Monday, November 26, 2012

The Luis Herrera Story - Part 3

This is part 3 of 4. To read from part 1 click here.

1987 Vuelta a España. Herrera in yellow*.


In '87 Café De Colombia sent Herrera to the Vuelta as team leader. It was a powerful team stacked with strong climbers, but with the Tour as their main target for the year, the team went to Spain without any real expectations.

The favorites that year were Pedro “Perico” Delgado racing for the Dutch PDM team, Laurent Fignon on the Systeme U team and Sean Kelly with the Spanish KAS outfit.

After the first week (and 2 ITT’s), things were going pretty well for the Colombians. Herrera had lost less than 3 minutes to the provisional leader Sean Kelly, despite his well-known time-trial shortcomings.

*From L to R: Vicente Belda, Perico Delgado, Raymond Dietzen, Lucho Herrera, Fignon, “El Polaco” Bohórquez, Oscar Vargas.

The sixth stage took place on April 29. 220 kilometers took the riders from Barcelona to the ski resort of Grau Roig in Andorra. Jesús Ibañez Loyo, the veteran Spaniard racing for Zahor, attacked only 82 kilometers into the stage. The current leader, Italian Roberto Pagnin, and the rest of his Gewiss/Bianchi team knew that they couldn't defend the Jersey that day. Pagnin wasn’t a climber, and they weren’t interested in chasing. Neither was anyone else, so the lead grew to over 14 minutes to the main field.

With just under 10k to go, the road turned up and pretty soon the attacks started in the main field. Vicente Belda, the tiny Spanish climber in Kelme, Henry Cárdenas, and Patrocinio Jiménez of Café de Colombia all jumped and quickly gained 20 seconds on the peloton.

With 8k to go Ibañez Loyo’s advantage was a healthy 5:20, but he was visibly exhausted and was pedaling squares; very slow squares. The trio of Jiménez, Cárdenas and Belda had 30 seconds over a second chasing group containing Delgado, Laudelino Cubino (Team BH), Angel Arroyo (Reynolds/Seur) and Herrera. Another 20 seconds back was what was left of the peloton, including Kelly, Fignon, Potuguese super domestique Acácio da Silva and the German Raimund Dietzen, racing for the Teka squad.

Herrera, who started the stage on 42nd spot at 3:46 of the leader, took advantage of the gap to the favorites and accelerated. No one could follow. Lucho, proudly wearing number 111, quickly caught his two teammates up the road and passed them without even giving them a look. The only one who could keep up with Herrera was Vicente Belda. Barely. After about a kilometer it was obvious that Herrera was on a different level. Belda was struggling on a 21 gear, while Herrera looked comfortable on a 19, which was his favorite gear to climb on.

Jesús Ibañez Loyo won stage 6 after an amazing 130k break-away.

Ibañez Loyo went under the red kite with Herrera (dragging Belda along) just over 2 minutes behind. The Colombian didn’t care about the stage win. All he wanted was to gain as much time on the favorites as possible.

After over well over 130 kilometers alone Ibañez Loyo deservedly won the stage. Belda snuck up on Herrera and took second place. But as far as Herrera was concerned the stage had been a success. He’d gained 37 seconds on Delgado, over a minute on Kelly and over two on Fignon. As anticipated Pagin, who had taken the yellow jersey from Kelly on the 5th stage, had to give it back to the Irishman, who, without being a pure climber, had been able to stay up there with the best. Herrera’s audacious attack reduced his gap to the yellow jersey to 2:38. Delgado was at 1:46 and Fignon at 3:59.

The next day the race would finish in another ski resort. This time Estacion de Cerler. The 186kms stage had 5 classified climbs, including a 1st category and the finish, which was a HC climb.

By the time the peloton reached the last climb, there was already a Colombian in the front. Pedro Saul Morales of the Ryalcao Postobón team had 30 seconds over a select group with all the favorites. Well, all the favorites, except for Sean Kelly, who had been caught out during the beginning of the climb and was now over a minute behind Morales with only 6k to go. His teammate Acácio da Silva was pacing him up the climb, but Kelly’s yellow jersey was slowly, but surely falling into the shoulders of Dietzen.

Herrera, Cubino and Belda went up front of their group and turned up the tempo. Delgado, and the rest of the favorites tried to keep up, but couldn’t. The three broke free and set off to chase down Morales. Cubino was doing most of the work and Herrera found himself, once again with Vicente Belda riding his wheel.

With 4k to go Herrera, Belda and Cubino caught and passed Morales. The gap back to the Dietzen/Delgado group was about 40 seconds. Fignon started to hurt and started to go backwards towards Kelly’s group, which was now almost 2 minutes behind.

Within the last 2k, Laudelino Cubino surprised Belda and Herrera and went on to win the stage. Herrera came in second and Belda third. 35 seconds later the Dietzen and Delgado group came in. 1:15 later Fignon and 1:50 after that Kelly. Dietzen was officially in yellow by 2 seconds over Kelly. Delgado went up to 3rd, 27 seconds back and Herrera was 4th with a 48 second deficit. Fignon’s terrible day put him a long way down on the overall classification at over 5 minutes back.

Herrera crosses the line in second place, ahead of Kelme's Belda.

By now everyone in Colombia (and everywhere else) could see that Herrera was in great form and with 2 teams of excellent climbers at his disposal. He had a real chance to fight for the overall. I was getting excited. Lucho had gone from 49th to 4th is just a couple of days and there was plenty of climbing yet to go. Once again, Herrera was a national hero.

With another stage finishing on a climb (to Alto Campoo) we all expected fireworks; Colombian fireworks. With 10k to go, in snowy and cold weather, the man up front was a Spaniard: Enrique Aja of the Teka team. Aja's advantage to the field was an ample 7 minutes. But as soon as the climb to Campoo started, Café de Colombia and their compatriots Ryalcao-Postobón sent all their men up front to set tempo. They pulled so hard that more than once they detached themselves from the group, only to be forced to slow down. Going off the front wasn't part of the strategy. The idea was to pull the group and break legs for what was coming the next day: Lagos de Covadonga.

Enrique Aja and his awesome sunglasses talk to the media after his victory at Alto Campoo.

May 4, 1987: Luis Alberto Herrera turned 26 years old and what a birthday it was. The day before, on the stage to Altos Campos, Café de Colombia and Ryalcao Postobón had set such an intense tempo that legs were burning up and down the peloton. It was all in preparation for today’s 179km Queen Stage: four category 2 climbs and the HC mountain-top finish at the famous Lagos de Covadonga.

Argemiro “El Polaco” Bohorques, who was back in Café de Colombia after a year with the French team Fagor, was in charge of pulling the peloton up the first slopes of the last climb up to the Lagos. And did he ever. “El Polaco (The Polack)”, who got his nickname because of his blonde hair, destroyed the field for 5 or 6k, until his leader, Lucho Herrera, attacked with 10k to go. Herrera, wearing the red KoM Jersey left the rest of the leading group behind and built a 30 second gap very quickly.

Herrera climbing up to the legendary Lagos de Covadonga.

Herrera only needed 48 seconds over his biggest rivals in order to be wearing yellow by the end of the day. My brother and I screamed at the TV. We pretended to push the image of Herrera on the screen. We pushed him with our hearts, with our screams, with our souls. All 28 million Colombians did, and it worked.

With 5k to go Herrera’s lead was up to a minute over the main group with Dietzen and Kelly and another 45 seconds to the group containing Delgado.

This was really happening. A Colombian was actually going to wear a leader’s jersey at a Grand Tour. And I was watching it on TV. My legs were trembling and my heart was racing. I couldn’t believe it. In true pseudo-Catholic hyper-superstitious Colombian fashion I got down on my knees and prayed that the gap remained over 48 seconds.

With 3k to go Herrera had 1:30 on Dietzen and over 2 minutes on the group with Kelly.

I’m not religious, and while very superstitious, neither is the rest of my family. Still, my mom and sister had joined us watching attentively and asking God for a miracle. 500 meters to go, 250... 100... Herrera barely lifted his arms in victory. Ho got the stage, but the Yellow Jersey?

Lucho was barely able to celebrate his stage victory, before he drove into a crowd of photographers.

The clock started ticking for the Yellow Jersey. 20 seconds, then 30, then 40... 41, 42, 43... 47, 48. My whole family was screaming. My sister didn't understand or care about cycling at all, but she did understand how big of a deal this was. Sean Kelly’s group came in 1:25 later. Delgado came in 3:10 behind and Fignon lost 3:45.

Lucho Herrera went up to the podium to receive the first of what would eventually be 11 Yellow Jerseys, with Sean Kelly 39 seconds back in second, Dietzen third at 50 seconds. Note that the Café de Colombia logo is on a printed piece of paper attached to the jersey with masking tape. Real classy.

The new leader of the Vuelta a España talks to Spanish TV.

Ryalcao Postobón’s Oscar de Jesús Vargas was fourth and Vicente Belda rounded up the top 5.

“[Herrera] has demonstrated today that he is the best climber in the world, and by a long shot.” Said Faustino Ruperez, Sean Kelly’s DS, after the stage.

“We never thought someone could climb this mountain so fast,” confessed Raimund Dietzen to Spanish TV after the stage. “But I don’t think Lucho can win the Vuelta…because the TT. He’s going to lose a lot of time and doesn’t really have a solid team.”

I wish I would have listened to Dietzen.

Stage 18 brought yet another ITT, this one 24 kilometers in Valladolid. Kelly, obviously the stronger time-trialist, came in second behind Jesús Blanco Villar and beat Herrera by a long shot, recapturing the Yellow Jersey.

My heart was broken. I cried. I was a kid, I didn’t understand cycling strategy. I should have known that Kelly was too close to Lucho on the GC and that he didn’t have the TT skills to hold the Irishman at bay. There was no way Herrera could have held the lead. The Vuelta was almost over. Herrera had been so close. Colombia had been so close.

The next day I didn’t wake up early to hear the race. I didn’t care enough. I waited until later in the morning when the TV broadcast started. The mountain stages were pretty much all done and there was no way Herrera, or anyone else, could take this Vuelta from Kelly.

Cycling is a crazy sport and you really never know what’s going to happen. As soon as I turned the TV on, I heard the commentator say Kelly had retired. I couldn’t believe it. He repeated it, after only 14 kilometers of the 19th stage the KAS team announced Kelly had to retire because of an infected saddle sore. He’d had surgery for it on the Sunday prior, before the TT in Valladolid. He later stated that he’d ridden that stage in agonizing pain. I have grown to admire Kelly as a cyclist and as a man, and the fact that he rode the TT after having surgery the night before is yet another reason to admire him.

Sean Kelly talks on Spanish TV about his retirement during stage 19.

Herrera was back in yellow, but the race wasn’t over. He still had Dietzen breathing down his neck and Fignon just behind him. The bespectacled Frenchman saw Kelly’s retirement as an opportunity and attacked on the descent after the penultimate climb to Serranillos. The small chase group, containing Herrera, Omár Hernández and Delgado chased, but could not cut the distance to Fignon before they started up the Alto de Navalmoral. This was the last climb of the stage. But Herrera had just gotten the Jersey back and he wasn’t about to let it go again. He had to attack and try to catch the Frenchman. He left the group behind and mounted an all-out chase. Fignon was too fast and remained upfront all the way to the top. There was no way Herrera, or anyone else, could catch him now.

Fignon celebrates, while wearing the Café de Colombia-sponsored Combination Jersey. Ironic, really, since Fignon often talked about his dislike of Colombian cyclists.

Fignon crossed the finish line in the Avila velodrome first. 1:10 after, Herrera finished and 2:08 after that came the chasing group of sixteen, including Dietzen, Cubino, Delgado and Madiot. Fignon had won the stage, but hadn’t made up enough time on Herrera, who went up to the podium to receive the Yellow Jersey. On the GC, Dietzen was second at 1:04 and Fignon was third over three minutes back.

Herrera and Fignon after the stage. Herrera's demeanor says it all. These two did not care for each other.

Colombia was wearing Yellow again. I will never forget the graffiti on a wall near my parent’s house in the north of Bogota: “Herrera, que berraquera. Kelly, puro beriberi.” Roughly translated: “Herrera, lots bravery (balls). Kelly only beriberi.”

Delgado tried to attack during the next two days, but the Colombian teams controlled the race and Herrera rode easy. Stage 20 was won, in great fashion, by Omar “El Zorro” Hernandez, for Team Ryalcao-Postobón. Yet another Colombian, Francisco “Pacho” Rodriguez, of the BH Team, took stage 21. The last stage into Madrid was the expected formality. A Colombian had won the 1987 Vuelta a España. “That victory is now a part of history and the best memory of my life.” Herrera said later.

"El Zorro" wins stage 20 of the 1987 Vuelta. Even if you don't speak Spanish listen to the fervor and
passion in the voices of the Colombian commentators.

The 1987 Vuelta was a “Colombian festival,” as described by a Spanish TV announcer. Herrera had also won the KoM, and there were 4 Colombians in the top ten final GC: Oscar Vargas in 5th, Henry Cardenas, who was Herrera’s main "escudero," in 9th and “El Zorro” in 10th. To top it off, Ryalcao-Postobón won the team classification. Colombia had taken over Spain, cycling had taken over Colombia. Herrera-mania was in full effect and the season was just starting.

Of course, Herrera went as the leader for the Café de Colombia Team for the Tour later that year. After a very hard Vuelta no one expected him to do much, but the resilient climber had different plans.

The ’87 Tour was a four way battle between Delgado, Mottet, Bernard and eventual winner Stephen Roche. Herrera took advantage of the in-fighting and went on to have a great race. He didn’t win any stages, but was 4th on the stage to Pau, 2nd at Luz Ardiden, 2nd at the Mount Ventoux TT, and 5th at L’Alpe d’Huez.

Stage 19 to Villard De Lans. L to R: Marino Lejarreta (Caja Rural), Pedro Delgado (PDM), Mottet (Système U), Roche (combination jersey), and Herrera (KoM jersey). Image lifted of

Herrera, and his lieutenant Parra finished 5th and 6th, respectively. Herrera won the KoM for the second time in his career and this time by a massive 138 points over Spanish climber Anselmo Fuerte. Café Colombia also finished second in the team classification behind Système U. “El Jardinerito” had become an absolute idol in Colombia and one of the most feared climbers in the world. Stephen Roche plainly stated: “When Herrera wants to go, there’s nothing any of us can do about it. On the climbs he’s in a class of his own.” (Uphill Battle by Owen Mulholland - Velo press)

Some of the stories that I heard as a kid about cyclists were pretty outrageous. Europeans, and Colombians alike. You’d hear a lot of tales and without the internet, or much information in the mainstream media, we never knew what was true. One such tale was that Herrera had received a bull from the French government as a prize for winning a stage in the tour. Now, why would the government be involved with the Tour? Why would anyone give a bull as a prize? What would a cyclist who lived on the other side of the planet do with a 4000 pound bull? All these questions that I ask today, didn’t occur to my 13 year old self. All I knew (or cared to know) was that the French gave Herrera a huge bull. As outrageous as it seems, the tale was half right. “[The Tour organizers] promised me the bull in ‘85 after winning a stage, but they kept me waiting. I never got it. It wasn’t until I won the Vuelta a Espana, two years later. They called me from Colombia to tell me that a bull had been delivered for me and they didn’t know what to do with it. They held it in El Dorado [International Airport] for like two months. I think after I won [the Vuelta] and was in the newspapers, the French remembered about [the bull], and finally sent it.” So, there was a bull, it was a prize for winning a stage and the bull was huge. And what happened to the bull? “He died of a virus in 1993.” Sad.

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

To be continued...

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Luis Herrera Story - Part 2

This is part 2 of 4. To read part 1 click here.


Cycling headlines were crawling up the sports pages in Colombian newspapers. Alfonso Flores won the Tour de l'Avenir in 1980 and Patrocinio Jimenez and Cristobal Pérez were in the podium in ‘81 and ‘82 respectively. Jimenez also won the Coors Classic that year. Cycling was becoming a source of pride in our country and as a sports nut, it was entering my life. It wouldn’t be long before I heard the name “Luis Herrera” for the first time. But before that happened, “El Jardinerito” needed to learn a few lessons.

Alfonso Flores won the Tour de l'Avenir in 1980. To read more about Flores, Cycling Inquisition did a great post.

In 1983 the Colombian team went to the Coors Classic, looking to defend the title Jimenez had given them the year prior. This time Herrera was the team leader. On the toughest stage of the race, with over 6,500 feet of climbing, Herrera and fellow Colombian Israel “Pinocho” Corredor easily left the field behind on the last climb. The descent was another story. They went down during a hail storm so heavy, they had to ride on the tracks left by the cars ahead of them. They held the gap to the chasers, Lucho won the stage, and took the overall lead. The Colombians’ inexperience, however, showed on the last stage to Cheyenne, Wyoming. “We had that race in the pocket,” remembers Herrera, “but we lost it because of our lack of experience. We didn’t control the race in the last stage. Of course, all the other teams ganged up on us and I went from first [in the GC], to third.” The Colombians were not only faced with all the opposing teams' attacks, but with cross winds they had never experienced before. Herrera lost over seven minutes.

Martín Ramírez won the Dauphiné in 1984 riding a Duarte bike.

This would be a much better year for Herrera (and for Colombian cycling). Lucho beat Fignon, Simon, Lemond, Madiot and Millar at The Clasico RCN, and he won his first Vuelta a Colombia. Martín Ramírez, a young Colombian riding for Systeme U, won the Dauphiné Libéré beating Hainault (2nd) and defending champ Greg Lemond (3rd).

Varta, a German battery company, sponsored an all Colombian amateur team to participate in the Tour in 1984, as they had done the previous year. Herrera was the team leader and the goal was to win a stage. A stage in the Tour of France was a lofty goal, but with the year Herrera was having, he had a chance of achieving the seemingly impossible. “I was very nervous. I was about to participate in the most important race in the world, and to top it off no one respected us. We had been labeled amateurs, while everyone else was a pro. We suffered a lot, especially at the end of stages.” These were young amateur kids from a country most French couldn’t even find on a map (and probably still can’t). But Herrera was about to show all the pros what a tiny Colombian with a huge heart could do; in the Alpe d’Huez no less. “It was a very tough stage. Two climbs from the end we were five minutes behind the peloton, but [Rafael] Acevedo and I chased hard. We caught the main field in a feeding zone. The group was beginning to come apart. I ended up with Fignon and Hinault, but I left them behind [on the slopes of the final climb], and went on to win the stage. The last few kilometers I did all-out. It meant a lot to me, to Latin America and to Colombia.” What an understatement.

Herrera celebrates Colombia's first stage win in the Tour de France, atop the legendary Alpe d'Huez.

"[The next day] I was overcome with abdominal pain, but it was good that we had a good climb to start the stage and it was really cold.” Who, in their right mind, says it’s a good thing that the stage starts with a cold climb? Luis Herrera. “I never thought about abandoning the race.” Herrera finished a respectable 27th in his first Grand Tour.

1984 climb to Alpe D'Huez. L to R: Phil Anderson, Peter Winnen, Bernard Hinault, Rafael Acevedo, Luis Herrera (hidden).

In the spring of 1985, the Varta Team, with Herrera as a captain, were going back to France. At the beginning of part 1, I told the story of how my brother and I lived Lucho's victory in Avoriaz that year. I can honestly say that that day changed my life. As the years have passed, I often look back to that July morning in 1985 as the moment I fell in love with the sport. It was a magic moment for me, almost sacred. That is why I have always taken it personally when people suggest that Hinault “gave” that stage to Herrera. In Herrera’s own words: [Hinault] told me that he wanted the stage. I told him no, that we’d have to race for it. He was angry, so I attacked him and he asked me to wait, to climb at a steady pace. We did. After a while I almost lost his wheel, but I kept up. The last 2 kilometers were calm, but a few meters from the line I left him behind and won. The satisfaction was immense, I had just beat the leader of the Tour.”

Herrera and Hinault go head to head in 1985 on the slopes to Avoriaz.

The next day (July 10, 1985), my brother and I screamed louder than ever before. I’m sure we woke up our mom, and the whole neighborhood that morning. Herrera’s number two, Fabio Parra, attacked on the slopes of Vercors. “I knew Parra had attacked and I thought I could be good support, so I caught up with him.” Herrera makes it sounds easy. Two Colombians were leading a Tour de France stage, the day after Herrera won his first one. We screamed and jumped and yelled and probably ran as my mom chased us around the house. “We managed to get a good gap and [Parra] won the stage.” A Colombian one-two. The country was besides itself, and the Café de Colombia/Varta wasn’t done yet.

Parra and Herrera score a one-two for the Café de Colombia Varta team. You can fast-forward to 2:35.

Just 2 days after the impressive display on the climb to Lans-en-Vercors, Lucho gave Colombia more on the stage to Saint-Étienne. “[On that stage] I had to chase the break, and caught them, but on the descent [from Croix de Chaubouret] there was mud everywhere. I tried to avoid it, but couldn’t and I crashed.” That crash gave us the now famous images of a bloodied Herrera winning the stage, wearing the polka dot jersey.

[After the crash] I didn’t notice the blood. I was in a hurry to grab my bike. [It ended up] about 8 or 10 meters from were I fell.” There’s no TV footage or any images of the infamous crash. “I was alone. I got up alone and I continued alone. The team car couldn’t get past the group that was chasing me and the TV motorcycle was in the back. I’ll never forget that crash.” Neither will the rest of us. He wasn’t the only one who crashed on that treacherous descent. “I didn’t see Hinault crash. I just ran into him in the hospital.” Hinault, of course went on to win that Tour. Herrera won two stages, was second in one, finished 7th and won the Polka Dot Jersey. Parra was 8th won the White Jersey.

Podium of the 1985 Tour de France:
L to R: Fabio Parra (White Jersey), Rudy Matthijs (winner of last stage), Jozef Lieckens (Red Jersey), Luis Herrera (KoM), Bernard Hinault (Yellow Jersey), Greg Lemond (Combination Jersey), Sean Kelly (Green Jersey).

It’s impossible to describe how electrifying the mood in Colombia was during that Tour. Everyone was talking about cycling and the Tour. Kids all over the country were winning imaginary stages of the Tour in their BMX bikes, myself included. It was a very special time and it will forever remain as one of the happiest memories I have of my childhood.

Soccer occupied our lives that summer as Argentina (Maradona, actually) won the World Cup in Mexico. The release of Metallica's Master of Puppets was a pretty big deal, too. That’s an awesome record. Anyway, Herrera had an up-and-down season that year.

Hinault and Herrera on the podium of the Clasico RCN in 1986.

He started off winning the Clasico RCN at home. He'd won it before, but this one was special. The Badger himself was racing. “It was very rewarding… to beat Hinault both, in the prologue and in the ITT. I won the overall, the KOM and the Combination Jersey. [Hinault] had a tough time, but finished in style winning the final ITT.” Illness kept Herrera from having a good season in Europe, but, in retrospect, it wouldn’t matter. 1987 was to be the best year of his career.

Short documentary about Herrera's 1986 Tour. He talks about how sick he has been all season in Europe. In Spanish, no subs. Sorry.  

to be continued...

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

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>>

Monday, November 5, 2012

Colombia doesn't always mean Colombia

Colombia, Colombia, Colombia...

When Rigoberto Urán (left) crossed the line behind AlexandreVinokurov in London this summer to win the silver medal for his country, he had the word "Colombia" written across his chest. "Of course," you may think, "he was riding for the Colombian Olympic team." And you are right, he was. That team was funded by the Colombian Cycling Federation, a branch of Coldeportes (the Colombian Institute of Sport), which in turn is a part of the Ministry of Culture, with money from the Colombian government. Simple enough, right?
Well, weeks later, in October, Fabio Duarte (center) crossed the line in first place at the Coppa Sabatini. He, too, was wearing a kit that displayed the word "Colombia" across the chest. Was Duarte in the Olympic team, as well? Well, he was, in London in the summer, but not in October when he won that race in Italy. He was racing for his trade team, Pro Continental team Colombia-Coldeportes. Same word on his kit, but the folks who paid for it are different than the people who paid for Urán's a few weeks before. "How could it be?" you ask, "you just said Coldeportes paid for that as well!" Well, not really. They did, but they didn't.