Image from Velo News
I've written before about Colombia's history in the sport of cycling. My fondness for Colombia's past in the sport comes from particularly powerful childhood memories, along with a certain amount of longing for home. Having said that, I should always remember (and thus remind all of you) that Colombia is still very much active in the sport, and cycling needn't be a past-tense-only affair. One such case is that of Cesar Grajales. Born in the city of Manizales, Cesar burst onto the US racing scene when he won the Brasstown Bald stage at the 2004 Tour of Georgia. The victory was impressive to say the least. How often does a rider from a small US team (Jittery Joe's) attack and drop such an elite group of riders? Left behind that day were Jens Voigt, Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner, and Bobby Julich. But how did Grajales get to that point, and what is he up to now? Like other Colombian cyclists I've spoken to, his story is as winding and interesting as the country he was born in. Upon calling him, Grajales greeted me with the unmistakable paisa accent I expected. We spoke about his introduction to cycling in Colombia, about Roberto Escobar (Pablo Escobar's brother) and his connection to cycling. Additionally, Cesar was very open about his tumultuous years at Rock Racing, how the team operated behind the scenes, and how they treated him. We also talked about his new team (Bahati Foundation), their mission, and his ongoing efforts to get cycling equipment to struggling cyclists in Colombia. Due to the length of the interview, I'll be breaking it up in two parts. The second part will be up this Thursday.
Thanks to Cesar for his time and his candidness, and to his team staff for helping with the interview. Enjoy.
In a couple of instances, I've added notes in green, to give a bit of information to the interview when needed.
You were born and raised in Manizales, which puts you in great company and makes you part of an ongoing line of amazing paisa cyclists like Cochise Rodriguez, Santiago Botero and Ramon Hoyos. What was your childhood like in Manizales, and how did you become involved in cycling early on?
As a young kid I went to school at the Seminario Menor De Manizales. At that time, my dad would go out on rides along with his friends every weekend. I started to tag along on their rides, but I would go out on my BMX bike. The ride everyone does in Manizales is to go out and climb Letras. Most people go up to the tenth kilometer marker, and that's what we would normally do. I started doing that ride with my dad when I was 12 years old. So that's how it all started. Pretty soon after, they bought me a proper road bike, and I started riding every weekend. I would ride Saturdays and Sundays each week.
Wait, you would climb Letras on a BMX bike? No gears? That's an insane climb. It's extremely steep at some points. How long is it?
In total, it's 82 kilometers [50.9 miles]. It goes up from 600 meters, to 3,600. So I would do it on my BMX bike. That was the thing, my dad's friends were really amazed that I could keep up with them, and do that climb on a BMX bike. Eventually I started to use my mom's bike. It had tourist handlebars, but at least had 27" wheels. When I started riding on that bike, I would usually drop them all, and simply wait for them further up the road.
How was it for you as a little kid to do those climbs, on roads that are pretty hectic at times. I think people in the US don't understand that these rides in Colombia usually take place in what are, in essence, the major highways between Colombian cities. You have 18-wheelers, buses and dump trucks going at full speed on many of these roads. Did drivers give much respect to cyclists then?
The roads we have today are basically the same roads we had thirty or forty years ago. They haven't changed. The only thing that has changed, sadly, is that now there's a significantly higher number of vehicles on those roads. Because of that, you really have to pick your routes carefully. Still, in Colombia cyclists are respected. Drivers are accustomed to cyclists, so even though we have relatively few routes, drivers consciously share the roads with cyclists.
Do you think some of that respect from drivers comes as a result of the love that Colombia has for the sport?
Yes, yes. Colombia has a real history and long-standing passion for the sport. Additionally, there are simply lots and lots of people who ride bikes. Because of that, people are just accustomed to cyclists on the road, and they are very patient. Sure, there have been some cases in which the opposite was true, but normally drivers are very understanding.
So did your parents encourage you to pursue cycling?
Yes. My dad's friends saw how well I could climb and they would tell him that I should pursue the sport. This was in the 80s, a time when cycling was booming in Colombia. Around that time was when cycling schools for kids started in Colombia. My dad and his friends started a cycling school, and that's where I ended up. With the team from that school we were national champions. My teammate was Carlos Alberto Contreras. We grew up racing together, and then moved up to the Juniors category within the Caldas League. From there I went on to race with what would become Orgullo Paisa. I was there for two years and then signed with Postobon. I was with Postobon for about two years also, but then the team ended.
Roberto Escobar (Pablo Escobar's brother) was a cyclist who later owned a bike company and sponsored a team. On the left is Roberto signing autographs as a young cyclist. On the right is a picture of Roberto as he is today, after a letterbomb exploded inches away from his face.
[These two photos were scanned from the great Matt Rendells book Kings Of The Mountains]
[These two photos were scanned from the great Matt Rendells book Kings Of The Mountains]
Before we get further into your pro career, let me ask you about cycling in Manizales back in the 80s. In particular, I'm interested in Roberto Escobar (Pablo Escobar's brother) and his connection to cycling. He was Pablo's right hand man, but also a cyclist who later owned a bike company and sponsored a team. Was he a visible figure in the sport within Manizales?
You know, when you come to the United States, everyone you meet asks you about Pablo Escobar and the drug trade. Everyone wants to know about it.
Oh yes, I know the questions all too well. It's a sensitive subject, and one I try not to talk about too often with Americans, since it gives people the impression that our whole country was or is involved in trafficking.
Right. But, everyone wants to know about it. You're always hesitant to talk about, and in retrospect, it's amazing how exposed you can be to some people in that world even when you have nothing to do with it. I was actually just talking about this with Nathan O'neill this week. In particular, I'm amazed by just how close we were to Roberto Escobar. My dad's best friend back then was Rubier Martinez. Rubier was a cyclist from back in the day, around the same time as when Roberto was racing. Rubier was also best friends with Roberto, and they were business partners in a bike shop. This was back when Roberto was still poor, he was a trainer for the Cycling League of Caldas. Because of that, we knew Roberto pretty well. My dad was friends with Roberto as well, and he was around pretty often. My dad even helped Roberto's good friend get a job. Later we found out that this was Roberto's right-hand-man, and was involved in all the things that Roberto was involved in as well [Roberto was involved in his brother's business and was convicted of weapons violations, trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, illicit enrichment, and was connected to the deaths of 4000 people]. The fact that we knew him is something I'm only comfortable speaking about now. It's weird to think that we were that close to that type of people. I remember that we used to go to Roberto's farmhouse, the big one that he bought once he got money, anytime of day that we felt like visiting. They knew us and we were always welcome. It retrospect, its pretty unbelievable. Similarly, he would stop by our house, have breakfast and get going. Now that I think about it, it's pretty amazing. It's kind of a sad part of Colombia.
Pablo Escobar himself sponsored cycling teams as well, usually for the times when he was running for political offices early on in his life. This picture is of Gonzalo Marin, a talented Colombian cyclist who rode for one of Escobar's teams (note his shorts.) Marin, sadly, was later assassinated by Escobar's men.
[This picture was also scanned from the book Kings Of The Mountains]
[This picture was also scanned from the book Kings Of The Mountains]
I have similar feelings about the fact that my family knew Carlos Ledher, since my mom's best friend was married to his brother. We knew the family well. When I first moved to the United States, I was hesitant to tell people about it, in fear that they would judge me or the whole country because of it. He was in the news a lot when we moved, since he had given testimony to put Manuel Noriega away. But back to Roberto. So was he visible in Manizales and people knew who he was? He was a wanted man.
Yes, yes. He was always around. Everyone knew he had raced, that he was a trainer for cycling teams and everyone knew his shop. His farmhouse that we went to was a huge Chinese pagoda, it was impressive. It was spectacular. He had very expensive horses. I don't remember his transition from the time he was just a poor trainer and ex-cyclist, to the time when he was living in such opulence. I was too young, so I don't remember very well. My dad saw it though, so he remembers that whole transition. People simply didn't know where his money was coming from. Some may have speculated, but the reality was that no one knew. To most people in Manizales it was just a matter of "his brother that lives in Medellin has lots of money now, and Roberto does business with him, and now he has money too." It was as simple as that.
[I wrote a whole post about Escobar's connections to cycling, you can read it here.]
Okay, let's get back to your career. So the Postobon team ended, then what happened? How did you end up in the United States racing for an American team?
Well, the Postobon team ended. So too did Pony Malta and Glacial, which were pretty much the main teams back then. Since the teams ended, I decided to go to college and started racing mountain bikes with a group of friends for a team sponsored by Bancafe and Giant. So that was my transition to mountain biking. Those guys are still around, and have a club called Rueda Libre. They changed sponsors, but they're still around, and have quietly been supporting mountain biking in Manizales for about 15 years. So as a mountain biker I competed in the national championships. I was also in the Colombian National team, and with them I competed in the Panamerican games, in the South American games, and even the World Championships. I ended up in the United States because of the World Championships actually. They were being held in Vail, Colorado in 2001. Because of September 11th, all the American airports were shut down for two, maybe three weeks. So I never made it to the Champsionships. Those who were already in Vail were able to race, those of us who were unable to get there, didn't compete. So I missed the World Championships, but still had a plane ticket. My parents were living in Athens, Georgia, so I changed my plane ticket and used it to go visit them in Georgia.
Was it during that trip that you made some connections with teams in the US?
Yes, it was. While I was there in Athens, I went to a bike shop and started asking about routes I could ride or people to ride with, just so I would have something to do during my vacation. I didn't know any English, so I went with my friend to the shop, and he translated for me. He told them I was in the Colombian national team, and was looking for rides. It so happened that during the winter they would have these big rides, which were actually races. The rides were big, about 150 people. I wanted to go, but all I had was my mountain bike. So the guy at the shop said he'd let me borrow a road bike in order for me to go. At first I really thought my friend was translating things wrong. I started to doubt how good his English was, because it sure seemed like the shop owner was misunderstanding. Why would they just let me borrow a bike? It seemed to me like the shop was selling me a bike. I kept asking my friend "Are you sure that's what the guy is saying? He's just gonna' let me borrow a bike? I don't want to buy a bike, I'm just here to ask about rides." Suddenly, the guy from the shop hands me two tires and tells me that the ones on the bike are pretty worn, so that maybe I could put these new ones on myself in order to go to the ride. Now I'm thinking that the guy is trying to sell me a bike, AND a new set of tires. Eventually I figured out that they were just letting me borrow the bike. In fact, they were so nice to me and so organized that at the ride, they even had a guy to translate for me and explain everything. At first, I didn't understand that this was a race to them. I kept coming in fourth or third. Once I saw that they were racing, I just went ahead and won. This was on the longest ride they had, which was like six hours. The manager for Jittery Joes was at those rides, so he asked me if I wanted to come back to the United States the next year and maybe try to make it into the team. That's how it started. From the time I started on that team, I was a bit better than the rest of the guys. That's how I ended up racing here in the United States.
Have you had any issues because you're from Colombia? I know you had some difficulties with Rock Racing and your visa.
That was a problem I had last year, when I was in Colombia. The way it works is that your team has to file the necessary paperwork for your visa, since they are your employers. In past teams, it had never been an issue, because they were so organized. In 2008 I raced with an old visa that was still valid. For 2009 with Rock Racing, it was a problem. They were very disorganized. I told the team that it had to be done, knowing how long a visa can take.
So I was back in Colombia, in early 2009. I was there waiting to get the visa, so I could come back into the United States for the team camp. I needed to be there in order to get a spot on the Tour Of California squad, which I really wanted. I kept talking to the team about the visa, asking what the status was, since they were the only ones that could take care of the paperwork, as my employers. They kept saying "Oh, not yet..but don't worry about it." While all this is happening, and they are holding up my paperwork, they are my only way of getting a visa. While I was still in Colombia waiting, the team tells me "Sorry Cesar, we're cutting your salary in half." So there I am. I'm in Colombia, without a visa, and I'm at the mercy of Rock Racing. It's February, so it's too late to sign with another team. There was nothing I could do. I was between a rock and hard place, as they say [the expression Cesar used in Spanish literally translates to "I found myself between a sword and the wall", which perhaps more accurately explains the situation]. So really, I was forced to stay with them. There was nothing else I could do, so I resigned myself to the situation. Oddly enough, right when they cut my salary in half for no reason, they instantly started to process my visa. I was stuck, and totally at their mercy. In April me and two teammates were then fired from the team for no reason at all.
So you were fired along with Mike Creed, and who else?
Did you stay in touch with the team?
Well, they kept telling me not to worry, that I was part of the team. When I was fired from the pro team, I still hadn't signed a contract with the team, particularly not one for the new reduced salary. They had put me in the amateur team since 2008, so I remained amateur. So in June they offered to put me back on the pro team, but still for half of my salary. I had no choice, I had no other way of racing, so I signed the contract. Even once I signed, however, they still didn't put me in the pro team.
So they made you sign the contract to be a pro, but then refused to put you in the pro team?
Yes, that was a little trick they pulled on me. But it got worse. I thought I would at least race as an amateur, and earn half of my original salary. Pretty soon after, however, they started not paying me. When that happened, I contacted the United States Cycling Federation. They are the ones that will act on your behalf as a cyclist. Since every team has to have a certain amount of money set aside as a guarantee, I was hoping to draw my salary from that money. That's exactly why that money is set aside, in case a team has money problems, the riders can have their salaries paid. So I called the Federation and told them about my problem, that I wasn't being paid. They told me that other riders on the team had the same problem, and they were helping them, but that they couldn't help me. They couldn't help me because my paperwork stated that I was not a professional. So I ask them, "What do you mean I'm not a professional?", so I sent them an email with my signed contract with Rock Racing. They looked at it, and said that the contract was one thing, but Rock Racing had never officially upgraded me to professional status with the Federation. That meant that the Federation couldn't help me, and there was no one I could go to regarding the fact that I wasn't being paid.
How many months went by that you were not paid for?
Three months in total. October, November and December.
You were originally demoted to the amateur team because of Cipollini right? He took your spot?
Of course. Cipollini never really signed with the team though. He just raced the Tour Of California. Once he left, Rock Racing kept telling me that they were going to put me back up to the professional team mid-year. They never did, so I never went back up to the professional team. They kept me as an amateur, which didn't allow me to start on many races that I really wanted to do. Even as an amateur, I really barely raced. We didn't even have a set calendar to work from.
What does that do to your morale? Are you able to keep training?
It was hard, because I didn't know what I was training for. I didn't know what kind of a race, or if and when a race would come. If a race was coming up, I still didn't know until the last minute.
So the team was just managed badly from the start?
Yes, there were problems from the start. In the 2008 training camp, they split up the team into two separate houses. In one house, they had the guys who came from Pro Tour teams. The other house was all the other guys, like me, who had been racing nationally here in the United States. From the start, we were basically discriminated against, as though we were less than the other cyclists. They had a chef in their house, they had a masseuse. We didn't have a masseuse, or a chef...and we're supposed to be on the same team. The chef would cook their meals, ours were frozen and we had to heat them up. It all started on bad terms.
Were there issues with money from the start? Was it hard for you to not get paid and then see the team spend money on Cadillacs and models for races?
No, in 2008 there were no money problems. Our checks came from Rock & Republic, not Rock Racing. We were paid. At least those of us that stayed got our money. Those that decided to leave, had it different. My teammate Doug Ollerenshaw, got a letter from the team at one point saying that because he was leaving the team, they would not pay him for the last three months. Doug knew this was wrong, so he sent a letter asking about it, and copied the Cycling Federation. Rock responded very quickly, saying that it had been a mistake, that he would be paid for those three months. It was only then that they responded. But they certainly tried not to pay him. As I understand it, Santiago Botero had the same thing happen to him. I can't say that officially, but that's what I understand happened to him. He decided to leave the team at the end of his contract, and they didn't pay him for the last three months.
Was there a positive side to being on Rock Racing, like perhaps the fact that you were with an unusual number of other Colombian riders? There was Freddy Rodriguez, Santiago Botero and Victor Hugo Peña. How did so many Colombians end up on Rock Racing?
It was very nice to have Colombian teammates. It all started because I signed a contract with Rock Racing in June of 2007. Then Victor Hugo Peña told me he was looking for a team. Victor Hugo is a very good friend of mine, I'm even the godfather of his oldest son, Mateo.
Did you know Victor Hugo before Rock Racing then?
Yes, I knew him back in Colombia. We were in the Postobon team together for almost three years, so we've been friends since back then. When I signed with Rock Racing, he contacted me. He was racing for Unibet in Europe, and that team was ending. Victor Hugo asked me what opportunities might be available here. I told him that the team looked very promising, and that they had a very good program. I put him in touch with the manger at first, and then the director sportif. They talked, and started to work things out. Victor Hugo then mentioned to me that Santiago Botero was also looking for a team. He was in Colombia racing for Une, and wanted to move teams. I spoke with Santiago, and put him touch with the team.
So you were instrumental in getting them on the team?
I merely made the connection with the team for them. Their palmares spoke for themselves. They had both accomplished so much. With Santiago, I was pretty involved. I translated all the negotiations for him. I was involved in negotiating his salary, so I basically acted like this agent during the deal.
How did you get along with the other Colombian rider (aside from Peña and Botero), Freddie Rodriguez? To me he's Colombian since he was born in Bogota, but I know he's been in the United States a very long time.
Freddie was a great teammate. I had known him before from races, but very little. Once we were teammates we had a great time. He came to the U.S. when he was pretty young, but he's definitely Colombian. Have you ever spoken to Freddie's dad?
Freddie Rodriguez, easily the most accomplished Colombian-born sprinter of all time (with all due respect to Leonardo Duque). 3-time USPRO National Champion, Giro Stage winner, and second place at both Milan-Sanremo and Gent-Wevelgem.
Me? No. I've actually been looking for a way to contact Freddie in order to interview him, but I haven't been able to. I haven't been able to talk to Freddie, much less his dad. Why?
Oh, because Freddie's dad is Colombian to the core, he's so funny. But see, when you talk to someone like George Hincapie [Cesar used the Spanish pronunciation of the last name: Eehn-kah-pee-eh], he's definitely very Americanized. When you speak to George's brother Richard, he speaks with a paisa accent. By the time you get to their dad, forget about it. Their dad is as Colombian and as paisa as it gets. In every way.
I've noticed that too. When I watched the Ride With George Hincapie movie, you can see how his parents, his brother and his sister are so incredibly Colombian in every way. How they look, how they speak, the things they say, it's pretty funny to see.
That's what I mean. George's dad is as Colombian as it gets. Freddie, on the other hand, is slightly more Americanized. So he's a bit more like George, but Freddie's Spanish does have a certain Colombian accent to it. He sounds more Colombian.
So what about your other Colombian teammate on Rock Racing, Victor Hugo Peña. Do you know what his status is right now? I saw that he was doing races in Colombia with a small team, and doing some international races with the Colombian national team.
I'm not sure what his situation is right now. For a while, he told me that Rock Racing kept saying not to worry, that everything was going to be fine. They would have a license and so on. But then it all changed. Do you remember how all the Rock Racing publicity and the team kit said "Rock's Not Dead"?
Yeah, of course. Sure.
Well, I suddenly got a message from Victor Hugo that said, "Ooops, Rock is dead" [laughs]. It was a sad thing for him, but it struck me as funny also. He said "No Cesar, Rock is dead." But I don't really know what's happening for him, or to Freddie right now.
A big part of your new team [Bahati Foundation], is really about connecting with kids in schools. Was this a plus for you when considering the team?
Yes, I've always been interested in that sort of thing. For example, for years now I've been collecting cycling shoes, jerseys, helmets and tires, and then taking them to young kids starting out in Manizales. I collect all this stuff, and I send it over every year, for the young kids in the cycling League. In Colombia, it's so hard for these young kids' families to be able to afford simple things like a helmet.
It's a big difference from how many people here in the U.S. view cycling and their equipment. They will sometimes worry about style, and how they look on the bike more than anything else.
Well, here some people won't use a helmet or glasses because they were last year's model. Most cyclists in the United States have jobs, they are professionals that can make a good living. Many will buy a new bike as often as every two years or so. Over time, they end up with a house full of stuff that they don't really use. These are things that can sometimes be life changing to kids in Colombia. I don't think most people here can even understand that to a person in Colombia, it would be impossible to ever get their hands on most of these things. For a kid in Colombia, the possibility of ever owning a pair of carbon fiber shoes...it's just impossible for them to even imagine. Meanwhile right now, I have five pairs of carbon shoes that I've had donated, and two or so that were mine. In Colombia, almost all the cyclists are from very, very humble economic backgrounds. They are very poor. So while the cyclists here will stop wearing last year's helmet, they also have a huge heart and love to donate equipment to these kids. I've been lucky in the sense that I've created a name for myself in the cycling community here. Because of that, sponsors and people know me, and they donate this equipment. So because of the Bahati Foundation, I've been thinking about a way of expanding this program. I would love to do it on a larger scale, to help out these kids who really need equipment all over Colombia, not just Manizales. Maxxis has given me tires, we've gotten glasses and things like that. So to me, this is something I've always wanted to do, just to help in some way. You know what the hardest part of getting the equipment to the kids is? It's not getting the donation. The really hard part is getting it into the kids' hands. You have to either do it personally, through a close family member, or people who you can absolutely trust 100%. I tried doing it once by having the things go to the League, and they never got to the cyclists.
Like so many things in Colombia, the stuff just "disappeared"?
Exactly, isn't that sad?
So for anyone reading this who wants to contribute and donate something, how can they do it?
They can just contact me by email. I will send them the address to send the stuff to. Ten minutes away from my house is the place where I can safely send the packages to Colombia. It's pretty easy. If someone sends me an email, I'll write back right away and tell them what to do. As long as the things are usable, and not broken, they can use them in Colombia.
[Contact me through the link at the top right-hand side of this page, and I'll give you the necessary information to donate.]
Part two of the interview will be up on Thursday. In that portion of the interview, Cesar talks about his new team, the Brasstown Bald stage win, and the Vuelta A Colombia. Come back Thursday to read it.