Colombian mountain cyclists try to pedal out of poverty toward glory in Europe

September 18, 2011

In the Andean mountains of central Colombia, where life’s options range from potato farming to herding goats, boys like Johan Cardenas dream of cycling to glory in the French Alps and Pyrenees.

They ride at dawn’s first light for 30 or 40 miles, or often 70, much of it up narrow mountain passes. Then they go again the next day, and the day after, with one goal in mind: to someday be good enough to compete in the great bicycle races of Europe.

Though little known outside the cycling world, Colombian cyclists are famous for setting the pace in the most punishing phase of any race, the mountain stage. Many were raised here in the state of Boyaca, where countless boys believe that they, too, can pedal their way up mile upon grueling mile, and right out of poverty.

Johan is among the more promising racers. At 16, he is still soft-spoken and bashful. But on a bike, he is unflinchingly aggressive, obsessed with coming out on top. It’s an audacious side that comes alive when he is racing his bike up impossibly steep mountains.

Standing on the pedals, head low and hands tight on the handlebars, he grits his teeth and keeps the pace from slipping, even through throbbing thighs.

“If you can’t suffer,” Johan said, “what good are you?”

Israel Ochoa, who raced in Europe and still rides competitively at 47, said cycling is “the passion of Boyaca, and Boyaca is a power in cycling.”

Hopping off his racer during a training run, he reeled off name after name of racing heroes who grew up here, in the little towns sprinkled like jewels across emerald hillsides.

“The professionals motivate those here to follow in their footsteps,” Ochoa said, nodding to the teenage riders training on the same road. “In the future, they can become the ones who will replace us.”

The Colombian racers have tended to be lithe, humble men who look overwhelmed by the bigger Europeans on those long, flat stretches where cyclists cruise at high speed, hour upon hour.

But when the road climbs, as it invariably does in every race, the Colombians stand out.

Perfect training ground

The benchmark for Colombian cycling’s variety of courage was set by Luis “Lucho” Herrera, who — even though covered in blood from a crash — won a mountain stage in the 1985 Tour de France.


Johan Cardenas climbs a hill during an early morning training session. (Adam Liebendorfer/THE WASHINGTON POST)

More recently, Victor Hugo Pena made a name for himself as the mountain enforcer on Lance Armstrong’s squad. Santiago Botero is also well known in the cycling world as a mountain king who once described his brand of aggressive racing as that of “a madman, a buccaneer, a warrior.”

Dozens more have won fame and fortune in Spain, Italy and France, not to mention the myriad races here in Colombia.

The boys of Boyaca are only too aware of what the “elites,” as professional racers here are known, have accomplished.

“Ninety-eight percent of those who practice this sport are poor,” said Luis Cardenas, coach of a cycling academy. “When they’re young, they begin to get the urge to race.”

That motivation is matched by what may be the perfect training ground for mountain racers — winding roads that rise 9,000 feet or more. Boyaca also features weather that can swiftly change, going from sunny and temperate to rainy and freezing just around a bend. It seems designed to test the fortitude of riders.

Family sacrifice

On a recent morning, the boys in Cardenas’s academy — named for his brother, Felix “The Cat” Cardenas, once a successful racer on the European circuit — were on the road. Dressed in the academy’s red, riders as young as 14 raced fast in a tight pack, legs pumping, chest out, handlebars almost touching.

One of them was Johan, who is no relation to the coach. With an uncanny ability to accelerate, he helped set the pace.

“Everyone together, all together,” Coach Cardenas yelled to the riders as he hung from the passenger-side window of a car. “Now, Johan, let’s go, for 500 meters, speed it up. Go, go, go!”

Cardenas said Johan and Daniel Paez, who is 15, have the best chances of becoming professionals. But he saw promise in practically all of them, even the spindly newcomers who fought to keep up.

“The goal here is for them to have command of their bicycles,” Cardenas said. “That avoids accidents in bicycle races.”

The pack rode along a busy highway packed with trucks, swerved through the small town of Paipa, went along a verdant farm valley and up two steep mountains past milk cows and hard-bitten farmers.

“Get up on your pedals,” Cardenas shouted near the end. “Just half a kilometer left — softly, softly. Hold your bikes steady, with grace. Bravo!”

When it was over, the cyclists gasped for air and Cardenas grinned with satisfaction.

“Suffering is part of the sport,” he said. “If you do not have the capacity to suffer, you won’t be able to really prepare and, more importantly, you won’t be able to compete.”

In these mountains, it is not just the young racers who sacrifice.

Johan’s mother, Marifely Leguizamon, runs a restaurant out of her home, and his father, Yefferson Cardenas, takes all the construction jobs he can find.

Johan “doesn’t eat — he devours,” his mother said. And she pointed out that his sport requires that tires, brakes and other equipment be regularly replaced. When her son needed a high-performance bicycle for races, they bought one for $6,000, selling the family’s small house to finance the purchase.

“Our hope is him,” Leguizamon said. “And we ask God to take him all the way in this sport, so he can be a professional.”

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