The phone rang for the fourth time, and I began to curse technology.
I remembered the days before mobile phones and caller ID, the days when you could call someone many times, and unless they picked up or you left a message, your creepy and obsessive behavior (the one that drove you to call repeatedly), remained a secret between you and the phone company. But times change, and technology moves forward. And now, Lucho Herrera could see that my phone number, a long string of digits clearly identifying me as an international caller, had come up once again. What was I to do? I had called once Monday, then again on Tuesday. I didn't call on Wednesday, but then again on Thursday. And now, this was the second call on Friday. On paper (and on the log of calls on his mobile phone) I looked like a stalker. In fact, I was merely calling him to conduct an interview on behalf of an author who I was helping. But the long list of calls told another story.
As the phone rang a fifth time, a familiar message, a generic one from the service provider which I'd heard before, came on. "The person is not available, you can leave a message", blah blah blah. Then came the usual beep, and I decided to leave a message, unlike the times before. I explained my reason for calling, said I hoped to speak with him soon. I then waited a few days before calling again. On the fourth day, Lucho picked up. His quiet voice was unmistakable, and his greeting was reverential in a purely Colombian way. It was as though he was bothering me on the phone for an interview. I wondered if my voice mail days prior had prompted him to pick up this time once he saw the long, foreign string of numbers. I wondered if he'd heard my message at all, not that it mattered. We agreed to talk the following day.
The night before I called him back, I did a mental inventory of my many memories of Lucho Herrera, of which there are many. But then again, the same is true for any Colombian who grew up during the 1980s. I remembered the relentless press coverage, and the way in which he was elevated to a national deity, during a time when Colombia badly wanted and needed such figures. All this creating an imagined relationship with a man most of us had never met, and would never meet. A false sense of closeness that could only be explained by the deep and very real emotions we felt as a result of his actions. After all, who except those we are personally close to, can make us feel such emotions?
At the height of his fame, Herrera was a man that an entire country loved and admired. He was a symbol of Colombian dedication and stubbornness. The press wanted to love him very badly as well...and did their best. But Herrera was hard to love in the fullest sense. He wasn't harsh or difficult to get along with, that wasn't the problem at all. Had he been, at least the press would have more to write about. Instead, Herrera was often silent, to the point that a Colombian newspaper once described him as "suffering from an acute economy with words, emotions and expressions". In more recent years, Herrera would go on to explain that he's always been "extremely frugal with emotions".
He added, "The thing is, I have feelings, but I don't express them. I think I must feel them very deep inside." This he said, applied to both anger and happiness.
When I spoke with Herrera the following day, his answers were brief and modest, even when describing his most celebrated victories. As I listened to him, I thought that perhaps fame couldn't have happened to a more unwilling individual. He seemed grounded but also unassuming to an alarming degree. In that sense, he was as I expected him to be, just as his nickname stated: he was the "Jardinerito". Little gardener. Not even a full grown gardener, just a little tiny one.
Sidenote: You should know that we Colombians have a knack for making every single noun diminutive, something to keep in mind if your Colombian neighbor or friend asks to borrow some "platica" (a tiny bit money). But perhaps, I thought, this was one time when a diminutive was warranted. Herrera sounded sure of himself, but he also seemed downright diminutive on the phone.
But in thinking that way, I was merely replacing one manufactured image with another. And I wouldn't be alone in doing so. The boastful, talkative champion that he never was, was always replaced in the media with the caricature of a shy, quiet peasant who apparently stumbled into victory somehow. This, in turn, fit perfectly with the image that many have (and in some cases still have) of all Colombians, particularly those who race bikes professionally. I wondered who the real Lucho Herrera was, not that I'd ever find out through a phone conversation...and not that I deserved to really know him. And why should I? Simply because I, like millions of others, had watched him race his bike on TV? Nonsense. And yet, I still found myself trying to find deeper meaning in his answers, particularly the way in which they were delivered. I couldn't help myself, though I knew it was a foolish pursuit at best. So I continued.
In speaking with Lucho a bit more, I came to think that perhaps he's simply a product of his environment and his upbringing. Not boastful, sure, but determined and hard working. These days, he lives a private life, tending to his real estate holdings, businesses (two hotels, including this one called The Alps) and livestock. In a way, the money he earned as a professional has allowed him to live the life he always dreamed of. Not the glamorous one that many hope for, but rather a private one, one he shares with only a handful of friends. Even during the mid 80s, a time when he was surrounded by people, Herrera kept to himself, once admitting to not having many friends, and preferring to spend time alone watching movies. Even in the year 2000, after Herrera was kidnapped, he expressed unhappiness with one rather unusual aspect of the ordeal: that his captors wanted him to talk endlessly, relaying stories about his triumphs over European passes, when he just wanted to be left alone in such a stressful time.
And that, perhaps, explains what Herrera always wanted out of life. The Colombian hero, a seemingly reluctant one, wanted to race his bike, wanted to win, but also wanted to keep his life and emotions to himself. Perhaps this clash, the one between being a national hero and a private individual, helped bring about his decision to retire at the young age of 31. Because once he did retire, he slowly began to fulfill a life-long goal, one that his best friend, a Fusagasuga business owner, described as "becoming part of the scenery".
Turns out, all Herrera wanted was to blend into the background, and he achieved just that in the most unlikely way: by reaching world fame first.
I thought about all this, while listening to every word Herrera said, and the way he said it. Then I looked at the clock. My time with Lucho was running out, and I didn't want to keep him on the phone any longer than I had to. I had asked the necessary questions, always keeping a professional air about me, while the six year-old in me wanted to praise the man on the other end of the line for his past accomplishments. But I knew I shouldn't, and I knew relaying my memories of watching him win couldn't possibly bring him as much happiness as something else I could say right at that moment, so I said it:
"Those are all my questions. Thank you so much for your time Lucho."
The gentle voice on the other end of the line replied, and seemed genuinely thankful.
"Thank you sir, have a great day."
Another one of my posts about Colombia's cycling academies is up on Manual For Speed. Go check it out.