"With this act, our country has hit an all time low. They are now kidnapping our beloved heroes."- Jorge Humberto Tenjo Porras, President of Colombia's Cycling Federation, March, 2000.
As I've stated before on the blog, I write about certain topics regarding Colombia's cycling history hesitantly. This is because they speak of negative aspects of the country's past, but I do so hoping that the blog's readers understand the bigger picture. One that includes what Colombia has managed to transform itself into, and the amazing positive spirit that persevered through such hardship. In a sense, that is the real story of Colombia. And yet, certain episodes remain so highly unusual within the scope of cycling, that they are difficult to ignore.
In late January of 2000, Lucho Herrera made the hour and a half trip from his home in Fusagasugá, to Colombia's capital city of Bogotá. He'd made the trip into the city many times since his retirement from professional cycling, mostly for business reasons, since he was the director of 25 state-sponsored youth cycling academies at the time. But the purpose of this particular outing was a rather solemn one. Days earlier, fellow cyclist Oliverio Rincon (winner of stages in all grand tours, as well as the Dauphiné Libéré) had been kidnapped in El Cogollo, near his home in Duitama by members of the ELN guerrilla. So on that day, along with thousands of other Colombians, Lucho marched in Bogotá pleading for the safe release of his friend and fellow cyclist.
There with Lucho, was Jose Beyeart, the French Olympic road cycling champion, who now called Colombia home. The two hoped that if enough pressure was placed on ELN, Rincon would be returned home safely.
|Lucho leads the Vuelta a España in 1987|
Two months later, back in his native Fusagasugá, Lucho found himself at his mother's house (his mother lived in a separate home within the land where his own home/farm was located). As he stood at her front door, and began to enter, Esther Herrera (78 years old) offered Lucho a cup of coffee. As she turned around to get it for him, Esther heard a commotion. She then saw her son forcibly attempt to close the front door. But it was too late. Six masked men made their way into the house, abducting Colombia's national hero. Esther began to scream, and rushed for her phone. As it turned out, a seventh man was already in her house. He knocked the phone out of her hand, and cut the line that connected it to the wall.
|Lucho with his parents, Rafael and Esther, who were flown to Spain as a surprise for him, when he won the Vuelta in '87. This probably accounts for the very rare smile (half smile?) on Lucho's face in this picture.|
The seven men, with Lucho in tow, fled in two vehicles a Mitsubishi SUV, and a Ford F-100. The authorities were alerted, and the governor of Cundinamarca spoke to the press, menacingly stating that this had been a very, very stupid act on the part of the perpetrators, who were rumored to be part of of the FARC guerrillas' 42nd or 55th regiment (accounts regarding which regiment vary to this day). The national police and soldiers from the Sumapaz batallion acted quickly, closing off all roads out of Fusagasugá. But it was too late. The men were gone, along with Lucho Herrera, whose youngest son was only 2 months old at the time.
|Herrera at the start of the '87 Tour in Berlin (Photo by: Landarin/ L'Equipe, via MFS)|
Along with fellow cyclist Oliverio Rincon, Herrera was but one of several high profile kidnappings in a matter of months (the others being TV personalities, comedians and journalists), a move that was obviously intended to strike fear into Colombia's population. The message was clear, no one, not even beloved icons were out of reach. That some of the kidnappings ended with possible pay offs, was only another positive twist for Colombia's pseudo-leftist guerrillas.
|Herrera rides behind fellow Cafe de Colombia teammate Alfonso Florez|
The men who captured Herrera were in fact members of the FARC. They were working under the orders of Bernardo Mosquera, known as "Negro Antonio" (Mosquera led many of the FARCs kidnappings, and was eventually apprehended by the Colombian army in 2009). Blindfolded, and with multiple guns pointed at his side, Herrera was taken on a forced march up the side of a mountain with dense vegetation not far from the town of La Aguadita. The route was treacherous and seemingly eternal. Eventually, they reached a building of some kind, where Herrera was placed in a dark, windowless room. It was only then, it would appear, that the FARC members realized who they had been ordered to kidnap.
Herrera, who had always been notoriously quiet and guarded (both during and after his professional career) disliked being asked details about his racing days in Europe. Although he always stated that he understood and knew why people wanted to talk to him about this topic, he willingly chose to keep mum. But in that dark room, as guerrilla members suddenly realized who they were holding captive, things changed. They were fans of the sport, it turned out and of Herrera in particular. So Herrera, unwillingly, began to recount his victories at their request.
|Herrera delivers a ceremonial kick off at a Millonarios match in Bogota in 1984.|
|Herrera last year with Dag Otto Lauritzen. You can read my interview with Lauritzen about his trip to Colombia here.|
Herrera remembers, "the whole time they asked me endless questions about Alpe d'Huez, Lagos De Covadonga, and La Linea [a famed Colombian climb], as though this was a perfectly good time to have a pleasant conversation on the matter. Sitting there talking to them only made me more nervous, because they were purposefully trying to intimidate, and terrorize me as well."
Luckily, the public outcry was so severe and swift, that the men holding Herrera began to hear from those higher up in the FARC. Messages were coming into the remote building in the Colombian countryside, and it quickly became apparent to Herrera that something was afoot. As it turned out, kidnapping such a beloved figure in Colombia was proving to be counterproductive for FARC. So after being held for a day, Herrera was suddenly told that he was free to go.
It was night however, and Herrera feared for his life. Were they going to kill him as he fled? Was the Colombian army nearby, and would they mistake him for one of the guerrilla members in the middle of the night? It was a risk he didn't want to take, so against his better judgement, he decided to spend another night in the dark room.
"I'll sleep here tonight, and whatever god wants to happen, is what will happen", he told the men. With that, Herrera made his choice, and settled in for the night. The FARC members wanted more stories, and this time, he told them about his Vuelta a España win in 1987. Unbelievably, Herrera remembers being able to sleep that night, which he did while sitting on a chair in the dark room where he'd been kept. In the morning, he walked into the wilderness, eventually calling his brother Rafael from Tocaima, a town some 90 minutes away from his home. He told him that he was in good health, and to please come pick him up. He wanted to go to home.
|Parra and Herrera at the Tour in 1985. Note Herrera's scab above his left eyebrow, from his fall going into St Etienne|
The ordeal was over, just as it would be for Oliverio Rincon, who was eventually freed as well. But other well-known figures in Colombian society, cyclists in particular, became afraid. It was clear that they were well within the grasp of kidnappers. What's more, they appeared to be their preferred targets. Frenchman Jose Beyaert, who had marched along with Herrera on behalf of Rincon, knew this.
News story about the trial of the two men who led the group of guerrilla members that kidnapped Herrera. At 55 seconds in, one of the two men says: "I"d like to take this opportunity to apologize to Mr Lucho Herrera for the very uncomfortable position that he was put in as a result of the kidnapping, particularly keeping in mind that he's a great figure of Colombian cycling. One that instead of being harmed, should be protected. Thank you." The reporter goes on to say that Herrera did not wish to declare himself to be a victim of the FARC, which would have meant several million pesos in reparations. The two men were apprehended through an investigation by the DAS (equivalent of to the FBI) after a business owner in Bogota reported that men from FARC were trying to extort him. As he was set to make the payment, the men were arrested by DAS agents.
Beyaert was no stranger to Colombia's underground. Despite his age, he remained a street smart character, and he began looking over his shoulder after Herrera's kidnapping. In Beyaert's biography, he recounted the circumstances under which he had to leave Colombia, a country where he had lived for nearly 50 years, a place he had grown to love deeply. He told Matt Rendell, "My neighbors alerted me. There was a car here and a car over there. It might not even have been guerrillas, it could have been common criminals. But someone was looking for me."
This prompted Beyaert to have a serious conversation with his son. He told him that if he were to be kidnapped, to simply let things be. Forget about him, and simply let fate take care of things. Not long after, Beyeaert's fears came true.
"I went out into the street to smoke a cigarette, to show them I was still there. Then I went out of the back door and climbed over the garden wall. My things were in a plastic bag. A suitcase would have been too obvious. I called a friend at Air France and made a reservation."
|Beyaert wins the Olympic road race in London, 1948|
Beyaert was careful not to have his name put on the Air France flight list, with full knowledge that men looking for him could access it.
On July 22, 2000, only four months after Herrera's kidnapping, one of the most significant figures in Colombian cycling, winner of the 1952 Vuelta a Colombia, cycling commentator, gold medal winner in the 1984 Olympic road race, and one-time coach of the Colombian national team, fled to France. He died five years later in the coastal town of La Rochelle.
Herrera and Rincon had both managed to return home. Bayaert, on the other hand, had been forced to leave his behind, never to return. ■
"All that we cyclists do for our country is bring it glory"- Ruben Dario "El Tigrillo" Gomez
|Lucho today, with two of his three kids. (Photo: Soho.co)|
If you'll forgive me for a radical shift in tone: did you see Bernard Eisel make his feelings about the Giro Air Attack helmets known? He's right, they look a little bit like bongos.
How come one of Colombia's most storied football clubs played while wearing decidedly low-grade kit from several dodgy domestic manufacturers for the last few years? Are they like all Colombian cycling teams, in that they must pay for everything they use? No. From the, "you can't make this stuff up" files comes the story of America De Cali, a team that until very recently was on the US Treasury's list of "Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN)". This meant that no US companies, or US nationals (including any company with a presence in the United States, meaning pretty much every company on earth) could do business with the team until now, since they've been removed from said list. You can read the story about the team here.
If you love Colombian cycling, and want to know what's going on with it's ongoing struggle against doping (particularly if you speak Spanish), follow these two people on Twitter: here and here.
Did Nairo Quintana and Sergio Henao come "out of nowhere" as some claim? No. They both came out of Team 4-72 (who just finished the Klasika Primavera). Follow them on Twitter here. Fans of flourescent / hi-viz colors will no doubt approve of their kit.
If you enjoyed Mauricio Soler's riding, and wonder about his status after the accident, here's an article about him now (it's in Spanish, but I've linked to a translated version). Sadly, he's unable to ride a bike these days, due to severe pain, and he says certain parts of his past are simply gone, due to what he refers to as, "my hard drive being erased", after the accident. Luckily, Soler is alive, home, and able to see his children grow up.
If you want to read my interview with Mauricio Rebolledo, a US based frame maker who owns one of Lucho Herrera's Tour de France bikes, go here. If you want to read a very thorough account of Herrera's life, go here.
I will be traveling this upcoming weekend, and will thus be unable to post next week. I expect to be back on Monday, April 22nd.
Lastly, you can/should order a jersey of my brother's podcast here.