Regions that have shaped Colombian cycling: Antioquia

Coppi in the Doble A Pintada Race. Photo by Horacio Gil Ochoa.

Coppi, a fallen hero
Carmenza Angulo was only thirteen years old on January 24, 1957. Though young, Angulo was already well versed in the sport of cycling. She knew exactly the best place to watch that day’s race, and she also knew that in order to get a prime spot, her and her family would have to leave their house at 5:30am. Soon enough, they found themselves on the famed Alto de Minas climb. It was there, that Carmenza Angulo and her family saw one of the most significant moments in the history of Colombian cycling.

Well after Ramon Hoyos went by, leading the Doble A Pintada race, the excitement of seeing the local hero died down. But then, another figure appeared down the road. It was Fausto Coppi, the visiting dignitary who they had woken up at 5:30 in the morning to see. But something didn't look right. As soon as Carmenza Angulo and her family saw him, they sensed something was wrong.
The Italian champion wasn’t dancing on the pedals, or even moving them smoothly. He was slumped back, with a pale face. Coppi pedaled slowly, and as he reached Angulo and her family, he wobbled violently and collapsed onto a ditch. The greatest cyclist of the era, perhaps of all time, had literally fallen at her feet. His face was green, his lips yellow. His eyes rolled back completely, as medics and team assistants came by to care for him. Unaware of Coppi’s monumental collapse in the Alto de Minas, race leader Ramon Hoyos forged ahead, and crossed the finish line alone. Coppi arrived to the finish live eventually, in the safety of a team car. He'd been defeated by a Colombian, but also by Colombia itself. The altitude, shifts in climate, harsh pace and endless climbs that are still common in Colombian races had gotten the best of him. The Italian superstar, who was beloved in Medellin, was gracious in defeat.

Antioquia, in red, within the camp of Colombia.

With that, Hoyos had not only beaten the best rider in the world, he’d become a legend. Hoyos was a local rider, an amateur who still held down a full time job, and he had just defeated Coppi. True, Hoyos was not exactly an unknown (he’d won the Vuelta a Colombia four times by 1957), but the monumental nature of that day remains forever etched in the minds of all those who were present.

Coppi had come to the Colombian department of Antioquia, and he’d been defeated by an amateur from the region. With that, Hoyos was not only the undisputed king of Colombian cycling, it was also clear on that Antioquia was the leading region of Colombian cycling. To some extent, that fact remains true today.
Newspaper clipping from the El Colombiano newspaper. Headline reads "Coppi and Koblet challenge Ramon Hoyos this Saturday". He had beaten them both the year prior on the Doble A Pintada race, and they had come back to Colombia for a rematch. In 1958, Coppi retired, and Koblet beat Hoyos narrowly in a sprint. To this day, Hoyos gets very serious when speaking about that loss. His competitive spirtit remains despite his age. [Courtesy of Ramon Hoyos]

Perfectly unique
Antioquia is one of 32 departments that make up Colombia, and prior to the Constitution of 1886, was its own independent and sovereign state. Though a small part of the department reaches out to the Caribbean Sea, most of Antioquia is dominated by the Andes mountain range. Add to its mountainous terrain a warm year-round temperature, and you have a large area that is—and has always been—perfectly suited for cycling. Rigoberto Uran, who can and does train all over the world, still maintains that Medellin, and its surrounding areas (mostly to the west) are easily the best cycling that can be found anywhere.

Hinault dressed in typical arriero garb in 1986, while racing in the Clasico RCN through Antioquia. This is the type of clothing used by peasants and farmers in the department of Antioquia, and it was based on this attire that the Juan Valdez character was created.

Add to these perfect conditions some of the qualities that are stereotypically attributed to those from Antioquia (commonly referred to as "Paisas", a contraction of the Spanish word meaning "fellow countryman"), and you have the makings for an ideal climber. Tough, hard-working and industrious, paisas are often thought to be more jovial than those of us from the capital city of Bogota.

Simply put, paisas are unique...and I don't use the term loosely. People from this region of Colombia are a genetically isolated population, due in large part to the secluded valleys in the Andes in which they have always lived. For the most part, individuals from Antioquia are descendants of both Colombian natives, as well as immigrants from Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon and Germany. But perhaps one of the more interesting groups to have had an impact on the local population, is one that is of particular interest to cycling fans. The Basques.

The Basque connection
If you look at the phone book in a city like Medellin, you'll quickly realize something: a small but noticeable proliferation of Basque, and Basque-derived last names. There's Echeverri, Izaguirre, Arizabaleta, Saldarriaga, Arizmendi, Ricaurte, Ochoa, Useche, Aguirre, Zuluaga and Aristizabal to name just a few. In most cases, the letter "s" or the combination "ch" replaced a "tx", and a "c" took the place of a "k".

Additionally, if you listen closely to the accent that is common among paisas (particularly old-timers) you'll notice certain unusual sounds and patterns (the use of an unwritten "a" before certain words that start with "r", for example, or the pronounciation of "s" as almost an English "sh") that only occur among Spanish speakers in areas where Basque immigrants were present. In Antioquia's case, Basque people mostly arrived in the seventeenth century, and again after the Spanish Civil War, adding further flavor (and perhaps potential cycling talent?) to a Colombian region that is already known for it's outgoing and friendly outlook on life.

Rio Abajo native Sergio Henao celebrates his Vuelta A Colombia with a garland made of arepas.

From Cochise to Uran, from Clothing to BMX
Among Colombian cyclists who race at the highest level today, many are from Antioquia. Rigoberto Uran (from the town of Urrao), Sergio Henao (from Rio Abajo), and Carlos Betancur (Ciudad Bolivar) are all paisas. For that matter, so is BMX gold medalist and world champion Mariana Pajon, and BMX bronze medalist Carlos Oquendo. But it's when you look at the overall list of cyclists from that region that you begin to understand the unbelievable amount of talent that has come from it. Colombia's greatest and most complete cyclist, Cochise Rodriguez, is from Antioquia. So is Ramon Hoyos, Mauricio Ardila, Santiago Botero, and Colombia's first professional rider Giovanni Jimenez. Even American cycling fans should be thankful to all of Antioquia, since George Hincapie's parents are both from Medellin, where they still spend much time since they keep an apartment there.

Drive around Antioquia's back roads even momentarily, and you're bound to see countless cyclists. Amateurs, professionals, and even entire development teams are always out on their bikes. Such was the case of this development team on their TT bikes, who I ran into near La Ceja. We had all stopped at the same roadside restaurant to eat freshly made arepas and hot chocolate. Though hard to see in this picture, the bike off to the right, says "Paisa Pride" along the top tube. If you are visiting Antioquia, you can see many of the best cycling routes available here.

Additionally, many of Colombia's most dominant teams have been from Antioquia. Dating back to Cochise's time, the Wrangler and Caribu squads called Antioquia home. Today, the Indeportes Antioquia team is obviously from that department, as is EMP-Une . It's also worth mentioning that Colombia's greatest cycling photographer, Horacio Gil Ochoa, is a proud paisa.

One of the many races that takes place during the Clasico El Colombiano in Medellin.

But perhaps one of the most long-lasting contributions to Colombian cycling that Antioquia ever gave was a single word: escarabajo. Escarabajo is the word for beetle, and its what Colombian climbers became known as the world over during the 1980s. Even to this day, the Colombia-Coldeportes team uses the word readily when referring to its riders in any language. Common in use today, the term was first used to describe Ramon Hoyos, whose steady and determined climbing style was compared to that of a beetle by members of the press. He was, and remains, the first escarabajo ever.

Ramon Hoyos today, in front of the shop that still bears his name.

It's also in Medellin and its surrounding areas that almost all of Colombia's cycling clothing is manufactured, with brands such as Hincapie, Suarez and Safety, all having their operations there. This is in great part due to Antioquia's great tradition of manufacturing high-end apparel, particularly complex women's undergarments. This means that most workers who are experienced in sewing, have had extensive experience with lycra and other similar fabrics while sewing with very small tolerances in mind. So the workforce in Medellin is ideally suited to produce this type of clothing, something I learned while touring the Hincapie facility a couple of years ago.

Bandeja Paisa

One dish that is particularly linked to the Antioquia region of Colombia above all is the bandeja paisa. This dish is not a dish per se, but an actual serving tray, and it has a fat and caloric intake that can make most grown men cry. But in a sense, this makes it ideally suited for cyclists who burn so many calories that such things matter little. When I spoke with Ramon Hoyos sometime ago, he dubbed it the ideal meal for cyclists. Rigoberto Uran wouldn't go quite as far, saying that he reserves such indulgence for the off-season, but agreed that it's one of his favorite dishes. Colobmia-Coldeportes' Fabio Duarte said it was the one food he missed most while living in Europe.

It should also be noted that part of southern Antioquia is included in an area known as Colombia's coffee-growin axis, where most of Colombia's coffee is grown. 

Medellin's oper-air velodrome is named after the country's most prolific and complete rider, Cochise Rodriguez. This year, the city's major agreed to build a new covered velodrome, which would leave the current one to be used for training purposes. Today, when riders like Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao are back in Medellin, they often use it for training.

Another dish that is intrinsically linked to Antioquia, and also to cycling is the arepa, a humble cornmeal cake of sorts that is loved all over Colombia. I've written about the arepa and its links to cycling, which you can read here.

Botanical Gardens in Medellin. Design and photo by Plan B Arquitectos.

Overall, it's probably fair to say that the history of cycling in Antioquia is itself the history of Colombian cycling. From Colombia's first professionals, and the first riders to race abroad, to numerous Vuelta a Colombia titles, and the most celebrated teams and directors, Antioquia has given so much to the sport. It's for that reason that this post can only be a quick overview of the region and its significance within cycling.

An amazing passion for the sport remains strong in Antioquia today, something that is perhaps best shown by the numerous corporations and entities from the region that support the sport in multiple ways. One such company es the El Colombiano newspaper. In 1957, it was that news outlet that invited Coppi to race the Doble A Pintada as part of their Clasico El Colombiano event. Today, the event continues to run on a yearly basis, and now includes races for amateurs and professionals alike. Perhaps soon enough, another visiting rider of Coppi's status will be defeated there. And if that happens, you can count on the fact that the rider to beat him will be paisa.

A song by the Trovadores Del Recuerto about Ramon Hoyos, from the mid 50s.

A news story about Ramon Hoyos, celebrating his 80s birthday. Even if you don't speak Spanish, this video is worth watching, since it shows beautiful footage of the Vuelta a Colombia in the 1950s.


Did you watch Lombardia? Did you notice that seven of the top twenty five riders were Colombian? Pretty amazing for a race in which only 54 riders finished. Did you see Uran and Henao's unbelievably strong showing?

Perhaps more importantly, did you see Uran's victory at Piemonte a few days before Lombardia? If not, you should watch it below. Please note that the top five in this race contained three Colombians (Uran, Henao, Betancur), all of them from Antioquia.