Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A devotion to the sport from an early age, and ongoing difficulties obtaining visas. An interview with new Colombian national champion Miguel Angel Rubiano.

Photo: Wikipedia

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 that part of Bogota is known as being a tough place to live, let alone grow up.
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.

photo: ciclismotricolore.it

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.

photo: cronometroamarcha


Photo: WSJ
Remember, it's Colombia (with an "o"), not Columbia (with a "u"). Even the Wall Street Journal says so (thanks to Mr Bikesnob for the link)

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Two-time points race world champion Edwin Avila—5'5" (1.67m)—signs in at De Brabantse Pijl (Photo: Team Colombia)

The average height for us Colombian males is 1.70m (5' 7.2"). 1.59m (5' 2.4") for women. The average height of a European sign-in sheet is significantly higher.

PS: Doing work for Manual For Speed is fun for many reasons. One of them is the simple fact that not many people out there have ever asked me write something about the Suzuki Samurai. They did

Monday, April 14, 2014

Taking matters into their own hands. Citing lack of support from official entities, Colombian teams create their own anti-doping program. An interview with Ignacio Velez.

Doping problems in cycling (and sport at large) are nothing new. In fact, it's probably fair to say that many cycling fans, even ones who know how the sausage is made, have a certain fatigue about the topic in general. I certainly do, though I admit that I'm drawn in from time to time, particularly when I learn about the increasingly shady characters who dwell in the periphery of this issue, ones that do exactly what you'd expect from someone looking to profit from such a thing.

But when you look around the periphery, you'll also see other interesting characters, people who are willing to risk everything (and sadly, I do mean everything) to better the state of cycling.

The "Por Un Ciclismo Etico" (which roughly translates to Toward Ethical Cycling or For Ethical Cycling) initiative in Colombia is very much rooted in those beliefs, in great part because Colombia is light years behind where European cycling is today. And that's a significant statement, considering the heavy questions that still loom over top-tier cycling in Europe. So consider that in Colombia: the UCI biological passport does not exist. That out of competition testing for domestic riders does not exist. That questions have been raised (even by riders like Darwin Atapuma) about whether or not samples taken at races are ever even tested at all. That positive tests are sometimes never announced, and that doping products can be freely bought at bikes shops.

It's because of all this, that a small group within Colombian cycling decided to take matters into their own hands, after realizing that they had no support from the people who were supposed to be looking over the sport. They realized that if they didn't stand up take the steps necessary to begin cleaning up the sport, no one else would.

In this interview, one the the program's founding members, Ignacio Velez (business adviser for 4-72 Colombia, and ex-general manager of the team) speaks about this new initiative, how it works, as well as the many difficulties that Colombian cycling faces right now. Thanks to Ignacio for his time, and his commitment to this issue. 

Ignacio Velez (Photo: Manual For Speed)
How did the idea of Por Un Ciclismo Etico come about, and why do you think such a thing is necessary in Colombia right now?
We are frustrated by the lack of commitment from government entities that are responsible for leading the fight against doping. So we decided to lead the initiative ourselves. It’s important to mention that last year, finally, Coldeportes did begin doing more effective testing, after many years. However, we all know that even if Coldeportes improves its in competition testing, riders that cheat know how to play the system when it comes to doping. So to this end, out of competition testing and a Bio-Passport type of program are far more effective. This is why we developed this program.

At any rate, we do have good support from Dr. Orlando Reyes, Director of Anti-Doping program at Coldeportes, and will be working very closely with him.

Por Un Ciclismo Etico launch (photo: El Colombiano)

How is this initiative structured, and how did it get off the ground?
This is a comprehensive program that Dr. Luis E. Contreras from Indeportes Antioquia, Luisa Fernanda Rios—4-72 Colombia's general manager—and myself, developed over several weeks to assure that we confront doping and other shady practices in professional cycling in Colombia in an effective and open manner.

We have steering committee composed of a representative of each team that adheres to the code, one journalist and two representatives from the private sector. This committee establishes the rules and verifies that teams adhere to them, and govern the program.

We also have a Medical and Scientific committee that is fully responsible for carrying out tests and analysis on the collected samples. We have Dr. Mike Pochowitz as a consultant to this committee in order to adopt the most recent scientific advances in Bio Passport methods and statistics. This committee is fully independent and autonomous of the steering committee.

If there is a suspicious reading on any rider, the Medical Committee will inform the WADA director in Colombia, Dr. Orlando Reyes, about the suspicious findings; and also request the team to get this rider out of competition. If the team does take the rider out of competition, the committee should notify the steering committee of the violation of the rules.

Vuelta a Mexico 2014 (Photo: 4-72 Colombia)

What is your role within Por Un Ciclismo Etico?
I’ve played different roles so far. I participated on the design of the system along Dr. Contreras and Mrs. Rios. I have attended few key meeting of the steering committee. I also contacted Dr. Pochowitz and hired him as consultant, and finally, I am trying to get some key teams to adhere to the code.

4-72—Colombia has had an internal testing program for six years. The team has been very vocal about the topic of doping in Colombian cycling, almost to the team's detriment. The team has a passport program that looks at blood values on an ongoing basis. Is this the type of testing that the program will entail? Will riders be tested out of competition?

Yes, the program is very similar, however I feel that in the new program the statistical part will be more advanced, as we have access to one of the leading experts on the field, Dr Pochowitz [Universidad de Antioquia, sports medicine]. As I mentioned before, the Medical committee can test whenever they decide. In fact, two weeks ago they requested the first samples from the three teams that initiated the program.

4-72 Colombia (Photo: Wikipedia)

What will be the cost of the testing to each team, and who will administer the tests?
Each team pays for its exams, which will be taken by either of two independent private laboratories (Colsanitas and Laboratorio Hematologico).The cost of the test depends on how many parameters the Medical Committee requests. We have estimated to cost of each team to be in the range of  $25,000 to $35,000 US dollars per year [if I may interject here, it's worth pointing out that this number is huge for many teams, and certainly for Colombian teams, when you consider that many "top tier teams" there can often be seen using mismatched bikes, helmets and sharing wheels at time trials].
Are the people who administer the tests and manage the results given full autonomy? In other words, if they spot a positive, or see clear deviations in blood values, are they allowed to report them directly to the press, everyone involved in the program, or is the information only released to that team?
The people that administer the tests are private independent labs, however, they report their tests results to the Scientific Committee which has full autonomy on their findings. The Committee has a confidentiality agreement so that they only report to the WADA chief in Colombia and to the team in question. Only if the team fails to honor the code, does the scientific committee inform the whole verifying committee, where there’s one journalist.

The UCI's blood passport program does not reach into South America. If it ever does, would you feel the need to continue this program, knowing that riders have spoken about ways to work around the UCI's testing (micro dosing, diluting blood, drinking water etc)?
It’s a difficult situation to anticipate. I feel that until we see a good commitment to fight doping by effective and transparent methods, by Coldeportes, Colombian Cycling Federation and even the UCI, we will keep this program in place.

Is the testing you will perform any different from that which rider in European teams undergo for the bio passport?
I am not an expert on the field, so I don’t have an exact and informed answer. What is clear is that we are doing the best to adopt leading edge knowledge into our program.

The EPM-Une team (photo: EPM Une)

Do you foresee other teams in Colombia or maybe even South America joining in? Have others expressed interest?
We have received some interests from some teams outside Colombia, but nothing formal yet. In Colombia we received formal requests from EPM-Une and Coldeportes-Claro, and informal requests by the Formesan team.

In the last steering committee meeting, we approved the requests of EPM-Une and Coldeportes Claro, but their riders have not been tested yet. The case with Formesan-IDRD is very interesting. Mr. Luis A. Cely, the team’s director sportif, has been doing all he can to have his team adhere to the program. Despite the fact that one of the team’s sponsors, is the Institute of Recreation and Sports of Bogota (IDRD), and its consultant is a cycling journalist, he has not been able to get the “go ahead” from the team.

Team Formesan, at the Vuelta a Tolima (Photo: Formesan)

The principles set forth by “Por Un Ciclismo Etico” are interesting, in that they include statements that are larger in scope than just cycling, or even doping. For example, "There should be no violence, be it physical, mental or sexual." How were these 7 points chosen, and why was that one in particular chosen? Has there been an issue with this in the past?
We want the program to go beyond doping, we want to establish a different culture in Colombian cycling, in the sense that athletes should be respected as persons, and that they live to defend these ethical values, and clean cycling should respected. Unfortunately there has been a lot of intimidation, and the lives of people who want clean cycling in Colombia have been threatened.

What is the role of Colombia's cycling federation in this program? Will they be reviewing the data, or are they sponsoring this initiative?
The federation plays no role in the program, but they should. They have neither opposed, nor supported the program, except for the presence of the president of the CCF at the official launch of the program.

One rider from Orgullo Antioqueño was already flagged and fired from the team, I believe, as a result of these blood tests. How did this happen, and how was it handled?
I don’t know the details, except that Mr. Carlos Ospina, former National Champion, was let go from the Orgullo Antiqueno team for issues with an internal testing they did before joining the program [Ospina claims he himself resigned from the team, due to questions he had about a medication he was taking for his knee, and that he was not fired].

Carlos Ospina (Photo: Asancir)

With reports of doping products being sold in Colombian bike shops, along with several positives over the last year, and accusations of Colombian riders selling doping products in international races [Costa Rica in particular], many questions loom over the country's cycling establishment. To that degree, what can you say to fans that see that Team GW are now part of this initiative [the team had positives with Millan and Marlon Perez], along with Santiago Botero who manages the Orgullo Antioqueño team [Botero was video taped in the offices of Dr Merino Batres with Eufemiano Fuentes, clearing the way for investigators to know what code name he used with Fuentes, and thus find his blood bags and doping schedule]. Why should fans of the sport believe that this partnership is really intended to deliver a believable, and ethical form of cycling? Is this part of the struggle you face?
The case of GW is special in the sense that it was a team with highest number of doping cases, and with a very bad reputation internationally. Their owners, the Aristizabal family, are examples of the best people Colombia has: they dedicate a large portion of their company profits to non-profit organizations, in fact they are one of the key supporters of “A la escuela en Bicicleta” a beautiful program that donates thousands of bikes to needy kids in rural Colombia who are not able to make it to school without the program's help. When they realized what was happening on their team, they demanded radical changes, and called us for help. You can see now based on their results that things have changed. Thing are now so good in the team. In this respect that new director, Oscar de J Vargas is working closely with us. Now, and as I mentioned before, Mr. Luis A Cely, former GW Team director, has also heard the message, and wants to join our program. I feel that Mr Cely’s intentions are honest, and that having people like him joining us is very critical, and give us a lot of credibility and support.

As for Santiago Botero, he is part of a Government Entity: Indeportes Antioquia that reports to our current Governor: Mr. Sergio Fajardo, whose campaign is based on values and education. Mr. Mauricio Mosquera, Chief of Indeportes Antioquia has been totally committed to the program as well. So Santiago is just part of an entity that is totally committed to clean cycling.

I know that this fight is very difficult, and that it will take time. As you can imagine, we won’t be able to solve the problem by ourselves, but at least we are providing a more level field to young riders; which in the end would open their doors for better futures on their careers.

What more can be done?
Until government entities like Coldeportes and the Colombian Cycling Federation place more importance on the fight against doping, we will have to resort to programs like Por Un Ciclismo Etico. The only long term solution to the problem is to educate our coaches, not only to make them better sporting coaches, but more also make them true leaders, especially when it comes to the ethical meaning of that word.  In our team we claim: “We first grow and educate good people, and then we form good athletes”. We stand by that.


Photo: Team Colombia/Northwave
A couple of lighter notes:

Team Colombia's Miguel Angel Rubiano became the country's new national champion, meaning that the Colombian champion's jersey will be worn at the Giro d' Italia and other sizable European races for the first time ever. You can vote on the design of his jersey here.

When speaking with friends in the United States, I often reference just how much of Colombia remains largely undiscovered to many of its citizens. The harsh terrain accounts for some of that, but there are also large portions of the country that are simply not safe to access for any number of reasons. Within those areas are countless hidden secrets. The videos below, sent to me by David, a reader of the blog, highlight just two such places. A beautiful cave, hidden away in land previously used for growing coca leaf that takes almost four hours to walk to, and a colorful river system that was also off limits to tourists not long ago. These places serve as reminders that, as is often case in Colombia, the struggle necessary to achieve something, or to arrive somewhere, seems to always pay off in the end.

Justification for Wanderlust: Gabo's Story from Where?Next on Vimeo.

Colombia's Lost River of Seven Colors: Fredy's Story from Where?Next on Vimeo.

You can read more about El Cocuy national park (mentioned in the first video) in this New York times article. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Quotidian hustling habits, and adult orthodontia

Photo: Manual For Speed

Much like Rick Ross (the over sized hip hop star who tries not to talk about his past as a prison guard, not to be confused with Rick Rozz, the death metal musician), I often find myself hustling on a day-to-day basis. As of right now, that means working with Manual For Speed on their daily coverage of the Tour of the Basque Country. Mind you, I do so from the relative comfort of my secret suburban lair, so pay no mind to the tiny Colombian man, who just got his adult braces off, and is hiding behind the curtain. Simply enjoy the coverage, which you can (and should) check out here.

Oh, and speaking of the removal of adult braces, did any of you notice that Esteban Chaves (who I interviewed just last week for your reading pleasure) got his braces off too? Great minds think alike. Or at least the minds of the orthodontists who care for other great minds seem to.

Photo: Manual For Speed
Photo: Manual For Speed
Photo: Manual For Speed

In closing, and in keeping with my "hustling on a quotidian basis" narrative motif, I'd like to remind you for the last time that today is the last day that you can place an order for your very own Cycling Inquisition jersey. See details here

Thursday, April 3, 2014

An unlikely love for Flanders, and the death of Rigoberto's father

First, a quick reminder that I'm taking pre-orders for black Cycling Inquisition jerseys. All orders must be in by April 10. More details here.

Photo courtesy of Giovanni Jimenez
As the Tour of Flanders approaches, and I see that Dayer Quintana will be at the race, I can't help but think of Giovanni Jimenez. He was the first Colombian to ever turn professional, and he lived for these type of races. Unlike your average Colombian climber, Jimenez excelled in the cobbles, the cold rain, and the short but steep pitches found throughout Flanders. In 1973, when only 37 riders finished the Tour of Flanders (out of 174 starters), Giovanni was there, the only rider in the bunch who was not European. He finished 32nd. To this day, his love for Flanders runs so deep, that he's still there. He lives just outside of Brussels, with his wife, and continues to ride on the very roads where races like the Tour of Flanders take place.

I wrote about his life story for Cycle Sport magazine, and you can now read the article here.

Photo: Cyclingnews
When I interviewed Rigoberto Uran a while back, I tried my best to ask him about a very delicate subject, the assassination of his father back in 2001. Rigoberto was, of course, short on details, and despite wanting know more, I knew to back off during our conversation. In an interview with El Tiempo (which I was alerted of by Matt Rendell), Rigoberto gives details about his fathers passing, perhaps for the first time. It's an awful story, but one I share with you because it gives greater context to Rigoberto's life, his past, and the harsh reality that helped shape him.

How did the death of your father Rigoberto come about?
Urrao was a town that was really hit very hard by violent armed groups. Paramilitaries, guerrillas...the works. We lived through a war in which many innocent people were killed, hard working people. One of those individuals was my dad, who died in August of 2001. One morning he went out to train on his bike, and they had set up an illegal road block. That's where he was taken, and he was later assassinated. 

What happened?
We've been told that he was one of three people that were killed. These paramilitaries took three people from the traffic stop on the road, and forced them to help steal some livestock from a large farm, and afterward, they were killed.

And that's the conclusion, based on what you know of the events?
Yes, because my father didn't have any problems with anyone in Urrao. He was a kind person that everyone knew. He owed nothing to no one, he just worked. So that's the information we got from the people in that area. 

And that's how you became the head of the household, the father figure of your family?
Yes, and it was very hard because I was so attached and devoted to my father. I kept working, doing his job, which was selling lottery tickets on the street. I did that because it was effective work, and I did that until 2002.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Patience, an emotional recovery, and the beauty of second chances. An interview with Orica-Green Edge's Esteban Chaves.

Photo: Orica- Green Edge

My conversation with Esteban Chaves starts with a bit of small talk. I ask about his family, and the cycling academy that bears his name. But we end up talking about the weather. I mention how terrible the winter has been here, with insanely low temperatures and endless snow and ice. Esteban pauses for a bit, and in a calm voice tells me, "these things pass, it's always a matter of having patience, and waiting for the spring to come, because it's just around the corner." 

His serious but calm demeanor is beyond that of idle chit chat. I quickly realize that if this last year has taught Esteban one thing, it's to be patient. His crash at the Trofeo Laigueglia in February of last year left him with a broken collarbone, head trauma, a fractured jaw, broken inner ear bones, a torn quadriceps, and then came the most serious injury: severe nerve damage, which led to him being away from racing for a full year. He also faced the likelihood of never racing or even riding a bike again. 

Now with Orica-Green Edge after a successful and somewhat unexpected recovery, Esteban has started the season well, but knows that his recovery will take time, both mentally and physically. I spoke with Chavito—as his friends and family know him—about his year away from racing, the ups and downs he went through during that time, and his come back. Through the course of our conversation we touched on his family, playing Xbox, his emotional reaction to the Tour of Langkawi's queen stage, and why the doctors cut him up "like a plantain".

Thanks to Esteban for his time and patience with me.

I know you've probably told the story a million times, but can you give me an idea of how your injuries happened, and what you remember of the whole ordeal?
The accident was in Italy  on the 16 or 17th of February, I honestly don’t even remember at this point. After the accident, I spent four days in the hospital, of which I only remember one. Furthermore, my crash happened at the 130th kilometer of the race, but I only remember 100 kilometers of the race, so 30 kilometers are missing. So from 100 kilometers into the race, my memory jumps ahead almost four days later. I don’t remember the accident itself at all.

And perhaps that’s for the best, don’t you think?
I do, I really do. What’s more, I hope that memory never, ever comes back. I hope it stays gone forever.

You come from a tight-knit, Bogotano kind of family. At what point where you able to speak with your parents, and let them know how you were?
When I became conscious in the hospital, Oscar Pelicolli the director from Team Colombia was there with me. He explained what had happened, and was very kind to me. Right I away, I said, “I have to talk to my family, I have to speak with my parents to let them know how I’m doing.”

He looked at me a little funny when I said that, but handed me his cell phone so I could call my parents. I talked my dad, explained that I was in the hospital, that I had broken my collarbone, but that I’d be fine in the long run. I gave my dad all the details I had been told about my accident and my situation, and he listened intently, and went along with the conversation. But it turned out that this was maybe the fourth of fifth time that I had spoken with him already, and I’d told him the same thing that many times!

Esteban's Father (Photo: Manual For Speed)

My god, to be honest with you, it’s funny now. But at the same time, I can’t imagine the reality of being a father, and then getting the fifth long distance call from your son, who is obviously injured to the point that he's lost his memory, and doesn’t realize he’s told you the same thing five times already.
Absolutely, I think back now, and it seems funny as hell. But wow, I can’t imagine my father picking up the phone once again, and having me tell him the exact same story for the third, fourth or fifth time. It’s just crazy.

When you were released from the hospital in Italy, how do you eventually make it back to Colombia, and under what circumstances does that all happen?
I was released from the hospital, and then spent several days in the home of Alessandro and Angelica, a couple in Italy who more or less adopted all the riders from Team Colombia. She’s from Colombia, and married an Italian, and they live in the same town as all the guys from Team Colombia. She befriended some of us, after she saw us out training in our kit, and wanted to talk to us right away. After that, they would pick us up in the airport, do favors for us, and help us out.

So I spent days in their home after being released from the hospital, with them caring for me. Because of the brain trauma, and the fracture in my inner ear, I would get dizzy quickly and loose my balance. So they had me in their home, they let me sleep in their bed, while they stayed on the couch, and they fed me, helped bathe me, and change my clothes. It was really a beautiful thing they did for me, because I couldn’t fend for myself at all due to the injuries. Once the swelling in my brain went down, I had surgery on my collarbone, and that’s when I eventually made it back to Colombia.

Photo: Velonews

And that’s when things really took a turn.
At first, things seemed fine. I went to see Dr. Castro in Bogota. He said things were looking good, that I had to wait for the collarbone to fuse, but as he asked me to move my arm in different directions, I showed him how I couldn’t really raise my right arm too well. He put his finger behind my arm, working his way toward my elbow and asked if I could feel his finger. I told him "no". His facial expression changed. He was concerned, and he told me, “Damn, I think you have torn nerves, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s do an EMG and see how it looks.”

Sure enough, the EMG showed damage to the nerves. Complete tear in the auxiliary nerve, partial tear in the suprascapular nerve.

And did you know the gravity of the situation and the injury?

No, of course not. You hear that, and your own ignorance keeps you from realizing the severity of the diagnosis. But when I talked to Dr. Castro, everything changed. He’s an amazing guy, insanely funny, always joking around, but when he saw the images, he became really serious. He explained the injury to me, and told me that honestly, there was a possibility that I might never fully recover from it. That it might never heal. That I could be done for. That’s when you go home, and you Google the injury, and you read up, and you find out about these horrible scenarios, and you drive yourself insane reading all this information, and looking at these images.

But the doctor told me to take is slow, to try physical therapy, to see if things could improve. He really urged me to stay positive, and work at it, taking my time, and to relax. He kept telling me to not stop smiling, and I really tried to stick to that.

Photo: Wikipedia

And did the nerve damage improve with therapy?
I thought so at first. I was doing 6 to 8 hours of therapy every day, and movement was improving. After 8 weeks, we did another EMG, and it looked exactly the same. No change at all. The news hit me so hard, it was just horrible. I was crushed, because now I knew what it meant. I knew of all the cases of people who never recovered, and I felt it was all over for me as a cyclist. It was over. Around those days, I tried to ride my bike, and even going over a small speed bump was impossible. I didn’t have the strength to keep the handlebars straight; it would throw me off the bike. I couldn’t stand up on the pedals either.

I went to Italy for a second opinion, but the results were the same. The only difference, and perhaps this is indicative of how different we Colombians are from Europeans, is that the Italian doctors were more laid back. They thought this could wait, maybe another two months or so. But my doctors in Colombia thought it was imperative that they operate quickly, and that time was of the essence.

And that’s the way you decided to go.

Right. We all talked it over, and it was decided to go to Colombia, and have the surgery on May 30th. So that was three months after the accident. It was a 9-hour surgery, and as the doctor said, they opened me up like a damn plantain! [The doctor’s reference is beautifully Colombian, and was made due to the radical and almost violent way that you open up a green plantain before frying it to make patacones, in particular because of how tough yet brittle the skin can be ].

So they opened me up, and went very, very deep because the nerves are about as thick as a human hair, and deep in your body.

Photo: Colombia Es Pasion

Oh god, now I’m getting grossed out thinking of you being opened up like a damned plantain, and them looking for these tiny nerves that look like human hairs. It's just awful.
(Laughs) Right, and even just cutting into the muscle, to find one just one nerve is tough. But finding four ends of the nerves, to tie them back up is just absurd. One was easy, the other one in my back was badly damaged. Think of it like a wire, if it’s pulled and it brakes, it becomes frayed. 

Oh, now I’m picturing a frayed brake cable on my bike. Which is worse.
Yes! Exactly! So they had to cut off the bad, frayed parts, and connect them to the good end. But because of the damage, they were 3 centimeters short. So they had to go into my foot, open it up, and take out a part of a nerve there, to make the ends meet. It was a purely Colombian way of doing things, not giving up, and making due with what they could. The surgeon, Dr. Sandoval, knows me, knows my family, and never thought for a second of closing me up and being done with the ordeal. He knows I’m a professional cyclist, and without putting much thought into the matter, went into my foot. I’m sure the Italian surgeons were very professional, and very good, but I was happy that I was in Colombian with a doctor I knew. Thank god, everything worked out.

Esteban's family (Photo: Manual For Speed)

So you come out of surgery, and you start recovering, as your team is at the Giro d’Italia. It must have been heartbreaking for you, to think you were going to do a grand tour, to have your team be invited, and instead you’re at home, not knowing if you’ll ever really get back on the bike.
It was awful. Crushing. It was really hard. I watched most stages, and during many of them, I was just dejected. Just sad, because riding a grand tour was a huge dream for me, and all that needed to happen was for time to pass. The team was chosen, I had a slot in the Giro squad, all that needed to happen was for the days to pass. And instead, I’m in bed, in Bogota, not knowing if I’ll ever race again. So I was watching my friends, my teammates, racing the Giro, and I was happy for them, and that they were doing well, but it was so insanely hard for me as well.

A very young Esteban with his parents (Photo: El Espectador)

Even beyond the Giro, what was your recovery like mentally? Being home, not riding your bike and not training for the first time in many years?
It was hard, yes. But at the same time, it was like…if you’ll forgive the profanity, “fuck, let’s get up, let’s get to work, and let’s get beyond this whole thing.” So, even though it was hard, I always tried to stay positive. Of course, I did need the support of my family, because there were days when I didn’t want to get up, and didn’t see things so clearly. They helped cheer me up, and distract me. Same with my girlfriend, Nata, who really was instrumental in the process, along with my brother, who would help keep me busy, even if it was just a matter of playing Xbox, to keep me upbeat.

What’s your game of choice on the Xbox?

We always play football, the FIFA game, and we bet each other whenever we play.

In that game, you can play with Colombian teams. Being that you’re from Bogota, do you play with Millonarios, Santa Fe, or La Equidad?
(Laughs) No no, I play with Chelsea or sometimes Real Madrid.

What? What kind of Bogotano are you? You have to support your local team! Millonarios! You have to play with Millonarios!
No way! We don’t want to play with those Colombian teams, they are so slow in the game when you compare them to Chelsea or Real Madrid. They just play and run so slow…they’re awful.

So, it’s actually a realistic game then!
(Laughs) Yes! Yes! It’s just like in real life! (laughs)

But were you a Santa Fe or Millonarios supporter growing up in Bogota? The city was always split down the middle, though now there are more teams.
Nah, I never liked football. In fact, I still don’t, aside from playing on the Xbox with my brother. I mean, I played briefly with my cousin as a kid, but it drove me crazy. I always wanted to swim, to run track and then cycling, because my dad was always so into cycling. So at 13, I found cycling, and ever since then, that’s been my life.

Photo: Cycling News

Because cycling has been your life since you were 13, and you’ve been so devoted to it, was it hard to adapt to the relative banality of  “civilian”  life during your recovery? I mean, it’s not that life away from the bike is so new to you, but such a long break must have been odd. You have been so focused on just one thing for much of your life, that time away must have seemed very different.
It did, in part because, in my mind, I was still thinking about racing again. So I had a foot on each side of that divide, and not training, was very strange. For example, on a Sunday in Bogota, the sun would be shinning beautifully, it would be 10am, and I’d be in bed, unable to ride or go out. That’s unthinkable to me, it’s so foreign! But in the long run, you start to value riding your bike so much afterwards, because you remember that feeling, how hollow and empty you can feel on a day like that.

Photo: Dr. Gustavo Castro

And when are you able to finally ride a bike again?
As part of physical therapy at first, I was on a spinning bike, or on a trainer at first. But I finally rode my bike for real five weeks after the surgery. I could tell the difference right away.

And what was that first ride like?
It was 40 minutes, but I honestly came home very tired, like I had been out 7 hours or more. I was exhausted, but at the same time I was the happiest I had been in such a long time. I was like a kid opening up Christmas presents, just beside myself.

Vuelta a Burgos

And from that epic 40-minute ride, and realizing that you can in fact use your arm once again, how do you arrive at signing a contract with Orica-Green Edge, and getting back into the pro ranks?

It was mid-year. My first contact with them was through Neil Stephens, who had seen me race at the Tour de l’Avenir when I won there, since he was directing the Australian team back then. He had also seen me race later on, at the Vuelta a Burgos, where I won the queen stage with Team Colombia. He was aware that I didn’t have a contract for 2014, so he reached out to me after getting my number from Rigoberto Uran. I told him my situation, about the surgery, that I hadn’t been racing at all, but he put me at ease right away. He knew I needed time, and didn’t hesitate to tell me that if I needed anything in terms of therapy, money, or travel for anything, to simply ask because the team would be there for me. They did want to see me on the bike though, right before the world championships. So I traveled to Girona, they saw me on the bike, and right away they said, “Man, done deal. We’re signing you right away.”

Neil Stephens during his time as a professional

Did it go as far as checking your wattage, VO2 max or anything like that, considering that you’d been off the bike for so long?
No, they wanted to just see me on the bike, to make sure I was doing okay. I had been sending them my medical information, all the stuff about the surgery. They just wanted to know that I could ride a bike again, and they felt that my form would come back with time. And that, by the way, still holds true. I’m still having to come around after a year away from racing.

Photo: Vanguardia.com

How was this all handled with Team Colombia?
Claudio Corti was clear with me, about the fact that I’d always have a home there, and he’d never close the door on me coming back if I wanted to, but he wanted the best for me. I was very clear with him about the offer from Orica, and it all went very well.

From the time you were 13, you’ve only raced with Colombians as teammates. Then, you became a professional, and went to Europe, but you did so with a Colombian team. A team that, having been around them at the Giro, is thoroughly Colombian in every way, despite the fact that the staff is Italian. So now, you’re with Orica-Green Edge, an Australian team. Have you noticed the cultural shift? How has that change been for you?
The structure and organization of both teams is the same, so that’s no different. But culturally, yes there’s a difference. I’ve always been in Colombian teams, and most of my teammates have been the same guys around me since I was 18 or 19 years old in Colombia Es Pasion. So I changed teams, went to Europe, but I was still around the same group of guys. So to change teams, and come into an environment where everyone has their friends already, they have their roommates, and on top of that you don’t speak English…it’s hard, for sure. But see, Australians are extremely friendly. They have been very kind to me, and have been very welcoming. They teach me words, they help me, and explain things to me. I’ve found really kind people in this team who help me all the time.

Esteban meeting Colombian president Santos after winning the Tour de l'Avenir (Photo: El Tiempo)

Who has been your roommate?
In the first training camp, my roommate was Sam Bewley. He was also at the Tour of Langkawi, and he lives in Girona as well. At that race, my roommate was Brett Lancaster, and he speaks Italian because he raced with Italian teams, so we were able to talk, and he was my roommate again for the Volta a Catalunya.

Realistically, keeping in mind that you’re coming back into racing, what do you think your year will look like, and what are your goals?
I started talking to the directors here in the team last year, and we’re going about this year in a slow and methodical way. First order of business is to once again be comfortable at races, to feel good riding in the peloton. To feel good in descents. If it starts to rain, to not feel stressed out or worried.

Then another big goal is doing the Vuelta a España. If I do well, by which I mean finishing up in the top 20 or something, then that’s good. But if I’m able to finish 80th or something, that’s okay too. I have to give things time to come along, and it would be my first grand tour as well. So this year will help us figure out what kind of training I need to do, where my body and my form really are. That’s the priority. So we’re doing the Vuelta to see where I stand. But this is a long-term plan in a way. I have to be calm, and take my time.

And yet, in Langkawi, you did very well in the queen stage. You were fourth, which was just amazing.
It was, it felt great! But at the same time, it doesn’t mean I’m ready to go do the Tour de France. Recovery is slow, so we keep working at it.

Your first race back was Mallorca. How did you feel mentally, and how were your legs?
That race was tough, because I was very afraid to be riding in the peloton. It was very scary. We had strong winds in one stage, then bad rain, so it was tough. But after that, I went to Malasya for the Tour of Langkawi. That race is different. Roads were wider, there was no side wind, so I felt better.

Photo: Team Colombia
And how was that? How did that race go, and how did the queen stage unfold? Were you actively trying to test your legs that day?
Our plan that day was to work for Pieter Weening. So I went in the break, thinking we’d be caught and I could help Pieter. But the break was too big, and we stayed away. I was in there with Brett Lancaster, who really took care of me, and put me at ease. We started to climb, and riders start to drop off one by one. I didn’t even realize it, until I looked around with 5k to go, and there were only eight of us left. I couldn’t believe it! But I felt good, in part because when you’re in the midst of that effort, you don’t analyze how everything feels all that much. Because once I crossed the line, I was just destroyed. I had horrible cramps, and I was just dead.

Tour of Langkawi, Stage 4 highlights

What about mentally? How did it feel to be back racing, and to do that well in a stage with a mountain top finish?
Well, I finished that stage and went to a little mini-bus that the team had, so I could change. I got there, and it suddenly hit me. I started to cry, I just broke down. I lost it. It was a year’s worth of emotions coming out of me. I thought back to where I had been a year before, and where I was at that moment. Back racing, doing so well in a climb, it felt huge. It was very emotional. So I sat there, changing out of my kit, crying.

You did an interview after that stage, where you mentioned wanting to do well for the team, as a thank you for them taking a chance on you during a tough time.

Yes. Very few teams would give a contract to a guy like me, a guy who may not be able to really be a professional cyclist again, someone whose future is unknown. They trusted me, and they had the guts to take me on. So I have to thank them, and of course I have to thank my family, my girlfriend, Team Colombia, Coldeportes, everyone. For me, this second chance I’ve been given allows me the opportunity to just thank everyone for their help.

As part of changing teams, you’ve moved to Girona, and away from Italy where all your old teammates are. That’s another big change, and one that I know Darwin Atapuma didn’t want to take on when he signed on with BMC. He’s still living with all the Team Colombia guys. How do you feel in Girona?
You know, Australian riders really like Girona. They like it because it’s great for training, and as a result, the team has a small facility here with a car, with bikes, and one of the directors lives there too, along with one of the doctors, and a physiotherapist. All of that is right there in Girona. So it made sense. Plus, for me, it’s a direct flight from Bogota to Barcelona. From there, I take a high-speed train to Girona, which takes all of 40 minutes. It’s so easy when you compare it to living in Italy, where you have to catch several flights just to get home to Bogota. Plus, I like Spain. It’s really beautiful here, although in Italy, there’s a greater passion for cycling. But training here is good. Drivers are respectful, there are a million roads to choose from, as is the case all over Europe, so it’s just a matter of adapting.

Photo: cyclingnews

So what other races will you do this year?
After Catalunya, Basque Country, Liege Bastogne Liege, Fleche Wallone, and California.

Considering that this is a year for you to rebuild your form and your confidence, what do you make of the fact that many fans in Colombia don’t seem to get how the sport works. I say this in reference to the fact that fans, even knowledgeable ones, appear to think that every race you enter, you should win. They fail to see how riders build their form, and have peaks they shoot for. For example, I saw several comments about Nairo Quintana having “lost” at Tirreno Adriatico, even though he may not have been targeting that race, and mentioned that he had to slow his training down a bit, because he came into the season too strong, too early in San Luis. But still, they say he “lost” that race.

(Laughs) Nairo lost in Italy! Wow (laughs). Yes, I’ve heard that kind of talk. It’s nonsense, so I don’t pay any attention to it. Someone may say that because I was fourth in Malasya, I’m back and could or should be on the podium in a race like Catalunya or something like that. But I don’t pay attention to that stuff. I know how these things work. I go about it slowly and peacefully. And that’s how I live my life. I work hard, and I know that through that hard work, and patience, good things come. And that’s the only way to go about living, and the only way to take on this sport. You work hard at it, and you keep in mind that nothing comes fast and easily. Nothing worthwhile does.

You can follow Estaban on Twitter here.
You can read the interview I did with Esteban last year here.


Another quick reminder that I'm taking pre-orders for black Cycling Inquisition jerseys now. If you want one, you have to place your order by April 10th. For more details, you can go here

Cycling Souveniers, (who have distributed Cycling Inquisition goods in the UK in the past) have a new line of dishware that pays homage to teams from the past, including Cafe De Colombia. You can even order a whole set that includes 7 Eleven, Molteni, Peugeot and Team Z. Check them out here.