I have to admit, I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Colombia, and am embarrassed to say I know little about Colombian culture. So when offered the opportunity to write on MedellinLiving.com, I was initially at a loss for words.
Contemplating Colombian topics, I thought of what I perceive as normal things that come to mind for those unfamiliar with this beautiful country; football or soccer as Americans call it, Pablo Escobar, coffee and the scenic Andes mountains.
But then I realized there was something that I was interested in which seems off the beaten path, namely Colombian cycling.
It was July 15, 2000 and another horrific day in the mountains for the riders at the Tour de France when I first realized that not cycling was not only popular in the country of Colombia, but that they are quite good at the sport as well.
That day I watched in astonishment as Santiago Botero in his unorthodox hunched-over position, crossed the finish line, taking the stage victory as well as the top spot in the mountain classification. “A cyclist from Colombia?” I remember thinking.
Little did I know that the sport of cycling has a very popular following in Colombia and the sport has been growing exponentially since the mid 1980’s. Eight Colombian men, in fact, have won stages at the Tour de France, and Colombians have represented their country well at other top cycling events.
For example, Lucho Herrera won the general classification victory at the Vuelta a Espana in 1987 and Santiago Botero the Gold Medal at the UCI World Championships Men’s time trial in 2002.
But while it’s great that Colombians have enjoyed success and popularity in cycling, I’ve always wondered what the cause was for the sport’s success and popularity? Is it due to the success of recent riders such as the so-called Colombian Beetles, or does it go back further to Martín Emilio Rodríguez?
Is it the dream of a better life that drives younger generations from less fortunate Colombian families to pick up their bikes and train competitively?
One can hardly deny that that the mountainous terrain of Colombia offers its cyclists the perfect opportunity to master their climbing skills. Perhaps the sport gained a bigger following due to the success of its own cycling tour, the Vuelta a Colombia, which began over half a century ago in 1951?
Whatever the reasons, I was surprised to learn that cycling in Colombia is part of the nation’s identity, and it has transcended the sporting arena with its own social implications.
For example, in the 1990’s the Colombian government created a large network of ciclovias or bike paths in Bogotá in order to combat vehicle emission pollution. Since the bike paths were created, bicycle travel has grown up to five times as much as it was previously.
If a sport, any sport, can bring people to become environmentally friendly, healthier and at the same time add joy to lives then I believe it’s worth investigating.
In fact, it’s changes like these that make me want to learn more about Colombia. Hopefully, if the sport continues to thrive in this beautiful country perhaps more people like me will think of champion cyclists, and positive social change the next time they think about Colombia.
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