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.
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.