An embedded cultural mainstay

A couple of days ago, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, for a couple of articles that the newspaper is doing about Colombian cycling. During our conversation, the topic of Colombia's lengthy and passionate relationship with the sport came up. In particular how the sport has become an embedded cultural mainstay for so many (something I also spoke about with Corey Shouse Torino Ph.D.).

Celeres Cycling Club, Tumaco, Colombia

The conversation made me think of the image above, which shows the Celeres Cycling Club in the southwestern coastal town of Tumaco. To be honest with you, I can't really begin to date this photo, though someone with knowledge about hand-colored photography, or bikes from this era might be able to. At any rate, the photo is credited to "Escruceria Hermanos, Tumaco", a reference to the company by that name, which operated as customs brokers in Tumaco (on account of it being a port town) as far back as 1922, when they are referenced in the book Commercial Traveler's Guide to Colombia. However old this image is, likely before 1922 (look at me guessing after I said I didn't know how to date the image) cycling was already a part of the Colombian mindset, even in a remote coastal town like Tumaco. Matters would only escalate over the years, as the nation became mad for the sport once the Vuelta a Colombia began. Perhaps this history pales in comparison to that of European nations, but for a Latin American country, this is certainly noteworthy.

From this picture, to the accounts published in El Espectador by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the early 1950s, as the Vuelta a Colombia captured the imagination of a nation, it's easy to explain the sheer number of talented professionals from Colombia who are riding in Europe today. Conversely, the depth of the country's history with the sport makes certain events that much sadder. For example, the fact that this year, Colombia will not be fielding a team at the Tour de l'Avenir, easily the most prestigious U23 race in the world. l'Avenir has great significance for Colombian cycling, since it launched it onto the world stage when Alfonso Florez won the overall in 1980. Martin Ramirez went on to do the same in 1985, while riding his trusty Duarte bike. Nairo Quintana, and Esteban Chaves both won the race as well in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Julian Chamorro was second the year after. Through it all, the Tour de l'Avenir has served as a springboard for Colombian talent, which would otherwise not be noticed by European teams, and thus has a near-talismanic aura around it for Colombian riders and fans. And rightly so. 

Florez (raised hands on the right hand side) rolls through the finish of the last stage at the 1980 Tour de l'Avenir. Photographer Horacio Gill Ochoa had previously told Florez that he'd be at the finish line, and that he should celebrate as he rolled across the line, whatever his position among the pack was.  (Photo: Horcio Gil Ochoa)

Today, as Colombian cycling is at its highest point, the country won't be represented at this race, because of infighting and politics. And I do mean politics, since heads of the sport are not leaders who act like politicians, but actual politicians who now work within the sport (an interview with the head of the Colombian federaion on this matter can be found here , in Spanish). Additionally, it's worth mentioning that it's also been two years since Colombia was represented at the Girobio, a U23 stage race of similar prestige, which launched the careers of Carlos Betancur, Winner Anacona and Cayetano Sarmiento in Europe. And in those last participations, it was Acqua Sapone, the Italian team, who backed Colombia's national squad. How the amount of attention, love and goodwill toward Colombian cycling that we are currently living through is being wasted is simply beyond me. 

But if Colombia's love for the sport has proven anything over the years, is that it will always outlast hardship, even if it comes at the hand of those who are supposedly tasked with caring for it. 

Front page of Colombia's biggest newspaper after Florez won the Tour d l'Avenir. "Apotheosis, Colombia achieves great glory in European roads, as it puts an end to the myth of Russian domination" (Photo via: La Cadenilla)