Monday, July 16, 2012

Edison Arias, a forgotten rider from Colombia's most tumultuous time.

As I've stated multiple times, one of the most meaningful statements that's ever been made about being Colombian was uttered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as he received the Nobel Prize for literature. For the sake of brevity (and because I've mentioned this very thing countless times on the blog), I'll paraphrase. He basically said that as a writer of fiction he had asked very little of his imagination, since Colombia's reality is far more interesting and at times incredible than the fiction which others can dream up. This statement, I've come to realize, holds true across every aspect of Colombia. Though unusual, and sometimes sad, these stories should be told, and the people involved should be remembered, for they too are a part of what makes Colombia what it is. Sadly, some of these stories are so common there, that they are often forgotten through the years. Edison Arias' story is a good example of this.

In September of 1980, the reign of Colombia's superstar Cochise Rodriguez was coming to a close. The world champion had won stages at the Giro, set the hour record, and was now back in Colombia continuing to beat his talented opponents. His performance at the Caracol De Pista was no different. Sponsored by one of the biggest broadcasting companies in Colombia, the Caracol De Pista was a multi-day event held in Medellin's velodrome. A velodrome—by the way—that had already been named after Cochise. Such was his domination in the sport...that the native of Medellin raced and won for years in a track that already bore his name.

Cochise Rodriguez in his Bianchi kit.

Though the veteran superstar had some opposition during the event, he eventually came away the winner. The top ten spots were taken up by the usual riders one would expect, men who had excelled in both the track and road races throughout Colombia. But one rider got everyone's attention, because he was a relative unknown. In ninth place was Edison Arias, a rider from the Valle Del Cauca department. A place that, up until then, had almost no history in the sport, unlike Medellin, Bogota and the department of Boyaca. Just who was this young unknown rider?

Edison Arias. In case you're wondering, those are not bib shorts over his jersey. This was a time trial skinsuit for the Freskola team, which I've seen pictured in other instances.

Though few knew who he was that day as he placed ninth in the prestigious track event, Edison Arias was clearly already talented. Something he would go on to prove as he made a name for himself in the sport. Over the next couple of years, he earned spots in teams such as Freskola and Canada Dry while competing in nearly every race in the Colombian calendar. More importantly, however, Arias went on to race in the Vuelta a Colombia, where he won two stages. Over time, Edison Arias proved himself as a talented all-arounder, an absolute rarity in Colombia.

Arias leads the peloton into the finishing straight of the 12th stage of the 1983 Vuelta a Colombia. He won that stage, though the press focused on the fact that another rising star, Lucho Herrera, flatted only 200 meters from the finish line, and finished the race running with his bike on his shoulder to avoid loosing precious seconds.

In 1983, the Canada Dry team had a strong showing at the Vuelta a Colombia, with Arias' stage win being a high point for the squad. It was around that time that like so many of Colombia's cyclists, Arias was awarded the most meaningful symbol of the fan's appreciation: a nickname. Edison Arias was suddenly known was "El Gatico", (the little cat, or kitten) due in part to his diminutive stature, even by Colombian standards. Still, many in the press referred to him in a more dignified fashion, calling him simply "El Gato" (the cat).

In 1983, Colombian riders competed in the Tour de France for the first time. Arias stayed behind in Colombia, no doubt dreaming of one day competing in such far-away places as France and Spain. Over time, those infrequent trips to Europe by Colombian riders set the stage for what was to happen in the summer of 1984. That July, Lucho Herrera claimed the first ever stage win by a South American in the Tour de France. Every Colombian cyclist, like us fans, was glued to their transistor radios as Lucho took that stage at the Tour. For the fans, the victory had great patriotic significance. For cyclists, it meant that perhaps soon enough, they too would be able to race and win in Europe.

Edison Arias, however, never lived to see or hear about Herrera's victory. In June of that year, a month before Herrera's stage win, "El Gatico", aged only 24, disappeared. He was mysteriously taken from the land in rural Valle del Cauca that he owned with his family. Then, on the 18th of June, his body was found. Arias had been murdered, and his corpse was thrown on the side of a small road that connected his hometown of Palmira to the settlement of Guayabal.

Years after Arias' murder, some in Colombia began to wonder if his was the first in a long line of assassinations that would go on to claim the lives of many talented riders. Those deaths, however, were quickly and sometimes easily linked to the general climate in the country during the most intense years of narcoterrorism. Arias' murder, however, would appear to pre-date some of the most widespread drug-related violence. And its location (Valle Del Cauca) didn't fully align with that type of violence either, since it was not until the late 80s that the Cali Cartel (the Medellin Cartel's biggest rival, which itself operated in the Valle del Cauca department) rose to prominence. Nevertheless, drug-related violence was already commonplace by 1984, and many individuals died at the hands of ruthless criminals for any number of reasons. The social contract had ceased to exist and had no meaning as an intellectual construct within Colombia. At least that's what it often felt like.

So while it wasn't clear why Arias was murdered, some believed that his murder was simply a case of "settling the score". For what reason, no one knew, or it was never made publicly clear. Nevertheless, a country and a cycling fanbase who both felt that the world was coming undone at the time, went out searching for answers. Since none were found, dots were connected to make sense of his death. Even to this day, shockingly little is known about Arias' murder, and the fact that newspapers didn't even mention his passing at the time goes to show just how common of an occurrence this was back then, even when the victim was a highly regarded and well-known cyclist.

In a sense, that lack of information is as much of a story as Arias' passing itself. I say this because it puts Colombia's reality during the 1980s into perspective. The country was absolutely, insanely mad about cycling....yet no information exists about his murder, and the event was not really reported on by news outlets. Despite his fame, he was another victim, and one that is seldom remembered to this day.

So in the absence of hard evidence, some Colombians (myself included) chose to simply remember Edison Arias as he was. A hard-working all-arounder....the unknown cyclist who surprised audiences at the Cochise Rodriguez velodrome back in September of 1980.


Established in 2003, the Canadian magazine The Walrus was launched in an attempt to rival such highly regarded American publications such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Highly regarded as it might be, I couldn't help but take issue with one bit of information that appeared in its pages last year. Admittedly, this article (and the part I take issue with) were only brought to my attention over the weekend by Mike Spriggs. In an article about Ryder Hesjedal, the author states the following, in the context of Hesjedal racing in the Basque Country:

Much is expected of him here in Basque Country, or Euskadi, as the local terrorist group calls it.

Upon reading this, my blood started to boil. The author states that "Euskadi" is what "local terrorists" call the Basque Country. No sir, it's what everyone who lives there, and all who speak Basque call it. I assume referring to their own region in the English language is the only acceptable solution for the article's author. Also, as my brother rightfully pointed out, what must this guy make of the word "Deutschland"? Is that what German neo-nazis call their country?

I know I'm making something out of nothing here...but I have to wonder what this guy makes of the team Euskalatel-Euskadi (and their use of that word). Come to think of it...I think they were the ones putting tacks down on the road yesterday. You know how they are...terrorists.

Before going to the periodontist this morning, I checked my mailbox and was surprised to find something other than coupons for Bed Bath and Beyond in there. In particular, I was happy to have received a package containing the latest issue of a magazine called Boneshaker. I know nothing about this magazine (such is the life of a recluse), but it was sent to me by the folk/s at Gage & DeSoto, so I figured that it had to be good. Though I haven't read it yet, the magazine features an article about Bogota, and the ciclovia. For that alone, this publication gets two thumbs up. So not only is it better than a stack of Bed Bath and Beyond Coupons, looking through it was more pleasant than a visit to a periodontist. If that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is. Get a copy here.


  1. Nice article, Klaus! Even though I'm valluno (from Valle del Cauca, for all of you unfamiliar with that term), I'm ashamed to say I had no idea who Edison Arias was. I guess that's partly due to being under football's spell during the 90s...

    Anyway, it's great to read about a successful local rider, especially one that reinforces something that I've long believed: that El Valle is one of the best, or quite possibly THE best, place in Colombia to produce a true all-rounder cyclist. It has extensive , sugar cane-filled flats and the mountains are never more than 30 km away. The climbs themselves are definitely not as long as Letras or El Vino, but they more than make up in terms of grade. Just ask anyone who's ever been up to Dapa (especially at 5 pm) or La Cumbre. Why no valluno has ever won la vuelta a Colombia completely baffles me

    Regionalistic rant over.

    1. And yeah, that was a textbook example of the massive inferiority complex that seems to afflict those of us from Cali...

    2. "massive inferiority complex"? No way, dude. El America de Cali, el mejor equipo de Colombia! Inferiority complex is for those in cities where their teams have never reached the final of the Copa Libertadores. Ahem, ahem, Klaus...

    3. Yeah, and América got relegated to the second division. Awesome team indeed...
      But seriously, caleños for some reason always feel like we get disrespected/ignored by paisas and bogotanos. Costeños on the other hand, just chill and take 2 hour naps every day. No worries

  2. Christian,
    No regionalistic inferiority needed. No worries, I too have been under football's spell...but then again, I'm a Millonarios fan/supporter.
    If you want to follow some good valluno riders, check out team Exergy. They now have three guys fro the area. Here's an interview with two of them

    Also, have you seen this short film that cycling author and commentator Matt Rendell made about salsa in Cali?

  3. Two questions:

    1. Could the non-reporting of Arias's murder been because of an early example of press intimidation?

    2. You said that Lucho was the first South American rider to win a stage in a grand tour, but you also mentioned that Cochise Rodriguez was a Giro stage winner. Did I read that wrong?

  4. Hello,
    1. Honestly, I don't think so. If you look at archives for Colombian newspapers, there is no shortage of complete and utter detail about all kinds of crimes. The press was not pressed and intimidated by the Narcos until the late 80s and early 90s (reporters killed, their buildigns bombed), but even then, the newspapers raged against the narcos and took them head on. Did they hold back on certain stories? Perhaps, but it certainly didn't seem that way. I think that he was just another victim...not huge news. To be fair, it's possible that a local newspaper (as opposed to the national ones that I searched through) reported on it, but their archives don't go back that far. I just find it interesting that even sites that detail Colombian cycling history don't pay much mind to him or his passing.

    2. Yikes, I meant to say first to win a stage in the Tour. Sorry about that, will go back and fix it right away.

  5. Nice article, Klaus. I love that pic of Cochise. So regal!

  6. Klaus, I understand the rush of blood you felt at what seemed like a careless, ignorant and perhaps racist comment about the Basques. However, "terrorism" is not so simple and perhaps Columbia's history with violence brings it home. Does one call Los Pepes "terrorists" or "vigilantes"? As you well say, the issue is with the rule of law, and violence (terror) is sometimes need to combat those who have decided to disregard it, which is where the violence becomes out of any control (La violencia, Rwanda, etc., etc., etc...). Here's an example of another approach to citizenship: from the Super Citizen himself.

  7. Mr Gay Alpinist,
    Thank you for pointing out that PDF, just downloaded it, and will have to read it. The man was a real visionary.

    I think the issue here is not that he's referring to ETA as terrorists...but that he is mistakenly stating that those who use that word are themselves what he believes ETA to be (what ETA is and isn't is almost not the point). It was probably a simple slip, for him not to realize that Euskadi IS "Basque Country" in their language, and not just the term used by ETA or any other group.

    1. I will say in my defense at least there are links to cycling and Columbia, and at my defense to Homeland Security: these are not code names and this isn't terrorist activity.


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