In 1984, huge crowds gathered along the route of a parade in Bogota, in order to welcome Martín Ramírez home. He'd just won the Dauphiné Libéré in unbelievable fashion. His team wasn't even supposed to go to the race. He wasn't supposed to be leading the team, and no one thought he'd be able to beat Bernard Hinault in the closing time trial. And yet, "El Negro" Ramírez, still an amateur, had managed to win the prestigious stage race during his first-ever visit to Europe. And he'd done so as Bernard Hinault had tried hard to break him down both mentally and physically.
In a sense, Ramírez's victory at the Dauphiné Libéré—including the insults and mistreatment that came with it—set the blueprint for future Colombian victories in Europe. Always the unlikely underdogs, Colombia's climbers would nevertheless steal the hearts of fans on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 1980s. And Ramírez's victory was, without a doubt, the opening chapter of that era in Colombian cycling. One he was there for in its entirety.
Today, Ramírez is retired from professional cycling, but he continues to train and race at the Senior Master level in Colombia, while he tends to his businesses. Like a typical Bogotano, Martin is talkative and outgoing. He's also refreshingly candid when it comes to his numerous memories within the sport, ones that make him an integral part of cycling history, and part of the most impressive generation of escarabajos that Colombia has ever seen. Thanks to Martín for his time.
|Ramirez in the leader's jersey at the Dauphine|
Where were you born and raised?I'm from Bogota, born on November 8th of 1960. Through my parents I have blood from both Boyacá and Tolima. I grew up in two neighborhoods in Bogota, La Granja and El Bonanza.
What did your parents do for a living?
My mom was a homemaker, while my dad was a construction worker.
How did you first become interested in racing and cycling in general?
It was in high school, in the 11th grade. I had this desire…well, a need really, to have an income. So I got a job doing deliveries on a bike for a well known drugstore in Bogota called Ultramar. That was in 1976, so I was 16 then. It was really based on that job that I became a fan of cycling.
As far as your job delivering medicines for Ultramar...it's really amazing how many of Colombia's cyclists began doing deliveries for drugstores. Cochise Rodriguez, Ramon Hoyos and many others had that as their first job.
Yes, that's true. Particularly during my time. But that's lost now, because deliveries are mostly done by motorcycle these days. A pity, because that means that young people don't get to use this beautiful machine, the bicycle.
How did you go from working delivering medicines in 1976, to winning the Dauphine in 1984 against Hinault? What happened during those intervening years?
Well, in 1980, I won the Vuelta a la Juventud [known today as the U23 Vuelta a Colombia]. After that, I started to bounce around between teams, still as an amateur. I started out in Pony Malta, Leche La Gran Via, and then Drogueria Yaneth. By 1984, when I won the Dauphine, I was a bit more mature. I was 24, and that was my first time in Europe. I was in that team with Pacho Rodriguez, Pablo Wilches, Alirio Chizabas, Reynel Montoya and Armando Ariztisabal.
|Martin's teammate in 1984, Pablo Wilches, continues to race in Colombia. He's now 58 years old.|
You and your team weren't even supposed to do the Dauphine. How and when did you find out that you had to go?
I was going really well that season. At the Clasico RCN, I beat both Greg Lemond and Fabio Parra in the prologue. I finished third or fourth in the overall, I forget. We went to the Vuelta a Colombia after that. I was racing with Leche Gran Via at the time, but the strongest team in Colombia at the time was Varta, which had Lucho Herrera as their leader. He won that Vuelta a Colombia, but his team didn't have an easy go of it. They were spent, so the team management decided to give their riders a rest, and gave up their invite to the Dauphine, which they passed on to us. The thought being that we wouldn't be doing the Tour de France, and we needed the rest. So the invite came very, very suddenly for us.
Clasico RCN 1984 (begins at 1:03)
Once you found out, how did you prepare?
I just went home, rested for two days after the Vuelta a Colombia, which felt very rushed. Fabio Parra was asked if he wanted to go also, but he turned the invitation down [the newspaper El Tiempo went as far as listing Parra as part of the team only days before they traveled to Paris]. So we were the guys that ended up going. In Colombia, we raced as Leche Gran Via, but we went to the Dauphine as the Colombian national team. But in reality, Leche Gran Via really helped us, so we saw ourselves as racing for them as well. In any case, the whole thing was very sudden, in fact, that we didn't even have uniforms as a team. We had to travel to France, and try to find matching kit once we were there.
Which would explain the very unusual jerseys that the team ended up with.
Yes, those were just the jerseys that the team was able to buy enough of for all of us. They didn't say the name of our team, didn't have the Colombian flag or anything. We didn't have the time to get them screened. They were just bought at a store, but were actually well made by a very good company.
|Pablo Wilches, and the Castelli jersey in question|
What brand were they?
They were Italian, Castelli.
The Dauphine in '84 is a huge moment in Colombian cycling. It was the first in a string of Colombian victories, but perhaps the most unexpected one, in part because the team wasn't just the "amateur Colombian underdogs". You guys were actually the Colombian underdogs that were sent because the other team (Varta) couldn't go! You had no real preparation, no jerseys, and yet you win the race. Which was makes the whole thing that much more amazing. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that race was the interaction between you and Hinault. There's been stories of him trying to make you crash, his teammates hitting you. Things got pretty nasty. What happened between you and Hinault, and his team as a whole?
(Long pause) Well, all these things actually happened on the last day of the race. On that last day, we did a short stage, just 100 kilometers [62 miles], and then a time trial. By that day, I was already in the leader's jersey. The day before, we'd had a horrible stage, which had rain, terrible snow, wind. In any case, on that previous day, Hinault had spent most of the day in a breakaway. We caught him pretty close to the finish, and I was able to get away with just kilometers to go, and got the race lead by just a few seconds. Maybe ten seconds or so.
|Story featured in the newspaper El Tiempo, stating that the Leche Gran Via team would be going to the Dauphine, and would feature Fabio Parra.|
How did the snow and cold affect you?
I couldn't believe that I was seeing snow. I had only seen it in Christmas cards, so to me, it didn't seem real. But I was so excited, that the cold didn't get to me too much back then.
And what happened on the last day of the race?
In the first stage of the day, Hinault kept attacking. I had no team by then, so all I did was stick by his side, to keep an eye on him. My director at the time, Marco Rabelo, told me "we have no team, we won't be able to control the race, so your job is to stay on Hinault's wheel." This was true, of course, he was the biggest threat. Hinault had his team, and he wanted to fight for the GC during that road stage, knowing that the time trial that ended the race suited him very well.
When you say you had no team left, is that because everyone was spent, or had they retired?
Actually, it was just Pablo Wilches and me left. That was it, just two of us, trying to keep things together in order to win the Dauphine. We did have the luxury of having Patrocinio Jimenez and Condorito Corredor, who both raced with Teka at the time. When possible, they tried to give us a hand, which was very helpful. But it was just two of us left in the team.
So what actually happened with Hinault during that last stage.
Hmm, many things. Many, let's call them unsportsmanlike, things happened. Hinault kept brake-checking me. I'd be on his wheel, and he'd brake hard to try to make me crash. He did that many times. He then started yelling at me, insulting me. But I paid him no mind. I knew I had a job to do, and pretended not to hear a single word he said. He kept screaming, trying to get to me, but I kept my cool, and finished the stage. So everything had to be settled in the time trial.
What did Hinault say to you during that stage?
He kept screaming at me.
Yes, and he kept saying I was a chicken. He motioned with his arms, and kept making chicken noises. He then started to reference cocaine, and drugs, mocking me for being Colombian, clearly trying to insult me.
At the time, that was such an unbelievably sensitive thing to bring up, drug trafficking. It's hard to explain to someone who is not Colombian, and didn't live through that time. But that's like bringing up someone's mother, or worse!
And he knew that, but I just pretended not to hear a word. I never responded to his taunting.
[In the book Kings Of The Mountains, Martin described that last stage to Matt Rendell in this way: " I rode the entire stage on Hinault's wheel. He responded by braking hard to make me fall, while his team bombarded me with elbows and fists."]
Not good. I realized that the image of him as this great sporting hero, this great person, was not warranted. That was sad for me, because I had always admired him. I mean, I'd even had a poster of him in my bedroom wall!
Yeah, so for me, racing against him in France was just…it was a dream come true. I couldn't believe me eyes. And then this happened. But you know, after that, I had the opportunity of speaking with him in many occasions, and we never had any issues after that.
|Martin winning a stage at the Tour d l'Avenir|
What about his teammates during that last stage?
They raced very aggressively, pushing me out of the way, trying to get me off his wheel. But you know, I was experienced by then. I had raced in Colombia, in Central America, I had done a Coors Classic. So they tried to intimidate me, but I wasn't some young fool. I knew how to get my handlebars in their way too, and I defended myself.
I had done the Vuelta a Guatemala, and was second to Rafael Tolosa in '82. In '83 I had been second at the Vuelta al Tachira to Marco Medina. In '82, I had also gone to the Coors Classic, where Patrocinio had won, and I had been second also. I wasn't inexperienced, so I defended myself. I knew how to race.
Since you dealt with Hinault after that Dauphine, were you able to establish why exactly he treated you that way? Was it just a matter of trying to break you down, was it because you were new to European racing? Was it because you were Colombian?
I think it was all those things. No one knew who we were. Cochise had raced in Europe, but that had been long before. So it was clear that they saw us, and they called us "little Indians", and "savages". They saw us as being pathetic. But we showed up all of a sudden, and managed to beat them in a big stage race on the eve of the Tour de France…well, that just wasn't something they liked at all. So the reception we got was not very good. To say the least.
|Patrocinio Jimenez and Robert Millar at the 1983 Tour de France|
And yet, one of the "little Colombian savages" beat Hinault in the Dauphine.
Right, and with that, I think they had to realize that Colombian cycling was not to be taken lightly, that the sport was very serious to us, and that we had talent.
Since you mention terms like "little Indians" and "savages", I have to bring up a news report from French TV that was done during the Tour de France in '84. In it, you are shown along with your Systeme U teammate Marc Durant. He refers to the Colombians as "tough little guys, and well tanned!" He then goes on to call you a "back hills Arab", or "back woods Arab". It's obvious that the reception wasn't warm, in part because Europeans simply didn't know what to make of you. But hearing Durant use the term "back hills Arab" is certainly in keeping with how we, as fans, always knew you were received in Europe.
Yes, I saw that video on the internet. It was amazing to see it...(Laughs), back hills Arab!
Durant seems to say it with a sense of humor, but it's unusual, and difficult to hear.
It certainly is.
[Please note that reader of the blog Phillipe has a different take on the term and meaning of what Durant says. Since my French is admittedly limited, I defer to him. You can find his input in the comments of this post.]
News story from French television about Colombian riders at the Tour in 1984.
How did you end up with a contract for the Tour de France in '84 with Systeme U?
It obviously came about due to me winning the Dauphine that year. But wait, did I do the Tour that year?
Yes, with Systeme U, when their jerseys still had red and black instead of yellow.
Oh yes, you're right. Yes. That was because of the Dauphine. They contacted me toward the end of the Dauphine, and I got permission from Colombia to ride the Tour. The contract was just for the Tour, and they paid me a lump sum to do that race.
Did you find it difficult to race with a foreign team? Culturally speaking, were you isolated, or were you able to blend in?
There were definitely times in Europe when we felt isolated, particularly in foreign teams, like Systeme U. In particular, the issue of language became troubling. You can't speak with your teammates and the staff, and you begin to feel a great deal of humiliation as a result [note: Martin used the word "mortificacion" here, which like the English "mortification" goes beyond simple humiliation and shame, and has an interesting meaning within the Catholic world]. For some Colombian riders, the customs and way people acted in Europe, as well as the food affected them a great deal. It was difficult. For me, I didn't mind that part. I liked the food, and I enjoyed the European way of life. But the one thing that really got to me aside from the language, was the winter weather in Europe early on in the season. I just wasn't used to that cold, the rain, the snow…it was horrible, and having to train in that was really bad, because I wasn't used to it at all. I never became fully accustomed to that.
|Belisario Betancur, Colombian president from 1982-1986|
After your victory at the Dauphine in '84, politicians, the president included, began to take notice of the value that cycling had to Colombians. To that end, you were contacted at one point by the president himself (Belisario Betancur). That becomes a landmark moment in Colombian sport, because rather than simply being flattered and reverential, you told Betancur what you thought and felt. You told him that Colombian athletes didn't simply need to be praised during victory, but supported and helped leading up to those victories. This was no doubt a reference to the horrible state in which most Colombian athletes had grown up and lived in. Do you remember that conversation? How did it come about.
Yes, the president reached out to me by phone. It was at the finish line, and I was handed a phone. Clearly, back then, all this new technology that we have today didn't exist. So it was all by wired phones. Colombian journalists would be at the finish line, on a phone with a long, long cable to a restaurant or house nearby that would allow them to use the phone. That's how they did their transmissions to Colombia. It was an unbelievable odyssey, when you think back on it. But in a way, it was beautiful too. That's how much the sport meant to Colombia. So that's how the reporters did things, they would arrive every day to the finish line, and would scramble to find someone that would allow them to run these long wires out of their house, or business, so they could do their work, and send the information back to Colombia.
And that's how you end up talking to the president?
Yes, at the finish line, they hand me the phone, and he was on the line. It was a very nice conversation, and at one point the president asked me what I would like most at that very moment. Without even thinking of it, I said I wanted to hear our national anthem. I felt more Colombian than ever, I was so happy, so proud. So they played it for me.
Some time later, all these great things were promised to me, like an apartment, which was awarded to me. But in reality, all that was given to me was the chance to keep making monthly payments on it like anyone else. That was no award. So in 1985, when I won the Tour d l'Avenir, I was able to get all this off my chest. I was allowed to speak with the president again, and I told him about this, about how cyclists were getting no support, no help from anyone. Yet we were used as public heroes by politicians. In the end, that was a good thing. Because of that conversation, I ended up doing a commercial for the Instituto de Credito Territorial [a government entity created in 1939 to finance housing for areas in social need], and the payment for that commercial allowed me to pay off that apartment.
|Martin at the Tour de l'Avenir in 1985|
Where was that apartment?
It was in Bochica II, near the airport [interestingly, this neighborhood is not far from where Esteban Chaves grew up, and continues to live with his family in Bogota]. It wasn't much to speak of, but it was the first thing I ever owned, so I appreciated it, very, very much.
So you spoke twice to the president.
Once after the Dauphine, and then a year after after when I won the Tour d l'Avenir. So that second time, I had to tell him how things were for us athletes, the conditions we were living in. I was prepared, and knew what to tell him, and how to say it. This was in part because when you win something like that, people in Colombia come out of nowhere, offering you all kinds of things, just to get publicity, to get press for politicians…all they're doing is taking advantage of you, and of the situation.
|Martin today, still racing. After retirement, he also took up mountain biking, and became Panamerican champion. He races on the road in the Senior Master category.|
This is particularly delicate when you think about just how poor many of the athletes were, and to make matters worse, how young.
Yes so, we were used. And I felt that way. So when I got that second chance, I knew I had to get things straight, I had to take advantage of the moment, for what it was worth. I had to say what I felt, and in the end, that's all I got from the Colombian government I guess. I got the satisfaction of having told the president that we were disadvantaged, and that we were being mistreated, while at the same time supposedly being held in high regard—if only momentarily. Today, things are different, since there's pensions for athletes who become world champions, or if they get gold medals at the Olympics and things like that.
Do you think your talk with the president changed things? It's hard to get across just how poor the families of many Colombian athletes are, even when compared to relatively poor people in other countries.
I do think it had an effect, in part because we also talked to many other politicians about it.
You were pioneers in that sense as well.
I hope so, because those new rules went into effect, and they have helped Colombian athletes who would otherwise be absolutely destitute.
That's something that, sad as it is, continues to be unique to places like Colombia. Here in the United States, for example, almost all kids who take up cycling have other options in life, even if they are poor by local standards. From college, to trade school, to even going into the workforce as untrained labor, they can live in a way that is unthinkable to many people in Colombia. The economical differences between professional cyclists from different countries are staggering. That itself is very telling, that cyclists in other countries have alternatives. That's often not the case in Colombia, where cyclists tend to come from families of very meager means.
That's true, although things have started to change a little, at least for some. In my generation, Fabio Parra was able to go to college, and earned a degree in business administration. During his prime, racing in Europe, he was going to school back at home, which is amazing. He had great foresight [Parra retired early for this reason, and eventually graduated well into his mid 30s. Today he owns a large factory that makes plastic containers, including bidons]. I went to school as well, and got a technical degree in business, which took three years. Alvaro Mejia studied medicine, and then you have someone like Santiago Botero, a rare case, he came from money, and he went to school for business too I think.
But yes, those are very rare, unusual cases. Still, it's something we have to keep working at here in Colombia. It would be great for kids to aspire to a career in cycling, but for them to not disregard their intellect, their mind, and the education they should be getting. In a sense, it would be great if we could get to the point where things are as you describe them in the United States. They can work hard training and racing, but it would be great if they could go back to an education if that didn't work out.
You bring up people like Fabio Parra, and Alvaro Mejia. Do you ever see them socially? Do you keep in touch at all? You shared an absolutely unbelievable experience with people like Parra and Herrera, both in a personal, and national level. Is there a bond there at all?
I speak with Parra and Lucho from time to time. I also keep in touch with Pablo Wilches and Pacho Rodriguez because we race in the Senior Masters category together. But for the most part, I guess cycling at the professional level in Europe is no different from other jobs. You finish your time there, and you move on to other things, just like people do at the end of high school, or college. You end up loosing touch with pretty much everyone. For me, since I continue to race, I'm still in touch with some of them, like Alvaro Pachon as well, who I run into all the time out on the road.
This thursday, I'll post the second part of my interview with Martin. In it, we discuss Laurent Fignon's claims that the Vuelta a España in 1987 was bought by Cafe De Colombia, the stress and demands that come with winning, as well as the many aspects of professional cycling that are seldom discussed by those who race or have raced professionally.