Monday, January 30, 2012

Still on the road. From racing bikes and battling opponents, to driving taxis and fighting traffic.



In my post about nicknames two weeks ago, I forgot to mention a Colombian rider whose nickname was obvious to all those who saw him race. No, Genaro Soler wasn't known as the The Pirate. His nickname was "Tuerto", a single word in Spanish meaning one-eyed. It's one of many words in Spanish that don't have an equivalent in English (something I've written about before).

When Genaro was only 17, he was watching a man cut wood with an ax. A piece of wood flew away from the log, striking him the eye. Along with his right eye, Genaro lost all depth perception, though he always proudly proclaimed that he never had an accident on his bike while training or riding. He came to the forefront of Colombian cycling in 1984, after his amazing performance in the Clasica a Buenaventura. He raced in the Vuelta a Colombian several times, and eventually became the director of several professional teams in Colombia. In 2001, he Genaro Soler quit his job as a team director, ending his career in the world of cycling.



Still on the road
Today, Soler makes a living the same way that many other prominent Colombian cyclists who are now retired do: he drives a taxi in the streets of Bogotá. Along with Soler, track record-holder Efraín Domínguez and Vuelta a Colombia winner Cristóbal Pérez (who raced with Teka, and participated in the Tour twice) can also be found behind the wheel of one of the many yellow taxis that crowd Bogotá's busy streets. In a city where privately owned vehicles can only be driven during peak hours every other day, taxis are a crucial part of how Bogotános get around.





Perhaps the most prestigious Colombian cyclist to drive a cab is Patrocinio Jimenez, winner of the Coors Classic, Vuelta a Colombia, and Clasico RCN, who was in the top ten at the Vuelta a España, and was in the top twenty at the Tour de France twice. In the hearts of Colombian cycling fans, Patrocinio remains a giant, and he's often sought out by the press in order to comment on races. He's opinionated, and has never shied away from speaking out about the way that Colombian riders were mistreated by the European peloton. It's perhaps this no-nonsense, tough attitude that has made him an ideal taxi driver in Colombia, where men and women behind the wheel of these yellow vehicles speak their mind, and never think twice about swinging a tire iron if that's what matters come down to.

If a huge and often unruly city like Bogotá is tough, its taxi drivers have to be even tougher.

Riders like Patrocinio and Genaro admit that they're often recognized by their passengers, many of whom can't believe that the government (who they often raced for, since there were no professionals in Colombia before 1984) never helped them with any kind of pension. Still, they are happy to be making an honest living, and don't mind the tough hours.


Once a year, Bogotá has its Car Free Day, during which no privately owned cars are allowed to drive in the city's streets. Only buses, taxis and bikes are seen throughout the suddenly desolate-seeming city of 11 million.



The work ethic they acquired while riding is helpful these days. Taxi drivers like Patrocinio and Genaro work twelve hour days (usually 5am to 5pm), six or seven days a week. They make far less money than cab drivers in other countries, but their work is steady, and there's as much of it as they wish to take on. During these twelve hours shifts, they interact with the many unusual characters that inhabit cities as large as Bogotá and Medellin. Not even Gabriel Garcia Marquez could come up with such colorful characters.

Overtime, certain trends in passengers appear. Genaro, for example, has driven countless angry wives around, who pay him to follow their husbands to see if they are cheating on them. Many times he's been there the moment that these women see their husbands cheating on them. He sits in the car as the women wail in agony. He tries his best to give them advice, and helps them put their lives in perspective.



Efraín Domínguez on the track.



Similarly, Efraín Domínguez has had memorable experiences while driving a taxi in Medellin. In his case, however, they were even worse. He's been robbed three times, each time having all his money, watch and his wedding band taken. Luckily, he says, they never thought to take the car...his only source of income. One time, the man who robbed him even recognized him as "the cyclist who beat all those records".





Pablo Wilches, winner of the 1987 Vuelta a Colombia, who won a stage at the Coors Classic and competed in all three grand Tours also drives a taxi in Bogotá. Argemiro "El Polaco" Bohorquez, who rode in the Tour for both Cafe De Colombia and Fagor drives a buseta (a small bus) in Bogotá, and continues to ride as well as coach fellow cyclists.





Pablo Wilches today, still riding and racing. His son (also named Pablo Wilches), has raced for British, Croatian and South African teams. He now races for the Bogotá IDRD team, and won a stage at the Vuelta a Colombia last year.



Hector Emilio Castaño, a powerful climber who many in the Colombian peloton feared in the 1970s, also drives a taxi in the streets of Medellin. Even Ramon Hoyos, one of the greatest Colombian cyclists of all time, owned and operated a small chiva bus until recently. His bus had his likeness and palmares painted on it.



Team car



Considering that such a relationship exists between public transportation and cycling in Colombia, it should come as no surprise that some taxi drivers install bike racks on their cars, allowing them to be hired by riders who need to get to races far away. On occasion, taxis can also be hired by teams to operate as teams cars during races, something I saw in Medellin a couple of years ago. It was also there that I saw a chiva, like the one that Ramon Hoyos owned, function as a team bus (something you can read about here.)



A quick interview with a taxi driver in Bogotá, in which he explains his love for cycling, and shows off his impressive collection of autographs from riders like Hinault, Vicente Belda and Jose Beyaert.






Greatness
In the past, I've spoken about my affection for Colombian taxi drivers. They are, put simply, about the greatest people on earth that you could ever speak to. They have the uncanny ability to simplify any political issue into a single sentence. They are knowledgeable about life, travel, sports, and they know every single crevasse of the city that you'd ever want to know about...as well as many that you'd rather forget about. I found this to be the case last year, as a driver in Medellin pointed out several gruesome sites linked to Colombia's most violent years, and then highlighted what type of crime each neighborhood had been known for during the 1980s. He then pointed out the childhood homes of several notorious criminals, information that was validated by those who walked by.



Patrocinio Jimenez


While some drivers are reserved, I've dealt with many who were willing to share many aspects of their personal lives. Such was the case with one man in Medellin, who talked to me at great length about his son having been murdered outside a billiards club in 1989.

"I knew who did it, I saw him. I gave the cops his name, and they said if they arrested that man, their families would be murdered as a result. So they did nothing. He's still out there, and I still see that motherf_cker about once a month...right by the club where he killed my son."

As tough as taxi drivers are (and they are plenty tough), they can also be extremely personable, kind and helpful. I've had taxi drivers give me life advice. I've had them recommend eateries, and clothing stores, as well as picks for that night's soccer match. I even had one tell me the best place to get a steel bike frame painted in Bogotá. Their expertise knows no bounds, so it should come as no surprise that many of them are highly opinionated in all matters having to do with cycling. This is something that Bill Blake from Winning magazine reported on as far back as 1991, when he visited Colombia. In an article about the Clasico RCN (which was kindly sent to me by Mike from Gage + Desoto), Blake noted the following about Colombia:

Taxi cab drivers are experts on cycling. Girls in coffee shops giggle about their heroes, Lucho Herrera and Alvaro Mejia. Old ladies dressed in black can quote the exact year Fabio Parra took third at the Tour de France.

It's worth noting that the year Blake wrote that article about the Clasico RCN, the race itself was won by a future cab driver, Pablo Wilches. This is something you should keep in mind if you find yourself in the backseat of a taxi in Bogotá or Medellin. Make sure you read the name posted on the driver's license carefully. You may very well be in the presence of cycling greatness, and should act accordingly.

Even if you don't recognize the name on the license, and the drivers tells you he doesn't have an opinion on the Bartali/Coppi rivalry, you're still bound to hear some great stories, and perhaps even get some helpful life advice.

So remember to tip accordingly.




_________________________________________________________
Two more things:

First, remember to email me by this Friday (February 3rd) if you want to be in on the new order of black jerseys.

Second, if you are a podcast type of person, go listen to the new episode of the Speed Metal Podcast. In that episode, I reveal the contents of today's post ("it's all about the connection between taxis and professional cycling in Colombia"), much to the disbelief of everyone involved. So while topics like Alberto Contador's case, the start of a new season and disc brakes are all the rage in the legitimate cycling press, I find myself writing about taxis in Colombia. Way to stay relevant.

8 comments:

  1. Plenty relevant to me. Posts like this is why I love this blog.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post. I have not been back to Colombia for more than 30 years, but I still remember some of those names you mentioned on this post. When I was boy I used to live in a little town called Soacha and I remember every year there was some sort of bike race that would go thru town and how the whole town would wait with anticipation the passing of the ciclistas. This posting makes me want to go back and visit Colombia some day. Perhaps one more item for my bucket list and I know the wife is not going to like it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. wow, antonio, i can tell you haven't been in colombia for a while. soacha is now a neighborhood of bogota. haha! seriously, i'm not kidding.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Reggie, thanks for the kind words.

    Antonio, you should go back. You'll have an amazing time. The city and the country have changed so much, and it's an experience you won't regret. As my brother mentioned, Soacha is now almost considered part of Bogota, although it technically stands outside of the "distrito Capital". Soacha began famous/infamous as the place where Luis Carlos Galan was assassinated, which you probably know already. It's also worth mentioning that Soacha has a ciclovia of its own now too, just like Bogota proper.

    ReplyDelete
  5. great post, its amazing that they have a car free day, that would NEVER EVER happen in england

    ReplyDelete
  6. that was my comment btw, i'm not trying to be a weirdo anonymous poster

    ReplyDelete
  7. I was thinking that this phenomena of former sports stars (cyclists) in Colombia and possibly in other Latin American countries would be good material for a study or even a PBS special.

    ReplyDelete