Front page of El Tiempo, Colombia's biggest newspaper.
When I started this blog, in September of 2009, there was a grand total of four Colombians at the top level of the sport. Mauricio Ardila, Leonardo Duque, Marlon Perez and Rigoberto Uran. The number seems so small, that I'm inclined to think I'm forgetting someone, and perhaps I am. This number excludes Felix Cardenas, Maurico Soler who were at Barloworld at the time (a pro continental team). Clearly, much has changed since then. I started the blog on a whim, in great part to reminisce about the golden age of Colombian cycling, along with the many characters, circumstances and landscapes that made and continue to make Colombian cycling unique in so many ways.
As bleak as Colombia's cycling landscape may have seemed to some at the time, those who followed the sport closely likely noticed the Colombia Es Pasion team, which already had Nairo Quintana, Sergio Henao, Esteban Chaves and Fabio Duarte in its ranks. This after Duarte had already won the U23 world championships the previous year, and Betancur had just won the Girobio, leading some to wonder if perhaps Colombian cycling was awaking from a lengthy slumber. It was a fair assessment, though it's one that men like Chepe Gonzalez, and Santiago Botero, might easily recent. Still, this idea of Colombian cycling being completely dormant after 1987 fits a tidy narrative that makes today's victories seem even more significant.
However you feel about the matter, the fact remains that the success by Colombian riders at the 2014 Giro is absolutely unprecedented within the country's history. Not just in cycling, but perhaps in all of sport. Because this seems rather clear to me, I'm going to pass on picking highlights from the race, or recounting the rider's backgrounds, which I've done earlier anyway. Instead, I'd like to look at two important sentiments that are flourishing right now among fans and insiders within Colombian cycling. These sentiments, the reasoning behind them, and their potential influence are perhaps of greater importance than the results that trigger them, as they could have a very long lasting effect. They also partially apply to cycling fans everywhere.
Photo: Cycling Inquisition
Jump on the bus
Speak with any longtime cycling fan, staffer or insider in Colombia right now, and you'll likely hear one term being repeated above all others. No, they won't be talking about victory, pride, or any such thing. Instead, they will all be hyper focused on a bus. Why a bus out of all things? That's because we Colombians have an expression for fair-weather fans and Johnny-come-latelys, who will jump on to a figurative bus, once it's convenient and popular to do so. This is not too far off from the idea of a "bandwagon" that is often spoken of in behavioral sciences among English-speakers. But the biggest difference between the bandwagon and the bus is that by getting on the bus, you often look to benefit from being seen in it. Not just by people thinking you were always a fan, or always in support, but in other more concrete ways.
Depiction of "the bus" by
. Politicians and personalities ride, as broadcasting companies and print media logos adorn the side. The image was updated as the race went on, and more people jumped in.
At times like these, in Colombia, people's primary concern about this bus, and how quickly it seems to fill up, is not that of everyday fans, or coworkers who have perhaps not expressed interest in the sport during their lifetime. If that were the case, the concept of the bus would be of little interest to me, as it would closely mirror the fair-weather fan concept that many countries throughout the world share.
You see, in Colombia, the bus is packed with notable characters, not just your next door neighbor. Politicians, business leaders, prominent broadcasters, and many others in the public eye. While the concept of politicians appropriating sporting victories is not new or unique to Colombia, the extent to which this happens, and the hypocrisy it reveals is simply too much to handle for some, in a country where sport is often supported (or ignored, hence the anger) by the government. And in a highly class-conscious society, politicians have always seen the value sport has a way of connecting with the masses. Even beyond this, there are a couple of reasons in particular why many are both filled with joy and anger at a time like this.
BMX world champion and gold medalist Mariana Pajon's image has been used (without her approval) for political campaign ads. Making matters just a tiny bit worse, her photo was reversed.
For one (and if you'll forgive the use of an aphorism which I detest) some in Colombia have skin in the game . They have enthusiastically supported the sport out of their own pocket to an extent that would be unthinkable in the context of more robust economies. These are not merely fans, but actual backers and supporters who have grown tired of dealing with politicians, sporting federations and business leaders who are fickle at best (and downright vengeful, and unsupportive at worst). They have sought interest, not even help, from the very individuals who are now claiming to have supported men like Uran and Quintana. Not only that, they will now even claim to have personally supported these athletes, to the point of taking credit for their victories. Go to Combita, Boyaca today...and I assure you that everyone there will tell you that they gave Nairo his first bike, or something along those lines.
Tweet by Colombian vice-presidential candidate (who is running with current president Santos) stating that "During the Santos administration we made it back to the world cup, we won eight medals at the olympics and today we have the 1-2 at the Giro!" Interestingly, Rigoberto Uran addressed these types of comments in a post-Giro radio interview, where he said he owed his victories not to any Colombian president, but to his European sponsors.
In all of this, it should also be mentioned that the biggest broadcasting companies in Colombia (mainstays at Europan races once upon a time) largely ignored the Giro, as only Colombian ESPN carried a daily broadcast of it. That has all changed now that Nairo has won, and many fans have grown resentful as a result. Personally, I'm of the mindset that after Colombia became highly "footbalized" leading into the 1990 world cup, sponsor and broadcasting money shifted dramatically. That remains true today, particularly with Colombia going to the world cup this year. For these broadcasters, there's little money in a sport that sometimes appears marginal by comparison (though this may be changing now, and Colombia's cycling fanbase has always been huge). I don't agree with their point of view, but since when have we expected large, sluggish corporations to act any differently? As we say in Colombia, it's like asking the elm tree to give you pears. And aside from that, this is not simply a matter of football versus cycling. If you think it is, you're missing the point.
Fans in Bogota enjoying the Giro's last stage. Photo posted by Gregg Bleakney
with this caption: "1-million cyclists in the streets of Bogota for ciclovia--ad hoc tents with TVs set up around the city to watch the #giro. The biggest cycling party I've ever seen."A video of the festivities is below.
Pears, elms and football aside, there's a second matter to discuss when it comes to the many feelings that people in Colombia are experiencing as a result of this win. If you'll forgive me for being willingly vague here (the serious nature of the subject warrants it), let's just say that lives have been put at risk, threatened, or otherwise made to be nearly unlivable in the name of a cause that others are now claiming to have taken up long ago. So this is not just a matter of your next door neighbor wearing a jersey of your favorite team because they are finally going to the Superbowl. No. This is far more serious to those involved. Particularly when they know that people who have stood in their way, threatened them, and gotten in the way of progress within the sport are not just taking credit for these victories, but actually stand to benefit (sometimes financially) from them.
All this aside, I would still urge Colombian supporters of the sport to welcome any and all new fans with open arms, and to realize the value of having new eyes and hearts engaged in the sport. For years, fans have wanted more sponsor dollars, more live broadcasts, a wider fan base. Well, this is how it happens, so make the most of it. So what if everyone wasn't born a fan, and wasn't born wearing a Cafe De Colombia or Molteni cap as they came out of their mother's womb (I know I wasn't). Please put aside your foolish pride. Yes, you were following the sport before Nairo won the Giro, or maybe before Nairo was second at the Tour, or maybe before Lucho ever made it to the Tour. Good for you, but please realize this isn't a particularly earth shattering accomplishment either. This is hard, because we Colombians cry, struggle, cheer and party due to sport in a manner that would (to be perfectly honest) frighten even die-hard sports fans in other countries. I don't say this is as a point of pride, but merely as fact. But it's good to let a little bit of that go, and to let others in on the fun.
Consider an email I received last night, from a childhood friend who now lives in Europe. He grew up watching cycling, as we all did, but then lost track of the sport, as teams like Cafe De Colombia and Postobon ended. Upon hearing the news that Quintana had won the Giro, and that many other Colombian riders had put on a bit of a show in Italy, he was drawn to the race's highlights. Yesterday, he told me in his email, he went back to watch Herrera's victory at Alpe d'Huez on YouTube. The video brought back memories of watching that race live with his father, and made him miss Colombia dearly as his eyes began to tear up. Just as they had when he watched that event live. I for one, loved reading his email, and answered him enthusiastically. I wonder how many more Colombians did something along those lines during the last week or so.
Having said that,I too am mindful of those who seek to profit from these victories, in part because those who earn them sometimes come from comparatively little. But genuine feelings in kind hearts are also being drawn to the sport. This is the day we've been waiting for. We must embrace it. ◼
In part two of this post, I will look into another common sentiment among Colombian fans now. One that is a bit more complex, and deals with class dynamics, cultural differences and (in my mind) Mies van der Rohe's architecture. Stay tuned.
Back in 2008, photographer Gregg Bleakney traveled to Colombia to shoot a feature for National Geographic Adventure magazine. During his trip, he came upon Ignacio Velez and the Colombia Es Pasion team. He would later travel back to Colombia in 2009 to do a feature on the team for Velo News, which the magazine originally cut, likely as a lack of interest on the subject. You can read Gregg's account of the article (and the final article itself) here.