This post is on the long side, and may at first not appear to have anything to do with cycling...but it does, I assure you. There's just some background information on the subject that I must first tell you about before I can delve into Pablo Escobar's connections to cycling, and one bike company in particular. I've always hated to dwell on the negative aspects of Colombia's history, but felt that this topic was worth addressing.
Pablo Escobar and Colombia in the 80s
On the evening of April 30, 1984 I sat quietly on the stool next to my dad's workbench. My father enjoyed working on model trains, and I would spend hours on that stool looking over his shoulder on most nights. Suddenly, the radio over his workbench ran a news bulletin. Not far from our family home in Bogota, the Minister of Justice (Rodrigo Lara Bonilla) had been assassinated while being driven in his car. At close range, a 17 year old gunman had unloaded nearly an entire Uzi magazine into his body.
Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Minister of Justice who was assasinated. The reason? Having gone after the drug cartels, and having suggested extradition for drug traffickers.
It was on that day that the Colombia I knew began to unravel, and the city I was born and raised in began to come undone. Although few knew it at the time, a single man was behind it all. Drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. In the coming years, Bogota's citizens began to feel their lives change as a result of Escobar's whims. Bombings became fairly common, as did extreme acts of violence against politicians, civilians and the press. One of the two major newspapers in the country was bombed, its executive editor was murdered. Even a kid like me, who grew up in a stable home, got to see and experience some of the insanity that was all around. I remember one Sunday afternoon outing with my family in particular, during which i saw the body of a heavyset man who had just been murdered. I was only six years old at the time. Having just taken a bullet to the forehead at point blank range, the man's facial features looked distorted as his body was draped with a white tablecloth. Once the pristine tablecloth came into contact with the man's face, the blood quickly spread and created a stain as large as the man himself
I also remember a Saturday afternoon in Bogota. My brother and I looked over the menu at a Burger King in our local mall, a large explosion shattered the glass panels behind us, sending us both down to our knees. Within seconds the dust was so thick that we were unable to see a foot in front of us. A carbomb had been detonated in the parking lot adjacent to the mall. I remember seeing people who had been hurt by the shrapnel running as they bled. Bags of nuts and bolts had been placed around the explosives, and those who were spared by the damage of the original blast, were caught in a shower of shrapnel. This was the mood of the times, all largely driven by Escobar's will and his personal battles.
In November of 1984, Escobar directed M-19 guerrilla members to take over the "Palace Of Justice", holding 500 hostage and eventually killing 11 Supreme Court Justices. The M-19 guerrillas, like all Colombians, were cycling fans. In June 1984, only months before the Palace Of Justice siege, they released a statement to the press congratulating the Cafe De Colombia team for winning the Dauphine Libere. "They are ours, they are Colombian, and they have defeated Hinault, Lemond, Simon and Anderson. These Colombian men have risen very high, from so low."
Through all these tough times, cycling (and later soccer as well) became the only medicine that helped cheer up an entire nation. Had Karl Marx known how seriously Colombians would take sports, he would have said that cycling, not religion, was the opiate of the masses. I seldom speak freely to non-Colombians about Escobar and that era in our history, because he represents the awful stereotype that has haunted Colombians for decades. For the sake of not making this post insanely long(er), I will bypass all the usual disclaimer copy. I believe you all know that not all Colombians were involved in the drug trade, I hope you all know that Colombia is not a backwards jungle or a warzone. Yes, we have electricity...we don't live in huts, and we have running water. You can even read about my experience riding in Bogota here. Colombianos, like so many other people around the world, are hard working individuals who have been dealt a partially bad hand.
As a result of the negative effect that Escobar had on my life, I don't blindly idolize him. I don't see him as some sort of Robin Hood figure, much like some in the greater New York City area idolized mafioso John Gotti. I don't much care for his Scarface like depiction in hip-hop circles as of late. My relationship with Pablo Escobar (if you can call it a "relationship") was tempestuous at best. He made years of my life as a kid very tough. His decisions affected me personally, so I never liked the man. Still, a part of me continues to be fascinated by his outlandish life story. After all, whether I like it or not, his life was a part of mine growing up. Add to this his connections to the world of cycling and you have a perfect recipe for what has to easily be my dream bike. Stockholm Syndrome? Perhaps.
The Drug Trade and the StigmaFor many years Colombians have been associated with the drug trade, but during the 80s we were also known for our famed cyclists. Even in our greatest moments of triumph within the sport, however, the stigma of drug trafficking was there. During the 1984 Dauphine Libere, which Colombian Martin Ramirez won, Bernard Hinault mocked Ramirez by screaming out "Cocaine, cocaine!" as he pretended to sniff and point at the Colombian during the race. In response, Ramirez pointed back at Hinault repeatedly and said "Cocaine, cocaine... and marijuana too", insinuating the European's use of the substance. This exchange was widely reported in the Colombian press (first by the Espectador newspaper, and later in the book Escarabajos De la Vuelta A Colombia). This exchange is of great interest now that Laurent Fignon has admitted to doing substantial amounts of cocaine (particularly when racing in Colombia) in his book. In a recent interview, Lucho Herrera remembered the following about Fignon and the French cyclists of the time "He always spoke badly of us, and always said that we were inferior to them (the French.)" Years later, Lance Armstrong would tell the story of how his teammate Victor Hugo Peña would wear both leg and armwarmers in Europe, as a result of comments made by European riders about his dark skin.
But let's get back to the bigger picture, and the issue of a country and the stigma it had and continues to have. Ramirez' reaction to Hinault's taunting at the Dauphine Libere best encapsulates the manner in which Colombians have always felt about the drug trade and the negative image that came with it.
Colombia was, and still is vilified for producing substances in order to supply a demand in other countries. Those countries, however, see no repercussions in their public image. Those nations that consume these Colombian products have never experienced the horrors that Colombia has. Murdered judges, civilians, journalists, and yes even cyclists. In one presidential election, three of the candidates were assassinated by drug lords. All of this was funded by the addictions and casual drug use of those in wealthier nations.
Pablo and his brother Roberto, the cyclist
Pablo Escobar was involved with cycling from his early days as a street thug. Cycling was a Colombian obsession, and Escobar collected bets for cycling races throughout Colombia as a young man. His first business was a small video rental/bike shop in Medellin. Pablo's brother, Roberto "Osito" Escobar was a talented professional cyclist who competed in both road and track events. It was through Robrto's connections in the world of cycling that Pablo began to use the sport for his own purposes. Although it may seem odd to some, Pablo always had aspirations of being a legitimate politician and actually got to be a Colombian Senator briefly. From the beginning of his first political campaign, he sponsored entire cycling teams as a way of advertising his candidacy.
Gonzalo Marin, a talented Colombian cyclist who rode for one of Escobar's teams (note his shorts.) This particular team was meant to support and spread the word about Escobar's legitimate political aspirations. Marin, sadly, was later assassinated by Escobar's men. [Picture scanned from Matt Rendell's book Kings of The mountains]
During the mid-80s Forbes Magazine named Escobar the 7th richest man in the world. With that kind of wealth, Pablo was able to indulge his every whim. Aside from funding cycling teams, Pablo also built velodromes, some of which were used to hold races so that he and his business associates could place bets on the races.
One of Escobar's velodromes, now in great disrepair, in the hills of Medellin.
[Picture scanned from Matt Rendell's book Kings of The mountains]
[Picture scanned from Matt Rendell's book Kings of The mountains]
Escobar even claimed to have partially funded some of the earliest Colombian teams at the Tour de France, which would certainly be consistent with his heavy investment in other sports like soccer and auto racing. Although some investments were made by one of his companies (Grupo Inverca most notably), many of his contributions were made in his name. Through his connections to the sport, many cyclists and investors became involved in dealings with Escobar, and ultimately got on his bad side for one reason or another. Sometimes, the problems that cyclists faced with Escobar's men surrounded their unwillingness to be used as drug mules.
Pictured here with his family, Alfonzo Florez was the first Colombian to ever wear the Tour's polka dot jersey (in 1983), he also won the amateur Tour de France in 1982. Florez was gunned down by traffickers affiliated with Escobar in 1992.
Armando Aristizabal was part of the Cafe De Colombia team, and raced for the team in European races. His body was found outside Medellin in 1987. His hands were bound, he had been blindfolded, and his body showed signs of torture.
Traffickers used cyclists as mules, usually against their own will, under threat of their families being killed or hurt should they not comply. The cartel liked using cyclists due to their physical fitness, as well as to how accustomed they were to international travel. The fact that many of these cyclists were beloved and recognized at national airports was an added bonus. Juan Carlos Castillo was arrested at Medellin's airport with a shipment of cocaine. He was released and absolved from those charges, but was later found murdered in 1993.[Picture scanned from Matt Rendell's book Kings of The mountains]
On the right is Cochise Rodriguez, one of the most successful Colombian cyclists of all time. He won two Giro stages, partnered with Felice Giomondi in two-man trial events, was one of the first Colombians to compete in the Tour, and briefly held the one-hour record. Standing in the middle is Murillo Pardo, owner of Felipe Jewelers, and the team for which Cochise raced. Murillo's jewelery store was part of Escobar's money laundering operation. Murillo was murdered by the Cartel in 1986.[Picture scanned from Matt Rendell's book Kings of The mountains]
Rafael Tolosa (seen here wearing the king of the mountains jersey at the Vuelta a Colombia) was arrested at Bogota's airport in 2001 for having 125 heroin capsules in his stomach, as well as $50,000 worth of unlicensed emeralds in his luggage. Note the hat he's wearing, for the Felipe Jewelery store.
Even after Escobar's death, cyclists remained targets for other drug lords and guerrillas. Just today (Nov 10), a full Colombian/Venezuelan team was held and robbed at gunpoint by masked gunmen after having participated in the Vuelta Al Zuila. This sort of thing is now almost common. ONCE rider Oliverio Rincon, who was second in the Dauphine Libere in 93, won stages at the Tour, and was fifth at the Vuelta, was kindnaped in 2000. His family was extorted for a large sum of money and he was returned. This is particularly sad because Rincon had purposefully retired young with "just enough money to live comfortably in Colombia for the rest of my life", as he told his team mate Alex Zülle.
Only months after Rincon's kidnapping, Luis "Lucho" Herrera (seen here bloodied after a nasty fall at St Etienne) was kidnapped as well. Perhaps the best known Colombian cyclist of all time, Herrera won the Vuelta A España in 1987 and won the King Of The Mountains title in all three grand tours. He also won the Dauphine Libere.
Victor Hugo Peña is the only Colombian to have ever worn the Tour's yellow jersey. About two weeks before this picture was taken, Peña was robbed and held at gunpoint in his own home in Colombia. As part of the robbery, his passport and visa for the Tour were taken. Due to being a Colombian citizen, entering Europe is not easy, even as a tourist. Peña ended up riding the Tour illegally, with a tourist visa. This story is documented in the great book A Significant Other.
By far the absolute saddest episode in Colombian sports is that of Andres Escobar (no relation to drug trafficker Pablo Escobar), a beloved soccer player from Medellin. Andres Escobar scored on his own team's goal by accident during the 1994 World Cup. Colombia was disqualified from the World Cup as a result. Shortly after returning to Colombia, he was shot 12 times. He died instantly. Although the gunman alleged to have killed Escobar without anyone prompting him to do so, it was widely rumored that it was drug lords who had put a hit out on Escobar. The reason? Large amounts of lost money due to bets placed on the game. Why mention this horrible episode if it doesn't have to do with cycling? Well, I bring it up to further make a point (from previous posts) that pressures to perform and win are not the same for all athletes around the world. With this type of pressure (as well as the threat of true poverty) hanging over their head, do you think there may be more incentive or reason for some athletes to dope when they come from poor or unstable nations? Not making excuses here, just something to think about.
Pablo's brother, Roberto, continued to ride as his brother became one of the wealthiest and most feared men in the world. As a gift to his brother, Pablo funded an entire bike company and team. The name of the company was Ositto, a purposeful misspelling of Roberto's nickname (Osito, little bear). Roberto wanted the company to seem Italian, so he chose to add the extra "t".
Roberto Escobar was not just Pablo's brother as well as a cyclists. He himself was involved in many of his brothers dealings. He was arrested and briefly held in connection to the assassination of Lara Bonilla (who I mentioned at the beginning of this post). He was considered one of Pablos most feared lieutenants as well. As a bike company owner and team director, Roberto Escobar thrived. The Ositto cycling team was very successful, even winning the Clasico RCN (one of the most prestigious stage races in Colombia which has been raced by the likes of Laurent Fignon, Pascal Simon, Bernard Hinault and Sean Kelly.)
Team Ositto riders, along with their mascot and a podium girl.[Picture scanned from Matt Rendell's book Kings of The mountains]
His career in the world of cycling, however, was not to be. Roberto surrendered to police in 1992 for numerous charges (weapons violations, trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, illicit enrichment, connections to the death of 4000, and having escaped from the Catedral jail along with is brother). Once inside a maximum security prison in the town of Itagui, Roberto received a letterbomb from old rivals, which exploded only inches away from his face. The blast left him legally blind and partially deaf. Roberto now lives in a state-run hospital due to his severe injuries. His room is heavily guarded.
Roberto, signing autographs as a young cyclist on the left, and post letterbomb on the right.[Pictures scanned from Matt Rendell's book Kings of The mountains]
Having told you all this, the horrors that Escobar committed, and the cyclists he murdered...you'll probably be surprised to know that the one bike frame I desire more than any other in the world is a Colombian made Ositto frame. The factory only existed for a few years during the 80's, and I have never seen one of their frames in person. I often mock those who want to ride lugged Italian frames because of their "soul" and heritage. At the same time, I must admit, I realize that the reason why I dream of owning an Ositto frame is because of what it embodies. As painful and absolutely difficult as those years were for Colombia, that frame signifies so much of what my childhood memories are. Yes, the man behind the company was deplorable, and I know this. The bombing that my brother and I experienced is enough to remind me of Escobar's character. Still, I long for home and continue to feel homesick after having lived in the United States for years. I go back to Colombia often, but I'm well aware that the saying "you can never go back home" really is true. Like it or not, the insanity that was Colombia during the 80's is a part of me, and having an Ositto bike would perhaps be the ultimate connection to my past, good and bad. It's the ultimate Colombian bike, so steeped in the bittersweet history that is so uniquely ours. Sad as it may seem, the whacked out notion of a bike company owned by Escobar's brother (and right hand man) is repulsive, but completely consistent with what my childhood memories are like. So if you see a guy riding an ill-fitting Ositto branded frame in your city someday, feel free to wave. It will probably be me, riding in order to feel more connected to my childhood, and the unusual circumstances under which I grew up.
Please feel free to leave comments behind.
If you are even remotely interested in learning more about this topic, please pick up a copy of Matt Rendell's book Kings Of the Mountains: How Colombia's Cycling Heroes Changed Their Nation's History. A documentary was made based on the book, but it only aired in England, and I've been unable to find a copy of it anywhere. Many of the pictures in this post came from that book.
Another great source (in Spanish) is Los Escarabajos De La Vuelta A Colombia.
Although I urge you to find out about the positive and beautiful aspects of Colombia, I also think that the greatest book about that era is News Of A Kidnapping, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Forget his fiction, this is a non-fiction account of a woman who was kidnapped during the early 90s at the request of Escobar. Marquez may be good at fiction, but his non-fiction writing is much, much better.