October 16, 2008
Let me share my South American experience with you! A couple of months ago I was contacted by one of the organiser's of the Gran Caracol de Pista track race in Colombia – Julian Jose Velasques.
Julian had offered a generous package for myself and a racing partner which included airfares, four-star accommodation, meals, a personal masseur and mechanic as well as a satisfactory starting payment.
I'd never been to South America and given that the event date was just a few days after the Road World Championships and at the end of the European road season I accepted the offer and invited Tiffany Cromwell to share the experience.
We had no idea what we were in for when we boarded the flight from Milan – we were relieved to see some of the Italian team on our flight - seeing Roberto Chiappa at the check-in confirmed that there really was a race being held in Colombia and the two Australian chicks weren't being set up!
When we finally arrived in Medellin, Colombia, we were greeted by an official-looking man who showed us to our mini bus. The bus was full of other cyclists from Italy, Argentina, USA, Malaysia, Cuba, Chile, Spain and Venezuela. The mini bus was surrounded by police escorts - the trip from the airport was exciting - a bus full of fun, happy people trying to communicate in different languages. The scenery was very green and the roads were sometimes new and sometimes non-existent!
We were so tired after the 15 hours of flights from Milan – via Paris and Bogota – that we couldn't manage any socialising upon our arrival, so we just ate dinner with all the riders and then went to bed before 8pm. We had been advised about the procedures for the following day and it was at this point that we realised the organisation was going to be fantastic and everything had been planned well. We had been worried for weeks that the trip could be a little scary and unorganised but in contrary it was unbelievably well organised – I'm not sure that I've ever been treated so well.
Our first day at the track ran smoothly, our bikes were ready when we arrived – nice full carbon team Colombia Pinarello bikes fitted with the correct size stems, bars, cranks and chain-rings. We were all set for our return to the track! Ah, nearly forgot – campagnolo rear discs with a carbon deep rim front wheel – not bad!
Tiff and I floated around the track being paced by the motorbike. The thin air (1500m altitude) and the return to high intensity cycling was a bit of a shock to our systems but even so it was fun to be back on the track.
The 250m track in Medellin is outdoors and out of concrete. The track felt quite fast. Due to my lack of leg speed I rode a big gear but still felt I could get on top of the gear quickly and spin well on the fast surface.
Our Gran Hotel was located in the heart of Medellin so that afternoon Tiff and I were keen to check out the shops. The city was old and dirty and the air was muggy, hot and polluted. At times I was craving a breath of clean fresh air from my home in the Italian dolomites! The shops were what we'd describe as 'junk' shops - cheap shops that all sell the same things. The streets and malls were very busy and crowded with people trying to sell things or busk for money.
Prior to our trip we had been told by so many people to be careful in Colombia and that it's a dangerous place! At first we thought that the organisers and hotel staff were going a little over the top with their warnings and telling us it's not safe to go anywhere or do anything! Tiff and I had been provided with police escorts so we felt somewhat safe. The police would wait at the door of the hotel and whenever we exited, they'd shadow us on foot or if we went in a taxi, they'd follow on their motorbikes.
That second evening at dinner we heard our first shocking 'Colombia' story from Josiah Ng, the Malaysian track sprinter. Josiah had walked into the wrong street down town and he got mauled by a group of five prostitutes! Josiah was clutching his wallet and belongings so tightly that unfortunately he didn't have a free hand to protect his crown jewels which were squeezed to the point of tears… he pushed his way out of the street to safety and couldn't believe what had just happened.
We (girls) were always surrounded by men with guns, so we assumed the security in the cities was pretty good but that wasn't the case - we'd just been provided with exceptional protection. The city appeared to be full of crime and violence.
Racing: The event format was two to three races per night for each rider. Our first race was 15 laps, one point for the first rider across the line each lap whilst the last rider across the line each lap was eliminated. The last sprint awarded points 3-2-1 for the top three riders. The women endurance riders in Colombia also completed a 60-lap points race each night as well as a team pursuit type event with their male teammates. We were lucky enough to be teamed up with Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla but unfortunately…..we never got the opportunity to race!
Day one of racing; our return to the track lasted only five laps! Tiff and I had predicted that the first few laps of the first race were going to be ballistic and dangerous so we'd agreed to hang back until the riders tired a little and then we'd start being active after the halfway point. After the sprint on lap five a wobbly rider tried to swing up the track while looking over her shoulder- she overlapped the wheel in front of her and brought the field down. Bikes and bodies were going everywhere!
I watched the crash happen in front of me but unfortunately I had nowhere to go, I crashed into the carnage and slid safely down the track, as I was tucked up in a ball on the duck boards a rider slammed into my lower back… I was stretchered off to hospital and a CT scan showed a small fracture on the L5 posterior process. Tiff also came tumbling down and cracked her helmet; she lost a lot of skin off every limb!
It was Vera Carrara and Tatiana Guderzo who cleaned up the women's endurance events in Colombia.
I was a little stiff and sore for the next few days in Colombia but I managed to experience the night life with cycling friends and enjoy the racing from the VIP box. The hospital follow ups and race organisers continued to impress with their constant concern and hospitality!
The scariest part of the trip was seeing a street brawl develop and break out! We started to observe the argument but as the participants and violence increased my heart started racing. I witnessed people smashing bottles and stabbing each other and then a policeman just 10metres from me fired two gun shots- that's when I turned and ran for my life! I jumped into a nearby cab and screamed "go, go, go, go!"
If I return to Colombia next year it will not be to experience Colombia again- I've ticked that box! I'll just be going to enjoy the well organised, world class racing!