Monday, December 7, 2009

Culinary secrets of Colombian cycling, Part 1: Powered by Panela

Lucho, what's in the cup?

European riders reported it to the press and to Tour officials. The newspapers ran with the story: Colombian riders were doping at the Tour in 1985. But were they?

In the mid-80's, Colombian cyclists burst on to the European peloton with unbelievable force. Due in great part to the extreme gains in elevation that the Andes provide, Colombian cyclists were all accustomed to unbelievable amounts of climbing. Because of Colombia's proximity to the Equator, the country has no seasons and temperature is regulated by altitude. This means that in a 100 mile ride, along with the altitude, temperatures can swing wildly from 35°, to 90° and back down to 40° (1°, 32° and 1° Celsius). In higher elevations (10,000 feet and above), streets and plants frost over at night, and as morning comes, winds and cold rain are common. The cold bursts of wind at high altitudes are so miserable that even Belgian riders who eventually came for the Vuelta A Colombia would retire early on in the race. Near the Andes, you can start a 100 mile ride in the morning hours in freezing temperatures due to high altitudes. Within an hour of riding in the cold, you will reach scorching temperatures and high humidity of the low lands. Climbing has the opposite effect, and is a reality of simply getting around in Colombia's mountainous regions. You simply can't get from one town to the next without doing a significant amount of it. Thus, the extremes that are common in Colombia (altitude included) had prepared the Cafe De Colombia riders to an extent that even they didn't fully comprehend. Europeans at the Tour didn't know this, and they all began to wonder just how a tiny farmer from meager upbringings could climb like Lucho Herrera did.

Herrera's nickname was "Jardinerito", little gardener, as a result of having worked in a flower plantation in his native Fusagasuga. All the other riders on the team had similar backgrounds, with some having even worked in coal mines. Herrera's success surely didn't come about as a result of his team organization or equipment. It didn't add up. Who were these guys from Colombia, and what were they up to? Most importantly, what was in the bags that they constantly brought out of their pockets and emptied into their mouths during long stages? What were the brown cubes sloshing around in their water bottles? It was those cubes, and whatever they were putting into their mouths that had been called into question.

The substance was not a banned drug. It wasn't even a sophisticated dietary aid or energy bar. It was panela.

Panela is basically unrefined sugar. Nearly as hard as a brick, panela is sourced from sugarcane, which is commonly grown in Colombia's warmer climates. When the sugarcane is ready to be harvested, it's ground in order to make the watery contents of the stalks come out. As they are squeezed between metal wheels, the liquid that comes out is boiled again and again in copper pots, until the thick syrup is poured into molds.

Panela has long been a part of Colombian culture, and has always been a part of Colombian cycling. To this day, Colombia retains the highest consumption rate of panela per capita...and is also it's primary producer. So what does panela taste like? Much in the same way that brown sugar has a more complex flavor than refined white sugar, panela has a much more distinct and complex flavor over brown sugar. This is due in great part to the level of caramelization that panela undergoes. Flavor aside, panela has fewer calories than refined sugar, but also contains things sugar does not. Calcium, potassium, glucose, fructose, vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, C, D2, E as well as protein. Panela is perhaps the greatest culinary equalizer in Colombian society, enjoyed both by farmers as a morning beverage, and by high class socialites as a post-dinner drink. In areas of Colombia with extreme poverty, most caloric intake is through panela, due to its very low price. This was certainly true in the impoverished regions from where Colombian cyclists came from in the 80's, and continue to come from today.

1986 Cafe De Colombia team, already cleared of doping allegations from 1985

Usually made by simply letting a chunk melt off in boiling water, half a lime is squeezed into the hot drink right before it's served. This is called aguapanela (a contraction of two words that basically mean "panela water"), and it's precisely what Lucho Herrera was drinking from his water bottle during the Tour, after having allowed the mixture to cool. It's aguapanela, not coffee that most Colombians regard as their national drink. As a matter of fact, most Colombian coffee drinkers are not particular about their coffee, and most often drink instant. Panela, however, is a different issue...and everyone has an opinion about the right and wrong way to make it. Some prefer panela with milk, not water, and some (like Colombian cyclists at the tour) simply suck on chunks of it as a continued source of energy during a hard day of work in the potato or flower plantations.

Cafe De Colombia riders and their scorched legs during a Tour de France transfer. Colombians will sometimes reference panela when explaining the tone of a person's complexion. (Photo from Competitive Cyclist)

Although I often mock cyclists for their obsession with the past, and the amount of nostalgia with which they see the sport's history...I must admit I'm not above this. To the contrary, I steep in it, and how could I not? I began listening to the Tour on the radio with my brother when I was only six years old, and the mythology of our ill-prepared teams and riders drinking aguapanela was part of the folklore that surrounded the sport. In mountain-top finishes, Colombian reporters who traveled by motorcycle with the peloton (this sort of thing was allowed back then) would openly weep on the radio as they described the victories of Colombian riders. Grown men crying on the radio can certainly leave a lasting impression when you are only six years old, particularly when they keep uttering phrases like "powered only by panela, the Colombian rider has defeated all of Europe." Panela was, and continues to be a symbol of our meager roots. As Colombian citizens we are aware that our national drink, our pride and joy, and the fuel that propelled our heroes to victory, was and is simply sugar water. But it's all we have.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that yesterday, before heading out on a long ride in the midst of the wind and snow, I stood in my kitchen making hot aguapanela. In hot summer days, I prepare two bottles. One water, one cold aguapanela. I know no other way to ride. If you'll excuse my over-the-top sentimentality, aguapanela helps me feel closer to my compatriots, and closer to home. The last time I was in Colombia, I spoke briefly to the owner of a high-end bike shop. I was surprised to hear him talk passionately about riding long miles, and drinking panela during those lonely hours. He spoke about the subject in a tone that American cyclists usually reserve for idiotic subjects like white shoes and white handlebar tape. His passion was for the struggle of riding. Not the kind of riding that is or could be documented in black and white photography, but the kind that is lonely and never seen. The kind of riding that Colombian riders did when preparing for the Tour, back when they were first allowed to ride as an amateur team. Perhaps it's silly to dwell on the past–any past–but this is constant inspiration for Colombian riders. We are a poor country, and you'll find few people who ride there that will be willing to talk to you about equipment, nutrition or things like embrocation. In Colombia, you shut up and you ride.

"El Viejo Patro", as Patrocinio Jimenez was known.

Asked about panela, and its misunderstanding at the Tour, Patricinio Jimenez (who was in the first Colombian team to ever ride the Tour) commented:

"Everyone bothered us, and asked us about panela. They all asked what it was. I remember that Pedro Delgado even asked if he could try some. I gave him a piece, he bit down hard and began to laugh uncontrollably as he nearly cracked his tooth. At that time, we didn't understand that cycling was even remotely possible without panela. Later on we realized that perhaps it was possible to ride without it."

Panela was not the only thing that made Colombian cyclists different. The issue of race and ethnicity was always there. Jimenez remembered that Laurent Fignon was hard to deal with, and openly disliked the Colombian team:
"He was extremely unpleasant to us. I remember a journalist asking him what he thought of us (Colombians) and he said we were from an inferior race. I remember him purposefully throwing elbows in the peloton, and speaking badly of us during stages. It was for that reason that we kept attacking him in the mountains. Even still, the fucker won the tour that year."

Monument to Lucho Herrera, in his hometown of Fusagasuga.

Lucho Herrera has also commented on his memories of panela at the Tour and other races:

"In a feed zone, I put a piece of panela in my mouth. The moment I put it in, a wasp got into my mouth and stung my tongue. I bit down, and my bridgework went flying. I got to the hotel that day after the race, and I was pretty scared. The team sent me to a local dentist, and I came back to the hotel at 5 am, with brand new teeth."

Fabio Parra, and his distinctive hunched-over riding style.

Fabio Parra, the only Colombian rider to ever stand on the podium at the Tour, has commented that Colombian cycling began to change–and not for the better–when riders stopped eating and drinking panela. Teams began to buy into the nutritional bars and beverages that European and American teams were using. Although the simple act of not eating and drinking panela could never be fully blamed (obviously), it was simply a reflection of the changing times. Things began to shift for Colombian riders, and many (Parra included) moved on to European teams. Misunderstood, and often facing language and cultural barriers, Colombian cyclists who were capable of winning grand tours, went on to become domestiques. It was the end of an era, the end of Colombian-run teams with Colombian sponsors and riders.

Nevertheless, a new Cafe De Colombia team has started once again. The future is bright for Colombian talent with this new team. Let's just hope they have panela, and not some stupid sports drink in their bottles.

Panela is a bit of an acquired taste, but if you'd like to try it out you can order some online. A recipe (in english) for aguapanela can be found here. Aside from drinking or sucking on chunks of it, panela can also be used for sugary reductions that can be poured over meats or vegetables.


  1. Hey Lucho, great blog. I checked out Kings of the Mountains after your last post about Columbian cycling. I don't normally read cycling books (much less road cycling ones) but it was a really thought-provoking read, and it's great to see that there might be a national Columbian team again.

  2. Great post again, bro! I'm 100% into the past and nostalgia of the sport! I'm all about it. I LOVE watching footage of old Paris-Roubaix and old Tours. I don't think you should apologize for that.

    Also, maybe you should mention that you are Lucho, NOT Lucho Herrera ;)


  3. Antony,
    I'm glad you liked the book. I recommended it to a friend earlier this year, and he liked it but felt it was not very well written, and that some of the connections Rendell makes are a bit of a stretch. Maybe I'm very forgiving because of my love for the subject matter.

    Oh yes, I'm not THAT Lucho. I picked this name for a completely different reason when writing for the other blog I write for. The choice now seems really stupid. Maybe I should change it? Any suggestions?

  4. Great story, and if you are looking for a new Nom De Blog, maybe you should use panela, since you can be a Colobina cycling icon without being mistaken for an actual racer.

  5. I too am colombian, tho too young to have experienced the golden age of our nations cycling,
    i have never drank cold aguapanela but i am definitelly trying it out

  6. Dude, Lucho Metales is a great name and I know it fits MI better than CI, but I like it and don't think you should change it. unless you change it to BikeSnobBogota

  7. Excellent post Lucho! Coming from Australia, and thus having no tradition, i can't eat a traditional snack on the bike.
    As for your name, i say keep it. Furthermore, as much as i enjoy your cycling related blogging, please write for MI soon. Seargeant D is doing my head in, ultimately leading me to question my musical taste on a fundamental level. As we speak I'm listening to Mudhoney. This can only be a sign as to my general disgust as regards MI's current content...
    CI is great though, carry on the good work.

  8. Mudhoney? Oh my god. I'll start working on a post NOW!

  9. A great blog which is helping me see road cycling from a new perspective. Please keep it up!

  10. I'm flattered Fritz. Thank you so much.

  11. To the anonymous poster who is from Colombia, where are you from? Time to start drinking panela. Have you tried bocadillos during a ride?

  12. Great stuff, very interesting.

    Here in Canada we fill our water bottles with pure maple syrup, It can be a little thick but the sugar boost makes it worth it.

  13. This is easily my favorite post so far. Anything that combines food and cycling (two of my favorite topics, ever) is a winner for me. Keep it up, Lucho.

  14. Yo Lucho,

    You should send some panela to the Stern Show as I bet Robin would love some of that for her meat and vegetables.

  15. Stern fans are lurking I see! I think Robin could make a device out of Panela alone. she's crafty, nahmean?

    does anyone know what the hell we're talking about?

  16. As a Colombian bicyclist, totally relate to the story.. how about some "masamorra"? mmmm....

  17. Masamorra! Ha ha...
    Actually, bocadillo is up next. hang in there.

  18. New reader pouring over the hilarity... Your ability to be self-depriciating without spewing vile, superego-ic vomit upon others (except when seemingly unavoidable) is much appreciated. This post is heads above the rest as it seems to resemble something real about yourself and the sport. The bit about you listening to journalists weeping while describing the Colombian victory is poetry. Please write a book. You're better than the blogosphere, or at least the hopeless masochists trolling about.

  19. Socktopuss,
    Thank you so much for the very kind words! You are really kind. I don't know that I have enough stories in me to make all the posts super serious. Accessing information about Colombian cycling from the 80s (my main area of interest) is incredibly I try to mix up the posts. I will continue to have some more serious ones along with the dumb/silly ones...hope the mix is not too weird for ya'll. Again, thank you for the kind words.

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  21. Dude, I have only found out about your blog a few months ago, and as you can image it has taken a bit of time for me to catch up with all of your posts. However, I reckon I'm almost there, having saying that,this post is my favourite, perhaps because it is what I still do, drinking hot "aguapanela" in winter and cold "aguapanela" in summer or during my rides.

    Saludos desde Londres, and enjoy your ride!!

  22. Luis Felipe,
    Thank you for the kind words. Really.
    Colombiano me imagino? De donde?
    Cuando estuve en Londres este Abril, compre granadilla en Harrods. Como tres Euros...pero valio la pena.

  23. Lucho,

    De Medellin, pero ya llevo 5 anos en esta ciudad. Te sorprendias de las cosas q se pueden conseguir por aca..

    I can't wait until your next post, also thank you for such kind words towards Medellin in your post a few days ago.

  24. My first time racing with both of these was on a 95F day and I won!! I am hooked on both aguapanela and bocadillos from here on out. I can find them both easily in Minneapolis. Thanks for the suggestion!

  25. Gracias por tu blog! Me encanta tu estilo y lo detallista que eres para escribir.

    Seguire' leyendo y que VIVA COLOMBIA! (y el ciclismo por supuesto jaja)


  26. Avemariapues homeee! eso es lo que le gusta a uno ver por aca tan lejos de la tierrita, la panela por delante papaaa! :)
    I love aguapanela and the fact that something so humble and so common in that wonderful little jewel of a country of ours can be the source of so much pride!
    It's not blood that runs through my veins, it's augapanela carajoo!!!
    lol thanks for your blog, it did good things for me.

  27. PattyCortica,

    I'm in Holland right now, checking on the blog while I'm away. Your comment made me laugh outloud.

    Avemariapues hombe! Ja ja. Soy cachaco, pero me las doy de paisa mientras monto en bici.

  28. Hi Lucho,

    Thank you for this great blog! I'm currently in Bogota visiting my Mrs family with our daughter. I'm a keen roadie back in London and came across your blog on a general Google search after my sister-in-law told me Colombian cyclists use panela for long rides etc! I had no idea and wanted to investigate further!

    Lucho, can you suggest the best ratio of panela to water for a 100mile plus training ride? any suggestions would be much appreciated!

    Thanks in advance,

    John Gargan

  29. Just discovered your site. Fantastico!

    Here's a story you might like about panela. I was racing for Team Xerox (an american team) in 1985. We started the Vuelta (then I got sick). The rest of the team went to do the RCN in Colombia while I stayed in Europe. When they got back they had stories of panela and bought some with them, but it got confiscated at the airport.

    We were doing the Dauphine and so were the Colombians (Team Café De Colombia). Half way through the race, our team manager did a swap for our T Shirts for some panela.

    I remember that day. I felt so good!

    Anthony (a kiwi)

    1. Anthony,
      I love your story! I would love to interview you for the blog. If you can, please email me (my contact information is in the "about/contact" section, that you can find on the right hand side of the blog.


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