After Dag Otto and his TV crew made the trip to Colombia, I was pleased to hear that things had gone very well, and that my ideas, recommendations and contacts had been of some help. With that in mind, I wanted to talk to the man himself about the trip, his experience with Colombian riders, as well as the current state of the sport.
Thanks to both Håkon and Dag Otto for their time, but also for giving a country like Colombia a chance. Thanks for for showing viewers during the show's next season that there's more to the country than the stereotypical perception of just drugs and violence.
The European peloton has always been known as being rather conservative, particularly in terms of letting "outsiders" in. I've heard this from several American riders, as well as Colombian riders, as one might expect. Is this something you noticed while alongside Americans with a team like 7-Eleven?
Well, by the time I started to race, Greg Lemond was a big star from the US, who had already accomplished many great things. I think his victories really opened up the eyes of people in Europe about Americans, and what they were capable of. With 7-Eleven, we won three stages in 1987. That was probably a shock to many in Europe, that this American team could win three stages.
Do you have any personal memories of riders like Lucho Herrera, Fabio Parra and Alvaro Mejia from your time racing?
Of course! I'll always remember Herrera because I managed to beat him in Luz Ardiden! I'll always remember Herrera, certainly Parra and many of the other riders in Cafe De Colombia. I have great memories from that time.
You won in Luz Ardiden on Bastile Day in 1987. Herrera was close to catching you at the very top. Did you know how close he actually was to you toward the end of the stage?
No, I didn't. I knew he was coming, but I didn't realize how close he was. At the bottom of the hill, before we started the climb, one guy was ahead of me by three minutes. I was riding together with a French climber. The peloton with Hampsten, Roche and Herrera were were a minute and a half behind me. In the end, at the top of Luz Ardiden, it was just a few seconds between me and Herrera. I never knew how close he was, because I didn't dare turn around and look. We had no race radios, as riders do today, so I didn't really know. I was very lucky that I managed to stay away.
Victorious at Luz Ardiden in 1987. Notice Herrera coming close toward the end.
You currently do a show for Norwegian television, which allows you to ride and travel all over the world, in order to learn about different countries and cultures. How did the idea for the show come about?
Well, it was my idea. In 2007 or 2008, I was on a show that is called Dancing With The Stars. I had a lot of time by myself then, since I was away from home because the show taped in Oslo. So I started to think about something like this. I've been working on TV now for some years, for cycling races, and I thought it would be nice to have my own program about all kinds of cycling, people and cycling culture around the world. I got this idea, and asked the Host of Dancing With The Stars to come with me as a co-host. My idea was to teach him and the TV viewers all about cycling.
So we did one season in 2009 around Europe. And this year we've been in Colombia, Japan, Spain, South Africa, USA, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. It's really fun to do. I get to do what I love to do, and I get paid for it.
|Photo: S. Johannessen|
This summer, you traveled to Colombia for an episode of your TV show. What did you expect out of that trip before going, and was Colombia any different from what you expected?
It was a fantastic experience! At first, we were a bit suspicious, because of things you hear about regarding Colombia. We even thought about having bodyguards, armed security people, to guard us.
But in the end everything went great. We had a Colombian guy with us, who lives in Norway, and there were no problems. I was very surprised by how friendly everyone was there. From the people in customs, to the police, to people in the streets and restaurants. The trip was a really, really good experience.
So it was different from what you expected originally?
Yes, much better than I expected. It was great. So my view of Colombia changed in a positive way.
|A meal fit for a king...or a hungry cyclist. Bandeja Paisa, as served to Dag Otto and friends at the Alto De Minas. (Photo: Håkon Bolstad)|
What did you think about the terrain in Colombia, and do you think you gained any insight about what makes Colombians such great climbers, or about Colombians in general?
Yeah, I think so. In Colombia, where we were, there are not too many roads in the mountains. At least not where we were [during their visit, they were in Bogota and surrounding areas, as well as Medellin, and several town in the department of Antioquia]. So those roads can be a bit crowded, but there's absolute respect between drivers and riders.
But yeah, those are big mountains! We were up at at 3,000 meters [9,840 feet], over beautiful mountains. Great views. I can now understand why they are such great climbers. They live at that altitude, and they train at altitude all the time. But yeah, the trip went really good.
Who were you able to ride with when you were in Colombia?
We brought guests from Norway, and we met up with Lucho Herrera in his hometown. We talked about the old days, which was fun. Lucho is a legend, and it was great to meet with him in his nice hotel [Lucho owns a couple of hotels in his hometown of Fusagasugá], still looking fit, and he was very friendly.
|With Lucho Herrera in Fusagasugá, Colombia. (Photo: Håkon Bolstad)|
Was that the first time you'd seen him in a very long time?
Oh yeah, it had been a long time.
What else did you do while you were in Colombia?
We went to follow the Vuelta a Colombia one day, and met the TV and radio personality, Hector Urrego. I remembered him from when I raced, and I now know that he's a big star in Colombia. [Urrego was one of the pioneering radio and TV commentators in Colombian cycling, and one of the very first to cover the Tour de France. He is also the editor and publisher of Colombia's biggest cycling magazine].
What was your favorite aspect of visiting Colombia?
That it was different, so I really loved it. Seeing all the nature was beautiful, up in the mountains. I can't really point to one single thing though.
Would you recommend Colombia as a cycling destination to other riders?
Yeah! But it does help having someone who can help you, and can show you the way once you are there. Of course, in the big cities there's lots of traffic. But the countryside is very nice for riding.
I asked Andy Hampsten when I interviewed him if he had seen or sensed any bad treatment of Colombians in the peloton, since this was commonly reported on in Colombian newspapers, but not anywhere else. Did you see anything like that during your time racing?
Yes, in one way I did, yeah. In those first years, Colombians were already very good climbers. But they weren't that good at riding on flat roads, and in the peloton in those stages. So it was known that the Colombians suffered in the first week of the Tour, because of the high speed on flat stages. They had to fight for position, so there were crashes. Just as there are these days in the Tour because of the speeds and the roundabouts and small roads. So the minute we'd hit a hill, the Colombians would attack left and right.
Did this lead to how they were treated?
Well, I saw it. Maybe it's not just that they were treated impolitely, but it was because they were "outsiders". I think other riders knew that they had to attack the Colombians when they were weak, in the flats, so they did that. But really, I never felt that people really disliked them. But maybe this is how I saw it, because I was a bit of an outsider too. Norway was not really known for cycling at time either. So I felt the same way. They were coming from Colombia, and I was coming from Scandinavia. And at the time there was Greg Lemond, Andy Hampsten and Steve Bauer from Canada. So I felt that cycling needed to grow beyond just Italy, France and Belgium. You know?
So today, it's an international sport, and that means that you have to accept everyone.
Recent news within cycling have led many to talk about the issues that exist with the UCI. This has also helped interest in the possibility of a breakaway league, in order to have a clean break from the past and the UCI. What do you make of this, and what do you think could be done to fix cycling?
There are many things wrong with the sport. You can see it right now, with all this stuff going on with Lance. But also you can see it in how the UCI has been treating this case, and similar cases. The most important thing, to me, is that I want the sport to be clean. But to clean it up, you must start at the top, not just at the bottom. I don't know what the outcome of the Lance case will be, but I hope it shows people that matter how much money or power you have, if you do something wrong, you will be caught. I can't take a real stand on his case since I have not seen the paperwork [this interview took place before USADA released it's findings publically]. But I do hope that in the future, the sport will be clean. This is not just a problem in cycling, but it's a problem at the top level of all sports. But I don't think the sport is ready to have a separate league, you know? I think cycling needs to clean up its own mess, and work together to do that.
|The view on the road between Santa Barbara and Montebello (Photo: Håkon Bolstad)|
Something else that has always seemed to be an obvious issue to me, as an outsider, is the lack of a real riders union. I believe that this leads to the riders not being, not having control over their own sport, and perhaps contributes to greater instability within pro cycling. Based on your experience, do you think that riders would benefit from having a union?
Yeah, I think so. Definitely. There's been a union, but it's very quiet, and doesn't do much. And when I was riding there was no union. I think they should really have one, because cycling is nothing without the riders. But also because cyclists are nothing without competition. So, it's all connected.
If there's one thing that you'd like to change in professional cycling to improve it, what would that be?
First of all, stronger penalties for positive tests. In my opinion, lifetime bans, or longer bans for at least two Olympic cycles. I'm surprised that you can have the Festina Affair, then Operacion Puerto…then this and that. And there's still new cases coming up all the time. And the penalties have not been consistent. To give six months, or a year or maximum of two years it's too little. These riders are destroying themselves, but also destroying the sport. They are destroying the public's interest in the sport, and also the interest of potential sponsors. I think this could have an effect, and I do see that the peloton is cleaner now though. That's my opinion.
|Bronze at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles|
What future plans do you have for your TV show, and what other countries do you wish to visit?
I just came back from Japan, which was fascinating. Now I'm going to the United States now to do two programs, if we can get a visa. Getting a visa for the United States is very difficult, very hard. That's because we are coming to work, and not as tourists. So the United States has been the most difficult country that we've tried to get a visa for, out of all the places we've been to.
If you are able to get the visa, and come to record in the United States, who would you come to ride here with?We have some plans, but they are not finalized yet. We want to meet with Gary Fisher and see where mountain biking started, and see the area around Los Angeles and San Diego. So for each program, we have a theme. For the one in Colombia, it was climbing. In the United States, when we visit California, we will focus on the winning mentality, which will be a good program.
Note: This interview took place before USADA released it's findings in the Armstrong case, and thus before much of the current tumult in the sport. I reached out to Dag Otto to get his opinion on the matter, as well as another issue I wanted to ask him about. By the time I contacted him via email, however, we were unable to talk as he was traveling through the US for the TV show. He admitted that these issues would take much more time to discuss in an in-depth fashion. He did give me his quick reactions to both, which I'm including below.
I think race radio is important for the security of the riders, but it changes the sport, in the sense that the directors are doing all tactics, and calculations (when there is break away etc.) This is 2012, and I think race radios are staying in the peleton.
Lance Armstrong case
After reading a little bit of the USADA report on Lance I'm shocked. Much worse than I expected. I don't know what to do, but there has to be big changes from the top to the bottom of the cycling world.
Related links and Marginalia
Official site of Dag Otto's TV show
Commercial for the last season of the TV show
Dag Otto helps his co-host become more comfortable with descending
Lastly, and on to a topic that is being discussed by many cycling fans. There's been talk of ex-riders and staff that have been involved in doping in any way to not be allowed in the sport in management and medical positions. Have you ever wondered how many people work in top professional teams who have questionable pasts? Wonder no more, as people have started to compile such a list. See here. Thanks to Mike Spriggs for the heads up.