During a long transfer at the Giro d'Italia this year, most riders from Team Colombia sat at the front of bus. They joked and laughed endlessly, pausing only from time to time to look at the profile of following day's stage, which itself induced nervous laughter from all of them. In the back of the bus, the mood was different. Two riders slept, laying down with comfortable pillows, and along with them was John Darwin Atapuma Hurtado. Atapuma was awake, but he too chose to lay down in silence, giving only his iPhone any attention. For roughly two hours, the native of Túquerres, Nariño (a small town with a population of 41,000 near the Ecuadorian border) played Piano Dust Buster, a musical Tetris-like game that has the user press piano keys to play simple, mostly-classical songs. He did this as the sound from his phone played through a Bluetooth speaker for everyone on the bus to hear. After nearly an hour, his fellow teammates urged Puma (as he’s known) to please “put some real music on”. He obliged, and an endless string of bachata songs came through the speaker. Darwin would tell me later in the hotel lobby that he simply likes classical music, and dreams of buying a piano one day, and would love to learn how to play.
“But when you’re a cyclist, there’s seldom time for anything other than riding” he told me, shrugging a bit, as if to say, “ehh, what can you do?"
I spoke with Atapuma again in Colorado two weeks ago, and found him to be as courteous, soft-spoken and mild mannered as ever. A sharp contrast to his personality on the bike, which accounts for another nickname he's been given, The Atapuma Volcano (partially a reference to the proximity of his hometown to the beautiful Azufral volcano). It's that drive that propelled Atapuma to move quickly through the amateur ranks in Colombia (from Chocolate Sol, to Orgullo Paisa), leading to turning professional in 2009 with Colombia Es Pasion (now 4-72–Colombia). Even prior to joining Colombia Es Pasion, Atapuma won two stages at the Vuelta a Ecuador in 2007, and became national champion in 2008. Once he turned professional, Atapuma rode alongside many of his current Team Colombia teammates in Colombia Es Pasion, a team that also featured Sergio Henao and Nairo Quintana at the time. For the entirety of his career, Atapuma has ridden in all-Colombian teams, a streak of sorts that will come to an end next year when he'll ride with BMC. In that team, he'll not only be the only Colombian and the only Latin American...he'll be the only Spanish speaker. This drastic change, however, is crucial for promising riders like Atapuma. Something that the likes of Uran and Henao have no doubt told him.
Your name is unusual for a Colombian…although mine is too. I'm a Colombian named Klaus after all. Still, I have to ask: where did your parents come up with a name like Darwin? Were they fans of Charles Darwin?
You know, I never asked my mom and dad where they got my name. But I can tell you that as a kid, I didn’t like my name at all. But now, I really like it. But people call me Atapuma or Puma anyway. But no, I never asked my parents where the name came from, so I don't really know.
What was your upbringing like, and what attracted you to cycling?
Well, I come from a family…a family of very little means, let’s put it that way. We lived through many financial hardships, simply because we didn’t have much. I have eight brothers and sisters, so life was difficult. But, we’ve managed to get ahead in life through hard work. That has allowed us to help my parents along.
As for cycling, it came about in my life because I have an older brother who opened up a bike shop in Túquerres called Ciclo Túquerres. So from the time I was a kid, I would go to my brother’s shop to play, and I started riding a bike. From the start, my brother sensed that I could go far in the sport, so I kept at it, and he was kind enough to build me a bike when I was a kid.
I kept racing, and I did the Vuelta del Futuro, which is for 15 and 16 year olds, after that I did the Vuelta al Porvenir, which I won, and from that I got into the Orgullo Paisa team. After that, I joined Colombia Es Pasion.
During your time with Colombia Es Pasion, you were teammates with Nairo Quintana, including doing the Tour de l’Avenir together, when he won in 2010. In an interview, Nairo spoke openly about events that transpired during that race when a European rider tried to throw Jarlinson Pantano off the bike, as other riders screamed and treated all of you badly, trying to make you crash. This ultimately led to Quintana trying to seek retaliation and coming to the conclusion that racism was clearly at play [you can read that portion of Quintana's interview here]. According to Nairo, this was part of the reason why Colombia Es Pasion had a sports psychologist speak and work with the team’s riders, in particular because of the treatment that you as a team received because you were Colombians. What can you tell me about those events, and the treatment by some that you have received in Europe?
I think this treatment is something that comes about due to us being from a country that others see as being poor and maybe dangerous, or different. And for that reason, I guess, some people disrespect us and treat us this way. But yes, those things happened in the Tour de l’Avenir. A French rider, I think it was, treated Pantano....well, very badly, so Nairo went and had a talk with him.
[According to Nairo Quintana: "They didn't want us to be in the front of the peloton, they "brake-checked" us, they yelled at us, treated us badly, but we took them on and gave it right back. One day, a French rider grabbed Jarlinson Pantano's bike by the handlebar and threw him off his bike. So in retaliation, I went over and pushed this French rider into a ditch. In the end, however, it was him [the French rider] who asked us for forgiveness. At the end of that stage, the directors had to mediate the situation, so we wouldn't have any more problems. As the days went by, things calmed down. They saw that we were the strongest, and they learned to respect us...We are not only from a small country, but we are also physically smaller, and that puts us at a disadvantage with people who are much taller and, as if that weren't enough, are also racists."]
But the psychologist was not really someone we dealt with for those things exclusively, no. It was just someone we could talk to regarding team morale, personal issues with family and friends. That type of thing. I think it’s a powerful and helpful tool that a team can have. It’s something that enables you to work through things so you can focus on training and racing. To me, it seems like a great idea for a team to have something like that.
What has it been like for you living and racing in Europe?
It’s difficult. Especially early on in the year, when the weather is unpredictable and you sometimes can’t even go out to train. Those shifts in temperature, and the cold are really severe and hard to deal with. But there are others aspects too. The food is so different, but even the way that races unfold is different. So there’s so much that you have to get used to. It’s an ongoing process, it’s something that you have to keep working on, from the food, to the weather, and the people in Europe as well, and how they are. But at the end of the day, I just thank God that these doors have opened for me. The achievements I’ve had at this level of racing have come slowly, but they’ve been accomplished correctly and in the right manner. I'm proud of what I've accomplished, and I look forward to more challenges.
You know, sometimes people in Colombia think that by just having a team, devoting a budget to it and showing up to races…that wins will simply come your way. But it’s not that simple. When you have a cycling team, you have to let things develop, and things will come, so that’s a challenge too.
The thing for Colombian riders who are young and come to Europe is that, like anyone else, they need a little time to adapt. Things are so different in Europe, both in cycling and outside of it, and you need time to adjust. That’s even true for whole teams. Look at Team Sky. Their first year, things didn’t exactly turn out like they thought they would. So cycling takes a bit of time sometimes. We as Colombians are no different I think.
Atapuma wins stage 6 at the Tour of Poland
Overall, what do you miss most from Colombia?
The food, and my mom and dad. It’s really hard living in Europe, but you take that on, much in the same way that Rigoberto Uran, Victor Hugo Peña, and many others before me did. Based on that, you know that at some point things improve, and you’ll be able to get the most out of this sacrifice. But I miss the food for sure, typical food from my home department of Nariño, like cuy [essentially guinea pig].
What are your goals in the sport, and what do you hope we talk about if we speak in a year or two from now?
Clearly the goal is to go to the Tour at some point, and give people back home lots to talk about, and to get them excited.
How do you see the stance and climate regarding doping in Colombia versus what you’ve seen and experienced now racing in Europe?
It’s a difficult subject. I mean, I can tell you that I race 100% clean. And that’s how racing happens in Europe, in comparison to Colombia. In Europe races are done under the UCI, and there are always controls. Yes, there have been positives, but the thing is that there are always tests. But by comparison, in Colombia there’s not a lot of testing, so some riders get comfortable, and start using those things.
You were born in 1988, so you missed much of what many call the Golden Era of Colombian cycling. Men like Parra, Herrera, Rodriguez, and the Café de Colombia years. Still, does that era and that time in Colombian cycling have any meaning to you in the context of what you are doing today as a Colombian professional in Europe? It’s getting to the point that this question seems less and less valid, since your generation now has its own accomplishments, and is forging its own path. Still, do you see yourself as part of that cycling tradition?
I think we are part of that same lineage, that same legacy, yes. We are one and the same, because I have those images of them winning, and the accomplishments of men like Lucho and Fabio Parra within me. They are in my blood, and I think about them all the time. After all, if they were capable of doing amazing things in Europe, why not us? Why can’t we achieve that too? As I see it, we are linked, all of us Colombian cyclists. We are linked to the past, but we are also linked among the current generation, to men like Rigoberto and Sergio Henao. We are all one.
1. Chris Horner's interviews in Spanish at the Vuelta are perhaps the most entertaining linguistic event of the century. Sadly, only those of you who are Spanish speakers will fully appreciate how great this interview is, but even if you don't speak Spanish, you'll still enjoy the video below. In past interviews that I've seen where Chris Horner speaks Spanish (most notably at the Vuelta a Cataluña a couple of years ago), he supplements his Spanish with sound effects to imply that people were going fast or slow, by making insanely funny whistling and whirring sounds. No sound effects in this one, sadly. Still, I must give credit to the guy for knowing enough of another language to give it a try, and thus be respectful of the race's host country.