Belgium in early June. It’s sunny, but there’s a chill in the air as I look at my watch and start walking to Brussels’ Grand-Place. I don't want to be late. Once there, I find Le Roy D'espagne, one of several cafés that line what is easily one of Europe’s most beautiful center squares. Inside I meet Giovanni Jimenez, the first Colombian cyclist to ever turn professional (he signed a contract even before Cochise Rodriguez and raced almost exclusively in Belgium for his entire career). In 1962, Giovanni traveled to Europe with the dream of becoming a professional. He achieved that dream in Belgium, and never left. We begin to discuss his past, and time passes quickly as I sit listening eagerly.
Speaking with Jimenez, I’m amazed by his life, the numerous things he accomplished, and how difficult those first years in Europe were for him. He worked endless hours as a migrant laborer in German factories, while learning new languages, and training to race on the road and track. All this starting when he was only 21 years old, and so far from his native Medellin. In the end, he signed a contract, became the first Colombian professional, and raced through the 70s, taking on all the spring classics, and eventually joining the BIC team during its prime.
But its one of his stories in particular that saddens me to no end. Proud of his place of birth, Jimenez was the first rider from Colombia to represent his country in the elite world championships. Sadly, Colombia’s cycling federation gave Jimenez no support at all to do so. He would catch rides to the world championships with his European teammates, and was supported by other team's cars (usually Belgium’s). Perhaps strangest of all, was the fact that he couldn’t convince Colombia’s cycling federation to even give him a jersey for the world championships. That’s how disconnected the federation was from the reality of cycling at the top level. As far as they were concerned, a Colombian rider competing in those races as a professional was simply insane and unnecessary. It was more than their minds allowed them to comprehend. Jimenez was simply ahead of his time, and had managed to dream bigger than the entire cycling establishment in Colombia. They had turned their back on him.
Under his breath, in muted tones, Jimenez says that the people at the federation who fought him, and who refused to give him any support have all passed away, or are elderly now. "Best to let these matters go", he tells me.
Things have changed for Colombian cycling a good bit since Giovanni’s time. Perhaps the greatest symbol of that is the fact that Colombia finished third in the UCI’s World Tour national rankings (behind Spain and Italy). But then again, things changed for Colombian cycling during the 1980s as well, a streak that came to an end largely due to outside factors. Some of those factors included the end of the International Coffee Agreement, and the change in Colombia’s political climate as well as all that came with it (if you’d like to know what those are, I recommend you pick up a copy of Cycling Anthology #2 which includes an article I wrote that covers this matter). They were, by and large, beyond the control of the few who were involved in cycling.
Today, however, things are different. At least when it comes to the forces that could potentially harm Colombian cycling. In the past, they were mostly external. Today, however, I fear that it could be some Colombians (by negligence or other reasons) who might hurt the sport, its development, and thus negate the boundless opportunities that await. This post is about those issues, and is admittedly long. But that's simply indicative of the problems at hand.
An unusual lack of interest
This coming season Trek, Orica-Green Edge, Omega Pharma, Sky, BMC, Liquigas-Cannondale, Movistar, Lampre, Caja Rural, Garmin-Sharp, Ag2r and (needless to say) Team Colombia will all have Colombians in their rosters, something that has not happened by mere chance. Colombian riders have clearly made an impression on the peloton, and team managers want to have a part in it. With that, Colombia now becomes a sizable and largely untapped (at least during the last decade or so) source of talent. An amazing time for any fans of Colombian cycling.
But something unusual is happening, something I’ve brought up before, and that Colombian columnist and novelist Hector Abad mentioned in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper: the riders who are winning races in Colombia are not being signed, or even courted, by European teams. This despite the fact that their power-to-weight ratios are often better than top professionals in World Tour teams (Abad's column states that several of these riders have been estimated as having power to weight rations that are better than 6.1 watts per kilo. Since then calculations have placed many riders at 6.3 or higher in uphill time trials). Not to mention that some of these riders are (amazingly) also sprinters. On paper, they could be the best riders in the world.
So what are we, the public, to make of the fact that a seemingly endless amount of riders (several of them close to 40 years of age) are theoretically outperforming the very best in Europe? For an answer, let's consider the fact that none of these riders have had offers from World Tour or Pro Continental teams, despite their strong showings. The message is clear and obvious, particularly in the face of the amazing amount of interest that World Tour teams have in Colombian talent. Sure seems to me like teams want to sign top Colombian riders, but those who are winning those races are not the ones they want. Leading me to believe that no one outside of Colombia believes that those performances are real. How else can the lack of interest in these amazing victories be explained? Otherwise, the podium spots from any major Colombian race would be the first place that European teams would be looking to in order to find talent, don't you think?
Is something being done to make sure that the best young talent in Colombia can compete safely, get results, and thus attract attention from foreign teams that may want to sign them? Shouldn't Colombia's biggest races be the best place to spot up and coming riders?
Of further interest—and as was also pointed out by Hector Abad—is the fact that while those aging riders garner no interest from World Tour teams, those from one team, 4-72 (who can compete and win in Europe, but interestingly seldom stand a chance when racing back in Colombia) do. 4-72 is a team with the ability to develop riders (Quintana, Atapuma, Henao, Pantano, Duarte), and also have an internal blood testing and passport program, whose blood values helped Quintana sign on with Movistar. Oddly enough, they are not well liked by some in Colombia. Actually, they are openly despised by some in the press.
To be fair, there could be some exceptions to what I stated above (that World Tour teams seem to be singly interested in riders from on one team in Colombia), like the deal that Sergio Henao's cousin Sebastian (from Coldeportes-Claro) might be getting with Sky, Quintana's brother going to Movistar and Daniel Jaramillo (Orgullo Paisa) who was rumored to be signing with Orica-Green Edge earlier this year. Of those three, however, it's obvious that a family connection, and having someone vouch for the new rider may have helped things along, though this is speculation on my end.
As I see it, it's the job of those in power of the sport to elevate it for riders who compete. And to give Colombian riders the best chances they can possibly have at success. And that largely means enabling them to leave Colombia, since top level racing happens elsewhere. It's how the sport operates today, and that means running races in a way that makes it clear that the results are credible. Is that the case?
Notice that when Colombian riders perform well outside of Colombia, their results are taken more seriously. Julian Arredondo wins the Tour of Langkawi, he signs with Trek for next year. Janier Acevedo has an amazing season in the US, he goes to Garmin, after fielding other offers including Omega Pharma. So, is that what's happening? Is anyone looking into this anomaly, that of top riders at Colombia's biggest races are not being signed, while their numbers are also seemingly better than those of top professionals in Europe?
Nothing to see here
Along these lines is another interesting development. An unusually straight forward video was posted by a Costa Rican cycling publication a couple of months ago. In it, Colombian coach Gustavo Wilches, who raced for Postobon for most of his career and now runs a Costa Rican team, speaks very openly about the fact that Costa Rican riders know that they can ask Colombian cyclists (and speed skaters) for doping products. They know that Colombian athletes are operating as distributors of these products, and he states that Costa Rican cyclists know to ask Colombians about what they are using and how to get it. It's worth noting here that in 2001, Wilches was caught with 30 heroine capsules in Bogota's El Dorado airport, as he was traveling to Mexico.
Costa Rican cycling, by the way, is key in all this. That's because it was there that some of the first positive tests for GW1516 surfaced , including that of Colombian Marlon Perez (from the Colombia Claro team, a government sponsored team). In the video, Wilches says that he knows the names of those involved, and would be happy to give details about the matter. Has Wilches been questioned about this, since he offers to give the necessary information? He hasn't, and the Colombian media didn't even bother to report or look into this. No one cares.
With all this in mind, it's rather impressive that there haven't been more more positive tests in Colombia's domestic cycling. Some in Colombia suggest there have been positives, but they have yet to see the light of day. Then there's the comment made by Darwin Atapuma recently in the La Cadenilla blog, in which he mentions that in Colombia, few if any samples seem to make it to a lab for testing. Could that account for the lack of positives? I don't know.
This year, the only positives in Colombia have been by Marlon Perez (whose positive happened while racing in Costa Rica), and Jonathan Millan (at the Vuelta a Antioquia). Unusually, Millan came forward and admitted to his positive to the press, though the federation never released information about it. Why this happened is unknown, though (as you'd expect) there are clearly theories on the matter.
Colombia's racing heritage potentially devalued
But even putting such speculation aside there are concrete examples that show how a segment within Colombian cycling could in fact be working against itself (perhaps unknowingly, while fighting for self-preservation). Take races like the Vuelta a Colombia and the Clasico RCN. Once the crown jewels of racing in the Americas (often frequented by the biggest European teams, along with the likes of Lemond, Hinault, Fignon and Millar), these races are now largely national (perhaps regional) affairs at best. Is the decay of these races simply a matter of budgetary constraints and financial realities? That may very well be the case, but other issues still exist. These are races where an Operacion Puerto refugee like Oscar Sevilla (who now races for a Colombian team) is a perennial favorite. Sevilla, won the Vuelta a Colombia this year at 37 years of age, after his six-month suspension for a masking agent positive during the 2010 Vuelta a Colombia (when he nearly won the race). He also won the Clasico RCN last year.
But, you see, Colombia seems to have a thing for those involved in Operacion Puerto, not just Sevilla. It's almost as though we Colombians are flattered that someone who competed at a high level in Europe would race in our country. Why that is, I don't know. But it's a pattern, and you can see it with those involved in Operacion Puerto.
The Orgullo Paisa team alone had Santiago Botero, Oscar Sevilla, and Jose Enrique Guitierrez on their roster at one point, while their director was Jose Ignacio Labarta. All were involved in Puerto. It's like they took the Rock Racing model, and ran with it (so to be fair, it's not just Colombian teams who have taken this approach). Is this the type of environment that will foster and employ the trainers, directors and staff who work hard to do their very best for their riders, or will they become disillusioned by what they see around them?
Welcomed with open arms
But even more unusual events have taken place. Doctor Alberto Beltrán Niño, who had worked with Colombian teams in the past was arrested last year in Madrid , on his way to Colombia with massive amounts of AICAR and TB-500, the cycling world's new drugs of choice (Spanish police didn't give exact quantities, but said the number was "alarming"). Was there an official investigation launched in Colombia regarding Beltrán Niño or the teams he might have been supplying? None that I've heard of. Perhaps everyone believed Beltran when he said that he had these drugs in order to use them on horses (he now works as a veterinarian for race horses in Bahrain, a country that has had it's share of equestrian doping controversies, particularly in endurance races). This despite the fact that endurance horse racing doesn't exist in Colombia.
His denial is also unusual because he was intercepted in Madrid due to Xacobeo-Galicia rider David Garcia testifying to police about him being his supplier in 2009, and giving them information that led to his arrest. The fact that he was headed to Colombia during a crucial time in the cycling season only made the whole thing look worse. Particularly taking into account that in the past he had worked as the official doctor of Colombian teams like Orbitel (now EPM-Une), Selle Italia (which at the time had a roster that was half Colombian) and the 1995 national team at the world championships, all facts that are known and documented.
Beltran was also part of Colombia's Olympic Medical Commission in the 1990s, and was first detained for having doping products in 2001 during the Coppi e Bartali race. That time, it was human growth hormone and anabolic steroids that were found in his team car in Turin, Italy. Even though he was in the middle of cycling race, working as Selle Italia's (Androni Giocattoli today) doctor, he claimed the drugs were for Colombian patients, but not cyclists. From there, Beltran bounced around Spanish teams, including Liberty Seguros, where three riders tested positive for CERA at the 2009 Tour of Portugal under his watch, and one of those riders (Nuno Rieiro) named the Colombian doctor as his supplier.
It was during that same year that Vicente Belda (who stood trial along Eufemiano Fuentes and Manolo Saiz earlier this year, yet another Operacion Puerto refugee), was welcomed with open arms in Colombia, and allowed to run the development team Boyaca Es Para Vivirla. It's worth mentioning that Kelme's Jesus Manzano stated under oath that Belda coordinated the team's doping program, and that Belda was well aware of the injection that he took at the 2003 Tour, which almost led to his death. Regarding that day, he said, “I had taken oxyglobin intravenously, a haemoglobin for dogs [which increases oxygen levels in the blood], and Belda and Labarta knew, of course”
And this is a man [Belda] that as late as last year, was still welcomed as a director of a team in Colombia. No questions were asked of him on the matter. And to be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if he's allowed to come back to Colombia at some point to work with another team.
And what about Labarta? The other man who Manzano said knew that he was being given drugs for dogs, and who was found guilty in the 2013 Puerto trial? He too has been active in Colombia. In 2010 he was the doctor for Orgullo Paisa, while Santiago Botero was in the team. Interestingly, this article refers to the addition of Labarta as a doctor to the team as part of it becoming more "modern". His website (with a design which is oddly similar to that of the cycling clothing company Kirschner) has listed Colombia (Boyaca specifically) as a location that he works in on and off over the last couple of years.
Remember, in Colombia, someone like Ferney Bello (whose doping offenses were so egregious that he at one point received a lifetime ban), is still allowed to coach and run a U23 team. But Bello's lifetime ban didn't last for long. It was lifted by the Colombian Federation, for some unknown reason. This, amazingly, happened during the same hearing by the federation's disciplinary commission, where the son of the federation's president, had his own two year ban lifted. Yes, you read that correctly. The son of the federation's president at the time was caught doping. As a result, he was suspended for two years, but then had the ban lifted in 2009, and no reason was given as to why this happened. This prompted Colombia's government-sponsored sporting body (Colderpotes) to ask why a cycling federation that is part of the UCI can disregard the rules set forth by the parent organization.
I found no answer to this question in articles and reports about the matter. But the video below helps paint a clearer picture. It was taken at a team dinner (Team Coldeportes-Claro) before the 2013 Vuelta de la Juventud, perhaps the biggest U23 race in the Colombian calendar. In it, the current president of the Colombian federation (Ramiro Valencia Cossio) talks about the goals of the federation. These include getting more involved in youth academies, and aligning the federation with the politics that surround the country's olympic hopes. But then comes an interesting point. At 2:52, he says:
"But I want to get to a point that I want to get across to you. When people talk to me about doping, I want to tell you that the control of doping and of illegal substances is absolutely not a focus of mine, not at all. That’s just not an objective of the federation. Why? Because I assume that the sport is clean. I cannot conceive of a sport that has doping in it. Thats my baseline. "
So perhaps that's the answer I was looking for.
So I must still ask, what does this all mean for the young trainers and directors in Colombia who want to do things correctly, and want the very best for their riders, to thus better the image of an entire nation? Does this type of environment energize them and make them eager to get up in the morning in order to give their all? Do they feel supported by the federation, when its president says this, and the body he oversees has hired doctors with known links to doping to help its national teams, as was the case with Beltran?
Since this post was published, it has been translated into Spanish and re-published by the blog Ruta Del Escarabajo. In the comments section for that post, the son of then Colombian Federation's president (Ivan Mauricio Casas) stated that he has a document from CAS which says that the charges against him had been dropped, and that WADA was informed of this matter.
Casas was not allowed to compete at the Vuelta a Colombia this year, however, as he's once again serving a one-year suspension due to refusing to give a sample at a doping control. Another detail about all this, which is unusual, is that Casas' lawyer, who defended him in the hearing to have the case dropped, went on to be a member of the federation's disciplinary commission (which assigns suspension) . By the way, Casas never showed proof of having such document from CAS, and to the contrary, CAS did suspend him. You can read the ruling here.
You might say that this is all based on my willingness to look at several events at once, thus connecting some well-documented dots. But consider the fact that a staff member of at least one team that has been invited to the Vuelta a Colombia in the past refused to attend for these very reasons I've just discussed. A person from the team told me very plainly that going to Colombia for that race [the Vuelta] is a waste of time. In his mind, it’s plainly obvious that (I'll paraphrase) "they are racing at very different speeds. It's very clear that our riders are part of a biological passport, and they are not." With that, another part of Colombia's racing heritage takes a hit.
Formed and polished
But this is not just a matter of doping, a topic that I (despite what the last few paragraphs may lead you to believe) am sick to death of. Consider the interview that Ramiro Valencia, the president of Colombia’s cycling federation gave just last week. In it, he makes a couple of claims that seemed unusual to me.
Valencia states that all the riders who are now racing in Europe (Quintana, Uran, Betancur , Henao) were “formed” in Colombia, and were only “polished” in Europe. While it’s clearly true that some of these riders took significant steps while in Colombia (Henao and Quintana certainly did, while racing with Colombia Es Pasion), it should be noted that men like Uran and Beatancur, while thoroughly Colombian in every way, left the country very early in their career (same goes for Winner Anacona, and Cayetano Sarmiento), which explains why many of these Colombian riders have never even competed in the biggest races that their country has to offer. Unlike those who are left to stew in Colombia's domestic race scene, they got out in time.
This is not to minimize the involvement of those who helped them early on, but it's hard to disregard the fact that Rigoberto moved to Italy at 19 years old, Sarmiento and Anacona at 20 and Betancur at 22. As such, it's not really accurate to say that they arrived to Europe fully formed as riders, though their abilities were clearly undeniable from a young age.
As for those those who raced in Colombia longer, but have made it to the World Tour level (like Quintana, Atapuma, and Henao), all raced with 4-72 Colombia.
Furthermore, and as was pointed out by the blog La Ruta Del Escarabajo, Valencia states that these riders who are now competing in Europe have said that they “want to race in Colombia’s national championships, representing their home departments.”
If that’s the case, why are Colombia’s national championships scheduled during a time when none of those riders can attend (due to their race schedule in Europe), instead of having the race at the same time as other countries? Ever wonder why you don’t see men like Henao, Betancur, Quintana or Uran wearing a Colombian champion jersey during the season? It's hard to win, if they can't go to the race.
And speaking of schedules, why has country like Argentina (which has almost no cycling tradition to speak of by comparison), figured out how to draw an impressive field to the Tour of San Luis—in part by when the race is held—while Colombian races whither away? Yes, I understand that this is partially a matter of sponsorship money, but it also shows that other countries manage to understand how modern cycling operates, while Colombia starts to fall behind. Unusual, considering that the amount of talent and love for the sport are both on the rise in Colombia. Maybe I'm dreaming, and maybe my knowledge of how hard it would be to make the changes happen is showing. But it would be an amazing, and warranted change.
Helping those who help Colombia's image
When asked what the federation has done to help Colombian cycling, and riders in particular, Valencia states that the federation, “manages and oversees the logistics necessary to let Colombian teams compete abroad. It’s a collective effort, they don’t take this on alone.”
Very well. Just don't tell Rigoberto Uran this. On the day of the Olympic road race in London, Uran was almost unable to start, and it was only at the very last minute that he was handed a race number and microchip. He had trained for the race, traveled to England, but was told the day before the race that his name was not on the list of starters, and that he wouldn't be racing. The real reason, to my knowledge, remains unknown, but Team Sky has often been blamed in the press. Perhaps someone who knows about these things can explain to me why a trade team would handle a rider's paperwork when he races for his national federation and Olympic team. Maybe this is so, but it strikes me as odd that Sky would be to blame.
As he found out about this, Uran was panicked, and had to work alongside people from Colombia's Olympic committee to be able to race. It was pandemonium as they scrambled to find and submit the proper paperwork on the very day of the race. Uran went to the starting line that day having just gone through all this. Were things handled for him, thus allowing him to simply train, show up, and race? Apparently not, though it's not clear to me who should have done this for him. Certainly not him, and not on the day of the race. Once again, I'm open to the fact that I'm not understanding the matter, but it certainly doesn't bode well for the treatment that riders like Uran are getting, while earning victories at this level.
You might think I'm nitpicking here, but another interesting case surfaced in the last few days. Jessenia Meneses, who was fourth at the world championships in the U23 race (she missed out on a sure podium spot due to a flat, see above). Meneses was promised by the federation that she could keep the bike she raced on (a Focus Izalco), only to have the offer taken back, leading her to have to keep training on a borrowed bike, as she did leading up to the world championships. Making matters worse, she left her own pedals on the bike, after being told she'd be getting it after the race.
This, by the way, has led to the use of the #UnaBiciParaJessenia hashtag on Twitter (which translates to "a bike for Jessinia"). It has also led to team 4-72 allowing her to use one of their team bikes for the remainder of the season, and also planning to get her one for next year from their sponsors, despite the fact that she's not in their roster. This is a small matter in the grand scheme of things, and is something that can (and probably) has happened in other countries. But it's when you look a the totality of things today that your mood can begin to sour.*
*Since I wrote this, the federation has responded to journalist Pablo Arbelaez's questions on the matter. After Jessenia spoke out, and social media took note, they've said that they will give her a bike just like the one she raced on, as promised. The federation says that the bike she raced on was borrowed, and because she uses a small frame, they have been unable to get her an equivalent frame. But if they knew the bike was borrowed, why did they offer it to her?
Despite of/because of
In the past, I’ve written that much of the coverage about Colombian cycling by the international media has been misguided, leading many to believe that Colombian riders have managed to succeed despite the fact that they are from Colombia (a country that is still portrayed as unwieldy and dangerous). I, on the other hand, argue that this success has come about because
these riders are from Colombia. A place with a rich heritage in the sport, and with a unique human network of people who know the sport, and lovingly help and teach young riders, thus helping them succeed.
For now, it seems, Colombia’s success has also happened despite the fact that some of those in control have done little to really help matters (at least that's how it looks from out here). The country’s success has come about due to the hard work of the riders, and those who have helped them, taught them and guided them along the way. No doubt about that. That’s precisely what makes Colombian cycling unique.
But it also seems like around every corner, there’s a story like that of Jessenia Meneses. Or more importantly, issues that go unchecked, and bad habits that seem to be everlasting in Colombian cycling. "The same old people, doing the same old things", one now-retired Colombian rider told me recently. All this reminds me of the struggle that Giovanni Jimenez went through decades ago, just to be able to represent his own country at the world championships.
I say this not to denigrate my country in any way, though some will surely think so. To the contrary. I say this because I love Colombia, and the sport. And because I hope its riders, those who have given their lives to the sport and are asked to represent an entire nation, can receive the support they deserve, as they are protected and helped along the way. Similarly, I hope that Colombia's once-famed races, which are very much a part of the country's history, can return to their rightful place, or at least be operated in a way that makes teams from other countries want to participate.
Ultimately, the coming years will serve to prove what those who hold leadership roles in Colombian cycling are capable of. Will they make the most of the bounty of talent, history and goodwill that they have, or will they let it waste away? I hope that's not the case, in part because many in Colombian cycling (riders, as well as staff, organizers and directors) are capable of amazing things. What is done with all that talent and goodwill remains to be seen.