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of which I have never experienced again anywhere in the world. Our religious devotion to cycling was part of a shared consciousness, for better or worse helped bring all Colombians together. To be perfectly honest, the only time I experienced a similar sense of a shared consciousness after having left Colombia was in the months that came after September 11 in the United States. It’s with that level of intensity and focus that nearly all Colombians could be united. Perhaps they were seeking an escape from the deadly realities of our daily lives by cycling. Forever the underdogs, the mere idea of ours reaching notoriety on the world stage—in any sport—could transform the entire nation and its mood.

That year, with an extremely limited budget, the Varta team ventured to France. Their team cars were partially staffed by the riders’ mothers, who prepared “agua de panela” (boiled water with brown sugar) for their sons to drink as they pedaled away through the French countryside. To say that the riders came from modest means would be an understatement, especially by American and European standards, and the same could be said for the teams for which they raced. It was with these hardships in mind that Colombians like my brother and I were brought to tears that year, when Lucho Herrera won the famed Alpe d’Huez stage in the Tour. The entire country erupted in celebration, and thousands lined the streets near Bogotá’s airport to greet our national hero upon his return. I recently found footage of Lucho Herrera’s stage win on YouTube. After watching mere seconds of the video, I instantly teared up all over again as I was overcome with emotion. Like so many other moments in Colombian cycling, that victory too is forever intertwined with painful and violent events in our country’s history.

Only months after the stage victory in one of France’s most famed ascents the country was still deep in a joyful trance over the victory including me and my brother. On a seemingly normal Wednesday afternoon that year, M-19 guerrillas took over Colombia’s Palace Of Justice in Bogotá holding nearly 300 hostage and eventually killing 11 magistrates of the Supreme Court (much like a member of the United State’s Supreme Court) as well as administrative assistants and day laborers. After days of gunfire exchanges with the Colombian army, millions of Colombians watched in horror as the Palace Of Justice burned down on national television. Colombia awoke from its cycling-induced trance. Seven days after the violent disaster, the now-stunned Colombian population was struck by disaster yet again.
The Nevado del Ruiz, located in the Caldas Department, had not erupted since the 1800’s, but it suddenly woke from its slumber. With the heat generated by its sudden explosion, its snow-covered peak melted, creating a massive mudslide that went on to kill over 23,000 in the town of Armero below. During the seven days between these two monumental events, the Colombian track racer Ephraim Rodriguez managed to set three track cycling world records. Those few months, with their extreme highs and lows are a grim but fair reflection of Colombia’s reality for much of that decade. As the Colombian population suffered through one hardship or another, cycling (and eventually soccer) would always inexplicably manage to raise the entire country’s spirits. For all the misery that exists in Colombia, its residents have always been an incredibly joyous people, managing to find happiness in the most unlikely places. This has made Colombia one of the happiest places on earth, according to many studies. It is perhaps for that reason that my visceral response to the video of the Alpe d’Huez victory, as it is for many other Colombians is so profound. My tear-filled reaction speaks volumes about a country that has found extreme joy in the midst of what most would call misery and much of that joy has come from cycling during that era. I firmly believe that had Karl Marx known how seriously Colombians would take sports during the most arduous times in our history, he would not have referred to religion as the “opiate of the masses,” but rather to cycling as the “opiate of Colombians.” If ever a people desperately needed something to distract them from the wounds inflicted by violence and injustice in their country, Colombians during that era were surely those people. With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise how a Colombian cyclist answered the question of “was it a tough climb?” after a particularly arduous stage win. His response? “It wasn’t hard, I was not alone. I had millions of other Colombians pedaling along with me.”

Every afternoon, after listening to that day’s Tour stage on the radio, I would venture out to the steep streets of our suburban Bogotá neighborhood to ride the unbelievably ugly purple BMX bike that my parents had so kindly bought second-hand for me and had painted at a local body shop. On Sundays, I would often find myself at the Ciclovia, along with nearly two million other Bogotános. The Ciclovia is a weekly event in which over 70 miles of Bogotá’s major streets are closed to traffic in order to allow cyclists and pedestrians the ability to ride, walk and run through them. It was at the Ciclovia, that many Bogotános lived out their Tour de France fantasies. Over the years, the Ciclovia has grown to include aerobics in city parks as well as yoga classes attended by hundreds along the routes, and is now a crucial part of the government’s