The birth of the Escarabajo
January 24, 1957. Crowds lined the road along Colombia's mythical Alto de Minas climb. They wanted to see the Doble a Pintada race go by, in order to catch a glimpse of their local hero, Ramon Hoyos. But they also wanted to see the visiting dignitary, Fausto Coppi. What they got, was something altogether unexpected. They didn't get to see the smooth pedaling style, of the fashionable Coppi they'd heard and read about in magazines. Instead, they saw a Coppi that looked to be near death, beaten by his opponents and the severity of the terrain. According to one spectator in Matt Rendell's book Kings of the Mountains, "he wobbled violently and collapsed onto a ditch. His face was green, his lips yellow. His eyes rolled back completely."
Coppi made it to the finish line that day, but did so in the back of a car, as Ramon Hoyos won the day. The importance of his victory is hard to describe in the context of modern sport, except to say that it led to Gabriel Garcia Marquez writing Hoyos' life story (as a multi-part series) for the newspaper El Espectador.
Over the years, Hoyos became a national hero, and was treated as such. He was Colombia's first cycling superstar, going on to win the Vuelta a Colombia five times, winning 12 stages in one edition, still a record. It was Hoyos to whom the nickname "Escarabajo" (beetle) was first given, one now used for all Colombian riders, climbers in particular. He's the starting point of Colombian cycling.
At 82 years old, Hoyos lives in a beautifully appointed retirement facility in the southern end of Medellin, mere minutes from his two sons and their families. I wait for a few minutes, and he comes out of his room aided by two nurses. The two legs that propelled him to both victory and fame, now fail him, a fact that seems to bother him. But his determination and fiery personality are still very much in place. As we sit in a sunny courtyard, the conversation is mostly one sided. I ask about Coppi, and the climb to Minas. He remembers, adding that he went on to train with Coppi in Italy, and remembers eating grapes on the side of the road with him, which they plucked from a farm that belonged to the Italian. His voice and interest fade away, as Hoyos looks out into a wooded area beyond the courtyard.
He speaks only sparingly now which—I suddenly remember—is not that different from when I visited him at his house four years ago, before his health and mind began to fail him.
Cold silence is accompanied by a stare, which is broken suddenly by a short burst of information. The date, city and name of the person who gave him the bike that he beat Coppi with that day. He recites a poem in Italian, which he learned by heart during his time training in Europe. Then he stares defiantly again. We sit together, and we talk a bit, but only when he seems to be in the mood for it. Still, time passes quickly in his presence.
On my way out, two doctors stop Hoyos' son to give him an update on his father's health. He's doing well they say, though time has clearly caught up with him. It's his behavior that worries them most. "He's no longer the king he once was...the great cyclist. We're trying to remind him that he's just a person now, and he doesn't have to be so stubborn, so intense."
Apparently, age and illness have not been able to tame his spirit. He remains as he always was. I look back, and he's still sitting in the courtyard, his head cocked to the side, his chin up seemingly in defiance. It's as though he's posing for a portrait that no one is painting. The great escarabajo is still there. Strong, stubborn and most of all, proud.