“Because in Colombia, we're into pedaling/We're so good, that even Colombian cycling fans and amateurs/Could easily compete with the world's best cyclists”
—El Lider by Diomedes Diaz
There’s an aspirational spirit that permeates Colombian cycling at every level. A promise of what might be, along with a firm belief in how the sport can better the lives of individuals, and an entire nation along the way. This is not simply a matter of sport and fitness. This is about both passion and beliefs that run deeply, that begin to play out with children as young as five (which is when many in Colombia enter their first cycling academy). Far from leisurely Sunday rides, and the casual conversations that come with them in other countries, children in Colombia learn about race tactics, training regiments, nutrition and bike handling. Academies are split up by age group, and usually cater to only one such group. This ensures that a rider’s needs are addressed, and that their training and knowledge progress in an optimal way.
The goal is to compete, and to win.
Those who head up these academies are often retired riders who team up with trainers in order to develop future talent. To that end, academies have a connection with development teams, creating a clear path for riders to go from the most humble academies in Colombia’s rural countryside to established development and professional teams. Along the way, all those involved keep an eye on riders’ physical abilities as well as their personalities, in order to pinpoint what type of rider these children can become. Training sessions happen during the week, sometimes painfully early, along with longer training rides on weekends. Stage races with age-appropriate lengths are commonplace from early on in a rider’s life, and become longer, tougher as they progress. Along the way, those who head up these academies become involved in a rider’s life, often interfacing with the kid’s parents, visiting their homes in order to know and understand their family dynamics.
Consider the words of the president of CICLEB, a development cycling academy in Ciudad Bolivar, Antioquia, where current Ag2r rider Carlos Betancur1 learned the basics of bike racing. She proudly states that the academy, must teach "… the meaning of human rights, and of co-existing with others in a peaceful manner." The club’s secretary adds, “In doing so, we are here to give our city and our department of Antioquia adults who will be good citizens, who will actively work toward our ultimate goal of achieving peace."
These are not your average cycling clubs, and these are not your average sporting goals.
And that, many in Colombia would argue, is what it means to cultivate a true winner in every sense of the word. As such, the mission of cycling for these academies is squarely centered on sport, fitness and competition, but also manages to include some rather lofty goals that extend well outside that realm. This is not simply because of Colombia's ambitious streak. Instead, it’s because Colombians don’t see cycling merely as sport. Cycling is life, and the sooner that these young cyclists learn this lesson, the sooner they’ll grow as athletes and Colombian citizens. This—nurturing well-rounded adults who can compete—is the mission of cycling academies throughout Colombia’s mountainous landscape.2
- Betancur has twice received a hero’s welcome in his native Ciudad Bolivar, once after winning the U23 Vuelta a Colombia, and again this year after winning the white jersey at the Giro. The town’s mayor awarded Carlos, who is known there as “La Ronca”, an entire home (as in a house) after his Vuelta a Colombia win. [↩]
- It should be noted that while Colombian’s from nearly every region have succeeded at the highest levels, the vast majority of Colombian cyclists come from the most mountainous regions. These include: Antioquia (the department where Medellín is located), the plateau that contains the departments of Boyaca and Cundinamarca, as well as the southern department of Nariño. Riders who come from Cali and it’s surrounding areas have mostly excelled as rouleurs, and account for Colombia’s few sprinters. [↩]