Monday, March 28, 2011

Regions that have shaped Colombian cycling: Boyacá

Before I start today's post, allow me to remind you that I'm going to the Tour of Flanders. As such, my next post will probably come on Thursday April 7th. With that out of the way, let's get on with today's festivities.

Natives of Boyacá, watching the Vuelta A Colombia

Hats, cycling and ruanas
Boyacá is one of 32 departments that make up Colombia. For those of us who grew up in Bogota, the many small towns and cities of Boyacá have always been ideal destinations for weekend trips with friends and family. Although its landscape is varied, it's climate is largely on the cool side (thus making Bogotanos feel right at home). While Boyacá has "proper" cities, many of its small towns remain largely unchanged since they were colonized by Spaniards. They're the kind of places that could easily be ruined by international tourists...but since Colombia is a dark and scary place according to some, you're free to enjoy those towns freely and easily.

Villa de Leyva is perhaps the most visited small town in Boyaca. I can tell you from personal experience that the cobblestones on the main plaza make the ones in the Forest of Arenberg look and feel like a joke. Even if this picture doesn't make it seem that way...believe me.

Much in the same way that many of Boyacá's towns have not changed much, it's population still dresses as they always have. Boyacenses (as people from that region are known) almost always wear hats (made out of black felt), and a ruana. A ruana is a an essential piece of clothing in Colombia's colder climates. It's made of thick wool, and (in American terms) is somewhere between a Mexican-style poncho, and a Snuggie. As a kid, everyone in Bogota had one. As a matter of fact, I still have one.

Another use of the word ruana is the Colombian saying, "he put it on as though it were a ruana" (se la puso de ruana). The best way to explain this in English, is in the context of internet parlance, since it means to own or (as the kids would say) pwn something. It means you have totally dominated that event or thing. Say you were racing, and guy no one knew lapped everyone and made you all look like fools while barely trying. He beat you all badly, and no one else had a chance. What he did is that he put the race on as if it were ruana. As a matter of fact, whenever cyclists from Boyacá dominate a race or event, the Colombian press can't help itself, and always use this expression. Here, they took the Tour of the Caribe and put it on as a ruana. Not to be outdone, mountain bikers from Boyaca have also been known to put things on as a ruana from time to time, as you can see here. So next time someone beats you really, really badly at a race, don't come home crying to your wife, telling her that you lost in a monumental fashion to a guy in jeans who was barely trying. Just tell her that some dude you'd never heard of put the race on like a ruana. She'll be confused, wont know what you mean, and will think that perhaps you won. See how that works? As a piece of attire, the ruana is great for all kinds of weather, and as an expression, it also serves all kinds of purposes.

Here, numerous fans (almost all wearing ruanas and hats) gather around riders before the start of a stage in the 1960s. Boyacá has always been hosted stages of the Vuelta A Colombia, since its population has always been very devoted to the sport.

Boyacá is often the butt of many jokes in Colombia, mostly those having to do with a farmer who comes to the big city (Bogota) and is thus not savvy to the ways of the metropolitan life. Having said that, Boyacá is also revered in many ways. It was there, after all, that Colombia got its independence. Additionally, the region is known as the birthplace of a substantial number of Colombia's cycling talent. Mauricio Soler, Fabio and Ivan Parra, Felix Cardenas, Patrocinio Jimenez, Chepe Gonzalez, Oliverio Rincon, Nairo Quintana (who sadly had his bike stolen in Boyaca's capital of Tunja just last week), and Rafael Antonio Niño, to name a few. The line up includes a Tour de France podium, stage wins in the Giro, the Tour, the Vuelta, overall at the Coors Classic, white jersey at the Tour, overall at the Tour de l'Avenir, King of The Mountains at the Tour and a good bit more. Impressive, particularly when you consider that a good few of these riders came from a single city (Sogamoso) with a population of 192,000.

Parra podiums at the Tour

Nairo Quintana returns to Boyacá last year after winning the Tour de l'Avenir

Boyacá's influence on the sport continues to this day, since a good number of the riders who competed with the Colombia Es Pasion team just last week in the Volta a Cataunya were from there, including Nairo Quintana who won the Mountains Classification. Uran, by the way, finished fifth overall. As a side note, I have to admit that knowing a Colombian team is once again competing in Europe warms my heart. Similarly, I'm sure Paul "I swallowed a suitcase of courage" Sherwen is overjoyed, since more Colombian riders at the top of the sport simply means that he'll be able to show off how he can almost his r's on TV broadcasts for years to come. Seriously, that guy loves to almost roll his r's, and thus probably cried uncontrollably for days when Marino Lajarreta retired. By comparison, poor Phil Ligget is forced to limp along in the video below, due to his inability to roll his r's. As such, he pronounces Parra's last name as "Padada" and then "Pada". Ligget aside, when you watch the video below you'll see that Parra and Herrera put the Tour de France on as though it were a ruana that day, coming in first and second at Morzine. Sadly, Ligget would have said that they put it on as a "duana".

Some great and rather telling commentary regarding Colombians on this video:

"They came to the Tour de France three years ago, and one has to say that they were treated as a bit of a joke. They didn't know how to ride their bikes properly, and they certainly didn't know how to win stages...How times have changed. This is their third participation, and here we have two Colombian riders at the front of the Tour de can't see the Colombian journalists, but the stand they are commentating from is shaking."

One of many teams supported by the department of Boyacá, this one being called Boyacá Pride of The Americas. No one said they were bashful.

Beyond cycling and ruanas. Kind of.
Aside from cyclists, one of Boyaca's most beloved citizens is musician and actor Jorge Velosa (see image below). During his youth, Velosa trained to be a veterinarian in Bogota's Universidad Nacional, but he never practiced. During his education, he met fellow musicians, embraced his roots, and began playing the very music he had grown up around in his native Boyaca. His style of dress, music and lyrical content became well known, thus popularizing a style of music that was previously thought of as low-brow in Colombia, due to its peasant roots. Velosa actually shaped this musical style so much, that he re-framed it and created his own, which he called carranga. The music has a signature sound to it, and its lyrical content is often lighthearted and comedic. The instrumentation is simple, with a guacharaca (rasp-like instrument), keeping tempo steadily as stringed instruments are played over the steady beat. As a musical style carranga is very different from the dance-based and more party focused musical forms popular in Colombia such as vallenato and cumbia.

Jorge Velosa

In 1999, Velosa was kidnapped. This was around the same time that cyclists Luis Herrera and Oliverio Rincon were also kidnapped. Seen throughout the country as symbol of populist ideas and lifestyle, Velosa was an unlikely target for a kidnapping. It was partially for that reason that there was a substantial public outcry, and Velosa was eventually freed. The same was true for Herrera, a national hero who was taken away by guerrillas in front of his elderly mother. Because of their kidnapping, Velosa, Rincon and Herrera became friendly, as did their families during their ordeals. Velosa's bond to cycling pre-dated his kidnapping, however. As a native of Boyacá, Velosa had already written a song about the realities of being an aspiring cyclist in that region.

Here's the song (I didn't make the video, so don't complain about the pixelated images), with the translated lyrics below. If you'd like to hear another typically Colombian song about cycling, click here.

Little Steel Horse

Maybe this year, I will buy my little horsey,
My steel horse, it's the one I need,
For work and for my training,
Maybe one day, I can be a champion,
Like that one kid Rafael, [More than likely a reference to Rafael Antonio Niño]

Go, Go! Steel horse, run without stopping
My steel horse, with you, I'm going to win

I can already see myself, pedaling and pedaling
From my job to my house, and from my house to my job
And on weekends, going out on the road,
I have to be in good form, because I have my first race coming up

I'm going to climb like a beetle [Colombian climbers were affectionately called "beetles" by the press]
I'll be the best, but maybe, just maybe,
I can also pace my teammates to the top,
Climbers, that's what we are here in my beloved country,
We're badasses when the roads are flat, but even more,
When it comes to climbing

My dream is not an easy one to fulfill,
I'm so poor that I don't have enough to eat,
Let alone for a bicycle, but if I get my hands on one,
No one will stop me, or my steel horse,
Because with him I'm going to win

A bit more

Where is Fabio Parra now? He ran for city counsel in Bogota (where he now lives) last year. Parra is now a successful businessman, and owns a company that makes plastic and rubber packaging as well as containers, including water bottles for cycling teams. He earned a degree in Business Administration at the Universidad Externado during the off months from racing and training in Europe during the 1980s. He has admitted in interviews that he cut his career short in order to finish his degree, and start his business. Here's his Facebook page.

a video of Velosa's most iconic song, La Cucharita. It's a lighthearted take on what it's like to move from rural Boyacá to Bogota, only to have your papers (state-issued ID, paperwork proving that you've served mandatory military services etc) stolen, along with your most prized possession....a hand made spoon. Told you the lyrics could be odd and lighthearted.

Boyacá, Pride of The Americas on Facebook

Lastly, it's worth mentioning that parts of Boyacá are well known due to the amazing amount of fossils found there. You can go for a walk near Villa De Leyva and find them laying around everywhere, and entire fossilized animals are not rare. It's for this reason that many events there are themed around dinosaurs, like this amazing mountain bike race. Greatest race poster ever? You tell me.


  1. Hey, I just wanted to mention that I started reading your blog a a year ago and have enjoyed it ever since.

    One of my Mom's co-workers is Colombian and she was surprised at my knowledge of Herrera and the Cafe De Colombia team...things I certainly would not have known without this blog.

    Thanks. Keep writing.

  2. yes, greatest race poster ever - without a doubt.

  3. Everytime I watch that video of the 1-2 at Morzine I get goosebumps.

    Of course Boyacá Orgullo de América are awesome... They ride Orbeas.

  4. Corey,
    Thank you so much for the kind words. Even if your mom's co-worker is from the coast of Colombia, or some other region...she'll still be very impressed if you tell her that you'be been really getting into Jorge Velosa music lately. Actually, her head might explode. Also tell her that you're going to start wearing a ruana.

  5. Lucho,
    Your posts always make me want to go back to Colombia! I visit Villa de Leyva every time I'm back.

  6. beautiful job lucho. one of the best posts i've seen. thank you for the culture.

    Great racing video by the way and was it Ligget or Sherwin? but the announcers comments on how the Colombians where considered a joke and didn't know how to ride their bicycles was... can i say hilarious?

    Wow, music, geography, sport, fashion, military history. The only thing you missed was the role of women. i can help you with that angle by referencing this youtube video

  7. another great post, i'll add boyaca to the list of destinations for an eventual trip to Colombia. Having only followed the sport the last few years, it always looks like the guys in the 80s were on frames two sizes too big for them. Something pretty melancholy about that carranga though...


  8. Nice poster, but the rider doesn't seem to be suffering like this:

    The most epic poster ever would be that picture of Herrera with a bloody face with photoshopped dinosaurs in the background.

  9. "Herrera with a bloody face with photoshopped dinosaurs in the background"

    YES! someone please get on this!!!

  10. Just for clarity, Sherwin and Ligget were not calling the Columbian riders a joke or questioning their ability. They were simply commenting on the fact that the Columbian team hadnt been taken seriously when they first started competing.

    Great post, as an outside observer, I can only agree that I have been influenced by the press to view a country like Columbia as a dangerous place that would be fascinating but hazardous to visit. One day I would love to see these places first hand, but that would just be another tourist spoiling them for you...

  11. Higgins,

    You are correct, Ligget was not calling Colombian riders this, clearly not. But since this view was so common then (but sometimes disputed now), it's interesting to hear from Ligget himself just how common it was.

  12. great post, keep up the good work!!! also enjoy flanders i'm pretty jealous

  13. A beautiful post. The video of the mountain finish was just great.

  14. Glad the post was well received.

    Just got done with a nice ride in Belgium. Those crosswinds along the channels and rivers are no joke.

  15. You should come cycling with me near the Dutch coast. Facing a 6/7 Beaufort headwind after a 100 kilometer ride will drain the life out of you (you'll discover that climbing gears are useful on the flats too).

    You know it's bad when you are glad to see a bridge or hill because it will shield you from the wind for a bit.

  16. Aapje,

    Ah, thank you for the offer. Back home already, but the trip was great. Will have to go back soon, and venture over into your area.

  17. I should apologise for mispelling Colombia three times in one post, which must be some kind of record, and probably demonstrates why someone like me should never venture further than an airport departure lounge..Lo Siento.

  18. Higgins,

    All is forgiven. Tranquilo.

  19. Great post, Klaus, thank you. Thank you for the culture, thank you for the stories, thank you for your inspiration. Your really love cycling - and so do we here in Europe. This is by far the best cycling blog, keep up the good work!


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