There’s a great deal of interest in Colombian cycling as of late, along with an equal number of questions about the riders themselves. Who are they, where did they come from, and how did they develop the ability to perform at such high levels? Like with anything that contains the complexities of human interaction, the answers to these questions are out there, but are not simply answered in one or two sentences. It’s not just a matter of the Colombians' slight build, or the magical consequences of living and training at altitude.
Reality is always more intricate. Delightfully so.
In the case of Colombian cycling, this means a large network of academies and development teams, along with the people that make them up. The ones who help teams and academies, the parents and families, and the selfless individuals who care for competitive riders as young as five years old—which is when many in Colombia begin organized cycling.
There’s the local businessman who has young riders over to his house for breakfast every day. The loving mother who worries for her son as he races in far away places, and records videos of the family to ease his homesickness. The team trainer who keeps tabs on his riders, and knows their every move in social circles, just as well as he knows their wattage during training sessions. The stand-in mothers within teams, who care for young riders and console them through difficult times. The families who struggle financially, making sacrifices in the name of their son or daughter’s passion. The businessman who invest in the future of the sport during its most difficult time. In its totality, Colombian cycling is an intriguing and dense network made up of people. It’s a uniquely Colombian construct, since it’s rooted in the nation’s passion for the sport, and the peculiar way that it manifests itself there.
For many in Colombia cycling is a way of life. Distant from the hobby, pastime or vocation that it might be for some around the world, cycling is so tightly intertwined with life in Colombia, that it’s often hard to separate them. One seamlessly becomes the other, as an aspirational undercurrent is palpable in all those who participate. But the end to which they aspire is not merely that of wealth, fame or a way out—as many suspect. That, I would argue, would be too common, too easy to understand. In Colombia, cycling is bigger because it’s seen as a vehicle for change on a grand scale. This ranges from how the sport teaches discipline and creates better citizens to the manner in which it satiates Colombia’s need for competition. There’s also the fact that cycling has long been used to help improve the country’s image abroad. It’s something that those involved with the sport at every level are keenly aware of, and it’s a purpose that has helped shape the very system that develops Colombia’s greatest riders. In fact, when you speak to coaches, parents and riders of any age, you realize how serious they are about this goal, along with the physical and mental goals that make up a cyclist. To this end, they’ve developed a large network to help riders develop, which manifests itself in a wonderfully different manner than it does in other countries. It’s there, in an organic framework made up of Colombian people and institutions, that answers about Colombia’s top riders of today lie.
It’s not that these riders have become who they are in spite of being from Colombia; it turns out it's because of it.
In the coming weeks, Manual For Speed, in partnership with Klaus Bellon from Cycling Inquisition, will publish a series of essays about a network of people, teams and academies that is development in Colombia. From young riders and their families, to coaches to business leaders, to academies in small rural towns to U23 teams and their staff, to World Tour Teams racing in North America and Europe, to specific places and circumstances that have shaped Colombian cycling. All in an effort to better understand what makes Colombian cycling and development so unique.
The answer, we argue, is as intricate, beautiful and compelling as Colombia itself.