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Ben King Journal: Gringo in Colombia

  • By Ben King
  • Published Jan. 28, 2014

Recharged by the longest off-season that I’ve been able to spend with friends and family in the last six years, an invitation from my new Garmin-Sharp teammate Janier Acevedo to train with him in Colombia before the Tour de San Luís thrilled me. I jumped all over the opportunity to experience a new culture, improve my Spanish, migrate to a warmer climate, train at altitude, and get to know a new teammate outside the stress, structure, and pressure of racing. We both signed two-year contracts with Garmin last year and our race programs will overlap a lot. Becoming friends with teammates improves everything from cohesion in races to mental fortitude on long campaigns away from home. It only took the initiative to make it happen.

Whereas I begin almost every day in Virginia with freshly ground Colombian coffee beans, the majority of Colombians drink instant coffee. Whereas, at this time of year, I have to wait until at least 10 a.m. in Virginia to begin training so that my bottles won’t freeze, Colombians are on their bikes no later than 8 a.m. to avoid afternoon showers. Whereas my American friends are obsessing over American football and basketball, Colombians are following futbol and ciclismo.

Colombia is a super fan of cycling. Drivers hung out their windows, cheering and snapping pictures of us on training rides. In four days Janier gave three interviews with major media outlets. Everyday I passed between 100 and 500 other cyclists of both genders and all ages, sporting jerseys from their local clubs and favorite pro teams. Whereas I often join the junior riders at the Miller School of Albemarle, in Colombia I passed pelotons of 100 minors living and training at 7,200 feet in elevation. Don’t be surprised to see Colombians become the Kenyan marathoners of cycling. Peter Stetina said, “It seems like every WorldTour team now as at least one token Colombian.” For two weeks I was the token gringo in Antioquia, Colombia.

Since meeting Sergio Henao at a Nations Cup in 2009 and racing the 2010 Tour of L’Avenir when Andrew Talansky placed second to Nairo Quintana, I’ve had friends in Colombia. They talk about their home the way I talk about Virginia, and with the same enthusiasm to share it. The reasons were evident from the beginning of my visit.

As in Mexico, Italy, and Spain, the tranquil Latin lifestyle in Colombia balances the physical stress of training. If you spot a friend, you stop what you’re doing to catch up over an instant coffee or agua panella. There is always time for an afternoon nap, and sports massage is cheap. The neutral temperature was comfortable in a jacket or shirtless. My pasty skin hadn’t seen the sun in months. It felt like vacation, but I was at work. With options to ride flat or climb beyond the hearts content every day above 7,000 feet was a quality investment in the coming season.

We ate healthy foods, cooking traditional dishes of rice, chicken, plantains, and arepas, which are like corn pancakes. We prepared smoothies with fresh exotic fruits. Guavas are my favorite. On the last day Janier introduced me to empanadas, saying, “This is food for December.”

I went seven days in Colombia before my first conversation in English. Flexing my mind so much to understand and speak in Spanish hurt like taking the SATs. Near the end of a five-hour ride, which included a 40-kilometer climb, the Colombian on my left shouted, “Wrench! Wrench!” I searched the ground, but saw nothing. At that moment he turned right into me and we nearly crashed. “Wrench! Ah, no, right.”

Earlier in the day I had taught him both words.

“Ha! Exacto, derecha, ‘Right.’ We almost crashed, man!” I said in Spanish. “But good try.”

Many Colombians wanted to know if my parents were worried about safety when I told them I was going to Colombia. My parents are used to me traveling. I stayed with a local, Janier, in a smaller pueblo 30 minutes from Medellin. While I’m not the kind of gringo who gets wasted and wanders down dark alleys, I did do some long solo rides. Unless cows in the road count as danger, it was safe. I never felt uncomfortable or even alone for that matter. Every few minutes, cyclists heading in the opposite direction greeted me with sharp whistles. By the end of the week I was even greeting shop owners on the way to Janier’s home.

I’m extremely grateful to him and others for their hospitality. The adventure in Colombia set me up for a successful Tour of San Luís. I plan on returning and Janier and I are already scheming his visit to Virginia post USA Pro Challenge.

FILED UNDER: Rider Diaries TAGS: / /

Ben King

Ben King

Ben King is a professional cyclist with Garmin-Sharp. A former professional and under-23 U.S. road champion, King, a Virginia native, occasionally pens a column for Velo magazine and a rider journal for VeloNews.com. As his Twitter profile says, he is a "professional cyclist, hokie, lover of the outdoors and chocolate."

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