Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Luis Herrera Story - Part 1

In June of 2011 I started writing an article about Luis Herrera's professional career. It turned out to be quite a bit longer than I anticipated, so I divided it into 4 chapters. After well over a year, I finally finished it. I decided to re-post them in order, one chapter per week. I hope you enjoy (or re-enjoy) the read.

This is the first chapter of a four part piece on the history of Luis "Lucho" Herrera. As you'll see I tell the story from my personal point of view. As I started to write this, it was difficult for me to separate Herrera's professional career from my own life as a kid in Colombia. The country was going through a difficult time and there's no doubt that Herrera changed the way Colombians looked at ourselves. I could feel that, even as a kid. I owe Lucho a lot. I owe him endless hours of excitement, and I owe him countless happy memories of my childhood. Doing research for this piece was like looking through an old family photo album. You remember some of the pictures, but seeing them again stir up memories you didn't remember.

NOTE: Some of the content for the post, including Herrera's quotes (unless otherwise noted), come from a 1992 issue of Mundo Ciclistico magazine.

The very Heather Thomas poster that hung on my bedroom ceiling. 
The A-Team went on at 7:30pm, right after the 7 o’clock news, every Monday. I used to love that show, but it usually served only as an appetizer. The real highlight of Monday nights was on at 8 o‘clock: The Fall Guy. It wasn’t exactly the best show on TV, but Heather Thomas was definitely the hottest girl I knew of. My obsession was publicly documented in the shape of a poster of the aforementioned vixen on the ceiling above my bed. If my infatuation with Jody Banks (played by Thomas) was so strong, why would I choose to go to sleep early this particular Monday night and miss her voluptuous body in a tiny pink bikini? Was it a re-run? Nope. Was it a school night? Nope, summer vacation. What about the night of July 8, 1985 made me go to bed early? Well, I had to get up early on Tuesday to listen to the Tour de France.

Earlier that Monday morning, the Tour had finished at the Cote de Larmont, a mild category 2 climb that hadn’t shaken the GC significantly, but had shown me (and the rest of Colombia), that “Lucho” Herrera, “Tomate” Agudelo, Pablo Wilches, Fabio Parra and the rest of the all-Colombian Café de Colombia-Pilas Varta squad, were in good shape. Tuesday’s stage finished in Morzine-Avoriaz. The same climb that had seen legends like Van Impe, Hinault, and Angel Arroyo ride to stage victory. The same climb that would eventually be crowned in first place by Pantani, Virenque and Chozas.

The year prior, 1984, a tiny little Colombian named Luis Herrera, surprised the cycling world by attacking none other than Laurent Fignon, and winning the Tour’s Queen Stage finishing at Alpe d’Huez. The 23-year-old unknown wasn’t only the first Colombian to ever win a stage in the Tour, but he was the first rider ever to do it as an amateur. Not only did that victory turn Herrera into a hero in his native country, but launched a cycling fever in Colombia that eventually swept up my brother and I.

Phil Liggett narrates Luis Herrera's first victory at the Tour in 1984

Back to 1985... I barely opened my eyes to see if the time was right. 4:55am. The static of my alarm clock radio gave way to a voice that helped me wake up. The voice talked about cows and cattle. At least I thought so. I took a deep breath and gathered enough strength to sit up, grab a pillow and throw it across the room at my brother Klaus. I wasn’t doing it to be an ass, although I do recall a small feeling of satisfaction at waking my little brother at the crack of dawn. “Is it on?” He asked through dry, half-asleep lips. “Not yet, the farming show is still on. Five more minutes.” I moaned back. We stared at the ceiling (and Heather Thomas) in silence. The radio was now talking about potatoes. The idea of a call-in radio show at 4am seemed weird to me, but I guess if it was a call-in show for farmers, what better time to air it than before the sun came up? Either way, I had no time for potatoes or cows. That was for the farmers and I lived in the city. I had never seen a cow up close and I didn’t want to. I got up to pee. Damn, it was cold! Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t hot everywhere in Colombia. Bogotá sits well over 8500ft from sea level and it gets really cold up there. Really cold… especially in the mornings.

I jumped back into the comfort of my warm bed and my heart beat with excitement. The Tour was on. My brother and I wouldn’t say much to each other while the race was on. We’d just mutter a few things back and forth during commercial breaks, mostly to make sure the other one was still awake. It was hard to keep those eyes open. The first few hours of a Tour stage aren’t exactly exhilarating. In retrospect, I don ‘t know why they started the radio transmission so early, or why on earth we got up to listen to it, but I’m glad we did, because it gave me memories like the ones I’m sharing with you now. Sure, we could wait a few hours until the sun came up and the live TV pictures started, but that was for the rest of the lightweight fans. We were hardcore. We had an addiction to the sport and we needed our fix, even at 5 in the morning. As slowly as the sun crept up over the western mountain range that surrounds Bogotá  the race became more and more interesting. The morning breakaway was caught and few attacks started here and there. Nothing serious. The peloton was nearing the first major climb of the day and the riders were nervous. The radio commentators told us so. From their motorcycles, they could see it. They could feel it. The anticipation and excitement in their voices was contagious. We were intoxicated. (For a good example of Colombian radio commentators, check out a post on my brother's blog here)

As soon as the group hit the base of the Pas de Morgins, La Vie Claire and Café de Colombia sent their strong men up front. Finally, the sun was up and with daylight in our bedroom, came the real race. The peloton started to break and The Badger, already wearing the maillot jaune, decided to attack. 70 kilometers to go seemed a little early, but that was Hinault. Only one man followed him, the man wearing the polka dot jersey: Lucho Herrera. Greg Lemond, and the rest of the peloton, were perplexed. My brother and I were standing on our beds hanging on every word the radio commentators threw at us. The delicate balance of keeping the volume high enough to hear over our beating hearts, but low enough as to not wake our parents in the adjacent room, had begun. Believe me, you have not experienced fear until you have seen my angry mom’s eyes after being woken up at 6 am by her sons listening to the damn radio like it was 1936. Lucky for us, she remained in her lair this morning. Hinault and Herrera kept up the pace and the radio told us that Herrera looked strong. By the time they crested the Pas de Morgins, the couple had more than a minute lead. Greg Lemond had to decide weather to be a good soldier or attack to catch his team leader. My brother and I could care less about their in-team soap opera. There was a Colombian in the leading group in a mountain stage in the Tour and that’s all we could think about. Herrera and Hinault continued their fierce pace and the lead grew to 2:35 by the time the duo crossed the Col du Colbier.

We ran down the hallway to the family room when the radio told us that the TV broadcast was now on. We turned on the TV, hit the mute button and turned on the radio. TV commentators were boring and weren’t even in France. The radio guys had passion, knowledge and were in motorcycles following the race. They were right there, and now, with live TV pictures, so were we, right on time for the final climb of the day.

Live TV pictures welcomed us with a surprise; Lemond had attacked and the only rider who could keep his wheel was another Colombian, Herrera’s main lieutenant, Fabio Parra. We were ecstatic. We were now in the family room, far away from my parents bedroom, so we could jump up and down. My sister’s room was right next to us, but I don’t recall ever worrying about waking her up.

Herrera went on to win the stage: the first of two he would win that Tour. That day, that morning, that stage, that last climb, was what made sport of cycling so important to me. and the man who made it happen was Luis Alberto Herrera. The Heather Thomas poster on my ceiling was replaced that summer.
Herrera celebrates his win at Morzine-Avoriaz in 1985 (photo Mundo Ciclistico)

The man responsible for my obsession for bicycle races was born in 1961 in the small town of Fusagasugá (Fusa, for short), a few kilometers south-west of Bogota. His childhood was pretty normal for the son of a farmer couple in Colombia. His chores consisted of feeding the chickens, helping his mom pick coffee and, of course, going to school. He played soccer and even ran track, but never saw sports as a serious pastime. His first bike was a gift from his mother. She felt bad that Luis had to walk to and from school with his flat feet. Still, cycling wasn’t his favorite activity. He loved gardening. That’s were his nickname of “El Jardinerito” (The Little Gardener) comes from. After graduating high school he opened his own nursery. Being his own boss left him with plenty of time to ride his bike and the sport started becoming more and more important in his life.

A young Herrera celebrates his First Communion (photo Mundo Ciclistico)

Herrera's brother, Rafael, saw Lucho ride and convinced him to race in a small event in Fusa. He didn’t do very well, but he fell in love with racing and started to take the sport more seriously. In 1977 he raced the Colombian Amateur Championship and finished 21st. In ‘79 he ran the Vuelta de la Juventud (the amateur version of the Vuelta a Colombia) and it was there that he started to learn what the life of a cyclist was really like. “Every day was tough for me,” remembers Herrera. “I couldn’t get used to the routine. The food, the hotels, the heat, the crashes…. Those were really tough times for me.”

Herrera takes place in the Vuelta de la Juventud in 1979 (photo Mundo Ciclistico)

After a few more tough years in small amateur teams, Herrera caught a break and signed with the Valyain team in 1981. With a pro-team, he was able to enter the Clásico RCN that year. The Clásico is Colombia’s most important race after the Vuelta a Colombia and in the 70’s and 80’s it used to attract plenty of international talent and the top teams in Europe were always in the start list. Herrera showed his talent and won a stage. It was his first major victory.

Later on in the year, the team brought him to his first Vuelta a Colombia. “I was too young. I was a rookie. I didn’t know anything. The first 8 days of that race were hell for me. I took that Vuelta as a learning experience.” And the experience seemed to have worked. Herrera signed with the bigger Freskola team and went back to the Clasico RCN in 1982. This time he won the whole thing, defeating some righteous names. “Beating Pascal Simon, [Robert] Millar and [Fabio] Parra (who had just won the Vuelta a Colombia) was amazing for me. No one knew who I was before the race.” Herrera won the GC, the KOM and two stages. Not bad for an unknown. His performance in the Clasico RCN caught the attention of Colombia’s National Team coach and Herrera found himself on his way to France to compete in the Tour de L’Avenir. Everything was new to him. He’d never left Colombia and had never been in an airplane for that long of a flight. The humble and shy Colombian farmer felt uncomfortable and out-of-place, but once he got on his bike, no one could stop him. He won his first race in Europe: a stage in Morzine. The same Morzine that would see him win in Tour de France years later as my brother and I jumped up and down, waking my sister up.

I could not find an image of Herrera wearing the Freskola jersey, but I found this.
The soda company also sponsored the Pereira soccer team in the 80s.

continue to part 2>>


  1. Krusher! Know what was really cool about Lucho crossing the finish line? He reaches down and flips his toe straps. That sent me back to '84. Awesome.

    1. nice little detail! i also miss when guys had to reach down to change gears, giving you the hint that an attack was coming.

  2. Great read. Good to hear I'm not the only one who has such connections between cycling and childhood.