An affectionate and insightful look at the current generation of Colombian professional cyclists and the country that made them.
From Rigoberto Uran and Nairo Quintana, to Fernando Gaviria and Egan Bernal, Colombia has of recent been a production line of gilt-edged cycling talent. Matt Rendell’s latest book is a detailed introduction to these, often enigmatic, stars. It’s also a great overview of their homeland’s chaotic modern history and its current political situation.
Colombia is a complex nation that many non-natives have only a cartoon knowledge of through tales of Pablo Escobar and TV shows such as Narcos. Rendell’s affection for the country shines through in his writing and is a vital aspect of this book. These riders aren’t Colombian in the way that Froome is ‘British’, because that’s the designation on his racing license. These men are products of the place, forged by the land like the terra makes the wine, by their culture, their people and politics, a very real sense that if born in Europe they would not have become the cyclists they are.
And there’s a paradox here too, in that as much as their nation has undoubtedly shaped them, many of these riders made it to the heights of the World Tour despite their country’s best efforts, and especially in the case of Quintana, despite his national federation’s best efforts.
Theirs is a country that has battled poverty, drugs, paramilitary forces and political factions, that has recently used sport, and cycling in particular, to bolster its self-image and portray a softer, more positive vision of itself to the world.
These are young men who learned how to work hard (and had no choice but to work hard) from a very early age. As boys they used whatever bikes and equipment their limited resources allowed, the rest begged and borrowed. Training was squeezed in around school work and actual (poorly) paid work, their formative cycling miles most certainly not a hobby in which they were indulged.
“You are strong mentally because you come from below. Not having many resources is an advantage, because it brings out your mettle. It gives you one or two points on the others. You are brought up on hard knocks. If you want something, you have to put your back into it.” EF Pro Cycling’s Dani Martinez on how his upbringing shaped his sporting fortunes.
But that’s not to say that there is any sense that these riders are telling their truths in order to seek sympathy. They come across as immensely proud of where they are from, what they and their families have been through, and where they are presently at.
“We have all been eating food we have grown ourselves, and drinking the milk from our own cows. It is very healthy, very natural. As kids, we always had to be doing something practical, learning new things, not lying around playing video games or watching television. All this makes us different from the other riders.” Astana pro, Miguel Angel Lopez, on what makes him.
Whilst British riders of the same generation were in receipt of lottery-funded support, Colombians were making tough decisions, such as deciding whether or not to sell the cow which was their only source of income, in order that they might be able to afford a half-decent racing bike.
There are no indulged rich kids amongst the Colombian crop. These are riders who chased a dream and an escape, who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds, whose cycling successes transformed not only their own lives but the lives of their families back home, whose salaries have improved the lot of generations.
Every story Rendell tells here is a variation on that theme, of upbringings that involved hard work and very real poverty the likes of which Western Europe hasn’t known for generations. I was reminded of books I’d read on the very early Tours de France, boys from peasant roots, steeled by the ardour of the lives from which they sought refuge.
An illustrative example comes from Egan Bernal’s recalling that his father couldn’t afford to give him the entrance fee for his first race. The sum in question? 50 pence.
Pick any chapter and it could be the basis of a heart-warming, tear-jerking Hollywood script. These real-life stories are humbling and inspiring, and if reading them doesn’t turn you into a fan of Colombian cycling it can only be because you already were a fan or because your heart is made of stone.
It’s safe to say that when the next Grand Tour rolls around I will be rooting for the Colombians, each and every one.
Colombia Es Pasión – the Generation of Racing Cyclists Who Changed Their Nation and the Tour de France is out now on hardback.