Monday, October 24, 2011

A high tolerance for pain: Miguel Samacá and Álvaro Pachón discuss the past and future of Colombian cycling



A violent rainstorm brought the city of Bogotá to a standstill, including the southbound bus I was in. Wide avenues and sidewalks flooded quickly, as rivers of water flowed down the steep streets of Bogotá's mountainous neighborhoods. It was there, in those severe Andean slopes, that the future of Colombian cycling could be seen riding against the current that suddenly flowed downhill. Two boys kept pedaling despite the tempestuous rain. They were not hand-picked as the next professionals to soar over European mountain passes. They were not being followed by a coach telling to them to train, train, train, despite the storm. They rode through the downpour because they had to—to eat, to live, to survive. The two boys, no older than twelve, were navigating the city’s streets on road bikes four sizes too big for them, and in no better shape than the cracked pavement they were riding on.

One of them was so small that he couldn’t even straddle the bike. He reached the right pedal by inserting his leg over the bike’s down tube, thus threading himself through the bike as though it were a needle. Their pedal strokes were smooth, despite the fact that large push reel lawnmowers were strapped to their bike's top tubes. They pedaled knowing that losing the opportunity of mowing another lawn could mean the difference between eating and going to bed hungry.

So while a city of 8 million came to a halt, they continued to ride their bikes uphill.
Like so many of Colombia’s great cyclists, their upbringings and surroundings made their tolerance for pain and discomfort very high, and like those great cyclists, their reason for climbing steep grades had more to do with survival than with sport.



Álvaro Pachón, photgraphed in Bogotá, 2010






The Condor

Having missed our appointment earlier in the week because of that torrential downpour, I'm finally able to meet Álvaro Pachón several days later at the bike shop that he inherited from his father long ago. At 66, Pachón’s build and presence remain that of a great cyclist. The souplesse he exhibited on the bike as a young man is still there. He doesn't move, as much as he glides toward the austere office that he keeps in the back of the shop. His signature lambchop-style sideburns are long gone, but the drawn-out features and nose that earned him his nickname still remain. He's still The Condor of Cundinamarca.


A four-time Olympian, two-time winner of the Vuelta a Tachira, winner of the Vuelta a Colombia, and winner of the Vuelta a Mexico, Álvaro Pachón was one of the best in his generation. So to this day, he remains one of the most loved and remembered cyclists in Colombia, which makes me rather self-conscious about the fact that I missed our earlier appointment. Pachón compassionately ignores my apologies, and points out that it was Bogotá's often chilly and unpredictable weather that shaped him as a cyclist. He then extrapolates that concept to Colombia as a whole, saying that, “Growing up and living in Colombia prepares us as cyclists for being able to take a great deal of suffering on and off the bike. Our tolerance for pain and discomfort is very, very high."


I instantly think of the two young boys riding uphill with push reel mowers strapped to their bikes.




Singer cycling team circa 1972.
From left to right:
Efrain "El Zipa" Forero (director), Juan de Dios "Escobita" Morales, Jorge Gonzalez, Juan Pachón, Álvaro Pachón
Photo: Solo Ciclismo





Today, Pachón's shop is located in the congested and intimidating streets of the San Victorino neighborhood. Though the area surrounding the bike shop has improved significantly over the last decade, it remains a menacing place place for some. But not for Pachón.

As we step out of his shop in order to take a walk, he looks around confidently at the ten or twelve other bike shops that surround his, each squeezed into the maze of storefronts, and clouds of diesel fumes that make up the neighborhood. We stop for a snack, and as we eat, policemen, beggars, street vendors and several shady characters all greet him. “Buenas tardes, campeón.

Here, in the streets of San Victorino, he's still a champion. This neighborhood is home.




San Victorino in the 1990's.
The neighborhood has long been home to numerous people who flee the Colombian countryside due to ongoing violence. As a result of the overcrowding and lack of zoning standards, San Victorino became a treacherous place known for its ongoing problems with crime.





San Victorino today (this picture shows the same plaza as the photo above)
San Victorino has changed substantially over the years. Today, it remains the ideal place to find almost anything a shopper could possibly want, particularly for those interested in buying wholesale. Hosiery, stoves, soccer balls, mirrors, cutlery, furniture, auto parts, and bikes, they can all be found in the streets of San Victorino. Shops are usually grouped by what they sell, and thus one or two blocks will be nothing but sports uniforms, with the next one being plastic toys, and the one after that nothing but umbrellas.




"Go slow Colombians, go slow!"
Although Pachón’s family owned a small bike shop when he was growing up, their financial situation was often precarious. Today, that shop has grown, but it's as a result of the financial insecurity that he knew as a young man that Pachón started racing. He participated in his first Vuelta a Colombia in 1963, at a time when many stages were ridden on muddy, unpaved roads. Landslides were common during rainstorms, as were enormous crashes and serious injuries. “We would have crashes that should have ended our race, maybe our careers as well, but we couldn’t stop,” Pachón remembers. “We needed to finish, not just because of our pride, but also out of our need to get paid."

Pachón, like other Colombian cyclists I've spoken to, often references the severe financial needs that he struggled with as a young man. While riders from other countries speak about their thirst for victory, many cyclists in Colombia dealt with a literal hunger that could only be fed by the meager earnings of a professional cyclist.




Pachón's shop still bears his father's name




Pachón and his Colombian contemporaries didn’t realize how well they could handle pain until they rode abroad for the first time. During the Piccolo Giro in 1974, his all-Colombian team won multiple stages and nearly swept the podium by finishing second, third and fourth. But their outstanding performance wasn't well received by many. “The Italian riders didn’t like us. I think they felt that we were inexperienced, and that we would probably cause crashes,” he says. “They didn’t know who we were, and were angered by our early attacks on climbs. The riders and the directors would yell out ‘Go slow Colombians, go slow!’ But we didn’t know any other way. As soon as a climb would start, we would attack and break up the peloton. That’s not how they did things over there. They wanted to ride tempo, and wait until near the summit to sort things out." As Pachón relays this story, he shakes his head in disbelief and lets out a short burst of laughter.



Pain and suffering
I ask Pachón if his slight build, typical of Colombians, as well as the Andean terrain and the altitude at which he grew up were obvious advantages during those international races. “Those things helped, but I think that my Colombian upbringing made me perfectly suited for the sport, which is completely based on hard work and your willingness to endure a tremendous amount of suffering,” he says. “We Colombians have a great tolerance for pain from an early age because of the difficulties that we face. That high tolerance can get you further than any training regimen can, it shapes your character.”

As we continue to talk, I'm amazed by how often Pachón references the words "pain" and "suffering".




On the front page of the El Bogotano newspaper during the Piccolo Giro(Pachón furthest to the left). The headline reads "Colombia obliterated the competition".





The future
Pachón's comment regarding his ability to handle pain makes me think about the young crop of Colombian cyclists that is currently moving up the ranks in the sport. What have their upbringings been like? Do they have the high tolerance for pain that Álvaro Pachón speaks of? As violence in Colombia relents, and the nation becomes far more stable, I can't help but wonder if those riders who dominated European races during the 1980s were the last of a dying breed.




The Singer team in 1973, along with their team vehicles and staff. Samacá is third from the right, Pachón is the rider furthest to the right.
Photo: Revista Deportes Al Dia





Domination
Consider the 1987 Vuelta a España, which was won by Luis Herrera. In that year’s race, ten out of the top twenty-five riders were Colombian. Herrera also won the Mountains Classification, and the Colombian Ryalcao-Postobon team won the team classification as well.

But that dominance, I would argue, was due to Colombian rider’s constitutions, something that comes hard-wired, a magical something that’s not dependent on a nation’s civil and economic unrest alone. It's something that can be recaptured in today's more calm and stable Colombia.

Pachón agrees. As he sees it, Colombian cyclists will always have an edge because of one fact that will always remain unchanged: Colombia is made up of fighters, tough individuals who are upbeat but tirelessly look for ways to improve their situation. This, Pachón says, will never change. Those who are born in Colombia will always fight their way through hardship, and thus learn early on to endure the suffering that comes with doing so.



Pachón's shop



“We still have, and will always have many cyclists that come from poor backgrounds both in the countryside and the cities. Most of our biggest stars come from the fields of rural Colombia. Departments like Boyacá are logical places for great cyclists in Colombia to come from. That’s an area of the country where people make their living in the fields, doing extremely hard work, while earning very little. That upbringing becomes a powerful tool that they will use in their career as cyclists. Even as conditions improve in those areas and for those kids, their spirit remains unchanged. They know the meaning of hard work, and they know pain and suffering in a way that few around the world ever will. "

There are those words again. Pain. Suffering.




Miguel Samacá, photgraphed in Bogotá, 2010





Mr. Courage
The ability to handle pain, and the drive to better one’s economic situation is also represented, though very differently, in Miguel Samacá. One of Alvaro Pachón’s contemporaries, Samacá’s capacity to deal with cycling’s inherent suffering was actually rather limited. But his need for economic stability best exemplifies the other component of Colombia’s cycling success. In a country where many professional cyclists will usually earn more than their entire family combined (even if they race for a tiny local team), the search for financial stability is a sizable guiding principle.

Such was the case of Samacá. Born in the city of Tunja, but raised in Bogotá, he won the Vuelta a Colombia twice, the Vuelta a Táchira once and competed three times in the Olympic Games. Like Pachón, his time racing in Europe was limited due to his sponsor’s sparse resources, and Colombia's absolute isolation within the sport back then.




Samacá




Though Samacá speaks of lengthy and painful days on his bike as he recounts his victories, he also admits that his career was rather short due to his inherent inability to handle the suffering that came with the sport.


“Finishing my first Vuelta a Colombia in 1967 was so incredibly difficult for me,” Samacá remembers, while sitting in the living room of his comfortable Bogotá aprartment. “I knew that it was hard for everyone, but I clearly didn’t have what it took to suffer. It nearly killed me. Once I finished, I swore I’d never ride a bike again. I hated that bike. Six months went by, and I still hadn’t touched it since that last stage. Finally, I ran into my team trainer and he asked me where on earth I’d gone. He asked me to come back to the team, and I finally agreed. But I just wasn't the type of rider that could endure—or almost enjoy—physical pain. Others did, others loved that aspect of cycling. People like Alvaro Pachón did. I didn’t. I hated it.”

Shortly after getting back on the bike, Samacá realized that his success in the sport would be short lived, due to his inability to train endlessly, and endure pain. He also became concerned for his financial well-being after retiring from the sport. So Samacá chose to leave the sport once he turned 30. But not before earning the nickname "Don Coraje" (Mister Courage), due to several audacious wins that came after bad accidents on the road.


Today, when asked about his nickname, and the events that brought it about, he's quick to dismiss it. "Those things are blown out of proportion. They say I flatted more than thirty times during one stage, and then fell several times, but still won. That's just silly. That's not me." Mister Courage, it turns out, sees himself as anything but courageous, at least while on the bike. Off the bike, and in business, Samacá excelled, and took more risks than he ever did while he raced.



Trophy awarded to Samacá for his second place at the 1974 Vuelta a Colombia. This trophy is an interesting relic of Colombian cycling, because Samacá actually won the race that year. He was eventually awarded first place after his rival, Alvaro Pachón, was disqualified for having tested positive during the race.






“In Colombia, when you’re a cyclist, you give your best years to the sport,” he says. “None of us went to college, and many didn't even go to school. We came from very poor families, and our options were limited. When I started to realize that I could be getting myself into into financial problems by continuing to race, I began to worry about my future. Here in Colombia, financial realities are always in the back of your mind.”

Samacá’s statement rings true, particularly when one compares the living situations and upbringings of most American and European cyclists to those in Colombia, a country where 48% live below the poverty line as they derive their income from so-called "informal economies", such as picking through garbage looking for recyclables, and selling goods on the streets. Additionally, Colombia is second only to Sudan in the number of people displaced by civil unrest. So to say that options are limited for some in Colombia is an understatement. As such, the poverty that Samacá and others like him feared is far more severe than that which most other cyclists could possibly face.



Don Coraje



The businessman
It was with this in mind that Samacá realized his future was in jeopardy. He could keep riding in search for glory, or as he puts it "really get to work". That's what he did, even as he was getting ready to retire.

“The races in Venezuela back then had great prize money, and you’d get very high-end bikes for winning stages. Venezuela was a very rich country then, so I would go there to win prize money and bikes that I could sell. If a teammate of mine won a bike, I would buy it from him so I would have more bikes and equipment to sell. That's how I started my business. My priority was always my future, and cycling helped me build that future. I’m very lucky that things worked out like they did.”

Samacá's concerns regarding his financial well-being were echoed recently by Sergio Henao, as I spoke with him about his contract with team Sky. While the young Colombian rider most certainly competes to win, and is eagerly looking forward to his first season in Europe, he also admitted that one of his greatest goals is already coming true: he's now able to help his father retire from his job as a night watchman at a local farm. For Henao, success can be measured in ways other than yellow jerseys and trophies.



Samacá's shop




Fierce rivals, friends, and neighbors
At different times in their careers, Alvaro Pachón and Miguel Samacá were both teammates and rivals. Press clippings speak of a heated conflict between the two, particularly within the context of the 1974 Vuelta a Colombia.

Today, Pachón and Samacá's shops are only two doors down from one another. The rivals-turned-friends see each other often. Their bike shops have grown and thrived even through tough economic times, and although expressed differently, their spirit exemplifies the kind of tenacity that is abundant in Colombia’s cities and its countryside. It's that quality that will keep Colombian cyclists hungry and fiercely competitive at every level, including those who haul gardening equipment uphill during a terrible storm.






_______________________________________________________
If you find yourself in Bogotá:

Bicicletas Miguel Samaca
Cl 13 16-83,
Bogotá
Phone: (57) (1) 286-9279


Almacen Juan Pachon
Cl 13 16-76
Bogotá
Phone: (57) (1) 243-1331


Originally published in Road Magazine

7 comments:

  1. Another inspiring post!

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  2. I'm gonna quit bitchin' about having to mow the lawn...

    Nice job, Klaus.

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  3. I bought my first MTB at the SMH shop (Miguel Samaca Hernandez).....

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  4. Wow, what a nice article. I'm Colombian and I grew up in Colombia in the early seventies before coming to the United States in 1,978.
    I remember these 2 champions and the annual carnival like environment that was the "Vuelta a Colombia".
    Interesting to see how hard these guys worked, just how much they suffered in those races but really nice to see that they are doing ok.

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