This interview owes its origins to happenstance. A flight cancellation during a business trip led to my being marooned at the airport in the far-flung city of Trujillo, Peru. As it turned out, Rubén and the other members of Colombia’s national track team, fresh off collecting 57 medals at the Bolivarian Games, found themselves in a similar predicament. Gazing across the expansive terminal, I noticed a group of guys clad in track suits the colors of the Colombian flag standing next to what appeared to be a stack of bike boxes. A friendly chat ensued while awaiting information on our re-routed flights, which led to what at the time seemed like little more than the usual invitation to stay in touch. However, four months later I found myself in Medellín, Colombia. I rang Rubén, who in a show that the original invitation was more than obligatory politeness, asked me to join him on a couple of training rides. What follows are highlights from our conversations on two, 75-mile out- and- back rides along Medellín’s main highway. Seeking the flattest route possible – only 4,000 feet of elevation gain – sprinters like Rubén train on the city’s principal throughway, much of which is not adorned with a shoulder that offers quarter from the frantic anarchy of Medellín’s traffic. Shooting me a quizzical look, Rubén laughed off the safety concerns I raised. He paid little mind to the relentless swarm of cars and trucks we rode through to get to the city’s outskirts, at times texting no-handed with improbable nonchalance. He never took a bite of anything on any of our rides. He carried one bottle.
When did you get into cycling?
As a young kid, I was into soccer. When I was nine I was already part of the national development program. My mom gave me a BMX bike to get to and from practice. They paid me, it wasn’t much, but the little that they did pay me I would put into my bike. That’s how I got started, just using the bike as a way to get to practice and back home. The town where I’m from [ed., Chigorondó] wound up building a BMX track. Every time I finished soccer practice, I’d go check it out. Eventually, I got bored of soccer. They yell at you a lot. Sometimes they say really nasty things, and I don’t like to be pushed into doing things. So, I lost my motivation, and I started turning up more and more at the track. There was a coach there, and he always encouraged me to do my best. Nothing I did was ever “wrong” or “bad”. I was 13 or 14. From that point on, until I was 22, I was 100% into BMX. It was my entire life. I wound up being the best in Colombia. In 2010 I was national champion.
How did you manage to transition from BMX to the track?
I was doing the BMX thing. I would go to the velodrome, but just to train for BMX. At some point the national team coach took notice of me. I did a little track race, and it went well. Then I was given the opportunity to join the national team’s team sprint squad for a few events. But, I wasn’t really interested in anything beyond BMX at that point. I even received an invitation to train at the UCI’s World Cycling Centre in Switzerland, but due to a lack of money and support from my country, I couldn’t go. That turned out to be something that really marked the start of my withdrawal from the world of BMX. I’m not a person with lots of financial resources, and at that time, athletes received very little support to go and compete abroad. The only way you could go and compete was if your family had the money to send you. Mine didn’t.
Meanwhile I’d go to the velodrome and they’d offer me bikes, to cover my travel expenses, and a monthly stipend – all of the things that I never had during my BMX career. So, I started to get more and more involved in the track stuff. In BMX, even though I was good, I felt that I was going to be stuck no matter how much success I had because there wasn’t enough money to provide me the opportunities to advance, and grow and develop.. It was the right decision.. I left BMX four years ago, when I was 21, and now I’m part of the national track team. I’ve got more stability. It’s not like I earn a mint, but I think that – being really appreciative for what I have – I have a lot more than what a normal person has. And on top of that, I’m doing what I enjoy. I’ve always been fascinated by the sprinters, the pure sprinters. Now that I have the opportunity, I don’t just see it, but I live it. I feel it. I always work to be the best in the world. I hope success comes very soon, because obviously nobody likes to wait.
You’re used to your bike, and I’m used to mine. When it’s “go time” it’s all about who has the biggest balls.
What sort of training is provided? How do you find the coaching? And, how does it all compare to what other countries offer?
Right now my coach is Jhon Jaime Gonzalez. He was the person from the very beginning who took notice of me, and invited me to the national team. With him, more than the physical training, we prepare ourselves mentally. Our ability, compared to other powerful countries like England, Germany, or France, has nothing to do with how much you train. I think it has more to do with how you think. Those guys start out and they’re already more or less at the top. We start out and we’re small, but we want to be at the top of the sport. For us, we’re all equals. This mentality comes from having done lots of international races. If you look at the great teams, they prepare themselves more through competition than through just normal training. They do more international races. But, we train here in Colombia the entire year. Then we go to race, and we’re meeting them for the first time. For us, practically all of the teams are new to us. For them it’s different. They know each other. And in that sense, they start with a huge advantage over us. We want to do the whole circuit, with the World Cup events, and all the international competitions in order to get that level of maturity. That’s the goal from now until the Olympics in Río. We don’t want to get there and have that be the dress rehearsal.
We’re the type of people that believe that we’re all equals once we’re in the saddle. Cycling is beautiful because once you’re in the saddle it’s about who pushes the pedals hardest, not who knows the most.
With all the talk about “marginal gains” and even amateur racers having structured training programs with personal coaches, how scientific is your training program?
If we compare ourselves to big teams like Sky, Team Great Britain or Germany – big teams – I think we train almost with our eyes closed. The sports ministry tests us once per year here. They are just routine things. They draw blood, measure your heart rate just to see how you’re doing. But, it’s nothing specific for the bike. We do have some power meters, but the truth is we really don’t know how to use them. So it’s like having nothing at all. I think it would be great if there was more interest in knowing about that stuff and how to work with it, because if the biggest teams in the world are using those techniques, then it must be useful. We don’t have that much technology. Like, Team Great Britain has different types of bikes for different track events. We use one bike for everything.
How do you avoid becoming cynical about it all and think that you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back?
We’re the type of people that believe that we’re all equals once we’re in the saddle. Cycling is beautiful because once you’re in the saddle it’s about who pushes the pedals hardest, not who knows the most. Obviously, there are things that you have to know, but you have to have the physical qualities to do well. Just because certain competitors have more equipment and more doctors and more bikes doesn’t guarantee victory. It’s about the mentality of the athlete in the race. When it’s “go time” it’s all about who has the biggest balls. No doubt. Look at Nairo. He lived on a farm and the bike he raced with was the one he used to go to and from school. That’s how he began. And look at him now. He’s one of the best in the world.
What are your and the team’s goals in the sport?
We want to be world champions. Not just world champion – singular – but two or three world championships and medals at the Olympics. That would be gratifying. Just one world championship would be like a flash in the pan. It’s the consistency, the ability to maintain your level at the top of the sport that makes you a real champion, and to continue to find the new limits of your performance. The interesting thing about the track is that there are constant improvements in the times. I don’t know how far we’ll go. But all of us on the team want to beat the world records. All of us want to push beyond what’s possible. We’re a new team and we’re already in the top 10 in the world. I would ask for just a little bit more support, and invitations to the large, international events. We don’t always get the invites to compete because we aren’t the biggest and best team.
What sort of sacrifices have you had to make to achieve what you’ve achieved? What’s your daily life like?
In BMX, things were pretty low-key. I trained, but the demands allowed me to do things, to have a normal life. I could go to parties, and that sort of thing. Once I got involved with track racing, my social life basically ended. I finish a week’s worth of training, and the truth is my body doesn’t have much left. I sleep a lot on Saturday and Sunday. I eat an exaggerated amount of food and get ready for Monday, because Monday training sessions are really hard. So the truth is, I don’t really have a social life. Friends? I have a few. But among us guys on the team, we’re all friends. Do I go to parties? Rarely! Really, really rarely!