Monday, February 10, 2014

Fighting in the name of Colombia. An interview with Garmin-Sharp's Janier Acevedo.


In cycling, the word "suffering" is overused to the point that it's now almost devoid of meaning. There are exceptions, however, and stage 2 in last year's Tour of California certainly comes to mind. In oppressive, 122 degree heat, Colombian Janier Acevedo attacked in the last 500 meters to take a stage that saw riders taken to the hospital for heatstroke, as others were burned after collapsing on the hot asphalt upon crossing the finish line. 

To some, Avecedo's win (as others from Colombians in year's past) came "out of nowhere". But as was the case with those other victories, this view is short shortsighted at best. Acevedo's rise in the sport has been hard-fought and methodical, to the point of being almost formulaic within Colombia's cycling milieu. 

Janier Acevedo grew up in Antioquia, a region in Colombia that has a deep love, understanding and history in the sport. There, he joined one of the most successful development teams at an early age, the same one that brought about Rigoberto Uran, Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur. He then signed with Jamis-Hagens Berman, and after victories at the Tour of Gila, California and then Colorado, Garmin-Sharp became interested in the 28 year old Colombian. He was thus tested at the University of Colorado (both a power test and full bloodwork, which Garmin-Sharp insists on for all riders they are interested in signing). The results weren't just good, the were downright impressive. According to Jonathan Vaughters, Acevedo's results were"...extraordinary. He tested better than Tom Danielson, which I thought I’d never see." adding that he's the best athlete the doctors had ever tested. And with that, as one might expect, the team signed Acevedo.

Through all this, as well as the attention that came with potentially signing with Omega Pharma-Quickstep, Janier Acevedo remained calm. The native of Pereira, in the heart of Colombia's coffee-growing region, is soft-spoken but pleasantly welcoming. We spoke on the day of his move to Spain, where he'll be joining his Garmin-Sharp teammates in Girona.



What attracted you to cycling as a kid? You are from a region in Colombia with a rich history in the sport, having been born in Pereria and raised around Medellin.
You know, for me, it was just a matter of enjoying my bike, which I used as a mode of transportation, to get to school. Everything started from there. I began to enjoy the sport, and really enjoyed training more and more over time.

Colombian cyclists come up in the sport through an established network of clubs, academies and support teams. Cycling clubs, unlike in many other countries, function like schools, which are intended to turn young kids—as young as six and seven—into competitive cyclists, rather than simply recreational riders. What was your path through that system?
Yes, I was in an academy that was supported by Antioquia's government, where I was around riders from the whole southwestern portion of Antioquia. We had full support for training, as well as my schoolwork. From there, it was known that if I got good results, I could join the Antioquia team, as others had in the past. And that's what happened.

With Indeportes Antioquia

So from an academy, you go on to Indeportes Antioquia, due to the link between the two. How then do you end up with Jamis? Was it based on you performance in Utah?
I actually spoke with them for the first time in Mexico in 2012, and that's how I ended up on the team for 2013, but yeah, this all happened after my good results in Utah in 2011.

Toward the end of 2013, there was a significant amount of press around the possibility of you going to Omega Pharma-Quickstep, and joining Rigoberto Uran there. The team even made an official announcement on the matter. Was that deal close to being final? How did the whole thing unfold?
Yeah, we were talking with them, but based on personal preference, and a better deal, I decided to go with Garmin.

TV news story about Acevedo's signing with Garmin. Notice Ben King training with him in Colombia.


Why Garmin-Sharp? Was there something in particular about the team that you liked or that got your attention?
All the teams at that level are excellent, but with Garmin-Sharp there was something special. I always had special interest in them, and after racing in North America in 2013, joining an American team felt right.

While racing for Jamis, you lived and raced in the United States. How was that for you?
I think it went really well. The team treated me like one of their own, like family. I lived in Albuquerque, along with the other Latin American members of the team, and really enjoyed it.

Stage win in Utah

What did you make of the United States, and what did you miss most while living aborad?
The United States is a beautiful and very organized country. It has beautiful landscapes, which were a joy to see. From Colombia, I missed the food the most, along with being able to train at altitude, and my own home.

How's your English coming along?
It's hard, it takes a lot of work, but it's a matter of being patient. Based on how I am, I want to learn it quickly, but that's not how it works. It's best to be patient, to take your time, and learn it little by little.

Hincapie Sportswear photo shoot with his then-teammate Julian Rodas (Photo: Hincapie Sportswear)

Where will you be living in Europe?
I'll be in Girona, the way I see it, that's an ideal choice so I can be around the other riders from the team who live there, and also around the team staff who are there as well.

Okay, so...stage 2 at the Tour of California last year. That stage was a fun spectacle for those of us watching from the comfort of our homes, but looked to be brutal for those of you racing. How did you feel going into that day? Did you think you had a chance to win that morning?
That day was absolutely incredible, and no, I didn't think I'd be able to win, in part because of the heat. Luckily, I made an effort to stay well hydrated, which I think really made a difference. That, along with having very good training and preparation leading into the race made a huge difference.

How do you remember that day, now that time has passed?
I think of it as the most well-earned victory of my life, in part due to the climate and conditions it happened in, but also because it was just monumental. I don't think anyone will forget it, because it was such a hard-fought and complicated victory. I know I wont.

Photo: Michael Astle

There's a great deal of attention by Colombian politicians and dignitaries, as a result of the recent of success of riders like Quintana, Uran, Henao, and Betancur in Europe. In a very Colombian way, which we've seen as far back as the mid 80s, some politicians that never supported the cycling, are now claiming responsibility for those victories, and looking for convenient photo-ops. What do you make of that?
Look, it's always been that way in Colombia. In reality, what we need is a deeper love for the sport in Colombia. Most importantly, we need individuals willing to give support earlier in the process, and not to merely come out to congratulate riders after the fact [Martin Ramriez, who won the Dauphine Libere in '84 spoke in great detail about this, the appropriation of victories by dignitaries in Colombia which you can read about here].

Henao, Uran, Arredondo, Serpa and Betancur have all had visa problems in the past. They've missed races and team camps because of how hard it is for us Colombians to get visas. Has that been an issue for you?
Luckily, no. But I know that's been the case for many. Personally, I think there should be some special consideration in this regard for us athletes who fight and battle, all in the name of our country.

Acevedo's first major victory in Costa Rica (Photo: Nuestro Ciclismo)

How often are you thinking you'll be back in Colombia during the season?
Probably only twice.

What's your race schedule looking like so far for the year?
So far I know I'll do Cataluña, Basque Country, Tour de Suisse, Colorado, Utah, Gran Premio Indurain.

I know it's a tough subject, but I'm wondering what your take is on testing and doping in Colombia. Darwin Atapuma has said that few if any tests happen, and the ones that do don't seem to end up going to any labs most of the time. What was your experience?
To tell you the truth, when I raced in Colombia, I noticed that there were very few tests. As far as tests making it to the lab, I don't really know.

Photo: guarne-antioquia.gov.co

Favorite climb in Colombia?
Ah, there's so many. Maybe Las Palmas, in Medellin, where I always train.

I find that Colombia is largely divided by what type of arepa we prefer. Yellow corn, white corn, choclo, fried with egg, with or without cheese, as a snack, for breakfast. Where do you stand?
White corn, for breakfast. ◼


Training in Colombia with Ben King, Sergio and Sebastian Henao (Photo: Ben King)


______________________________________________________________
Marginalia

1.
I'll be traveling and thus not posting for about a week and a half, but hope to return around February 19th, only to leave again a few days after.

2.
I don't want to spoil a positive and upbeat post with bad news, but it would be foolish of me to ignore today's news about five positive tests in Colombia, four having happened at the Clasico RCN, a race that took place in early October.

The positives were by: Ómar Puentes (EPO), Jorge Martínez (steroid), Diego Quintero (EPO, third rider from this team to test positive this year, second positive to happen within Colombia) and Jahír Pérez (EPO). Additionally, Liliana Moreno, who won the Tour Femenino the last two years also tested positive for an undisclosed substance. She also won the competition to run up the steps of the Colpatria building in Bogota (an event in which recently-suspended Optum-Kelly Benefits rider Sebastian Salas also took part). I began hearing about this over the weekend, as names of the likely riders began floating around Colombia. But in reality, talk about positives has been around all year.

I'm not sure that I can add anything of significance to the conversation, but (because I can't help myself) I'll say this: many, many people with knowledge about this situation have told me time and again that there were at least 14 positives in Colombia this year (at the Vuelta a Colombia alone according to many). Up until today, only one positive from 2013 had been released by Colombia's cycling federation. Was their plan to sit on these positives to make them go away? Did the news of these positives get away from them, and are they now merely reacting? Many in Colombia think so.

To say this is troubling would be an unbelievable understatement. Additionally, I think we are all supposed to believe that the positives by male riders were confined to one race in the calendar (Clasico RCN), and that no other positives really happened at any other point in the year, including an even bigger race, in which these same riders took part. The more you look at these results, and how selectively they've apparently been released, the more you realize that the positives aren't even the scariest part of all this. Plus, one must keep in mind how easily obtained some of these substances are in Colombia (and the violent results that come with looking into how they are sold).

Update: An interesting video on YouTube (via La Cadenilla), shows the president of Colombia's cycling federation speaking to the riders and staff of the Coldeportes-Claro team just a few months ago. At the 2:45 mark, he says what I've translated below. By the way, notice Cochise Rodriguez's expression as this topic is brought up. He's sitting by the wall, to the left of the frame. It's an interesting speech to give a team at one of their events.
"When people speak to me about doping, I tell them that I take the point of view that testing for doping products and illegal drugs is not my objective. It absolutely, is not the objective of the Federation at all. This is because I must assume that the sport is clean. I can’t conceive of a doped sport. So that’s the basis, and sure we must fight those things….but our true objective must be the cyclist as a human being."

3. 
On a lighter note, is it just me, or do the new POC time trial helmets remind you of someone...



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