Reflections on Colombia’s “Historic Day”


They’re calling him “Nairon-Man” and “King-tana.” This past Sunday, Nairo Quintana won the Giro d’Italia, which makes him not only the first Latin American to win this prestigious bike race, but only one of six who have won it their very first time riding it. He is currently ranked by the UCI as the world’s #1 rider (though that’s likely to change after the Tour de France next month, which Quintana will not participate in). As if this news weren’t good enough, the second place finisher was also a Colombian, Rigoberto Urán, and the winner of the “King of the Mountain” award was also a Colombian, Julián Arredondo. Declaring it a “historic day,” newspapers, television stations, even the president have celebrated this victory as Colombia’s most significant accomplishment ever in its sporting history. With these victories bicycles are on people’s minds here in Colombia.

IMG_2890Because Quintana’s victory was more or less sewn up before the race actually ended, Sunday morning Bogotá’s institute of sports and recreation (along with Quintana’s team sponsor, Movistar) set up a large television screen on Avenida Séptima to show the end of the race, so that people on bikes participating in Ciclovía would not have to miss it. I spent about a half-hour there watching the awards ceremony after the end of the race with a crowd of some sixty or so cyclists of all stripes–men on racing bikes in full team kit, kids on training wheels being pulled by a rope by a parent, young women on mountain bikes, and so forth–in other words, the typical mix of people young and old, male and female out for a recreational ride who you’ll see in Ciclovía (but won’t see during the week riding for transportation).

Though people in the crowd didn’t tend to stay long (they were, after all, out for a bike ride), I did have a chance to talk to a few people and it was clear to me that a number of them had been following the race not just here at the end but since its beginning in early May and that they had a sense of the race’s details. They also said they were proud of Quintana’s victory and how well the other Colombians did. People erupted in cheers whenever they showed one of the Colombian’s receiving an award. A few people waved Colombian flags they had with them for the occasion.

IMG_2961It was a pretty mild response, though, and in some respects this isn’t so surprising. Colombians are not especially nationalistic and their strongest expressions of nationalism, with a few exceptions (such as territorial conflicts with neighbors), are often associated with how well their national sports figures are doing–in European professional soccer, the Olympics, and especially the World Cup. Colombians also tend to be strongly regionalistic, which moderates their sense of identification with the larger sense of nationhood. Here in Bogotá, people tend to identify as either “cachacos” (an image of a polite and cultured city dweller) or as residents of a cosmopolitan melting pot. They don’t think of themselves as “regionalists;” they’re “capitalinos” (residents of the capital).

In line with that sense of regional identity, the strongest outpouring of public pride in the victory came from Quintana’s home department of Boyacá where, as a friend of mine who was there over the weekend told me, there was a widespread party-like atmopshere.

And yet it is true that another source of nationalistic identification has been around Colombian cyclists who did well in Europe beginning in the early-1970s such as Cochise Rodriguez and then gained dominance in the 1980s with figures like Lucho Herrera, considered (until now) to be the high-point of Colombian accomplishment in international bike racing. Since that time, goes the consensus here, the doping epidemic became so pervasive in professional cycling that Colombians (who are thought not to dope) were put at a disadvantage. But now that doping is under control, Colombians are once again becoming dominant, with their natural abilities borne of (it is believed) a combination of extreme geographic conditions (mountains and altitude) and their hard work ethic (especially those, like Quintana, who come from hard-working farming backgrounds).

IMG_2900In a timely editorial in El Espectador called “The Revenge of the Bicycles” the other day, a prominent news journalist made an interesting observation that mildly challenges this essentializing view. Even while such ideas might have some validity, he says, there is a more simple dynamic at work: Colombian success in bicycling is related to the fact that it is one of the only truly accessible and inclusive sports here because roadways are free, so anyone can do it no matter what social class they might come from. Other sports are expensive and the spaces used for them charge money. The victories of these cyclists from humble backgrounds, he says, is a revenge against this country’s business community and elites who exclude the poor and would just as soon run the bicycle rider over in their large SUVs with tinted windows.

Though I like the spirit of his point, the story is perhaps not so simple, given the non-inclusive dynamics of bicycle racing in this country. There are implicit and explicit gender issues at work here. The reality is that this racing victory–as is the case with bicycle racing in this country more generally–is implicitly read through masculine eyes and as a masculine victory given the lack of women’s presence in road racing. (This does not mean that there is no recognition of women as protagonistic cyclists, as the case of Mariana Pajón who is a world champion BMX rider and national figure here demonstrates, just that road racing here is considered a men’s sport.) Another reading of the victory was expressed in a newspaper cartoon I saw in which a man on a bicycle is wearing a pink jersey, and his companion says “The marvel of sport…now pink is a men’s color” (Naior, as the winner, wears the “maglia rosa” or pink jersey). The cartoon was drawn by a man, as the sarcasm in it made evident.

In any case, this victory is set against a backdrop in which it is widely believed that good news can be hard to find in this country. As one commentator notes, “In the middle of political chaos, social difficulties, economic problems, the crisis in values, insecurity in cities, the jealousies of some journalists, the brand wars between sponsors, the preferences of each population or region, and of the terrible inequality in the countryside, the only collective pleasure we have in Colombia is that which sports give us.” Historic day indeed.

Nairo Quintana and Urban Cyclist Imaginaries

IMG_0294 Last week began the Giro d’Italia, one of bicycle racing’s most important international stage events. Colombians are well-represented in the race, and two in particular, Rigoberto Urán and Nairo Quintana, are expected to be top finishers.

As of today, Urán is doing very well–he’s in third place–but the race is still young and for weeks commentators here have said they think it will be Quintana who pulls off the win, given his second place finish in last year’s Tour de France and the fact that he and his Movistar team are in tip-top shape.

Quintana is a prominent national figure here, and he fits the classic stereotype of the Colombian racer from humble countryside origins who started riding bikes as transportation and turned into a international bicycle racing sensation. Everyone here knows the prototype. People are especially quick to refer to Lucho “el Jardinerito [Little Gardener] de Fusagasugá” Herrera, the great Colombian pioneer of European racing in the 1980s and early-90s. They almost always observe that he developed his formidable talents, legs, and lungs as a gardener riding to and from his jobs through the mountains outside of Bogotá on a bicycle weighed down with tools. Indeed the gardener with his weed-whacker, rakes, and shovels strapped onto a bicycle is a very common sight here in Bogotá.

Quintana is soft-spoken and timid, grew up in a family of potato and maize farmers in the Department of Boyacá (a department known as especially bicycle-crazy), and got his first bicycle at a young age whereupon he built his stamina and powerful legs as a transportation cyclist running deliveries around the farm and riding to school through Boyacá’s mountainous terrain. In his teens, he began riding with serious sport cyclists, though with casual intentions, and blew everyone away. With training and experience, he has become one of the most formidable escarabajos in Colombian cycling history, escarabajo being a term that means “beetle” and refers to the world-renowned abilities of Colombian racers to climb mountains. Colombia’s best international racers all come from the mountainous regions–Boyacá, Antioquia, Valle del Cauca, and Cundinamarca–and once you see how steep these mountains are, not to mention the high altitudes at which people here ride, it’s no surprise they do so well internationally.

IMG_1737Bicycling is, according to everyone, Colombia’s second sport, behind soccer. But as one friend here has pointed out, all of Colombia’s glories in international sport come from cycling, not soccer. Here in Bogotá, it’s not unusual to see people riding the streets–during Sunday Ciclovías and on any given weekday in the middle of rush hour traffic–out for a brisk ride on an expensive racing bike and full team kit, evoking the glories of Colombian racers like Quintana. As you leave the city and enter the Cundinamarca countryside, especially during the weekend, the numbers of sport riders surge, as does mountain biking; Colombians have developed a reputation as enthusiastic and highly competitive in mountain biking as well. (The photo here is Colombia’s largest mountain bike race that took place a couple of months ago in Boyacá with 690 participants, most of them from Bogotá.)

How do these sporting imaginaries relate to the urban cyclist? Obviously I can’t ask the hundreds of thousands of everyday cyclists, nor can I get in other people’s heads. But it’s pretty clear to me that there is no single imaginary of the urban cyclist, or that it necessarily has much to do with sport. For the majority of bicycle users–these being low income men (mostly, though women ride bikes too)–the imaginary of the bicycle is about convenience, saving money, and saving time, of being free of getting stuck in buses or traffic jams that affect getting to and from work, all set against a backdrop of a struggle for a livelihood. For others, many of them young, educated, and new to the bicycle, it is connected to efforts to reimagine Bogotá as a sustainable city (in fact, the city recently won a prize at the World Urban Forum in Medellín last month for, among other ecological initiatives, its promotion of bicycle transportation). For an even smaller number, it’s about associating with transnational urban trendiness and chic fashion. For still others, it is imagining themselves as active and healthy through their participation in recreation. These are not mutually exclusive imaginaries, and they overlap.

IMG_2094But for some it’s clear that the prominence of Colombia’s competitiveness in bicycle sport gives important symbolic significance and legitimation to their everyday practice of getting around. As a friend involved in bicycle activism observed, “Although riding as an urban cyclist isn’t sport, there’s a tie many of us feel to this history and its glories. It gives you passion and can help you in certain moments. It’s the same heart, the same feeling.”

The lines between the imaginaries of urban transportation cycling and sport, in other words, can blur here. As one of my informants recounted to me, Nairo Quintana himself said in an interview that drivers need to recognize that the next time they cut off a cyclist they might be cutting off a future champion. The bicycle, Quintana said, should be given the status it deserves, whose potential for transportation and sports are equally important to Colombians.

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