Darwin Atapuma's potential and temperament, collectivism versus individualism, and how Colombian riders must adapt in order to succeed in Europe. An interview with Darwin Atapuma's coach, Marco Pinotti (Part 2)

Marco during his time with HTC-Columbia (Photo: My Shaved Legs)

This is part two of an interview with newly retired Marco Pinotti (now a coach with BMC), in which we discuss his recent trip to Colombia, his assessment of the Colombian mindset, and how it affects the temperament and chances to succeed of riders like Darwin Atapuma (Part 1 is here ).

In the off-season, you traveled to Colombia. What was the purpose of your trip?
At the beginning of October, BMC decided to have Darwin Atapuma spend most of his winter in Colombia. And since I would be working with him, they said I should go to Colombia, to see his place. For me, it was important to see where he’s from, where he lives. It was also important that I show him how to use the SRM, how to load the files, how to work with Training Peaks, and just spend time with him, to get to know him. Because I hadn’t had time to do that, and when you’re a coach, it’s not just about the numbers. You have to know the person, and the more you know about a rider, the more you understand him. So I spent five days with him, got to know where he lives, where he trains, and see his environment.

Darwin Atapuma, showing his Colombian champion stripes for the first time in any team he's ridden in (Photo: BMC)

So you wanted to see his training routes?
Yes. For example, I wanted him to use a thirty minute climb, but there are no thirty minute climbs around him. But I also got to know his family, the support they give him. It was a very good experience.

What else did you learn about Darwin, and what was your take on his life in Colombia?

He’s a very humble, and very young person. But at the same time, he’s very mature for his age, especially if you compare him to a European rider of the same age. He’s very simple, with his feet on the ground always.

Seeing Colombia, I saw how different the country was. Economically, it’s a poorer country. But Colombia is richer in terms of human relationships, when you compare it to Europe, and to Italy. To me, Italy is a very individualistic society. Colombia is not. At first glance, his hometown is a poor place, but when you look closer, you see that he’s so connected to everyone around him, and in his town. Everyone there has these rich connections. It’s a very healthy environment to grow in, in every way. The people, the food…oh, the food was so good, and how it tasted! He’s more connected to nature, to the land.

In his hometown, Darwin has his brother, who has a real passion for cycling and trains young riders, and his family. But in general, I found him to be very mature, and noticed that he knows what it takes to be a competitive rider, from training, to eating. I didn’t expect him to be that educated. So I didn’t have to make any comments or adjustments about nutrition or training.

Tuquerres, Nariño (Photo: Marco Pinotti)

You point out the difference between Colombia and Europe. What do you think that difference means to a rider like Darwin?
It’s a big difference, and that again shows a lot of maturity in a rider like Darwin. When a Colombian rider is in Europe, he will suffer badly from homesickness. Life in Europe could also make a rider unbalanced, and it’s hard to stay committed to training in that environment, in Europe. It’s hard to live like a monk when you have all these material things around you. But this is not a problem for Darwin, because he’s so focused.

Pure climbers, by definition, have trouble time trialing. Colombian riders have certainly faced this. Is this something you’re actively helping Darwin with?
Well, he’s not a pure climber. If you look at his build, he’s not this super light, thin body. But of course he’s a very good climber. He’s from a place where you are either a good climber, or you don’t ride a bike (laughs).

But he can be a better time trialist, yes. So we are working a lot on his position on the bike. His old position was not very aerodynamic, and didn’t let him perform well. The team is working on a custom cockpit for him, which will allow him to pedal in a more aerodynamic position. And I can tell you that if he sticks to that position, and works on it in training, he will loose two minutes instead of four in a 30k time trial, that’ my guess. He won’t become a specialist, but he will really improve, so those are big steps already. So the main thing is for him to train as much and as often in that position as he can.

Atapuma at the Giro in 2013 (Photo: Cycling Inquisition)

Now that you’re reviewing Darwin’s data on a daily basis, how do you think his numbers look? How promising do you think he is, from a purely quantitative point of view?
Well, first of all, you have to know that he’s training at 3,000 meters on average. So, if you look at those numbers, you won’t be impressed. Because at that altitude, you can’t go at 6 watts per kilo. You just can’t, except maybe for one or two minutes at most. It’s just physically impossible for the human body to have the efficiency it has at sea level when it's at 3,000 meters.

But of course, I also saw his power files from San Luis. He spent two weeks there, at sea level. One week was training camp and one racing. And there, you see that he’s at 6 watts per kilo on a twenty minute climb. So, that puts him in the top-ten at a race like that.

But these numbers don’t tell you the whole picture, because he didn’t have the time to do high intensity training leading up to the race. That’s something he can target when he comes to Italy, to really work on high intensity, higher power output training. And it will be then, when he goes to races, that you’ll see his real potential.

Following Darwin during training in and around Tuquerres (Photo: Marco Pinotti)

Based on your knowledge of his numbers, but now also of him as a person, and his abilities, what type of races do you think he’s ideally suited for?
I think at first, probably short stage races, but also some of the classics. I think Fleche Wallone would be very good for him. It’s that he’s so explosive, but his power output in four or five minute efforts would really put him in a great position for some classics like Lombardia, which I think would be a good race for him. Can he develop into a grand tour contender? I don’t know yet. He’s still young, and just did the Giro last year for the first time.

Darwin in Colorado, 2013 (Photo: Manual For Speed)

Now that you’ve been to Darwin’s hometown, do you have some insight into the current rise in Colombian cycling? Do you understand it better than you did before in a way?
After I went to Colombia, and I saw the environment, I really thought this: in ten years, all these Colombian riders, will go to Europe, and will all kick the European rider’s asses (laughs).

Really! First of all, you can’t ride there and not be strong on the climbs. But also, they want to win. They are hungry. Cycling and winning is a way for them to make their lives better, but it’s not just that. They can better the lives of their families, their kids, and even make the lives of future generations, maybe one or two of them, better. So they have a very, very deep motivation, which is higher than anything that any rider in Europe can have. It's amazing.

But the way we live here, when they are in Europe, is so stressful compared to Colombia. I’m not saying that there’s no stress in Colombia, but they come here and have to get results. The way of living here is so different, that it can destroy them. And I know that they really suffer very badly from homesickness. There are riders like Darwin, like Nairo Quintana, who can deal with those changes and be successful. But many other talented riders may say, “Ah, I can’t deal with this!”, you know?

Darwin in Colorado (Photo: Manual For Speed)

So that’s a key component, in your eyes, to future success of Colombian riders. For them to be psychologically built to withstand the differences that come with going to Europe.
Yes, but also to the pressures that come with Europe’s racing season. Because it’s not like they just come here, do two short races and run back home. No. They will have to come and maybe stay here for nine months. And they have no family, no friends. No one. And Colombia is such a close culture, based on human connection. And here in Italy, things are so individualistic. That’s why, if a European rider goes to the United States, or an American comes to Europe, it may be different, but both are individualistic societies. It's a closer match.

Colombia is very different. It’s about people, about family*. They need their family and their close friends. So if riders don't learn to deal with that, or they don’t find those relationships in Europe, they will never be able to fulfill their potential. ◾

*Marco's observation about this fundamental difference between Colombian and European/American cultures is not just astute, it's also amazingly accurate.  

The Hofstede Centere published a report about this very topic, and found Colombia to be have one of the lowest individualistic scores of any country in the world. In measuring this score, the report addresses "the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. "

The report further states that, "In Individualist societies people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only. In Collectivist societies [like Colombia] people belong to ‘in-groups’ that take care of them." 

Below is a comparison from the report, showing the "individualist score" for different countries compared to Colombia. Scores range from 0 to 100.

Colombia: 8
United States: 100
United Kingdom: 98
Canada: 87
Italy: 82
Australia: 99
Germany: 72


The Track World Championships are now underway in Cali, Colombia. The video above is a very short trailer for the event. It's worth noting that Cali, as a city, has a very unique musical and cultural make-up. The city is in many ways Caribbean, despite its location. Cali and its musical heritage have interested many, among them Matt Rendell, who wrote a book about Salsa, and made this companion short film about it.

Remember, salsa (both the music and dance) is integral to Cali, something that players from the British U20 football/soccer squad experienced upon arriving there not long ago. They were welcomed in the airport by the official military police band. Go to about 1:20 in the video (via Ruta Del Escarabajo) below, to see the police officers making the players dance. This type of welcome (and how foreigners react to it) makes many Colombians cringe. Personally, I find it rather endearing. You be the judge.