Colombian cyclists are known collectively as the Escarabajos (beetles). This is a term coined in 1955 by none other than Literature Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the biography of Ramon Hoyos. His phrase was something along the lines of, “the cyclists in at their hunched back manner looked like beetles attached to the mountains.” This has stayed in the Colombian imagination and has become so prevalent, but most of us don't know where the term comes.
That's our legacy. We are climbers. Not only that, but since the times of Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra we are GC contenders in the big three. Colombia will celebrate if one of its prodigious sons wins a stage in any race, and will most definitely celebrate the overall victory in a week long race. After all, this is all showing us that they will win the Tour in a year. That's the logic at least. One day races? What are those? Or as we would say, “how does one eat that?”
And it makes sense. Our first times in the European peloton, the big European riders would destroy us in the flats- the speed, the wind, the cobbles- it quickly spelt disaster, reinforcing the very prevalent thought that there was no space for us in the peloton. And then the mountains would come, and we’d feel the air thinning, our wings spreading, and we’d soar. The Europeans did not like that. So, in a country with very little flat areas and a history of being humiliated on the flats, we are climbers. One day races are normally terrain not suited for climbers, however there are a couple: San Sebastián, Lombardi. The reality is that one day races, the classics, don’t have the long gruelling climbs we Colombians enjoy and thrive on. So on one hand we are climbers, and on the other one day races don’t have climbs, therefore, to Colombians, they don’t exist.
Why then would any Colombian cyclist strive to be good on the flat lands and aim for the one day classics, even if their phenotype is better suited to these races? They don’t. Fernando Gaviria almost didn’t happen because of this way of thinking. When he started in cycling, he was always one of the first to be dropped. He committed one of the worst crimes a Colombian cyclist could make: he couldn’t climb. Similar stories can be found in Edwin Avila’s and Leonardo Duque’s life. Thank the cycling gods for Track.
Track is the one flat bit of racing Colombians understand. Emilio ‘Cochise’ Rodriguez (as mentioned in my other post about Betancur) broke the amateur hour record at the Mexico City velodrome in 1970, and in 1971 at the Track World Championships in Varese (Italy), Rodriguez won the Amateurs individual pursuit, beating the Swiss Josef Fuchs. So, not only are we familiar but also are successful. Add to that original success and our (up to 2012) only Olympic medal in a cycling discipline, Track becomes known to us Colombians.
Avila and Gaviria have been big winners in the track since their junior years, and if we cared about Track, we would have known their names before their respective wins against Quintana in this year’s National Championships and Cavendish in San Luis last season. That is when they became a part of Colombian general knowledge. Thanks to that and the incredible performances that Gaviria has had in sprints, Colombians have had to start learning about the races that could suit him, rather just stages in grand tours.
In looking at these races, we have been able to put other Colombians up as contenders. The new prototype of Escarabajos. Ones that have a fair sprint can go up hill. Uran has had these qualities since joining the peloton, showing them with style in 2012 winning Piemonte and getting the silver medal in the Olympics (listen to Episode 0 for my complaints), and last year winning the 2015 Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec. This year, he is to do Liege-Bastogne Liege in his way to prepare for the Giro. Betancur is another who could be great at the one day classics, especially the Ardennes, and this year will start in Milan San Remo with the hopes of being selected for the Ardennes. Gaviria will also be at La Primavera and we will get to see what he can do there with the few climbs and the treacherous length of the race.
I am excited about what this new type of Escarabajos can do. We are riders that climb, but with ones who can also sprint begs the question of what the might hold for these new Colombian riders. With Colombians good at sprinting now, you can bet we will have future generations of previously “bad climbers” become great sprinters and one day racers.