(Photo: Androni Giocattoli/Betini)
The Colombians Are Back. The Colombians Are Invading Europe. The Colombians Have Risen. You've probably seen the headlines throughout this season (I must admit, I've even written some of them). Thing is, lost in the excitement that permeates coverage of Colombian cycling today is the fact that before the arrival of this newest crop of riders, one man had been representing his country while racing and winning in Europe since 2006.
José Rodolfo Serpa Pérez (The Lion Of Bucaramanga, as he's known by fans in Colombia) was born in a coastal department in Colombia, but he's so loved that nearly everyone wants to claim him as their own. Even his nickname refers to a city that is not his place of birth, a place that he moved to only after racing competitively for some time. Shortly after, the wins started coming, and so did the nickname. Medals in the Panamerican games (on the raod as well track), stage wins in South America, and then Europe, followed by an perennial wins at races like the Tour of Langkawi and Tour de San Luis.
After six years with Androni Giocattoli, Serpa switched teams and joined Lampre-Merida this season. Now 34, Jose is an experienced professional whose time in the peloton has spanned two very different eras. And while he's been racing in Europe longer than he ever raced in South America, he remains thoroughly Colombian. His demeanor is open and friendly, as he speaks with a marked and unmistakable coastal accent that leaves absolutely no doubt as to what part of the country he's from.
As this season draws to a close, I spoke with José in order to look back at his career, and the current state of Colombian cycling. Now with his family around him in Cartagena for the remainder of the year, José opted out of competing in the world championships two weeks ago, citing bad form and his body's lack of reaction to training late in the season. Not surprising for a rider who commonly starts the season very early, and always in winning form.
Thanks to José for his time, and
for helping me get in touch with him.
You were born in
, a coastal department in Colombia. Almost no cyclists have ever come from the coast. My mom grew up there, and it's a largely Caribbean culture, different from that of say Cundinamarca, Boyaca and Antioquia (where most cyclists come from). What drew you to cycling, and not one of the sports that are preferred there? That part of Colombia is more devoted to baseball and to some extent boxing.
Well, you're right. At first, I actually played baseball, until I was maybe 16. I played left field.
I've also seen pictures of you posing like a boxer. Were you just joking around during a photo shoot, or did you actually box at one point. I ask, because you were born in a town that is not far from Monteria, home of Happy Lora [bantamweight boxing champion during the 1980s, who made Colombia go mad for the sport].
Nah, I was never really into boxing. Those pictures were taken the day that the team was introduced, and I happened to do that pose. Later on, someone put the two pictures together, but that's all.
Since I was the one that put the two pictures together, I have to admit that I was happy to know Jose had seen my handy work.
Commenter Corey mentioned that Jose has a certain similarity to a young Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have to say that I agree.
So how did you end up cycling, since you were playing baseball until you were 16?
My dad always liked sports, and also wanted to keep us busy through sports. He was a recreational cyclist though, and eventually he found a bike for us kids, and fixed it up. We only had the one bike though, so we had to share. I would train in the mornings, my brother would train in the afternoons. And then on weekends, my dad would have us race a time trial against each other.
You couldn't race against each other, since you just had the one bike
hence the time trial.
Right, so he'd have us do a time trial, to see who had trained harder during the week.
And you got hooked on cycling right away? Was it the riding itself, or did you admire Colombian riders from the time, and did that inspire you?
That had an impact on me for sure. At the time, my family lived in a farm, in the countryside, and we would listen to races like the Tour de France on the radio. This was the era of Cacaito Rodriguez, Oliverio Rincon and Alvaro Mejia. But also the world championships in Duitama, in 1995, made a huge impression on me. All those races were televised, and I remember watching them all.
Cacaito Rodriguez wins stage 14 of the 1994 Tour de France (31:45 for final sprint)
The way that young Colombian cyclists come up in the sport is almost always the same. You start riding, and very soon after you join a local cycling academy that is not just focused on riding, but on actual racing, and preparing you for the next level in competitive cycling. Every kid comes up this way, was this your experience.
Yes, we joined the cycling federation in the department of Bolivar, in Cartagena. We focused on what they called Inter-Barrios at the time, which was a weekly circuit race for little kids, with each neighborhood competing against the other, throughout Cartagena.
So from those races, what was your trajectory?
In 1998, the national championships were held here, in Cartagena. I got a bronze medal in the time trial. Based on that, a team needed a rider for the Vuelta A La Juventud, and they offered me a spot. It was then that I went out to Bucaramanga for the first time [Bucaramanga is a Colombian city of about half a million, and is now part of Jose's nickname, the Lion of Bucaramanga]. In 2000, the Panamerican cycling championships were held in Bucaramanga, and I got a bronze in the time trial again.
Panamerican games in 2003
And that's when you switched to the track?
Yes. Based on that bronze, I got a call to be on the Colombian track team, for the pursuit. So I did that for seven years. During that time I did four world championships, ten world cups, and the Olympic Games, all on the track.
In 2005 was when I started to really get back to road racing. I got a call from
, who was racing in Venezuela. I started training with him, and he noticed that in training, he couldn't drop me on the climbs. So he went, and put in a word for me with his team in Venezuela. So I raced that year with the Alcaldia De Cabimas team, but didn't get paid anything. Then I won a tough stage during a race where Gianni Savio was at, and he offered me the chance to race for his team in Europe. So I did all the medical and performance check-ups with him, and he told me I'd have to lose 7 kilos. He said that if I did that, and raced the Vuelta a Tachira, they would sign me. So I did that, and I was second in that race. Based on that performance, we signed the contract, and I was off the Malaysia right away.
And your first wins as a professional came right away, in that very race!
Yes, at the Tour of Langkawi, I was sixth overall, and I won two stages.
Honored as Bucaramanga's sportsman of the year
Other riders can go years as professionals and not win a thing. You get two stages in a major race on your first try. Did you feel vindicated in your struggle to become a professional, and was there ever a "plan b" if you didn't become a professional cyclist?
There was never another plan. I always aimed to become a professional. That was the goal, and my dream from the moment I saw the world championships on TV in 1995. I knew that's what I wanted to do.
What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid? Was there ever any pressure to follow their footsteps?
They always worked with livestock on the farm, but for me it was cycling from early on.
So you make it to Europe in 2006 for the first time. How was that transition, and what was it like being in Europe, and so far from Colombia for the first time? How did you adapt?
It was hard. I'm a homebody, I love my family. I love being around my parents, my wife, and my kids. So being away from my family was hard. As far as food and things like that, I never cared much about that. That's the kind of thing that when you're looking to improve yourself and your life situation, you can put out of your mind. But those days you spend in some apartment somewhere, or in a hotel, and you're away from your family. Those are tough. And they continue to be tough.
(Photo: HSB Noticias)
So even after all these years racing as a professional in Europe, that still hasn't changed?
Not for me. It's still very hard. I think we Colombians are very close to our family, our home life, even more than others. That makes it tough, so nothing changes in that regard.
So what's your living situation like in Europe. Do you live by yourself, or do you share an apartment with other professionals?
Over there, I live with fellow cyclists from Venezuela. Ex-teammates from Androni Giocattoli. It's an apartment, but it's like family. The woman who is the caretaker is very kind to us. It's a hotel, but within the hotel, there's an apartment. So living with those guys has made things better and easier. I mean, I've now been living with
for maybe six or seven years. So we're like family actually. We train together too.
That brings up the question, do you prefer to train in Europe or do you always come back to train in Colombia? Seems to me like Colombian riders are split on this, and both camps feel strongly about their decision.
Colombia! Gotta' train in Colombia. There's absolutely nothing like home.
Jose is honored in his adoptive town of Bucaramanga
So is it mostly the routes, the altitude, or is it about being home with family.
Both are important, and to tell you the truth I've never spent more than two months in Europe racing. I always come back home. So when I'm over there, I race, rest three days, and race again. When I'm done with a block of racing, I come back. Any time that I have 20 days or more without racing, I'm back home in Colombia.
When you're back in Colombia, resting or training, what do you like to do with your free time?
When I'm with my family in our farm, I love taking care of our horses, and all the basic things that keep the farm and the livestock going. All those basic chores. It's work, but it's a different kind of work for me, and it helps me relax when I'm home.
Photo tweeted out by Jose, with the caption "At the auction, enjoying some great livestock"
You spent six years with Androni Giocattoli under Gianni Savio. Changing over to Lampre must have felt like a big leap. Why the change? Was it the chance of being in a World Tour team that drew you in, or was it just a matter of economics?
For me, being at the top level, that being World Tour, was always a dream. So I had to take the opportunity. I left Gianni Savio, but I did so in good terms. I told him what the offer I had with Lampre was, and asked if they could match it. He said they could, but only for one year, not two, since he had no assured sponsors for two years. So it was a matter of economics. But things are good with Gianni, and I have to thank that entire team for who I am as a cyclist today. In fact, Gianni came to visit me at the Tour, so we remain good friends.
It's been said that Androni Giocattoli has so many sponsors because some of the team's riders bring on their own sponsors. In other words, those companies or people are paying the rider's salaries, hence all the logos on the jersey. Is there any truth to that to the best of your knowledge? It seems believable, since the budget of the team is so small compared to other teams.
It's certainly a smaller team, but that's not true, about every rider having his own sponsor. The thing is, Gianni is no position to turn down money. So if someone gives him one dollar, he'll take it. The more money a team has, the better conditions that the riders will be afforded. So he's not going to turn down money that will make things better for his riders.
With Savio in the Tour of Langkawi
Did you guys in Androni Giocattoli take joy in winning big races against riders from teams with gigantic budgets? Is there any extra joy in winning against those teams due to the discrepancy in budget?
The team has always been competitive, and Gianni Savio has always had a very positive outlook. That attitude gets passed down to the riders, but yeah, there's a real joy in beating World Tour teams. But that's more on a personal level, more so than based on a team's budget.
The press is having a field day with the new generation of Colombian Riders. Uran, Henao, Quintana, Betancur, Atapuma. Who do you think is coming up now, who is even younger than those guys, that might be the next big rider?
I'll be honest with you, I don't follow cycling that closely. Also, when there's racing going on here in Colombia, I'm always in Europe racing myself. So I don't really know. I'm hearing good things about
and also about Henao's cousin [who will likely sign with Sky for next year]. But I don't really know too many riders.
Racing on the track
Speaking of Colombian cycling, races like the Clasico RCN and the Vuelta a Colombia were once the crown jewels of cycling in the Americas. The best teams and riders from Europe would travel to Colombia to compete, an honor that is now left to the Tour de San Luis, and new races in the United States and Canada. Meanwhile, these Colombian races, which have amazing history, languish. What do you think could be done to revive these races and put them back where they should be within the calendar?
It's as simple as finding a sponsor that will foot the bill, and getting the race a proper classification like 2HC or something like that [the Tour of California, for example, is 2.HC, San Luis and the Tour of Utah are both 2.1]. So as far as I understand it, that's what has to happen in order to make the race something like what the Tour de San Luis is.
See, the fact that San Luis draws such a great field breaks my heart, because the Vuelta a Colombia has been around since the 50s, and is now relegated to being a local and perhaps regional affair at best. Meanwhile, two races you know well, San Luis and Langkawi, continue to prosper.
Right, and it's just a matter of organizers having the money, that's what it boils down to. Right now, the Vuelta a Colombia has no real ranking, it gives no points, so there's no real value for teams.
So it's a big ask to have teams travel to Colombia to win zero points even if they win the race.
What's your favorite or most memorable victory as a professional? Do you have one?
Most memorable would have to be the Giro del Friuli. The weather was just awful, so cold that I considered getting off the bike. That was a special win for sure.
Serpa wins a very cold Giro del Friuli in 2011 (Photo: Pro Cycling News)
Over the years, have you adapted to racing in cold weather in Europe? I think all Colombians have difficulty with this, since there's no real seasons there, and then having to face the cold and snow in Europe comes as a shock.
No. I can tell you that I've never become accustomed to it.
Much like being away from Colombia and your family, it never gets easier then?
Yes, it's something that you never fully conquer. But the thing is that as a cyclist, you are born stubborn. You are born mentally tough, and you can take that kind of hardship. Those races are meant for hard men, and that's what it takes. Freezing wind, snow, ice. It's hard, but you fight through it mentally, because I don't think my body will ever get used to it, even a bit.
Jose during this year's Giro (from his Twitter account)
Over the years, different cities in Colombia—
—have made strides toward getting more of their citizens to ride bikes for basic transportation. In an interview with
, you mentioned that you don't own a car, and get around by bike. Is that true both in Colombia and in Italy.
Yes, it is. No car
And what about your wife, does she have a car?
No, she doesn't either actually.
Does she ride a bike as well then?
(Laughs) No, she does a whole lot of walking.
Was this a conscious decision, or was it something that just happened because you prefer to ride a bike.
I just feel comfortable getting around by bike, and I haven't really felt the need to have a car, so I keep getting around by bike, which is nice. To tell you the truth, I've never even considered buying a car, although I know how to drive. I suppose that some things in my life would get easier if I owned a car, but I don't put much thought into it. Maybe when I retire I'll get one But right now, I just get around by bike in Bucaramanga, which is where I train, and in my farm in Cartagena, which is where I go to relax.
What are you hoping for next season, now that you've wrapped up the current one? Are you already thinking ahead to next year?
Sure. I'll probably start early, maybe in San Luis or the Tour Down Under. After that, we figure out if I'm going to the Giro or the Tour.
In order to have a chance to win something early on in the year like San Luis or Langkawi, when do you begin training? It's probably much earlier than most people.
For doing races like that, I would always start on November 25th. That's when I would start riding.
Why the 25th exactly. Is there some meaning or significance to that date?
Not really. My first year, that's just the date I started training again, it worked, and I realized it I should stick to it.
Jose and one of his trusty modes of transportation (from his Twitter account)
And before that, before November 25th, how long do you usually go without riding at all?
I always do a full month without touching the bike. I then start doing two days a week, then three, then four, and then I'm back to training full on.
And during that month that you're off the bike, do you do any cross-training, gym work, weights or anything like that? That seems to be common with professionals.
(Laughs) What I do is that I walk around my farm, and I take care of the animals and the farm in general. That's my workout.
Hey, it's worked so far, so why change it. Work around the farm, start riding on November 25th, doing things the José Rodolfo Serpa way.
Yes! Why not.
You can follow José Serpa on Twitter