The epitome of Colombian drive and resourcefulness. Colombia's team director speaks about the team, its strategy at the world championships, and how a board and color markers may play a role in Sunday's race


Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia

My original intention was to speak with Jenaro Leguizamo strictly about Colombia's team strategy for the world championship road race this weekend. But as is often the case with Colombian cycling, the moment I started speaking with him, I realized there was simply more to the story (though we did talk about strategy). Leguizamo's story is exemplary in many ways, as it shows the drive and tenacity that makes Colombian cycling what it is. 


At only 22 years old, a time when most professionals are just starting their career, Jenaro Leguizamo retired from the sport. His had been a quick and impressive rise in cycling, which eventually landed him in what remained of the Cafe De Colombia team in the early 90s, riding with Chepe Gonzales as his team captain. But with the price of coffee dropping precipitously (due to the end of the International Coffee Pact in 1990), things looked grim for the young cyclist. Cafe De Colombia folded, as did most other prominent Colombian teams. He was offered contracts by smaller squads, but the salaries were mere fractions of his earnings with Cafe De Colombia. He knew it was time retire and move on, though he points out that many of his contemporaries stayed on, "rowing endlessly, without ever reaching shore".

After he retired, Jenaro started several businesses (a convenience store, a small dance club), but eventually lost everything, and he went bankrupt. He got involved with spinning classes, and always stayed in touch with fitness and teaching in one way or another. But times were tough, and only got worse. Eventually, he was urged to pursue a life in cycling as a director or trainer by his wife. But doing so would require going to school, something he simply could not afford. Determined to help his husband, his wife began selling phone minutes (a rather Colombian practice, whereby people let you use their cell phone on their street, and you pay them), lottery tickets and tamales on the street, in order to put his husband through school. Together, they did just that, and Jenaro continues his education to this day, though he now holds several degrees in physical education, while he's a certified director by the UCI, and currently runs a performance lab for cyclists in Colombia. Still, Leguizamo is quick to admit that directing a team, and working in his field is no way to make a living in Colombia. In fact, he says it's impossible. "It's a hobby, so I'll continue to live my life, trying to make a living at my hobby."

Perhaps most importantly, Jenaro is the director of Colombian national team, and is in charge of picking the riders and working with them for events like the Olympics, the world championships, and Panamerican games. He does so at perhaps the most impressive time in Colombian cycling.

We spoke today through Skype, as he finished out his day in his hotel room in Italy. As we talked, I saw a clear sign of how close he is with his riders. In his small hotel room, Sergio Henao was visible behind him, relaxing in bed, reading the newspaper casually. Just two friends, spending time in Italy as they prepared for a race.

Today, we spoke about the team he's assembled, the strategy going into this weekend, but also about how a board and color markers will play a part in Sunday's race.


With last year's U23 team (Photo: Ciclismo De Colombia)

How is the mood of the team ahead of Sunday's race, now that you are all there in Italy?
I would say that it's best described as positive, but measured. In other words, we know that the profile suits us, we know we have a very strong team in terms of leaders, and also domestiques. So we feel good, but we keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, and we know that we're not racing alone out there. Our rivals are of an amazing caliber, so to simply say "oh yeah, sure, we're going to win", is just complicated and not the smartest way to approach things. We have expectations, we have hopes, but to say this is a sure thing is not right.

[It's worth mentioning here that many in Colombia's mainstream media have repeatedly said that Quintana is an absolute favorite for Sunday's race. I think those who have seen and raced the course, generally agree that this is not the case. Similarly, Quintana was often mentioned as a "favorite" and a "main attraction" in Colombian newspapers when he started the Tour of Britain just a while back, a race that didn't suit him, and he was doing merely as training. I mention these two things because Colombia's news outlets—cycling and otherwise—continue to have vastly unrealistic and misguided expectations at nearly every turn.]


How is the mood among the riders in particular?

Very good. As always. They are happy, in great spirits, joking around and being themselves. They are happy, and it shows. They're not showing any signs of stress or nerves. These are guys who have been racing for some time against the best riders and teams, so this is nothing new to them. They are experienced at this level, and while they are in great spirits, they are also extremely professional, serious, and are well aware of the responsibility that they have. One that will allow them to do something great, and to shine at such a high level.


Uran (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

The final line up for the team has not been published, since the alternates appear in the full listing. Can you tell me who will be starting on Sunday?
Yes. Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran, Sergio Henao, Carlos Betancur, Janier Acevedo, Cayetano Sarmiento,  Miguel Rubiano, Darwin Atapuma, and Winer Anacona.


When the original list of all the male, elite riders that were chosen was published, it was obvious that only one rider who races in Colombia was chosen, Rafael Infantino. Was there some reservation about any rider who races in Colombia due to the lack of bio-passport, or am I reading too much into this, and this was merely a matter of ability and condition?

Well, the Colombian Federation wanted to reward great performances within Colombia with a spot on this team. So, in the Vuelta a Colombia, several riders stood out. Based on that, we decided that Infantino would be a great candidate to represent us in the time trial. So we wanted to bring someone dedicated to the time trial, knowing well that he might loose five or six minutes on the day.


So today, he did the time trial, and he had a difficulty that we were not counting on. One that there's not much you can do about. He…he became sick [long pause]. He developed hemorrhoids from the extreme effort. So he lost much more time, and I certainly thought he would not finish the race. But he finished, and did so due to extreme pride, and love for Colombia. I assure you, almost anyone else would have quit, and gotten off the bike.

Now, as for the bio-passport issue that you mention, Infantino was being tested, and we did lab tests from the moment that he was selected.


 On a lighter note, and health issues aside, Infantino also faced a lesser issue during his time trial



This year, you had the tough task picking riders for the team. Not only did you have a full squad to fill, but a similarly large number of talented riders. It's been an amazing year for Colombian cycling. How did you go about picking the final elite team?

Well, it's no secret that the main four riders in the team have been at an incredible level this year. Yes, there were difficulties in the Vuelta, but their ability, their talent, and their overall experience and form simply can't be denied. So Quintana, Uran, Betancur and Henao were a given.

Janier Acevedo has had an amazing season as well, often against the best and biggest riders in the sport, while racing within the US. He's ready to be in a World Tour team for next year too.

Darwin Atapuma was in the top 20 at the Giro. He had an amazing Tour of Poland, and did well in Colorado, especially when you consider that his knee was injured. So he was entitled to a spot, for sure.

[Sidenote: I saw Darwin finish the uphill time trial in Vail, and as he got off the bike, his knee shook uncontrollably in a way that was both amazing and frightening at the same time]

Rubiano's form is in a crescendo right now. His last two races have been better and better, so any doubts we had with him, were cleared up easily.

Anacona will be helping us on the flats, and is a rider of the highest caliber. This season has not been great for him due to an accident early on, but right now he's also in great form, and he's ready to work.

As for Sarmiento, he's a golden domestique for Nairo. They are very close friends, they grew up together, and will work very well together. So that gives you an idea as to why each rider was chosen.

Anyone you wanted to have, but is not in the team?
The one remaining rider not in the roster is Jose Serpa. His form was great in all the races he did this year, and he had strong showings all around. But once he came back to Colombia, he had a short rest, and once he got back on the bike, he noticed that his body was not responding, and that the fatigue from such a heavy season was showing. So he called me a month ago or so, and told me very frankly that his form would not come around as it should for the world championships. He wanted someone else to have that honor of representing Colombia, so he chose to step aside, and did so in a professional manner. So of course, we'll miss him. Serpa is an unbelievable talent, and someone we really could have used.

Atapuma (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

What's the strategy for Sunday. It's been said that Quintana is the leader, with Uran as co-captain. But there's also talk of opportunities for riders like Henao, Atapuma and Betancur.
With their last showings, and their current form, yes, Quintana and Uran will go as co-captains. But that doesn't mean that if something happens during the race, Henao or Betancur won't be able to assume leadership of the team. So that's simply a matter of having a plan A, plan B and a plan C. We have to cover the possibilities, but we also know who the leaders are. Another thing that is clear with this group is that all of them, and that includes Nairo and Rigoberto, will happily work for one of their friends and teammates if called upon to do so. So we start with a plan, but we know well that these riders are honest, and if they are not having good sensations, then they will let the others know. It takes real honestly and selflessness to do that, and these guys all have that, which is great. It's a real gift.

Henao (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

Is that perhaps a unique feature of a Colombian team like this, that many of the riders are not just friendly, but very close, to an extent that they can be honest with each other and truly selfless?
Yes, absolutely! It's amazingly true with these guys. But you know, another aspect to all this is that these guys have been leaders, but have also work for other riders. They've worked for Wiggins, Froome, Valverde. They are leaders, and workers. And when you take into account that they'll be doing so for a friend, and with our flag on their chest, it becomes something that is a pleasure to do, and they've told me that.

(Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

Franco Gini [who directed Mercatone Uno, Acqua Sapone, and currently works with Untensilnord] was named as the director of the team, you are the co-director, but you were also responsible of making the selection for the team. During this week, with other races, and going into the weekend, how have your roles been defined?
All responsibilities have been shared equally between the two of us. I guess on paper, someone may have said that Franco was the director. But we are sharing all responsibilities throughout the week. We are working together, there's no envy, and all decisions are arrived at together. That includes all tactical decisions. Now, we're still going to talk about our strategy for the elite race. Because see, in most all the races during the week, you can't follow the riders in a team car. On Sunday, you can follow, but you don't have radios. So it's tough.


But I've had very good experience with an approach that may seem unusual, but has been very effective for me. Perhaps it's indicative of the resourceful spirit of us Colombians, and the plan is this: I will stay on the side of the road, in a pre-determined spot where riders will know to look for me. There, I'll have a board, and color markers, and will be able to give messages to the riders.


Sarmiento (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

Like time gaps, and things like that?

No, it's not about time gaps, but actual instructions like you would give on the radio. It's a circuit, so this approach works. So because there are no radios, I have to give them precise information, and I do that through symbols. Let's call it a language of symbols that they know, and I know. And I communicate that way with them, because even yelling out to them among the crowds is useless. So even being in the car in a race like this, you end up being relegated to giving food, drink and helping with spare wheels. But being there, with my board is the only way to really communicate with them. It's an approach that may seem unusual, but we've used before. And it's worked very well.

So without going into all the details, let me give you an example. They know that if they see a star of david, let's say, it means that this person has to do this specific thing. Or maybe the sign is a little bird, or something, that will mean another thing.

That's amazing! I love the approach!
[Laughs] Yes, talk about Colombian resourcefulness! We can't have radios? Fine, we'll just come up with our own language, and communicate with a board, symbols and markers. We have to figure out a way! We're used to finding ways to make things happen.

I've now used this system several times in Panamerican races, and we've won that way. Like in Mexico, at the Panamerican race, I was in constant contact with the car through a cell phone. He was giving me information, I was giving him information, and I gave the order of when and who should attack through our visual language. And in that way, we won the race with a rider who was, in theory, the weakest one in the bunch. So we've used it many times before, and it works. It's a very Colombian way of doing things. ■


Betancur (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)


____________________________________________________________
Reminders:



Winter and summer caps are back in stock. They are selling rather quickly, so make sure you order if you're in the market for one of these.



Also remember that you can win items signed by Team Colombia by donating cycling goods to needy kids in Colombia. You can find out how here.