For the first time ever, a Colombian national champion will show off the Colombian tricolor at major races in Europe. In retrospect, this seems absolutely unbelievable, but Miguel Angel Rubiano is in fact the first rider to manage it. Having recently signed with Team Colombia (after years with Androni Giocattoli while claiming a Giro stage with that team in 2012), I spoke with Miguel Angel about growing up in Bogota, his very early introduction to cycling, as well as ongoing visa problems that seem to plague Colombian riders. Thanks to Miguel Angel for his time, and for finally taking the Colombian champion's jersey to Europe, which will first be seen at Liege Bastogne Liege.
Where in Bogota did you grow up?
I’m from Ciudad Bolivar.
What was it like growing up in Ciudad Bolivar? I’m sure you know why I’m asking, since
Yes, Ciudad Bolivar is a tough area, of course. But you know, the things I remember about growing up there are simple things, like when my dad would take me to the Parque El Tunal, which is nearby, so I could train three days a week. By the time I was 12, I would go out to train by myself. My school was in the afternoons, not in the mornings [this is common for some schools in Bogota]. So I trained in the mornings, and then went to school. I also remember the climb home. It was maybe two kilometers, at around 9 to 12 percent the whole way home, after every ride.
So despite what many think about Ciudad Bolivar, things were good for you growing up there.
Yes, Ciudad Bolivar at the time was dangerous, that’s what everyone said. Lots of crime, and you could get robbed at any moment, but I never experienced that, and I trained alone. I was fine.
What did your parents do for a living when you were kid?
My dad was an electrician, he still is. My mom was a seamstress. She mended and tailored clothes for the whole neighborhood.
Can you pinpoint one moment in your childhood when cycling first made an impression on you,?
Absolutely, the first time I saw images of a bloodied Lucho Herrera at the Tour de France, winning in St Etienne. That really made an impression on me. It was an amazing thing to see.
What did that image mean to you as a little boy? You were so young that it was probably a scary thing to see, a young Lucho with blood streaming down his face.
No. To me, even then, it was a symbol of his courage, of his strength. He had guts, and that image represented all his sacrifice and all the suffering he’d endured.
That’s amazing, considering how young you probably were when you first saw those pictures [Miguel Angel was born in 1984, and Lucho won at St. Etienne in 1985] . I’m guessing you’ve met Lucho since then. Have you ever told him about the impression that the image of him that day left on you?
You know, I’ve met him, but have only spoken to him briefly. I’ve never brought that up to him, no.
Cycling became a part of your life very early on then. What was your first bike like?
My dad bought it for me. I was three years old, and it was a road-racing bike, with tiny 17” wheels, and proper drop bars. I would go riding with my Café De Colombia kit. The bike was a Cinelli. Well, it was a Colombian-made bike, but it said “Cinelli” on the downtube.
A very young Miguel Angel Rubiano with his first bike (Photo: courtesy of Miguel Angel Rubiano)
Nice! That’s so perfectly Colombian too. My first bike was a Colombian-made BMX one, but the downtube had a fake Mongoose sticker.
Of course, yeah. It’s just the sticker (laughs).
What cycling academy or club did you start in, once you went beyond just training with your dad?
It was a club called Ciclo Venecia. After that, I went to a club that my dad and some other fathers from around the neighborhood started. It was all guys that knew the sport, and knew how to bring kids along in cycling. So they started the Club Monserrate
Miguel Angel takes on the Patios climb in Bogota (Photo: courtesy of Miguel Angel Rubiano)
That club still exists today, and is a major one in Bogota.
Yes, and my dad was the founder, and went on to be the president and director of it for eleven years. So I grew along with the club, and as I got older I began racing with the cycling league in Bogota.
And how do you go from being a kid in Club Monserrate, and racing with the league in Bogota, to going straight to Europe? You never did the bigger races in Colombia. How did that happen?
By mere chance. My father was, and still is, an electrician. He was working at a construction site in Ciudad Bolivar, and a bricklayer he was working with mentioned in passing that his nephew was a cyclist in Italy. So my dad immediately asked if maybe he could help me get into his team. Six months later, everything was sorted out, and I did indeed have a spot in this amateur team in Italy for 2005.
And who was this bricklayer’s nephew? Is he still racing?
His name is Nicolas Venegas. I raced with him for one year, and after that I turned professional and he retired from cycling.
So you arrive in Italy as a young man, ready to race. Did you experience a bit of culture shock, or were you able to settle in quickly?
You know, I was fine right away. In large part because the kind of racing I experienced in Italy suited me very well. In Colombia, I suffered from fatigue, plus I never did well in races where the road conditions were bad, with many potholes or sand in tight corners. So I struggled with injuries due to accidents as a junior and U23. Plus, some riders moved in an errant fashion during the races, which I didn't like. It was like they didn’t know how to race. So I got to Europe, I started training with my teammates, and right away I noticed that the roads are better, that my teammates are very technically savvy, and had great bike handling skills. But even the style of racing in Italy suited me better than Colombian racing ever did.
So that first year went well for you.
It did, I was motivated, and I had no time to miss home, because I was doing one race after another. Eleven months of racing without coming home to Colombia, it was a long stretch, and I felt very good being there.
Stage win at the 2012 Giro d'Italia (photo: esciclismo.com)
So then I must ask, you come back to Colombia after that year, do you then feel out of place there?
You know, I did! I felt distant, and things felt strange to me. Even my way of speaking was different.
Wait, did you develop an Italian accent during that time?
I did! I was so concentrated in racing when I was there, that I didn’t notice that happening. Not really an accent maybe, just trouble speaking sometimes, and I would use words in Italian in the middle of speaking Spanish once I got home. People noticed that, of course.
photo: Team Colombia
In going to Italy so early in your career, you sort of skipped doing the bigger races in Colombia. This is a common theme among many of the riders now in Europe like Uran, Quintana, Betancur and Serpa. Were you able to come back and do them later on in your career?
Yes, I was able to come back and do them. I did the Vuelta a Colombia during a break from racing in Europe. That was with Todos Por Tunja team, and I did the Clasico RCN in 2010, I think, with the Super Giros [Colombian and Venezuelan teams will sometimes do this, taking a rider on loan for a race, much like football/soccer teams do].
What did you think of those races after having raced in Europe for so long?
The moment I raced in Colombia again, I was instantly taken back to what it was like racing here before I ever went to Europe. And by that I mean that the racing is extremely hard. The routes are really tough, the climbs are tough, and the pace is very fast. Before I went to Europe, I could maybe be in the top 15 on a climb. And when I came back and did those races, I was exactly where I used to be before. Top 15 at best. It was really hard. On flat stages I was able to do better though.
You just became the Colombian national champion. A huge accomplishment that brings with it the ability to wear the jersey in Europe. What Team Colombia teammates did you have there in the race with you?
Jarlinson Pantano and Darwin Pantoja.
So those are the guys you worked with during the race?
Yes and no. See, it’s complicated, because in Colombia local teams race the national championships. So each department has their own team, and I was racing for the Bogota team [much like Washington D.C. in the United States, Colombia’s capital is its own political entity]. But I was in Team Colombia kit, and there with two teammates.
Making matters more complicated was the fact that all of us who race in Europe had also talked and decided to help each other out, to make sure the jersey would go back to Europe with one of us, and to that end, we would even get our regional teammates to help out. So Winner Anacona (Lampre), Jarlinson (Team Colombia) and I talked a lot. We were each racing for three separate teams from our regions, but we had kit from two teams, and were working as one (laughs). So we raced as a team to make sure the jersey went back with one of us.
Options for Rubaino's champion jersey, which Team Colombia allowed fans to vote on via Facebook. The design on the right won.
There was lots of talk about the national championships being very disorganized, particularly the time trial. Riders were very unhappy with the cycling federation, who in turn placed the blame on the local federation for the problems. What did you see or experience during your time at the race?
It was a matter of things being disorganized. The roads were appropriate for a national championship, but they made other mistakes. On the main street, 7 or 8 kilometers were a double roadway with a median in between. Any organizer who knows about cycling, would know that that’s an opportunity to close just one half of the road, and leave the other half free to traffic, which is important because that’s the primary road that goes from Cartagena to Barranquilla, two big cities. So that’s very important. But instead, they close the whole road down, plus other parts of it that were only two lanes. So no one could get by. It was absolute chaos, because trucks needed to get by [the road is the primary way that trucks access one of the country’s biggest ports], and apparently no one had informed them that the race was even going to happen on that day.
And then scheduling became a problem as well?
Yes, for the time trial, they delayed the start by a half hour. So they told all the riders that their start times would be pushed back by half an hour. Some weren’t even at the start area yet, they were in their hotels, and they were told to stay there since everything had been pushed back. Suddenly, without reason, it was decided that things would not be delayed, and that such-and-such rider was going to start in thirty seconds. So many riders missed their start altogether, and others had to cut down their warm up time to something crazy like ten minutes.
Now as Colombian champion, you will ideally be at the Giro. But the process of getting there has been problematic for you. As with many other Colombian riders in the past, getting visas can be very tough. Sergio Henao, Betancur, Uran, many riders have missed races, training camps and time with their team before because they are not given visas. What’s that status with your visa to Ireland for the Giro?
Normally, the trouble for Colombian riders has been getting a Schengen visa [which gives access to almost all European countries]. But my issue is with the UK, that’s a separate visa. And since the Giro starts there, I need it. The embassy told us we had to file for a sporting visa, but it turns out that it should have been filed as a visa intended for passing through the country on the way to Italy. So it was denied. That seems to be the problem, or at least that's what we're told.
[the saga of why the visas have not gone through continues. It's unclear why some riders were turned down, while others weren't. Sadly, this is in keeping with issues faced by riders in the past. Betancur had to miss races last year because of this. But the fact that this is for the Giro, has brought the issue to the forefront.]
Ah, but in the past, this has been a real problem for Colombian riders in general. The visas are denied, or delayed with no reasons being given, something that riders from most other countries don’t have to experience to simply get into Western Europe.
This brings up an interesting point that several people have made, that professional athletes should have some kind of provisions made for them when it comes to visas, perhaps some kind of diplomatic status
I think that would be the right thing to do, because so much time and effort is wasted on doing all this visa stuff. When you’re Colombian, it’s just a constant, ongoing struggle. It’s very difficult for us to travel, and get into different countries to race. We need all the help we can get.