Monday, August 23, 2010

Cycling's obsession with coffee, and my tales of car bombs and unlicensed emeralds

: :
Bogota, Colombia. Not Bogota New Jersey, or Bogota Tennessee.

The wait is over everybody. I'm back from Colombia, and I must say that I was flattered by the large number of people who came out to the airport to greet me. You really shouldn't have...although I'm glad you did. After such a trip, it's only logical that I'm bursting with stories that I'll be sharing with you over the next few weeks or even months. After all, it was Colombian writer Grabriel Garcia Marquez who titled his autobiography "Living To Tell The Tale", so who am I to disagree? As always my time in Bogota was both fun and eventful. As such, many memorable moments were had during my travels. Here are just a few mental snapshots of my trip:

Riding a borrowed bike over the recently covered-up crater left by a car bomb one day earlier.

Riding the same borrowed bike through a mass of hundreds of riot police as they prepared to take on anti-bullfighting protestors.

Eating three times my weight in fried plantains. In two days.

Being measured by an elderly frame maker in the same contraption as three Colombian presidents and one Formula 1 driver.

Having that same kind and elderly frame maker accompany me to the bank while I withdrew the small down payment for a custom frame. His reason for coming with me? So that I wouldn't get robbed on my way out of the bank.

Meeting a few of Colombia's cycling greats, and hearing one of them say "That's me with Fausto Coppi", as he quickly flipped through a stack of old pictures.

Hearing a description of how you can get unlicensed emeralds onto a plane by putting them inside the top tube of your bike. This description was stated in the past tense, and was part of a don't get any ideas about my reasons for traveling to Colombia.

Seeing numerous new, unopened boxes of 1960's and 1970's Campagnolo parts, and then realizing that as much as I honor the sport's past, once I start buying that stuff...I'll be on my way to becoming one of those people that does Civil War re-enactments in period garb.

So while I sort through all the memories of this latest trip, allow me to tell you about yet another thing that I thought about during my travels to/from Colombia. Today's story goes a little something like this:

As I settled into my seat on the flight back from Bogota a couple of days ago, I closed my eyes in an attempt to drown out the sound of the chatty American missionaries behind me. As is usually the case for those of us with above-average intelligence, such pensive moments are usually spent contemplating life's big questions. On that day, the big question swirling around in my head was this:

Why is coffee so tied in to cycling?

Look, I know what you're probably thinking. You're probably thinking that that is not one of life's big questions, and that as a Colombian citizen I should probably know the answer to it. You're probably also wondering why I'm so short, and why the New York Times always uses such unflattering pictures of Greg Lemond, and why my wife is watching every single episode of Dynasty online (particularly when we all know that Dallas was way better). Well, allow me to answer your questions one at a time.

Question number one, coffee and cycling:
I know that this is not one of life's big questions, but can we both just pretend it is so that the premise of this post doesn't seem so flawed?

Question number two, why am I so short:
Why are you asking me why I'm short, let me ask you...why are you damn tall? Everyone knows that road bikes look their best when their size is in the low 50's, its not my fault that yours looks like a stretched out monstrosity made out of tent poles.

Question number three, NY Times and Lemond's unflattering pictures:
The reason why The New York Times uses unflattering pictures of Greg Lemond has to do with a longstanding conspiracy against celebrities that were ever spokespersons for purveyors of fourth rate, pseudo-Mexican food.

Question number four, why does my wife watch Dynasty:
I wish I knew. Seriously. I can't figure this one out.

With those pressing issues out of the way, let's get back to the bigger question, the only one that I feel I can safely tackle in this forum: Why is it that cycling in the United States is so connected to coffee? Why do cyclists have their own blends of coffee? Why does the US cycling federation sell coffee? Why do group rides begin at coffee shops? I ask this partially because that's simply not the case in Colombia. In Colombia, one of biggest coffee producing nations in the world, coffee (particularly within the context of cycling) is but an afterthought. Do people drink coffee before they ride? I guess some people do, but many also go to the bathroom before they ride, and toilet paper is not a crucial part of "cycling culture" because of it. For god's sake, even the concept of "cycling culture" doesn't even exist in I'm still having trouble understanding all this. Sure, there's the fact that coffee has caffeine, and that can be good for riding your bike. Rides also often take place early in the morning, and that's when many people drink coffee. I also think that perhaps many people who ride bikes in places like the United States are so obsessed with Italian cycling culture, that they try to emulate every aspect of it, including small cultural details that have little to do with Italian's taste for coffee.

"How do I say 'Campagnolo products which are mass produced in Italian factories have soul, while Shimano products which are mass produced in Asian factories do not' in Italian"

Maybe, just maybe, in some cases cyclist's love for coffee has to do with the famed Cafe De Colombia team, but I doubt it. I mean, Quick Step has been a sponsor of a cycling team for many years, and I have yet to see local cyclists go (Lady) ga-ga over their new Sculptique™ laminate collection, regardless of how realistic its Earthen Maple finish is. So while I'm aware of the fact that I have above average intelligence (an online IQ test told me so), I have to say that I'm at a loss as to why people who ride road bikes here in the US (and perhaps other places) see such a connection between cycling and coffee. Perhaps it's just as simple as people liking the taste of that foul beverage...but the sheer percentage of cyclists who drink, talk about, and idolize coffee is completely disproportionate. It almost seems so random that it could be replaced by anything else. Why can't the connection be between cycling and say, eating papayas, or gargling with Marshmallow Fluff?

While I'm at it, I think I should also mention that I fail to see the strong connection between cycling and beer...but I guess I can blame that on the Belgians too (as I often do). I must also admit that since I don't drink either coffee or beer, I'm rather unqualified to give a ruling on either issue...and yet I'm writing a whole post about this. But I guess not knowing about something has never stopped me from writing about it, cycling in general being a prime example of that. Still, since I was born and raised in Colombia, I feel that I'm entitled to act as an authority on the matter. And I will. So I will now tell you from intimate knowledge how nearly every single Colombian citizen drinks their coffee, so that if you must drink the'll at least drink it properly. The rich and the poor, the young and the old...they all drink their coffee in Colombia in the exact same way. So from this day forth, I hereby order that all cyclists who are obsessed with coffee drink theirs in the same manner as all Colombians do, which is the following:

Boil one cup of milk (or soy milk)
Once it boils, add one spoonful of instant coffee and two of sugar. Stir.

Colcafe brand instant coffee, the overwhelmingly preferred brand of choice throughout Colombia.

If you're a coffee snob, and you're going to complain about how instant coffee sucks...just remember: I'm from Colombia. I know about these things. You're not from Colombia, so you don't. Look, chances are that you're drinking coffee in the way that you do, and in the quantities that you do because of why not prepare it in the way that Colombians do? Trust me. I'm an expert.


  1. Your description of Colombian-style coffee reminds me of traveling to Papua New Guinea, another big coffee producer. We would be up in the mountains, with coffee trees surrounding us, and all the local people would be drinking instant coffee mixed with water and staggering amounts of sugar. For them coffee was just a cash crop, a way to put the kids through primary school.

    The price for dried, unroasted coffee beans was also 1 PNG Kina per kilo, or about 20 cents per pound. Quite a few markups in the supply line.

    I have pictures and stories from PNG at my blog.

  2. welcome back brother. REALLY looking fwd to hearing all the stories on the blog (i'm pretending you didn't already tell them to me over the phone when you got back).

    i, too, HATE coffee. 'hate' is not a strong enough. the thought of it makes me gag. the smell is SO repulsive to me, i refuse to enter a starbucks. the stains lips leave on a cup of coffee after you drink it are as nasty to me as a used tampon. when people leave a half drunk mug of coffee in the sink at work, i can't enter the kitchen until someone removes it. to me, it might as well be a mug filled with puke or half rotten pig entrails. i'm not exaggerating... i think that aversion comes from being force-fed the damn thing when we were kids. BARF! i'm seriously nauseous right now just thinking about it. ANYWAY, i'm thinking maybe that's i'm not a better cyclist and we got kicked out of colombia in the first place.

    oh, on a totally different note, i'm so famous now that kaiko from pedal-strike interviewed me. worship me here:

  3. I've wondered, when you've talked about Bogota and the drug violence in the past, if FARC was still an issue, and it obviously is. Sad to see a place overcome all the narco-terrorism and yet still have another front to fight.

    There are no flattering photos of Lemond.

    Your wife watches "Dynasty" for the same reason that mine watches "Glee". To anger us.

    And finally, and seriously, coffee is one of the reasons I got into cycling. I don't know why they are intertwined, but I need them to be.

    Welcome back.

  4. db,
    the FARC, other leftist guerrillas and narco-terrorists are not a big problem anymore, especially if you compare it to the 80's. the country is quite safe nowadays. i feel safer walking in bogota than i do in DC. that's cuz DC is a shithole, tho. OOOOH!

  5. coffee. i can't dig it. I have the same aversion as SkullKrusher to half-drank cups of coffee. Especially (and i don't know why people do this) when that last cigarette they were smoking gets tossed in the cup to put it out. nothing activates my gag reflex more quickly or effectively.

    on another note, I would really like to try cycling one country south (Peru) where you can consume cocoa leaves like people in that region (including columbia) have been for millenia.

    Seriously, based on my experiences hiking there and running the Inca trail, I would have to say that when I'm climbing and about to crack, a huge dip of cocoa leaves in my jaw would get me right back to the front of my "Rich guys on expensive bikes" weekly ride.

    nice post, looking forward to the rest of the stories.

  6. Oh and i didn't find FARC to be a problem in Columbia, but I did get chased by a gun wielding drug dealer/ money launderer when i interrupted his sale of a bunch of fake bank notes to a friend of mine in Cartagena.
    But stuff like that happens everywhere.

  7. Fairly long time reader but first time poster, I think. I like the blog.

    Cycling and beer I imagine comes from cyclocross, where fans sit out in the rain and mud in the winter to watch their favorite 'crosser go by. Have you ever tried standing around in cold rain watching a sporting event without alcohol? As someone from Oregon, let me tell you that it's miserable (this is why most sensible winter sports are indoors). And in Belgium and Portland, both world capitals of 'cross and cold rain for disproportionate amounts of the year, the preferred alcoholic beverage is craft beer.

  8. Nick,

    the cigarette floating in a coffee cup or cup of beer makes me gag every time. Also, why/when were you in Cartagena? Just wondering...and's ColOmbia, not ColUmbia. Commonly made mistake...but I have to point it out.

    Thank you for commenting sir. Since I don't drink, I have to say that I have in fact enjoyed sporting events without drinking...but perhaps I would have enjoyed myself a bit more if I drank? I guess I'll never know.

  9. Oh the caffeine buzz river,
    Its wide, wide, wide,
    But it ain't deep.

  10. Great post. My 66 cm frame must look to you like those giant shoes that clowns wear. Nice for emerald portage though.

  11. 66cm! Mother of mercy. Don't hog all the tubing in the world. the rest of us need bikes too!

  12. oops, my bad. Sometime I spell Colombia, SC wrong also.
    I did a South American tour like 2 summers ago. Cartagena, Bogota, Florencia, Monteria, etc...
    then on to Peru.

  13. Oh and my reason for going was a grand architectural tour a la the European Grand Tour of Architecture, except for pre-colombian architecture, indigenous architecture, and early Spanish architecture.

    Also some of the modern stuff is OK but the drug violence really put a hurt on construction of international style and fascist architecture in S. America.

    Check out my blog, it has alot of sketches and drawings from my time there, some are excellent, some not so great, but all interesting. You have to blow them up to full size to check the location - it's always noted in the lower right corner.

  14. No worries Lucho. It's steel and only those of us wanting to push the power/weight ratio as close to zero as possible will be affected by my tube-hogging.

  15. interesting, yet little known fact: (sorry for correcting you again, nick! seriously) The country is indeen ColOmbia, the school and the city in SC are ColUmbia, but the term is actually "pre-colUmbian," since it refers to the time before Columbus. weird and annoying, i know.

    i actually (literally) gaged when i read about the cigarette butt floating in the coffee. i saw that a lot in spain. GAG!

  16. oh and about beer//cycling. the way i look at it, EVERYTHING goes with beer. strip clubs, knitting, fishing, gardening, horror movies and cycling, of course!

  17. xyxax,
    I kid. I kid. No worries, with short people like me...the tube shortage will be evened out. It's all good.

    Did you get a look at any of Regelio Salmona's work while in Colombia? He's so blindly admired in Bogota, that I as seldom able to get a good read on his work. The form and use of materials (red brick) is impressive, but his use of water features seems continuously derivative of Kahn's Salk Institute. Some of the buildings also have odd, dark and cramped spaces for the sake of a nicer-reading facade overall...and yet I still like many of his buildings.

  18. Lucho, me too. Keep up the good work!

  19. Salmona's work I thought owed a great deal to Fascist Architecture where space and light are sometimes sacrificed for the sake of the overall massing and appearance of the building. Notwithstanding, I thought his buildings were beautiful, the use of water features slightly derivative (but what isn't??), and their overall presentation and massing to be representative of a tranquil yet calm and united Colombia, Almost as if they were standing up to the violence (and history of Spanish violence and conquest) yet also offering an alternative.

    just my take.
    SkullCrusher - yeah I purposefully misspelled Colombia, SC, etc... Even those of us with 'spensive degrees that someone else paid for are dum sometimes.

  20. never met a crackhead or junky that didnt start on coffee.

    the real gateway drug

  21. For all you non-caffeinated wankers out there:

  22. Did you bring back presents? I'll be happy to take all the coffee SkullKrusher disdains.

  23. Jefe
    Better I brought back bike frames, but they are all spoken for. bummer.

  24. Indeed! I hope you enjoy your custom steel, Lucho!! I've zipped about on "crabon" and aluminium, but nothing warms the heart like steel- especially if the ride is a long one.

    Some wanker stole my last cycle, an old friend of 26 years. I now have a custom frame that rides beautifully.

    I'm glad to see you had a chance to visit ColOmbia. I like the way it's also properly pronounced that way, friends from El Salvador taught me that years ago.

    Oh, and those emeralds will annoy you on bumpy roads, more than a loose frame pump spring!


  25. sub-arctic cyclingAugust 28, 2010 at 3:34 PM

    I think coffee, beer, and cycling are all related because they are things that people can start "getting into" once they have a certain level of disposable income, and a certain level of education. When you can afford the time and money to start experimenting with craft beers, special exotic coffee, you can also probably afford that fancy canondale. my two cents. also skullcrusher is right about beer going with everything. is there anything beer doesn't go well with? driving?

    and how many people on here are architects or studying architecture anyway cause including me i'm counting at least three. what the hell?

  26. sub-arctic,
    good point, i think you're onto something there. many cyclists, from what i gather, are not just into budwiser or pabst or whatever (although some are, i'm sure) but they also get into fancy beers and such.

    regarding architecture, i'm not one...but i'm always happy to talk about Le Corbusier's writings, philip johnson ripping Mies and Schinkel off, or the always fun topic of why Eisenman was better as a writer than a builder...or how he is annoying at doing both.

  27. Kona with a filter, one cup at a timeAugust 30, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    Seriously please post soon: your competition is tiresome. I need something I can read while drinking my coffee.

  28. Lucho,
    A little secondhand anecdote to raise the bile in your (and SkullKrusher's) throats...

    Deep into the 2007 Paris Brest Paris, a number of weary souls are taking a break from the chilly damp night in a little cafe, indulging in a "cup of ambition" (who doesn't love Dolly Parton?). One fellow, Italian as I heard it, orders his espresso and asks the woman behind the bar to give him the grounds. He proceeds to drink his coffee, whereupon he chases it with the grounds.
    Was that noise I heard just then you puking a little?
    I remember finding a whole new level of tiredness during that ride, but this blew me away.

  29. ha ha! wow. grounds as a chaser. amazing. more importantly, you did Paris Brest Paris? Amazing.

  30. Oh the stories! I'm still paying off the trip, but it was well worth it.
    here is the Picasa gallery of Gregg Bleakney
    Awesome photos!
    Inspiring maybe?

  31. um...sorry, his flickr stream is muuuuch more complete.
    Also, possible evidence in there that AC stole the pistolero idea from me!

  32. dude... your blog kills me. It's hard to find a blog these days with just the right amount of sarcasm for every occasion... Keep it up.

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