Alvaro and Doug before race
Its 7:30 a.m. mid-September and I am in a large car caravan with a police escort snaking through downtown Medellin Colombia heading to the start of a bike race in the town of Pintada. Only in Colombia would a masters only race be getting a police escort to the start. The race organization was concerned we would get caught in heavy traffic so they arranged for a police escort. Que Pais. (what a country.) I am in Colombia for the 15th edition of the Vuelta a Colombia Senior Master, a 7 day bicycle stage race, with the Cafeteros Cycling club from Westchester/Fairfield area.. The club is composed of mostly Colombian-Americans and a few Gringos like myself. This year we were a group of 14 plus one native Colombian and two accompanying wives. We arranged to have cars, a mechanic and support drivers.
The race is run like a professional race complete with fully closed roads (both directions), a caravan behind each field carrying spare wheels and bottles and daily radio broadcasts and print media coverage throughout the country. Colombians take their bike racing very seriously turning out many world class racers who race professionally in Europe. Considering the size of the country (33 million) and the fact that they are not a very wealthy country they have an unusually large presence in the European Peloton. It is not uncommon to see groups of juniors out training on a daily basis. This year the Vuelta attracted racers from 18 different countries, North, South and Central America and Europe. I raced in the oldest group (59+) and we had 50 racers including many former Colombian champions and ex-pros and a former hour record holder from Italy.
This year the race began with a three day stint in the Rio Negro area, a high plateau (2000meters) about 40 minutes from Medellin. I was lucky to spend three days before and four days after the race start at my teammate Diego’s family farm (finca). Diego has been living in the States with his brothers and sister for over 20 years. His mother, Sra.Selena , a very young seventy-four, lives on the farm with a daughter-in-law. It was in a lovely rural setting with chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese and many fruit and avocado trees. The landscape is lush and the weather fantastic. They are somewhat close to the equator but being that they are at 7000+ feet the temperature never gets too hot and the winters are mild.
Sra. Selena smothered us in Colombian warmth and hospitality. Each morning I was greeted with a pot of fresh brewed Colombian coffee and I would sit out in the early morning sun reading and drinking . She was off collecting eggs or shoring up the farm fence or whatever chores needed to be done.. When we were all ready to ride we would ride about one quarter mile to the main road on dirt and gravel and out to breakfast at a local outdoor restaurant. Many of the local restaurants only have roofs and are open because the weather is so good year round. We ate, arepas con queso and eggs with more coffee and hot chocolate.. Diego then took us to nice quiet roads with good climbs to mountain pueblos. The towns all had village squares surrounded by cafes and panaderias (bakeries) Great weather, nice roads, great coffee and pastries and food (all very inexpensive by U.S. standards), I thought I was in cycling Nirvana
The Sunday after the race concluded I came back from a ride and sat down to a bowl of Sra. Selena’s Soncocho, my favorite soup. It is made with chicken, pork and beef and many root vegetables such as yucca, platino, maduros, potatoes, carrots and whatever. The soup was cooking on the outdoor grill. We all sat around the gazebo next to the house having lunch, drinking beer, listening to Latin music and snoozing in the hammock
The prologue (day one) was short, only 1.8 k but it had its usual mix of Colombian craziness. The first k was nice and straight on the auto-pista but we then made a turn into the town of Guarne and then you had to hope none of the locals or dogs got in your way as you were speeding up to the finish line in front of the town centro. Yes they had ropes up and police monitoring the course but I still had a few pedestrians in front of me.
The first stage was a circuit race, three laps on a 7 k circuit. But of course they had to throw a significant climb into the circuit. We were in the lovely tourist town of Guatape. On they way to the race we passed by the famous Piedra de Pinol, a large granite rock about 80meteres high, a mini El Capitain. The first time up the climb the race broke up then we hit some rolling terrain, did a u-turn and headed back. The finishing straight came right after the downhill. We first had to negotiate a speed bump at the bottom of the downhill before the final turn into the finish. At that point I was very happy to give up a few seconds to make sure my body stayed intact. My teammate, Horacio, a great sprinter with steel nerves won the race. I guess he has been practicing his speed bump sprint.
The profile for the 2nd stage was flat except for a 1 K climb. How bad could a 1k climb be. First of all there is no such thing as flat in Colombia. They have repechos (inclines) and repechitos one after another till they rip your legs off then you get to the climbs. This stage turned out to be very hard. It was hilly and we were racing at altitude. Our field broke up at the climb and never regrouped. And then we had the usual Colombian sprint finish in the town of San Antonio de Periera complete with speed bumps. Fortunately we were a small group
Stage three started in the small town of La Pintada. We were now at around 700 meters and it was hot. The race started late because of the long transfer from Rio Negro (three hours). Again the race profile was not very revealing. The course was rolling and then we came to a darkened tunnel. It was pitch black. One rider in front of me freaked out and crashed. Fortunately the tunnel wasn’t too long and the chase back to the group wasn’t too bad. And of course the last 10 k of the race was uphill and hard but you couldn’t tell from the profile.
On the way back to Rio Negro at the end of the stage race we came through the tunnel at night and it was fully lit up. Oh well. We also stopped in Pintada for dinner. It was a Saturday night and this little town was jumping. Because the weather is so good in Colombia there is a lot of street life. The restaurants and discos were humming.
Stage four was supposed to be the queen stage. We would be finishing up a 2000 foot climb to the mountain town of Belalcazar. But first we had to race out of Santa Rosa de Cabal. On the start line the race leader (who was clearly much stronger than the group) asked everyone to ride the descent cautiously. We had a 4k descent after a small climb out of town. The road dropped about 1500 feet in in those 4 k with plenty of switchbacks. But sure enough one rider attacked from the gun. The leader chased him and we chased the leader and then went screaming down the descent. Fortunately the whole road was closed and we could use both lanes. I was doing great till I saw one rider go off the road. The field broke up but we regrouped over the next 5 k after the downhill. I figured we would ride easy to the final climb but the Colombian racers don’t know the meaning of easy. They kept on attacking. I couldn’t believe how fast we were traveling considering we were going to finish up a 2000 foot climb. The climb turned out to be much more difficult than I expected with many steep sections to ascend The town was small and all the kids and locals were out cheering us on. The finishing area is lined with barriers and you feel like you are completing a mountain top finish of the Tour de France. It was only when we rode back down in cars and stopped to take in the views that we could enjoy the lush beauty of Colombia. We saw groves of coffee and platano trees and looked over the green valley below.
The next day we started and finished in Cartago. This was going to be the long hot stage. Fortunately this year they shortened the race for the two older groups (only 85k instead of 125k). We started out on beautiful smooth roads. I was marveling at how spectacular the countryside looked,. open fields with mountains in the distance. But then we hit the rough road and it was all concentration, hands on the drops and ready to brake and swerve to avoid the pot holes.I drank three bottle before the race start and another three and one half during the race. It was hot.
The last day was a 20 k Time trial and of course it too was hilly. I schlepped two deep dish carbon wheels to Colombia (borrowed from a friend) just for this event I had two racers in front of me when I checked my front wheel and found a big thumb tack in the front tire. I quickly jumped out of line and started looking for my support car and yelling in Spanish that I had a flat tire. My support was no where to be found but I was able to get a wheel from the brother-in-law of one of my teammates who road up to the race from his hometown. We finished up with an awards ceremony and did a lot of e-mail address exchanges. We might be a group of older masters racers but we train hard and take our racing very seriously. Now that the race was over we could all relax. This was my third year in a row doing this race and I have gotten to know many of the Colombian racers and the few foreigners. The camaraderie has always been a large part of the enjoyment of racing for me. This year’s race was much harder than races in the past. The courses and competition were definitely up a notch. The race organization housed us in 5 star hotels and still managed to keep the registration fees relatively inexpensive. The food was decent and we had access to the Colombian markets filled with incredible tropical fruits. The papaya was so muchy tastier than any papaya I have eaten back home. I have been fortunate not to get sick in three visits to Colombia. Maybe I have an “estomago tenaz”. Not really I just am very careful. We were also blessed with great weather.
There was a lot of buzz at the end of the race about where the tour was going next year. The talk was of Boyaca/ Cudinimarca,very mountainous regions, climbing anyone? This is a true tour like one of the grand tours. The many regions like to show themselves off and try to get the race to come to their towns. They go all out to accommodate the racers. I am looking forward to returning for my fourth consecutive race. Yes In Colombia bike racers are indeed well respected.© David Kliger
Henry at the start
Horacia in leader's Jersey
Diego, apparently it wasn't all hard work