Betancur, Henao, Atapuma, and Quintana at the world championships in 2009 (Posted on Twitter by Luis Barbosa)
"They accused us of being lazy, and of having become bourgeois over time....All of a sudden, we were being treated very badly, even out in the street when we went out training. I remember little boys, almost babies who were barely old enough to speak, yelling all kinds of things to us on the street, cursing at us. It was impossible to argue, or even talk to people in those days. During a race we did here in Colombia, everyone was insulting us. They threw beer at us, and heckled us as we went by. We were hated. "
– Henry Cardenas,
Cafe de Colombia rider and Lucho Herrera teammate,
remembers how he was treated by Colombian fans in the years after the original victories by men like Herrera and Parra in Europe. According to him, fans simply didn't understand how difficult it was to win in Europe, especially as the landscape in the sport began to shift. [Taken from this interview, in which the Cardenas spoke very openly about this an other topics]
In May of 1955, a young newspaper reporter in Bogota noticed an unusual trend. The streets of the city would be unusually quiet during the morning hours, but the silence would be broken suddenly, countless cycling fans emptied from the cafes, where they had been listening to the radio broadcasts of the Vuelta a Colombia. Once out of the cafes, these fans would get on their bikes, and begin riding furiously, "in a frenzy as a result of the exciting narrations of the day's race on the radio."
That young newspaper reporter was future Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his article recounting the country's maniacal passion for the sport is one of the earliest and most concise accounts of a Colombia's love affair with cycling.
A young, and already intense looking Carlos Betancur
I bring up that 1955 article from the daily El Espectador for a simple reason, to explain to readers just how longstanding the country's relationship with cycling has been. Unlike Formula One, or golf, which have garnered great interest in Colombia as a result of lone competitors (and their success on an international scale), Colombia and cycling have had a long and winding relationship. And yet, despite this, an overwhelming number of cycling fans in Colombia are...how can I put this lightly...idiotic.
Americans will likely remember the days when Lance Armstrong was covered on a seemingly endless loop on OLN, and they too will comment on how flawed the understanding of fair-weather fans was/is. Singular in their focus, they understood only the Tour de France, cared little about any other race, and did their best to understand tactics based on the commentary provided by two guys with the personalities of an iron skillet.
The truth is that everyone is free to enjoy a sport (or any other activity) at whatever level they choose to. Not everyone (hardly anyone really) wants to wake up early, and watch a bad internet feed of a race that isn't shown on TV. So really, those of us who do, are outliers, the sporting world equivalent of a local Polar Bear Club chapter, going for a swim in a freezing body of water as their friends and family look on cringing with pity and slight disgust. So we must understand the fact that not everyone cares or as is as engaged as we are. If anything, being really angry about someone's misunderstanding of what is a niche sport at best, says more about us than it does about them.
Having said that, it's become clear over the last year or so, that many people in Colombia who are very much a part of the outliers that I speak of, remain willfully obtuse about how the sport works. This is perhaps because they are blinded by patriotic hubris, or something more perverse, I honestly don't know. Let me give you a couple of examples. When Rigoberto Uran worked for Michał Kwiatkowski at Tirreno Adriatico, many in Colombia bemoaned this as "terrible", and "sad" act. The press commented on it too, as fans (many of them) took to Twitter, and complained to Uran directly.
First tweet, addressed to Rigoberto Uran: "I never saw Nairo, Porte or Contador helping their temmates." second tweet, in reply to another user explaining the team strategy :"I understand, except for the fact that he was hired to be a team captain, not to help, or at least that's what we were told."
While it's easy to dismiss this, or any other series of idiotic Twitter outbursts as what they are (much ado about nothing), the sheer propensity with which these comments were made by fans in Colombia (ones who go out of their way to find online feeds of early season races) was simply amazing. So many comments were made in fact, that ESPN's Goga Ruiz-Sandoval had to spell things out for the many in Colombia who follow her.
Ojalá que la afición entienda que los profesionales hacen su trabajo en sincronía con la estrategia del equipo, @UranRigoberto es SúperPro!
— Goga Ruiz-Sandoval (@BiciGoga) March 16, 2014
(Translation: I wish fans would understand that professionals do their job according to their team's strategy, @UranRigoberto is a super pro!)
Quintana received the same treatment, as he was "only" second in the same race. In doing so, he "failed to deliver" in a race that, by the way, he was not even targeting. This after he spoke openly during San Luis about the fact that he'd come into the season far too strong, ahead of schedule, and would thus have to taper off in order to save himself for later goals.
With some, Serpa Perez didn't fare much better during Tirreno Adriatico, as he was seen working for Rui Costa. Yes ladies and gentlemen, some in Colombia had trouble with the fact that Serpa was working for his teammate, the world champion, who was in contention for the GC. Go figure.
Photo: Cycling Weekly
The only one who was spared this past week, of course, was Betancur. Because he won. But he too was lambasted last fall for the same reasons, and was often accused of having become "bourgeoisie" due to earlier victories, just as Henry Cardenas was many years ago while riding for Cafe De Colombia. That accusation, by the way, helps bring into focus just how class-conscious Colombian society can be. The assumption being that hunger in competition is a virtue of the poor, and is only taken on for financial and materialistic gains. The lack of wins or perceived performance is equated with becoming content, and having achieved a certain monetary/material goal.
At any rate, Betancur was billed as being "the best cyclist in the world" after his win by
. This is based on the UCI points ranking, which is of course impressive and important, but we all know (Betancur included) that this ranking may change throughout the season. And that it's based on points, and not who "the best cyclist in the world" is. So if and when this does change, his "fall" from this almost fictitious, early-season spot will bring further criticism. So it goes.
This all leads me to want to collectively shake a large portion of cycling fans in Colombia, and tell them a few key, but insanely basic things about the sport they love. Namely:
1. Not every rider who enters a race can, or even intends to win said race.
2. Even riders who are good enough to win a certain type of race (for example, a stage race, or a one-day classic), may not be there with the intention of winning it. There are numerous reasons for this, but one small part of it is the reality of the human body and how it responds to endurance sports. Each race is not like a rugby or football/soccer match that you enter with a binary objective. Form, recovery and several other factors play into this.
3. A team can change who their leader is during the course of the race, depending on form, terrain, and any number of other events. A real professional will adapt, and serve his team in whatever goal he's cast in. I know you want to see your favorite guy win and get a stuffed animal, but watch closely and you'll learn to enjoy small battles being fought and won throughout every race.
4. High ranking riders within a team will routinely help one another in races (sometimes even "lesser" riders), in part because hard work can be repaid at a later race when the roles are reversed. So consider this when you see Rigo, Nairo, or anyone else for that matter, helping out their teammate. Nairo didn't loose out to Valverde. He was instructed to help him in a race that his teammate was targeting, and the roles will likely be reversed later on in the season.
So American fans can cringe as their compatriots make foolish statements about cycling, and will no doubt remember the years when everyone at work became a yellow wristband-wearing expert in cycling. But sadly, we Colombians have had a longer relationship with road cycling, and yet we still appear to be unable to understand the most basic of concepts about the sport. This is not true for every Colombian, of course, but a good few. Frighteningly, some of these people are members of the press too, and they thus continue to perpetuate one of the some of the most embarrassing and regrettable faults of which we Colombian sports fans can be guilty of. From the days of Cafe De Colombia, until now, little has changed.
Photo: Manual For Speed
As I've mentioned before, aside from writing on this blog, I continue to collaborate with Manual For Speed oin an ongoing basis. The latest fruit of this relationship is an interview with Ted King that, if I may say so, is a very entertaining and worthwhile read. You can check it out