Cycling out of Poverty in Colombia

In many parts of Colombia there are not many options for work. The options include agriculture, mining, and construction jobs that are usually sparse, and poorly paying.  The horizon over the beautiful green mountains is often bleak. These same mountains, however, have turned into a world of opportunity for a select few willing to sacrifice, suffer, and train for a dream of fame in the world’s largest cycling races.

 My trusty steed while in Colombia.

Colombia has a rich history of cycling, with many successes on the world stage, including Santiago Botero winning the 2000 mountains classification in Le Tour de France, as well as the 2002 World Time-Trial championship.  Before Botero there was Luis “Lucho” Herrara who became a national hero for winning a 1985 Tour de France mountain stage, all the while covered in blood from an earlier crash.  These hardmen of cycling have provided role models for the new generation of aspiring pros.

While living in Medellin I’ve had the luck of meeting a group of these young men.  I encountered Daniel Vasquez while out for a ride on a Sunday morning around Medellin.  He came up next to me and started talking with me.  I asked him a few questions, and it soon became evident that this young man can ride.  His day, on this given Sunday, included  170kms of cycling, with over 1700m of elevation gain.  After riding together for a few kilometers he had to turn off for his home, but before leaving he invited me to come watch a race of his on Thursday.  This is where I met his team of young pros aspiring for the gloried Alps and Pyrenees.

The race on this Thursday was an 1.5hr criterium, which is really long for a race of this variety.  Daniel and his teammates were racing against others their own age, as well as hardened vets up to twice their age.  Daniel finished very strongly, in about 5th spot in a field of about 80 racers.  Of course this race was not all that was on the schedule for this given day.  Afterwards was a planned climb of the famous “Las Palmas“, which is a climb out of Medellin that resembles the famous Col du Tourmalet in France.  It’s 15kms long, and gains approximately 1100 vertical metres.  That’s after an 1.5hr of hard racing!

 The peloton in full form.

From talking with Daniel and his teammates you get a feeling of hope.  The bike is more than just a piece of sporting equipment, a form of transportation, or a source of entertainment for these young men; it’s a beacon of hope.  With a bike in-between their legs they can accomplish something that would otherwise be impossible: a vocation other than agriculture, mining, or construction.

 There were many corners in this course.

In May Daniel and his teammates will be competing in Vuelta a Colombia Sub-23, which is a five day stage race through the most challenging mountains in Colombia (including “La Linea” which is widely considered the toughest paved climb in the world.)  This is their proving grounds.  Perform well here, and they may have a chance to be picked up by a team touring to Europe, and to start building their dreams to a unique way of life, with possibilities of fame.  As Daniel told me once “Para sufrir sobre la bicicleta es una cosa magnifica.”  (To suffer on a bicycle is a magnificent thing.)  Here it rings true more than anywhere.


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