo in particular, happened before their rise to fame and infamy.

“This was early on in the life of you-know-who,” he says in a stern tone. “People didn’t really know what Pablo was up to back then. He was thought of as a legitimate businessman with political aspirations, and there were only rumors about how they really made their money. It sounds crazy to say this now, but no one really knew what he was up to at the time. Ositto, their bike company, sponsored the team. Ositto made bikes for kids, and heavy delivery bikes. They never made proper race bikes. That’s why they asked me to make them twelve frames for the race. Pablo came here a couple of times to check up on the order and to see how the frames were turning out."

[Long-time readers of the blog may remember that I've written about Escobar's involvement with cycling before, including Ositto bikes. When I first visited Duarte's shop in Bogota, I had no idea that Ositto race bikes had been made there. The topic of Ositto also came up when I interviewed Cesar Grajales, shortly after his stint at Rock Racing. Cesar is from Manizales, where Ositto's primary factory was located.]

Ositto's factory in the city of Manizales, where low-end and children's bikes were made.

With great curiosity, I ask what Pablo and his brother were like, knowing very well that they were ruthless criminals who were responsible for the deaths of thousands, including targeted assassinations of politicians, journalists and several Supreme Court Justices. Duarte takes a long pause, followed by a deep breath that seems to go on for minutes. He exhales, and starts to speak once again.

“Pablo was very kind to me, and very generous when I dealt with him back then. He paid very well for those frames, since they weren't branded as my own, but as Ositto. Again, this was before the world found out what Pablo was about, and what he did to make his money. To me, it was obvious that something was going on, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Duarte’s claim rings true, particularly when one considers that Escobar was elected to Colombia’s Congress two years later, in 1982. I press Duarte for details, and he tells me about one specific night at the Vuelta A Colombia in the late 1970s. He was working as a mechanic for a team, and a young Pablo Escobar came by and asked how much he made as a mechanic, noting how hard and late he’d seen Duarte work. Escobar said that if he wanted to earn more, he should stop by a restaurant in the city of Pereira where he’d be that night. Duarte agreed. He still remembers that night vividly, as another defining moment in his life.

“I arrived at the restaurant, and the place was packed with people. I didn't feel right being there. I could see him in the distance talking with a group of people, and I didn't want to interrupt him. I had a bad feeling about the whole thing, so I decided to leave. Had I talked to him, I now know that an offer would have been made. I can only imagine what kind of an offer. In retrospect, I'm very happy that I didn't go in, and that I never had that conversation with him. That was actually the very last time I ever saw Pablo. I left, and that was for the best, because otherwise, I would be dead right now. That much I know.”

With Laurent Fignon, who happens to hold an unusual place within Colombian cycling.

As Duarte recounts that night, he suddenly takes on a solemn tone, and rightfully so. He’s not exaggerating the significance of his decision that night. The list of professional cyclists who were killed during that time in Colombia, many by Escobar’s men, is staggering. Alberto Florez, the first Colombian to wear the polka dot jersey was assassinated while driving his wife’s car in Medellin. Also murdered were Aureliano Gallon, Gonzalo Marin (winner of the Piccolo Giro in 1974), Juan Carlos Castillo, Edison Arias, and Armando Aristisabal. Aristisabal was found blindfolded and tortured outside of Medellin. He had recently returned from Europe, after having raced there with Café De Colombia squad. Team owners and others associated with the sport weren’t spared either. Many of these were men that José Duarte knew well.

At one point, Duarte recalls, many bike shop owners in the neighborhood appeared to have obvious links to organized crime. “I remember a nice old lady walking into the shop during the 1980s. She wanted to know if there was a laundromat nearby. I told her that there were no places to launder clothing around here, but if she wanted to launder money, she had plenty of shops to choose from in this neighborhood.” That was the mood of the time. Many became involved in Colombia’s criminal underground in search of fast money, and often perished in the process. Others were killed because they opposed that same criminal underground. One such person was a friend of José’s, the charismatic presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, who was gunned down as he prepared to make a speech during a campaign stop outside of Bogotá in 1988. He had been in Duarte’s shop only days prior. “He was my friend,” Duarte says in a dejected tone.

Presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan is fitted for a custom Duarte frame. Galan was murdered on August 18, 1989, and the video of his assassination serves as a reminder of those tumultuous years in Colombia.

From Escobar to Galán
As Jose Duarte remembers his friend Luis Carlos Galán, a sadness comes over him, as it does for most Colombians. “He would come to the shop often, and we’d have long talks. He was going to be president, everyone knew that. The polls were overwhelmingly in his favor. The country was behind him. But his stance on wanting to extradited drug traffickers got him killed. I always worried because when he'd come to the shop, he was always very unassuming. He only had a couple of armed guards with him, which at the time was very unusual for someone in his position. I worried about him, particularly that last time that he was here at the shop.”

Duarte’s concern was warranted, and in an unusual turn of events, his earlier client, Pablo Escobar, ordered Luis Carlos Galán’s assassination days after the candidate was fitted for a new frame in Duarte’s shop.

The poster for Galan's first presidential campaign, by Carlos Duque, is considered to be an iconic piece of Colombian graphic design.

Riding with the President
Despite all the negativity that was common in Colombia then, today Duarte chooses to look ahead. The same is true for a large majority of the Colombian population. The violence that once enveloped the country has largely subsided, and life for Colombians has improved substantially. The mood in Bogotá has changed accordingly. Today, the populous capital city is a lively center of both commerce and culture and has the largest bike path network of any city in the world. There’s a decidedly upbeat tone in today’s Colombia, and it’s perhaps in that spirit that José Duarte reminds me that over the years, he also built frames and did mechanical work for other important figures in Colombia. Ones with no connections to the difficult times that those outside of this South American country seem to focus on. The walls in his shop are littered with pictures of dignitaries and Colombian celebrities who made the pilgrimage to see him. As we walk down a set of steps, Duarte pauses and points to one picture in particular, which shows Formula 1 and NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya surrounded by new steel road frames. Duarte has known Montoya since he was a baby, and describes him as being “grumpy and overly sour”. Every picture is accompanied by a similarly brief but descriptive remark.

Juan Pablo Montoya outside Duarte's shop.

Another picture on the wall shows former Colombian president and avid cyclist Cesar Gaviria riding one of his frames. Duarte came to know Gaviria because he was the one who took up Luis Carlos Galán’s presidential campaign, after Galán’s own son asked him to do so at his father's funeral. Aside from being the president’s builder of choice, Duarte was also his training partner for several years during the early 90s, a time when simply going for a bike ride was a risky undertaking for the Colombian president.

“I would get a call at 5 in the morning, to let me know where we’d be meeting, since he had to be careful about divulging his whereabouts,” Duarte recalls. “But more often than not, I would go to the Presidential Palace, and we’d take the bikes on his helicopter to a safe place to ride. His bodyguards would ride along with us. We’d also have armed guards on motorcycles all around us. That’s what you had to do if you wanted to go on a training ride with the president.”

Duarte fits Colombian president Cesar Gaviria

Duarte smiles as he relays the story. It’s clear that he hasn’t thought about those days, and those helicopter rides with the president in some time. As he tells these stories, it becomes obvious that Duarte has been at the center of Colombian cycling for much of his life, something that doesn’t surprise Matt Rendell.

Rendell is a British journalist, author and commentator, who has devoted a significant amount of his career to writing about Colombian cycling. His insight regarding Colombia’s close relationship with cycling is interesting, and certainly rings true when you meet someone like José Duarte.

“In Colombia, the moment you cross the threshold into the world of cycling, you are immediately at the very center of every significant thing that has ever happened in the sport in the past, as well as everything that is happening right now,” Rendell says. “All the people you meet have lived every minute of their lives for the sport, it's a real passion for them.”

As he sees it, men like Duarte are the true keepers — perhaps even the rightful owners — of cycling as a way of life.

“We [Europeans and Americans] believe that whatever we choose to buy into, defines who we are. That’s the Anglo-Saxon way: we exercise choice. Through those choices, we define ourselves to the world. But in reality, I think it’s the other way around. Our basic values have a claim on us. Like when we are ashamed, we don’t choose to feel ashamed. It’s those things that we have no choice over that define us. So people in Colombia for whom cycling is life—not a hobby they took up—those are the people that in my view truly own cycling.”

Learning not to question
Today, things have slowed down at José Duarte’s shop. Asian-made frames are simply too inexpensive for Colombian manufacturers to compete with. Even in Colombia, steel has now fallen out of favor with most customers. But clients continue to come through the doors of Duarte’s shop on 68th Street. He has taught himself how to repair carbon fiber, and his shop stocks the children’s bikes and parts that most of today’s customers are looking for. There are also many individuals who walk into the shop looking to have their aging Duarte bikes tuned up, or their frames repaired after a crash. Colombia is not a country where finely made goods are simply discarded. On the contrary, skilled craftsmen like Duarte are revered here, as are their services.

Jose Duarte's son. In the background, one of the few non-family members who works at the shop preps a tube for a frame that's being repaired.

As I speak with José’s son, who will be taking over the shop one day, two customers come in with their late 70s Duarte frames. One is asking to have the frame repainted, while the other needs a custom handlebar made. The man in need of the custom handlebar is elderly, and clearly of meager means. Like many such individuals in Bogotá, however, he has a certain air of refinement about him.

His deeply set eyes and wrinkled face tell the story of a hard-lived life. He wears a brown wool suit jacket that is threadbare at the elbows, but also has a neatly folded pocket-handkerchief. A freshly laundered and starched white dress shirt shows age, but serves to show its owner’s pride. As the customer straightens his oversized necktie, I notice that his right hand is twisted and distorted. He’s unable to fully explain the degenerative condition that’s left his hand in its current state, but says that he’s now unable to comfortably use his current handlebars as a result. As he continues to speak, I quickly learn that he raced as a young man, and he continues to ride almost every day in his old age. I ask why he came back here, to see José Duarte, and he’s quick to answer.

“No one else touches my bike except for Mister Duarte. He’s a true master.” He points to the picture on the wall, the one of the former Colombian president riding a Duarte frame. “He made the president’s bike! It’s an honor to have him work on mine. I don’t question his judgment.”

I realize that he’s right, and that I shouldn’t question José Duarte’s judgment either. I’ll be getting a 51.5-centimeter frame. The top tube will be 53 centimeters long, and the headtube angle will be 74 degrees, just as he said it would be.