So I’ve been on the road for 11 days now, covering the Vuelta a Colombia for CyclingNews.com and I’ve seen a lot of Colombia. I’ve gone from the highs to the lows literally (3200 meters above sea level to 180 meters above sea level) and figuratively (along the route I’ve seen scenes of abject poverty and gross wealth within walking distance of each other). It has been hectic, frustrating, exciting, fun and an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.
I think the most interesting thing about this race is the amount of nationalism it brings out in the Colombian. From radio announcers proclaiming how great Colombian cycling is to schoolchildren waving the tri-color flag as the peloton passes by, this race seems to inspire something in the everyday Colombian. The “national race of Colombia” this year has been set amid the backdrop of the inauguration of Juan Manuel Santos and he seems to be a ubiquitous presence in the race.
Obviously he has not made an appearance at the race, but his face adorns old campaign posters along the route, his meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez eclipsed anything else that was happening elsewhere in the country and the watchful eye of soldiers lining the roadsides is a constant reminder that the country’s former defense minister is looking on.
I think the soldiers on the roadside perfectly sums up what bike racing in Colombia is all about. While it has never been canceled or postponed in all of its 60 years, it still needs men wielding assault rifles to guard the racers. This seems more for show than anything else, but it is something that one never sees in any of the European races. The military is a constant presence in Colombian life (the army even has a team in the Vuelta) and is something that people just seem to deal with whether they like it or not. I guess this in one of Colombia’s little intricacies.
Andrew O’Reilly is an MA Candidate at CLACS / Journalism at NYU