The challenges that come with winning, not having a time trial bike, and Fignon's claims that the '87 Vuelta was bought. An interview with Martín Ramírez (Part Two).

Photo: Cycling Archives

This is part two of my interview with Martín Ramírez (you can go here for part one, where we talked about his victory at the Dauphine Liebere, and the insults that came with it from Bernard Hinault). In this portion of our conversation, we discuss the pressure that comes with big victories, Fignon's claims about the '87 Vuelta having been bought by Cafe De Colombia, as well as other aspects of professional cycling that are seldom discussed by those who raced professionally.

During the 1980s, were you and riders like Parra and Herrera aware of just how much your victories meant to people back home? In retrospect, it almost seems unfair to have put that pressure on all of you—to cheer up an entire country—simply because we so badly needed a distraction from the violent reality of the times.
Yes, we knew and felt what it all meant. It was an unbelievable pressure, and one that some riders had trouble coping with. You have pressure from your family, from your friends, but then there's the sponsor, and on top of that there's the Colombian press and then an entire nation. It was massive. The meaning of it became bigger and bigger. At the team level, the sponsor had the right to ask for results, I understood that, but the pressure as a whole back then was just huge, and the stress levels could become unbearable. That's why I love cycling today, because I'm able to train and compete for fun. It's completely different for me now, since there's no stress.

With Systeme U at the 1984 Tour de France

It even came from the president, and the biggest guerilla group of the time (M-19), who both put out decrees claiming you as their hero of sorts. It's heady stuff. It seemed like everyone was taking credit for these unlikely victories, but leaving out the riders who actually achieved them.
Yes, absolutely right. When you win something, all these people come out of nowhere, and everyone wants to take credit, and thus claim some ownership of that victory. This was particularly true of politicians. You suddenly get invitations to parties, to gatherings, and so many offers are made, all of which come out of nowhere. It's difficult to deal with, and most young athletes here in Colombia are simply not prepared to deal with that type of thing. With victories, it's also worth mentioning, sometimes comes a little bit of money. With money, come these so-called friendships that are nothing more than opportunistic people, looking to take advantage of you. Between that, partying, alcohol and those looking to get something from an athlete, it's very difficult for some to stay grounded, and to call upon the very discipline that got them there. And once riders fall into that, if they fall deeply, there's no discipline, no money, and no physical strength that can get them out. It's tough for some.

Were you able to handle it, or were you also swept away by the whole thing? You were all hailed not just as sporting heroes, or national icons, but figures of almost religious importance. It was madness.
You know, we were all faced with it. It was just a fact of life, but when all that comes up, all you have left is how you were raised. It becomes obvious that it's the values that your parents instilled in you that will help you get through those days, because when it comes down to it, you have nothing else.

l'Avenir-winning frame in Jose Duarte's shop in Bogota

One of your big wins was l'Avenir in '85. Interestingly, you didn't win that race atop a frame made by the team sponsor, but rather on a Duarte frame, made in Bogota by Jose Duarte. How did that come about? Why did you use his frame, and not whatever the team had given you?
You know, you are well informed (laughs)! I can honestly say that no one has ever asked me about this.

I'm very fond of Jose Duarte, so I had to ask.
That year, in '85, we were racing on Alan frames. And it so happened that the frame I was using broke, only days before traveling to France for the Tour de l'Avenir. The only other bike I had was from the year before, which was a Duarte, made to measure for me a year earlier. I had paid for it with my own money, and I went back to training on it once the Alan broke. Once we got to France, I thought surely I would get another frame from the sponsor. We went to the factory, and all the riders got frames, except for me. They didn't have one in my size. Since I liked my Duarte, I decided to not make a big deal out of it. So I  raced with my Duarte bike in France. No one said anything, not the sponsor, the director, or the team. And I ended up winning on that Duarte bike.

Leader's jersey from the Tour de l'Avenir in Jose Duarte's shop. The inscription reads, "With much love, to the Duarte family"

Uh oh. Good result, but I'm sure the sponsor wasn't happy!
Well, yes. Once I won, it did become an issue with the sponsor, but I have no idea how it was handled. Here they were, sponsoring the team, and I end up winning this stage race on a Colombian-made frame! But that ended up being very good for Jose Duarte, who asked me once I came back if he could have the frame I had won with. In trade, he offered me a new frame, with a new Campagnolo Record groupset. Sadly, and this breaks my heart, a year after I retired, some thieves broke into my apartment, and stole that bike. I would love to have it today, but it's gone now.

[It should also be noted Martin and the Varta/Cafe De Colombia team didn't have a time trial bikes at the Tour de l'Avenir in '85, since they couldn't afford them. Before the time trial DS Raul Mesa asked Renault director Cyrille Guimard if Ramirez could borrow Thierry Marie's bike. Marie had won the prologue, but Guimard agreed to let them borrow it. Since he had never ridden a time trial bike before, Martin opted not to use the disc wheel. Indurain got the best of him in the time trial, but he still managed to put a significant amount of time between him and his main rivals.]

Jose Duarte at work in his shop

So that Duarte frame that you won l'Avenir with was from 1984. Did you also ride that frame to win the Dauphine?
No, in Europe in '84 we used Vitus frames, just for that race [the Dauphine]. For the remainder of the season, I used my blue Duarte. In fact, I remember that the first day I rode that Duarte bike was the day of the Clasico RCN prologue, where I beat Lemond. So that bike always brought me very good luck.

I spoke with Henry Cardenas not long ago, and he was very clear about the fact that EPO and blood doping changed things in the peloton. That the speeds became unbelievable, as did the sudden climbing abilities of many. As he put it, the change was obvious. Did you experience that was well?
My time in Europe came a little bit before that I think. So during my time, the doping that was going on was not as severe. It was not until after my time that things became so obvious. Suddenly, Colombians like us, couldn't compete in the climbs that we had previously dominated. It became clear, I think, that something serious and unusual was going on.

Cafe De Colombia 1988. Martin is the top rider on the left edge.

So during your time racing, doping was far simpler, and perhaps less efficient. EPO hadn't really come in yet. Still, was doping freely discussed in the peloton back then?
Yes, obviously. From the time I started, it was something that was happening, something that people talked about. What's more, some riders gained a reputation, as far as them using those methods to get ahead. And people talk. But doping evolved over the years, to the point where EPO came in and all that. Sadly, things progress so quickly, that I suppose one day there will be genetic manipulation, or who knows what else, because science moves so fast.

Luckily, controls have also advanced, but it just becomes a game of cat and mouse. The controls advance, and someone will find a way to cheat that control. Then something else is invented that is not being tested for, then there's a test for that, and it begins all over again. Just look at Armstrong. He must have passed lots tests, but it's obvious that the tests are not the only way to catch someone.

Ramirez, flanked by Lemond and (I think) Hinault at the Clasico RCN

Which brings me to something I've written about before. Which is that in cycling, there are adult conversations, where riders and those in the know discuss topics that are not spoken of in front of "the kids", which are largely the fans. There's an insider's group, and then there's those who are outside, who don't get to hear about these "adult matters". Those matters are mostly doping, but also to the inner workings of teams, of the sport, down to how teams buy help from one another, and the like. Does that seem accurate at all to you?
Yes, it does. Let me put it this way, you can't cover up the entire sun with just one finger. Truth has to be confronted because it's there, and it's big. The reality is that cycling has always had those circumstances and those realities. So as far as doping, the reality is that it comes down to, will you use it or not? And everyone knows that those things can and will have an adverse reaction in many ways.

And yet that continues...
Yes. So to this conversation, I would just like to add one thing: how much more beautiful would cycling be if all those competing were on a clean and level playing field, as much as that could be possible. I mean this in terms of both nutrition, and equipment. I say that because here in Colombia, you see the huge discrepancy that exists between teams and the equipment they can afford [this is in part due to the fact that no Colombian team, professional or otherwise, gets bikes or components from sponsors, all teams buy their equipment]. The differences are huge. So it becomes obvious just how huge the advantages are between teams because of money. It becomes a race of funding, not of fitness or sport. And I would even extend that to all these nutritional supplements and things, which get really complicated.

So it's a dream, I know, but I just think about how beautiful it would be if we could see who the best athlete is, and people merely ran on normal balanced nutrition, and that would be it. Real food, not these supplements and medicines, and then it would be the rider, not the budget of the team that would win. It's just something I think about I guess.

[It's worth noting that Martin has consistently eschewed taking any kind of medicine. In an interview in the 1990s with the newspaper El Tiempo, he confirmed this, and said that he's never even taken an Aspirin for a headache.]

Herrera wins the Vuelta a España

I understand. That gets to the root of what first interested me in cycling. That riders from these underfunded Colombian teams, who ate basic foods beat the Europeans over there was thrilling. That reality brought additional value to those victories. I don't know how that could be captured into realistic changes in the sport, but that component obviously made those wins richer for us.
And that's something that you realize when you end up in a well financed team from another country. The differences are obvious.

Speaking of Colombian victories in Europe, what do you make of Laurent Fignon's comments about Cafe De Colombia and Lucho Herrera buying the 1987 Vuelta a España?
I had the honor of being there [in the Cafe De Colombia team with Lucho Herrera at the Vuelta in '87], and you have to understand how things are done in cycling sometimes. To give you an example, when I won the Tour d l'Avenir, the team gave X amount of money to Miguel Indurain for him to help us. He was racing then, but he hadn't won much of anything yet. He hadn't even won l'Avenir yet, he didn't win that until the following year, in '86, but he was already really strong. On the flats, he was like a truck. So money was given to him, I couldn't even tell you how much. It was maybe like a thousand or two thousand dollars in today's money. Something like that. That money was given to him, so that he'd help me on the flats, since we knew that's where the Europeans would attack me. That was all, help on the flats, which we needed. So we decided to get Indurain's help. And that's what happened with Fignon in that Vuelta, it was something that was handled between the directors, riders don't get involved in that type of thing.

[Ramirez's account is consistent with that of Henry Cardenas, who was also on the team, and I asked about this. Cardenas said: "In that last day, we were scared. It was a flat stage, and we thought they could try to crack us. But that last stage in grand tours is just a celebratory spin. I don't know if Cafe De Colombia asked him, if they did, it was a huge mistake, since the stage wasn't really contested. But that was the only day we were told that Fignon could help us if we had a problem. Up until then, I can tell you that we had to defend ourselves like crazy. I think Fignon wanted to increase booksales, but that Vuelta was won cleanly."]

This is a topic that is seldom discussed by riders.
Right, right. And see, more often than not, no money is exchanged. It's just understood that I help you today, but you owe me one. It's an outstanding debt of sorts, but no money is changing hands most of the time. You just know that in another race, that favor is repaid. You help someone chase something down, or help in a certain terrain.

So was Fignon just trying to put a spin on a common occurrence within the peloton?
I would say so, yes, because his work was in no way a determining factor in the outcome of the race in that Vuelta. I'm absolutely certain of it, I was there, and I know we would have won that race regardless.


Postobon was after the team classification and Cafe De Colombia was after the GC, was there mutual help there as well?
Yes, because they helped us control the race, and we made sure we helped them with the team classification. It was mutually helpful to work that way, and that's just how things turn out during races. To me, it's those details that make cycling beautiful, because you race with your legs, but you also have to use your head, and use strategy, and alliances to win. Your legs alone sometimes can't win a major race.

Robert Millar and his Peugeot director discuss how help was paid for at the Vuelta in '85, from a team that was later revealed to be Panasonic

Today, now that you're retired, what do you do for a living, and how do you spend your time?
I have a transportation business, and also a pharmacy. I also get involved in some real estate deals from time to time, which are fun, and allow me to not put all my eggs in one basket, as the saying goes. I had three pharmacies at one point, now it's just one, which my sister runs for me.

What kind of transportation?
They are small buses, colectivos, public transpiration. I have some of those here in the city, but things are getting complicated since the city will rely on the Transmilenio system more and more. So the city is getting divided up into zones, thirteen of them, and we have to work with a service provider within just one zone. You can either become a stakeholder in that service provider, or sell your business to them and move on to something else. It's complicated, and it's really changing everything for those of us in this line of business.

Bogota's Transmilenio bus system

So you still live in Bogota?
Yes, but I'm spending a lot of time in Sogamoso, because I have a construction project going on here. Plus, the riding is really good here. You can get on your bike at any time of the day, on any day of the week, and you'll run into many, many cyclists. It's amazing. Honestly, cyclists grow like weeds here in Boyaca, particularly around Sogamoso and Duitama!

What was your favorite climb in Europe, and what is your favorite climb in Colombia?
In Europe, I always had a thing for the Tourmalet. I won l'Avenir there, and I always did well there. In Colombia, it would have to be Alto De La Tribuna [in Facatativa] and Alto De Las Rosas, which sadly is very seldom used in races these days. Today, when stage races come into Bogota, they come in through La Mesa, but before it was through Rosas or San Miguel, which I really liked also.

Alto de La Tribuna

What about other climbs like Letras?
I only did it in races a couple times, both from Mariquita, the long way, and from Manizales. At over 80 kilometers, it's eternal, very long, when you go up from Mariquita. I don't have great memories of it, because I remember in one Vuelta, in '82, I was second going into the Letras stage. That year, Pacho Rodriguez won three stages in a row, he was a monster. He won from Duitama to Bogota, a circuit in Bogota, and then the stage into Honda. Anyway, I was second going into the stage from Mariquita to Manizales, through Letras. And on the climb, I cracked. I just couldn't keep up, and I lost my second place. A young Lucho Herrera attacked, and he won the race.

Any memories of La Linea?
I remember that one time, a stage in the Clasico RCN had to be cut short, and we finished at the top of La Linea, which was unusual. The stage ended up being from Ibague to La Linea, because there was a bad landslide on the other side, coming down. That must have been in '82 or '83. Lucho beat all the biggest riders of the day. Patrocinio Jimenez, Fabio Parra, Niño….he beat them all, and he was young at the time. He attacked on La Linea and took them all out, it was impressive to see. I did well that day, but lost a little bit of time.

La Linea (Photo: Altimetrias De Colombia)

The Colombian media always made a big deal of the fact that early teams like Varta and the first incarnations of Cafe De Colombia would take panela and bocadillo to Europe for major races. It was endearing, but also very telling of the way that Colombians took on the sport, managing to remain stubbornly Colombian, down to the food you consumed. What are your memories of that food?
Yes, it's certainly true. We took our panela and bocadillo, especially in the first few years. And you know, the other important thing for us was that we asked the cooks and chefs at European hotels to make caldo de papa for us during races, that was our breakfast.

Any other foods you remember taking to Europe with you?
We also always had Herpos with us.

Yeah, you know they are like waffers, filled with bocadillo and arequipe.

Varta/Cafe De Colombia team. Martin is the second rider from the left.

Oh yeah! Herpos! I used to have them in my lunch box growing up!
(Laughs) Yes, Herpos! Those were good, and very important for us. And so was panela, I even remember taking some panela for my teammates when I raced in Fagor and in Systeme U.

Panela is this great symbol of Colombian simplicity that, through riders like you, was elevated to this mythical status, which remains true today. I talked to Esteban Chaves not long ago, and he tells me he still drinks aguapanela during training.
Yeah, we always had it with us. I even remember that a reporter in Europe, in a funny way, said that Colombians were powered by what he called "brick broth", in reference to the panela chunks dissolving in water (laughs). They do look like bricks when you think about it. That struck me as very funny. Of course, to him, all he saw was that we'd boil water with this stuff that looked like big red bricks!

And then there's bandeja paisa.
Of course, of course. But being that I'm from Bogota, for us the equivalent would have to be ajiaco. That's the other big food for the Colombian cyclist I think.

Yes, some ajiaco, and some brick broth!
(Laughs) Yes! Some broth made with bricks. Very important!