Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An interview with Angie Tatiana Rojas, designer of the IDRD-Bogota Humana-San Mateo-Solgar cycling kit

This year, Nairo Quintana was the first Colombian to ever win the Giro d'Italia, as Carlos Betancur won Paris-Nice, and fantastic performances from Rigoberto Uran, Winner Anacona, and Esteban Chaves (along with the ongoing domination of women's BMX by Mariana Pajon) kept the country's name in the headlines. And despite all this, the one story that got Colombian cycling (and women's cycling as a whole) the most press this year had to do with the color of a cycling kit. In particular, it was the kit worn by a Colombian team at the Giro Toscana, which prompted endless headlines, and an investigation by the UCI. 

By now, you have probably already seen the picture. But in case you haven't, here it is.

Many online thought the women in the team were actually partially nude. Others thought the design was a publicity stunt. Former British Olympic champion Nicole Cooke, assuming the women in the team had been forced to wear the kit, Tweeted, "This has turned the sport into a joke. Girls stand up for yourselves - say no."

All these comments were made without ever speaking to the team's riders, much less the person who designed the kit.

As you may already know by now, the riders were not partially nude (though some news outlets partially censored the image above). The kit was not designed as a publicity stunt, and they had not been forced to wear it. The kit was designed by a team member, 22 year old Angie Tatiana Rojas. It was vetted by her teammates, and they have been racing in it for a full season both in Colombia and abroad. 

In an effort to gather more information, I reached out to the Bogota Cycling League, which manages the team, in order to interview Angie Tatiana, who is second from the left in the picture above. 

My original intent was to interview her not just about this topic, but about her cycling career, how the team performed in Italy, and about the team's season in general. I wanted to do this in an effort to find out more about her and women's cycling in Colombia, and to hopefully do away with the caricature that has been painted by many online of the women in the team. Sadly, our time was cut short (the team just returned from Europe today, due to the Air France strike), and the range of topics we were able to discuss was limited. I do plan on speaking with Angie Tatiana again in the future though, perhaps about more dignified topics. In the meantime, here's my interview with her. 

Where were you born and raised?
I'm from Bogota, and I live in San Cristobal.

How and when did you begin cycling competitively?
Originally, I was a speed skater. I raced and represented both Bogota and Colombia as a skater until I was 14 years old. At 15, I decided to change sports, and tried to find something that was a little less time consuming, so that it wouldn't get in the way of my studies. I picked cycling because it's so challenging, so beautiful and so hard.

Is cycling your lone occupation?
No. Last year, I graduated with a degree in communications and journalism. Today, I work in communications, as well as writing about cycling. Aside from that, I'm a musician, and of course a cyclist.

What type of music are you involved in?
Llanera. [for those not familiar with Colombian and Venezuelan folk music, you can hear what llanera sounds like here.]

You designed the team's kit, which has now gotten attention worldwide. What can you tell me about the design?
Yes, I came up with the design in January, when sponsorship for the team was settled upon. So it was around January and February. There was a couple of other design concepts before this final one, which we are racing in now.

Still from video story by the Mirror UK

What was your inspiration, or thinking behind the design?
It was to highlight our team's sponsors, that was always the goal. I offered to design the kit, in order to help my team, and to be helpful to the organization and my fellow riders. I always aim to be as helpful as possible both on and off the bike.

Much of the controversy, if you can call it that, is about the color that is used in the mid-section. Where did the color come from?
It came from the primary colors of our sponsors. In fact, it was going to be the kit's primary color, throughout the upper portion. But within the peloton, that color would not be visible enough, so we opted to switch it to the shorts, and instead used red and yellow on the upper part, for the sake of visibility. The red and yellow are the colors of the flag of Bogota.

As for the color around the shorts, it comes from our sponsors. It's the primary color used by Solgar, a company that makes vitamins, and is also similar to the one used by San Mateo University, another one of our sponsors [if you look closely, you'll see a bottle of Solgar vitamins, in the same color, in the middle of the chest in the kit].

What do you make of the fact that it's for this reason that women's cycling is getting so much attention?
I think it's sad that it takes something like this for cycling, and women's cycling in particular, to get this much press. But we have to make the most of this moment, however it came to be. In the end, our reason for training, for racing and for every pedal stroke is to make our families proud, and to represent our city and Colombia with pride. That's our reason for training, and for doing what we do. We are firm believers in the transformative effect that sport can bring about, and that's our daily aim when we train, to make our country better through our actions.

How are all of you as a team feeling after all this press? Is morale low, or are you perhaps more cohesive as a group since you've been brought together by all this?
You know, even before this, we were very close and worked together as a team. We are friends first, and women that know what it's like to sacrifice and train every day. So we are doing well, and we are at peace, because know that as a team, everything we've done has always been done with the best intentions. No malice or anything other than love and passion for the sport has ever been a part of what we've done or continue to do.


  • National Champion, speed skating
  • District champion, time trial
  • 2º District road race
  • 4º national championships, time trial
  • 4º national championships, road race
  • 2º juniores road race
  • 6º overall, Vuelta al Futuro
  • District champion, time trial
  • 2º District road racea.
  • District champion, track
  • National champion, time trial
  • 3º national championships, time trial
  • 3º national championships, track
  • Winner, juniors, National Track Cup
  • District champion, track
  • District champion, track
  • 2º national points race
  • 3º Olympic trials, track
  • 4º national championships, pursuit
  • 3º national road race
  • Team selection, world championship
  • 3º team pursuit, Copa Colombia
  • District champion, track
  • 2º district road race
  • Team selection, youth games Singapore

Monday, September 15, 2014

Blind Items ("yah, old Belgian trick")

Some years ago, my wife and I noticed that the two weekly magazines that we subscribed to would often arrive on our mailbox on the same day. They were US Weekly and the New Yorker. The difference betwteen  the two publications struck us as humorous, something that was underscored by seeing them arrive next to each other week after week. Over time, we realized that we weren't fully keeping up with either magazine. One week was simply not enough to read them, and they began to pile up. So a decision had to be made. One of the two subscriptions had to go. We both agreed...and the New Yorker got the ax. What this decision said about us and our intellect is something I'm well aware of.

After a few years of US Weekly alone, we stopped that subscription too. But after being exposed to it, my brain still shows the effects of having that magazine around for so long. It's with this in mind that I bring you the following blind items from the world of pro cycling. All come from what I strongly feel are credible sources, and have usually been mentioned to me several times by different people, always with the same details. I'll leave you to guess who/what these are about.

Forgive me for the salacious nature of these items, but please understand that they are being offered up in a decidedly lighthearted tone, in hopes that you'll enjoy them. Yes, this is me half-apologizing for having read US Weekly in the past (and for so long), and for the nature of this post.

There's a race in the schedule that pro cyclists and their teams like going to, and will often ask to be included in the squad for. The reason? It's not for training, location, quality of the hotels, or because it works well based on the time of year that it's in. No. As it turns out, it's all about the party that goes down the last night of the race, in which many....uhm....women are brought in to cater to needs of riders by the organizers. Some riders in particular (I'll skip names to stick with the theme of this post, and for obvious other reasons) consistently come up as having enjoyed No one outside the teams can be invited to the party, and the press is kept at bay.

Along that same theme, here's another one. The popularity of Tinder, and what it's used for are no secret at this point. Among many professional athletes, things like the Olympics are little more than international sex fests for those who otherwise live somewhat strict lifestyles in preparation for such events. Apps like Tinder only make things easier. American goalkeeper Hope Solo was one of the first athletes to speak openly about the matter, saying how common it is to see people in the Olympic village having intercourse "out in the open. On the grass, between buildings", similarly tales of large-scale orgies at the Vancouver winter games became legendary.

With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise that some cyclists and the traveling circus that they are a part of are well suited for such activities (when time and schedule allows for it). This is something I've been hearing more stories about recently.  One European rider in particular is very fond of racing in the US for this very reason, and could easily earn frequent flyer mile-like points for his excessive use of Tinder during races. In fact, some European riders seem to enjoy racing in the US for this very reason. Low stress, it's far from home, and there's plenty of strangers to meet.

This reminds me of a story that was told by Jeremy Powers during his Jelly Belly days, and was originally published in the old Competitive Cyclist blog. Powers' account is of a Belgian rider who threw out his musette to some young ladies during a US race, after holding on to it for a long time. Powers asked why he had done that (held on to the bag for such a long time). The rider answered that the bag contained a Polaroid of himself, along with his phone number.

"Yah, old Belgian trick, it works every time"
As it turns out, even before Tinder, the Belgian libido could not be stopped.

What can you do if you're a team, and you want to sign a rider, but don't trust him for one reason or another? Easy, write into his contract that he has to live in a certain place during the season, and that he can't go to places A, B or C (even to visit) during those same months. I wonder if this works, and if it can be enforced in any way.


Nice piece about Colombian cycling and 4-72—Colombia in Aljazeera

Also, I'm working on a post about cyclocross in Colombia (or relative lack thereof), and the possibilities for this nascent sport there. In the midst of this, comes the fact that the first Colombian to ever compete in a UCI ranked 'cross race finished 13th (Thanks to Chris for the heads up).

And lastly, for those who have seen the picture above, and followed the small controversy that ensued as a result, I wanted to let you know that the Colombian news site Vanguardia has reported on an official answer from the Bogota Cycling League, which backed the team in Toscana.

Their statement says that the team has been racing with this kit for nine months. It was designed by one of the team's riders, Angie Tatiana Rojas, and (as you might expect) appears more salacious in these photos due to shadows. The statement from the Cycling League of Bogota says, "this uniform was not designed with any malice whatsoever, and there was no intent in trying to objectify our athletes, or use them in such a manner for the sake of exposure for the sponsor." They also say that the kit was vetted and approved by the rider's teammates, though many assumed that the riders were being used, and objectified.

As a result of the press that this story has gotten, I was even interviewed by the BBC World Service (no, I'm not kidding) to help shed some light on the issue. The kit's design is also being investigated by the UCI, which is fine. I just hope that they retroactively do the same for these guys. Because I don't think those are just shadows.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Vuelta a España, through Marshall Kappel's lens

As part of my ongoing series about cycling photographers, today I bring you the work of Marshall Kappel, and American photographer who lives and works in Europe. He just got done covering the Vuelta a España, and answered some questions to go along with his images. 

When were you introduced to competitive cycling, and when were you introduced to photography as something other than taking snapshots?
I started cycling competitively when I was around 11 years old in Tucson, Arizona… not what you would expect from this part of the world! I had always loved riding my bike… and, at an even younger age was really into BMX, which quickly led to road racing when I started teaching myself French for some reason around 12 years old.

I spent part of my childhood in Mexico, as my Dad is an anthropologist. I have always attributed my constantly progressing international interests, character and curiosity with this time in Mexico, and even my dad’s profession…seeking answers.
With cycling, I can remember, even then, thinking about the freedom to explore that cycling allowed me. I’m a restless person and love to travel, to be on the move, and one thing just led to another. In high school I worked part-time cleaning up at Fairwheel Bikes after school and was riding and racing all over the Southwest. My dad was my biggest supporter and drove the broom wagon/wheel support at the local races in his Ford F150. Around the same time, he gave me an Argus twin lens camera and I’ve never stopped shooting. I often—sort-of—quote Edward Weston in saying that “the only constant in my life is photography”… and cycling. I went to an arts and vocational high school and there I learned the technical aspects of photography and print making from our amazing teacher Jerry Halfmann and to shoot on a more conscious level.

When were these two (cycling and photography) joined for the first time for you?
February 2014… very specific. I left my job in fashion/beauty marketing and decided that I could pursue both photography and cycling full time. I have always done both separately, but never joined the two until this year.

What photographers have influenced your work, both in and outside the realm of sport?

I’ve been obsessed with photography and cameras my entire life. I have a storage unit in NYC with about 100 vintage cameras, from cheap ‘80s disc cameras to a restored 8x10 1930s Deardorff, a 1960s 4x5 Linhof, Speed Graphics and even 2 ArtDeco Kodak Brownies I bought in Amsterdam… multiple Rolleis, Canon F1s, Contax, and lots of Polaroids. Further, I have spent uncountable hours pouring over photography books… as you would see on my Pinterest page, I have collections of images saved from the photographers and cultural styles that I love.

That said, outside of cycling, Paolo Roversi, Sarah Moon, the avant-guard Hungarian photographers and almost any past or contemporary photographer from Mexico—from Bravo to Flor Garduño. Within the relatively small world of cycling photography, I’m drawn to both the action/news photographers for their ability to capture that singular intense moment of victory, suffering, joy and defeat… as well as the more artistic photographers whose subtle, textural images truly bring the experience of a race and the diverse cultures within cycling to life. In my own work, as you can see in my stories, “winning” is less the objective than capturing the process, the spectacle, the emotions, the colorful country and people who make cycling, in all its forms and cultures, win or lose, touring, hitting the trails or just riding around the block with mom, what it is and means.

You just covered a good bit of the Vuelta a España, how did that opportunity come about?
I’ve lived in France for 4 years now and have watched The Tour quite a bit, but never The Vuelta except on TV and some clips on YouTube. With my focus on cycling photography, I was eager to experience this race, which I understood to be more passionate and intimate than the Tour. What I heard was absolutely correct. While I love the history and craziness of The Tour, spending this time in Spain truly felt more visceral, simple and real.

Any unexpected realizations that you arrived at during your time at the Vuelta, either about the sport, or the realities of covering it as you did?

Logistically, it’s much easier than The Tour, the fans are as colorful, but as I said, it’s more intimate. It’s hard to be unbiased. I love The Tour and I love France, but The Vuelta felt more like a race that I was a part of, whereas the Tour felt like a show I was watching.


What would be your ideal/dream photo assignment be?

I’m looking forward to shooting in Italy later this season at l’Eroica, Giro dell’Emilia and the Giro d’Italia. I’d love to shoot in the Dolomites in particular. From what I see online, it’s a spectacular cycling destination. I’m also looking forward to working for a professional team and capturing the ins-and-outs of their constantly moving lives. I love involved stories and never hesitate to post 100-plus photos on my website whereas an editor might choose 10 for a magazine story! So, spending some time with a team on tour would really be ideal for me as it would allow me to publish images that in their totality create something greater than any individual shot.


Where would you like to be in five years as far as photography is concerned?
Shooting international cycling and sports advertising while still on the road capturing the world of professional cycling.

Marshall on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and his website.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Riding in Colombia. An interview with Cyclotá bike touring company.

I receive emails on a weekly basis with questions about traveling to and riding in Colombia. So as part of an ongoing series about riding in Colombia, today I have an interview with Cyclotá, a Bogotá-based bike touring company that offers training camps, and multi-day tours for road cyclists, as well mountain bike packages throughout Colombia. Thanks to Tomas for his time, and for answering my questions.

How did you get the idea to start a bike tour company?
By mere chance. In 2008, I raced with friends who organized the Ruta De Los Conquistadores in Costa Rica. After that, I was left with the impression that something similar could be done in Colombia. I was talking to people, who all said that a company with a focus on bicycle tourism would work well here. The original idea was to do mountain biking or urban cycling tours, but after a while, the focus became on road cycling. That was not the original idea, by the history of Colombian riders in Europe at the Tour de France were a big inspiration for our current focus.

What type of tours does your company currently offer?
Cyclotá offers both road and mountain biking tours. We take care of everything, and our guests merely have to think about riding their bike, and enjoying themselves.

Who are your usual clients?
It varies greatly, and they come at all levels. We enjoy showing people Colombia, regardless of their ability. If the riders are stronger, we can tailor the route to their abilities. But most importantly, we want people to have a good time, and to enjoy themselves safely as they get to know Colombia.

A big thing for us is to understand our clients' limitations, and their taste for adventure. We want them to know that they have us, a team helping them along the way, to help them meet their expectations and goals here. Right now, we are aiming to grow the offering we provide, all of which we first enjoyed on our own as hobbies. So our passion will always come through. In the words of Gary Fisher, "everybody who rides a bike is a friend of mine."

What services do you provide with your tours? Bike rentals, lodging?
We provide full service, with a focus toward this being a fantastic experience for our guests. So we have lodging, food, as well as full support and bike rentals to make sure everything is taken care of. Colombia has changed significantly since the 80s and 90s, when the country was known for violence and other negative things.

What can a visitor expect when they travel to Colombia to ride or train?
There's two things that still surprise even me. The first is the landscapes. Photos can't do it justice, that's the kind of beauty you see when you ride in Colombia. Second is how warm and welcome people are. Riding a bike makes you almost vulnerable, which here in Colombia means that strangers want to welcome you, help you, and get to know you. People here in Colombia are extremely friendly, so they will always want to approach you and want to make you feel welcome.

See, these are two things about Colombia that were never affected by time, or even problems with safety that existed in the 80s and 90s. Today, people who come visit can feel at ease, and completely safe. You know, I'm no expert, but with this whole subject of violence of that time, I tend to think of it in terms of the Wizard Of Oz, in the sense that the mechanisms that make us feel fear are often much simpler than we expect.

Seen through the lens of tourism, it's impossible to make someone visiting your country feel safe if you yourself don't feel that way. And perhaps the most important development in Colombia over the last few years have been that of re-appropriation of our own country by Colombians. This means that there is real safety, while I'm still intrigued by how our perception of reality affects reality itself.

Based on your experience, what are the routes that your clients have enjoyed most? And what are they most surprised by when they arrive to Colombia? 
I still think that climbing Letras will always be a real challenge for anyone, and there's an obvious hesitation when starting that climb [Letras is, more than likely, the longest climb in the world at 52 miles]. There are various routes around the coffee growing region here, and in Antioquia that clients have just been delighted by. Each of the rides we plan out are intended to delight our customers, and make them feel in awe, just as we are in these routes.

I think what surprises people the most are the landscapes, and the changes in temperature [temperature is regulated by altitude around the Equator], as well as the immense size of the mountains.

What's your favorite climb in Colombia?
Letras is just incredible, and I never tire of doing it. Each time I find new things I love about it. I also love several climbs around Bogota. But I don't have a favorite, I like them all equally. Each route in a different region in Colombia offers something completely different and beautiful. Perhaps the roads around the coffee growing region are the most beautiful, as they never cease to amaze me.

What advice would you give to someone that wants to travel to Colombia in order to ride a bike?
To relax, on several levels. First, because Colombia is an excellent destination. It's a relaxed place, and with our company we take care of everything and take you to ideal locations that are conducive to great relaxing riding. Secondly, people should remember that Colombian culture is, by and large, simply not as demanding and intense as others. For example, as far as how we view times and schedule. This can lead to some slight culture shock, but as a company, we strive to move toward the standards of our clients. But that's part of traveling to a different culture, that you need to put aside preconceived notions you have at home, and take time to see the world differently, if only for a moment.

That aside, training can never hurt, as it will allow you to further enjoy your trip to Colombia, in particular all the climbs we have here.

What time of year would you recommend that people travel to Colombia?
Our dryer times of year are ideal, which is to say between December and March, and then June to September. Having said that, climate is changing, and it's not as easy to predict rainy seasons as it once was. But if you tolerate just a little bit of rain, Colombia has great weather for riding year round. High up, in places like Bogota, at 8,500 feet in elevation (2,600 meters), it never gets colder than 54 degrees (12 Celsius) during the day. And you can get to warmer temperatures, 80 Fahrenheit/ 27 Celsius just 60 kilometers away.

What is the future of Cyclota?
Out objective is to help position Colombia as a destination for adventure seekers. With our mountains, we have a virtual amusement park for adventure. With that in mind, we aim to grow our business, particularly tours and camps during the winter months for those in the United States, Canada and Europe. We'd love to host people who want to come experience our beautiful landscapes, and to enjoy the warmth of our people.

Cyclota website
Cyclota on Facebook
Cyclota on Twitter
If you are going to be in Bogota, they can rent you a bike


5 well done documentaries about five riders that have helped shape Colombian cycling. They are in Spanish, but even if you don't speak the language, there's still some fantastic footage in all of these. Enjoy.

Rigoberto Uran Documentary (Spanish)

Lucho Herrera Documentary (Spanish)

Fabio Parra Documentary (Spanish)

Nairo Quintana Documentary (Spanish)

Cochise Rodriguez Documentary (Spanish)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

El Escarabajo

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

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.

Photo courtesy of the Hoyos family

Monday, August 18, 2014

An invisible city, at once joyful and somber

Photo: L. Baldelli

The small cell is made of raw, poured concrete, with one small opening on its door, which faces an outdoor courtyard. On one of the cell’s walls, in brightly colored capital letters that would be more at home in an elementary school’s classroom bulletin board, are the words “Holy Spirit.” The child-like playfulness of the letters stands in stark contrast to its surroundings, in part because of the man that inhabits the cell. Popeye (real name Jhon Jairo Velásquez) was Pablo Escobar’s closest adviser and soldier. In Escobar’s name, during the 1980s and 90s, Popeye personally murdered at least 250 people, and ordered countless executions, including his involvement in the deaths of over 500 police officers. He kidnapped Bogota’s mayor Andres Pastrana (who would later be president), and countless other politicians, helping to completely destabilize the country. To that end, Popeye was also instrumental in the planning and execution of the attack on the Avianca 203 flight in 1989, where an entire airliner with 110 passengers was blown out of the sky with a bomb in an effort to kill a presidential candidate who, as it happened, was not even on board.  

Today, Popeye speaks to the press when called upon to do so, giving detailed accounts of his past exploits, perhaps in an attempt to remain relevant within a country that sees him as repulsive symbol of the past, one that many resent in part because it was men like Popeye who—through their actions—so drastically changed the daily lives of Colombians, along with their vocabulary, and self,  and in so doing shaped the way others viewed Colombians. Such was the power of Escobar and his men. Through their actions, they came to redefine an entire nation.

Popeye speaks with Andres Pastrana (former Colombian president) about how he planned and executed his kidnapping, as well as several other assassinations and crimes related to those events. He calmly gives astonishing detail about who was involved in what bombings and killings, how trucks were retrofitted to house large volumes of explosives, and what government and military entities were involved in kidnappings, and which ones offered him help in these actions. (in Spanish)

Today, Popeye's life is far simpler, though reminders of who he was remain visible. The man who was once an avid cyclist, and trained in the mountains of Antioquia before entering a life of crime, has two guards solely dedicated to him at all times in prison, and he's largely kept away from its general population. When he's allowed to spend time in the prison's yard, Popeye can see the surrounding landscape and its undulating mountains. Part of that view is a nearby road, which countless cyclists use to make their way toward their preferred mountainous training routes, just as Popeye did as a cyclist during his youth in Antioquia.

Like Popeye, one of the cyclists who often rides on that raod is a symbol to many in Colombia. Albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum. He's Nairo Quintana, and like Popeye, he also calls the town of Cómbita, Boyaca, home.


Cómbita, is a place that is often conjured up by the international press when speaking of Quintana’s background and upbringing. The town wasn’t founded, as much as it was simply found. Spanish clergy came upon natives who had called the area home for countless generations in 1586. They took up residence, though the town was not incorporated until 1938. With a current population of only 13,000, the inmates in Cómbita's high security prison make up 15% of the town's population. But it's because of Nairo Quintana (and his brother Dayer) that people outside of Colombia know of this town, whose name comes from the local native language meaning “strength of the summit”. Fitting, considering the reason why there’s now an ongoing stream of journalists visiting a small town that few even realized existed just a couple of years back. Some European and American journalists have made the pilgrimage as well, thinking of Cómbita exclusively within the context of cycling, not realizing the very different reason why Colombians have long known the town’s name, and what they identify it with: its prison, the men that are held within, and the manner in which they shaped part of the Colombian narrative. 

Cómbita welcomes Quintana back after the 2014 Giro

But much in the same way that Cómbita can’t be defined by the Quintana family, it also can’t be defined by its iconic prison. The reality is that in towns like this, life has not changed significantly through the years, and will continue to be much as it is regardless of how it's viewed by anyone. Nearly all of the town’s inhabitants are farmers, with many bringing their products to market to the town square on weekends. Quintana’s parents, who themselves were once potato farmers, still live nearby above the small shop (think of it as a convenience store for rural Colombia, a “tienda” in the local parlance) that they’ve owned an operated for many years.

Combita's main square, which you can see yourself through the magic of Google Streetview here.

The best and most beautiful town
The juxtaposition between the raw concrete prison, and the tranquil Colombian countryside has not been lost on the locals or their representatives. In 2011, as 327 of the most violent and feared criminals in Colombia were set to be transferred the prison, people in the town began to make signs which they hung over streets and on the sides of their homes in protest. “Please don’t bring the worst men, to the best and most beautiful town”. The governor, with a lighthearted tone that is indicative of the local population proclaimed, “Around here, we only care about and know about musical groups, not armed groups”. He said this in reference to the rich musical heritage of the area, which has produced its own musical style and countless musical groups that are beloved throughout the country.

A perfect example of the local musical style, all in a song about competitive cycling, and the narrator's will to get a bike (a "little iron horsey") so he can train and win races

Despite these pleas, the inmates were transferred. For Boyaca’s locals, having these criminals nearby, even if it is under lock and key, is greatly at odds with the life and reality they know. This is in part because Boyacá, unlike other parts of Colombia, didn’t endure the kind of seemingly endless violence that plagued most of the country during the 80s and 90s. Additionally, much of Boyacá remains nearly untouched by change, keeping its simple agrarian culture almost intact. This only adds to the lore of Nairo Quintana, making him a cycling icon abroad, while at home he’s become a beloved (albeit folklorized) symbol of Colombian determination, and a reminder of a simpler, earlier time in the country’s history.

Photo: The Times

Today, the prison is known to be one of the most secure in the country, a far cry from the days of Pablo Escobar when—to the horror of an entire nation—the drug lord was allowed to build his own prison near Medellin, where Popeye himself was "incarcerated". While the prison in Cómbita is not perfect (inmates have trained native pigeons to bring them cell phones and sim cards, while guards have been charged with providing prisoners with contraband), it's a place that criminals fear. Their idea of Cómbita is very different from the one that exists in the prose of international journalists who write profiles about Quintana, and his place of birth. 

That these two opposite realities exist simultaneously in one physical place makes Cómbita like so many other towns and cities that have opposite ends of one spectrum co-existing at once. But the small size of the town, as well as the outlandish extremes at both ends, and what they signify to,an entire country, make Cómbita an interesting paradox.

Combita Prison

Anywhere but Cómbita
You only have three destinations to pick from when flying out of the Alfonso López Pumarejo airport in the northern Colombian city of Valledupar. That’s how small the airport is. This only made the events that transpired there two weeks ago that much more bizarre. On August 5th, men from the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) paramilitary group stood by the airport’s security fences, and began to fire upon a small airplane on the tarmac. Their their leader, Javier Urango Herrera (alias “Chely”) was set to board that plane, as he was being transferred from a local prison to Cómbita. Men from Colombia’s national penitentiary forces, who were transporting Urango, returned fire. During the shootout, the paramilitary leader tried to run across the runway toward freedom, but was shot and killed. Local and national newspapers referred to the events of the day as “far-fetched”, and “fit for a movie”. And such was Urango’s drive to avoid being sent to Cómbita. He had, after all, already escaped a local prison in 2008, only to be apprehended in Venezuela and later extradited, in order to serve a sixty-year sentence for homicide, torture, terrorist acts, and kidnapping. Nearly all of it, would have been served in Cómbita’s high security prison, a fate that Urango and his men feared to the point of attempting what was clearly an ill-conceived and foolish plan.

Javier Urango Herrera in custody as he was extradited from Veneuzela

The 1972 book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is framed as a conversation between an aging Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, in which the explorer describes Khan’s expanding empire, focusing on 55 separate cities which he describes in great detail. Confronted with the book, the reader quickly realizes that Polo is not speaking of actual, physical cities, but rather what they mean to those who live there, and the feelings they can bring out in us. As the explorer himself states in the book, “You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours."

To that end, Polo describes these cities, all of them inhabited by people who author Eric Weiner has described as “a tortured lot, ensnared in various traps, largely of their own making.” Many of these cities have an exaggerated duality about them that is not unlike that of Cómbita. One city, for example, has an exact replica of itself—made in pure gold—buried underneath. Its citizens, however, are unaware of this, and live simple, poor and miserable existences. Another city is described as being filled with pain and sadness, and yet, its citizens are unaware of this reality, unexpectedly leading to “a happy city unaware of its existence”, a heartbreaking description of a population that is unaware of both its sadness and good fortune.

Quintana's faimly in Combita's town square (Photo: El Tiempo)

In a sense, the dualities described in Invisible Cities very much fall in line with the pluralities of our time. And while such dualities are by no means exclusive to Cómbita, it’s interesting to see how they so closely mirror those of Colombia as a whole, without necessarily creating an overarching metanarrative. Colombia is at once joyful and somber. Hopeful for the future and what it represents, while being collectively ashamed of its past and how it’s helped shape the view many have of a country.

In that sense, sport, and cycling in particular, will continue to shape the nation’s identity, if only as a counterpoint to that which so many see as a fundamental part of its tumultuous history. And perhaps in the end, it's that contradiction that makes Colombia completely and utterly....Colombian.

A Nairo fan rides his bike near Combita. Note the home-painted tshirt


1. I will be going to Colombia, and will thus be away from the blog. I expect to be back the first week of September.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A thoroughly thorough interview with United Healthcare's "world class nap-taker" Kiel Reijnen

For the bulk of today's post, you'll need to head over here, to read a very, very thorough interview that I did with Kiel Reijnen for/with Manual For Speed. In said interview, the following topics (among many others) are discussed:

- How his Shimano Sport Camera captured a certain European rider during a stage at the Tour of California talking about how he'd cheated on his wife with a "smoking hot blond". See, on-bike cameras really do give fans more access.

- Why there are wild chickens that run free during races in the Pacific Northwest

- Why he brings dehydrated beef stroganoff to races

Lastly, three notes about the Tour of Utah:

- Did you see Winner Anacona climb? The guy is an amazing talent, and I'll be doing an interview with him soon. And no, his last name is not "Anaconda"

- Bigish stage races in the US that happen during relative lulls in European racing are proof that if you put some climbs in a race, and then provide me with a free, non pixelated feed that I can enjoy online, I'll watch almost anything, and probably like it more than I normally would due to its availability. And if it's in the afternoon, instead of the morning (my time), all the better. I know it takes a huge amount of money to make that kind of availability happen, but to think that the Vuelta a Colombia is happening right now, and no one can see it breaks my heart.

- Chris Horner failed to take time out of Tom Danielson, but his real goals for the end of the season clearly lay elsewhere. But if those goals don't go so well either, will he have to reactivate his "Rentmoolah" eBay account to make ends meet?