After being in Colombia for two weeks and having some bad luck trying to find anything that resembles a bike race, I finally made it to local race on Sunday that ended in the town of La Union. The bike race, aptly named “The Second Annual, Let’s Eat Lunch in the Park”, ended in La Union’s main plaza with a sancocho lunch for 1,000 people. To be honest I’ve never seen a bike race quite like this one. It featured pro racers, men over the 60 and kids as young as 12 all racing on the same route. While there were different classifications for the riders, it was tough to tell who was who and who actually won what classification. Add to that the fact that roads the race was held on was open to traffic and things got a bit dicey.
However what the race lacked in organization, it made up for in charm and Colombian style. One of the great things about the sport of cycling that other sports can’t emulate is how close fans can get to their heroes. During the race kids rode next to a world champion and ate their soup with cyclists who had competed in the Tour de France. In other sports this doesn’t happen and is one of the reasons why the sport is so popular in Colombia. The professional cyclists from Colombia are people who the average person sees everyday. In the morning when they are on their way to work, they’ll pass a professional cyclists training on the roads, then later will be sitting in a restaurant next to a group of riders. These athletes are not the untouchable figures that most professional athletes in the U.S. or Europe are, but the sons of farmers and shopkeepers. They’re people who you knew growing up and have seen develop throughout their lives.
Another thing I’ve learned about the sport in Colombia is that Colombian’s are fiercely proud of their success in the sport and their cyclists. While soccer may be more poplar on television, those people who follow the sport are fanatics with almost photographic memories of events, riders and races. I spoke with an older mathematics professor watching a race at the Luis Carlos Galán Velodrome in Bogotá who could remember the exact weather during a stage in the Vuelta a Colombia….in 1957!
Cycling is also a family thing here and the love for the sport is passed down from generation to generation. I was living for a time with the family of Willian Valdivia, a young pro racer for the Indeportes Antioquia squad. He got involved in the sport through his father, who when he was younger rode against some of the best cyclists in the country. His father who seems to only own a poncho, jeans and dirty rubber boots and works on a flower farm, showed me photos of him as a young man climbing next to the some of the biggest names in cycling in the 1980s.
Later this week I head out with a pro team to follow them on the Vuelta a Antioquia, so I’ll hopefully have more insights soon to come.
Andrew O’Reilly is an MA Candidate at CLACS / Journalism at NYU