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Book Review: Colombia Es Pasión

Book: Colombia Es Pasión

Author: Matt Rendell

Like most people I have spoken to recently, I’ve devoured books by the dozen this last year or so, but if you’re looking for a detailed, wonderful insight into the rise of Colombian cyclists on the very biggest stage, then look no further. Colombia Es Pasión is an in depth biographical look into the rise of some of the nation’s biggest sports stars and their humble beginnings in the highest reaches of the mountains of the country and the farmland below. There is no cycling author with a better knowledge of the cycling culture that gave birth to the likes of Egan Bernal, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán. Matt Rendell’s writing is a beautifully immersive account of their rise to cycling greatness.

Nairo Quintana and his journey to the top is covered in detail by Rendell. © Getty Images Sport

'King’s of the Mountains', written by Rendell in 2003, focussed on the earlier cycling heroes of the country, but this is a piece of work centred on the new modern generation and the long and difficult road they’ve taken to reach the dizzying heights of their sport. Matt Rendell homes in on the names mentioned above, as well as the likes of Winner Anacona, Dani Martínez and Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz (who raced his formative years in Colombia) to name just a few. Each section is lovingly detailed, covering an individual rider and their history and contains information provided by their family members who were there on the side of the road showing support from day one.

Several different themes run throughout the book, but mainly focusing on the political history of the troubled country and the poverty endured by nearly all of their cycling superstars. Each chapter on a cyclist usually starts with their upbringing on their family run finca and discussion around what they produce, with insight into the daily lives of the families. Nearly all of the people involved are campesinos, or peasants to use the English equivalent, each of them requiring grit, determination and resilience just to survive and provide for their loved ones. It is that same mentality which ultimately set them on the path to success when making the jump to sport. The hours of hard outdoor labour many of these men have behind them, including farming in all weather and working family run market stalls often with little sleep, is what defines their work ethic and formed the building blocks for the world-class athletes they later developed into.

Reading through the book, you’ll discover how tragedy in Rigoberto Urán’s childhood led to him being the sole bread winner in the family. © Bettini Photo

Matt Rendell is a masterful storyteller and clearly extremely well respected by the riders and their families. He recounts the personal stories of groups of people trying to survive on their land whilst paramilitaries and other forces do battle nearby threatening the livelihoods and wellbeing of all. In the book you will learn of how Miguel Ángel López obtained the nickname 'superman' and how Rigoberto Urán’s father was brutally murdered, leaving Rigoberto as the sole bread winner of the family.

You’ll discover how the common theory of Colombian cyclists having an advantage over the peloton, due to growing up at altitude is relatively unfounded. Instead in its place are families being unable to afford bikes for the stars of today and in the case of some cyclists, Darwin Atapuma being an example, they are forced to choose between a new cow or basic cycling kit and a better bike. Reading this book you’ll see that the true grit and determination to succeed were the real advantage here. Whilst many of their contemporaries were in some of Europe’s elite cycling clubs, receiving the very best in training, Nairo Quintana and his brother were juggling school work, the family finca and market stall and bike racing when time allowed it. There is brilliant and clearly well-researched discussion of race and ethnicity in Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador. Whilst the majority of the riders discussed are united under the same flag, Rendell goes further and provides intellectual discussion around the history of Colombia’s indigenous peoples. Nairo Quintana’s family are proud Muysca, whereas the family of Darwin Atampuma are Pasto.

As in any walk of life, more so evident in sport and the arts, the likes of Tour de France champion Egan Bernal can obscure those who didn’t make it, being often ignored by the Colombian cycling federation as a result. In the case of Bernal he was very nearly one of many who didn’t, as his family struggled to afford the fees for junior races. In the book you will see that Bernal’s family escaped a poverty stricken background moving from a violent and dangerous “barrio” to a house that lacked a roof and floors. Nevertheless, this was seen as a step up and a better option than making a home with the constant threat of violence outside your door.

Egan Bernal, the current Maglia Rosa at the Giro d’Italia, very nearly didn’t make it and in this book you’ll learn why. © Getty Images

At times it seems that leaving Colombia behind is the only option to make it in the sport, and Rendell discusses how the doping culture in the domestic scene is rife. There are mentions in the pages of a lack of testing, and positive tests were often brushed under the carpet, in exchange for a bribe. The Colombian cycling federation does not emerge from this work well, with Nairo Quintana and Winner Anacona being extremely vocal with regards to the lack of support from the formal institutions in the country. As Quintana often suggests, if riders have achieved success then it is often solely down to them and their families.

Matt Rendell is the perfect spokesman for the Colombian riders he passionately discusses. Rendell goes above and beyond x-raying the Colombian national psyche and paints a wonderful picture of the transformation of the nation. Colombia has gone from being a place to carefully avoid to one where you may wish to one day visit and, above all, immerse yourself in its culture of family and it’s beautiful landscapes. Rendell leaves you wanting more and the book is a well-researched and loving tribute to the passion of the riders and all of the other individuals that made up their domestic support network in their formative years. The riders families, the volunteers, the coaches running clubs, often on the lowest of budgets in order to keep the young people occupied, all get honourable mentions.

Dani Martínez won a brutal stage at the 2020 Tour de France and you’ll learn about his journey that led him to Ineos Grenadiers today. © Getty Images Sport

All in all, if you have a little prior cycling knowledge, then Colombia Es Pasión is a thoroughly pleasant and enjoyable read. Unlike many sporting biographies, it does not feel like a piece of work assembled in reaction to Grand Tour wins by Egan Bernal to name just one. Instead the book is a loving, well thought out tale of the history of a passionate cycling nation. Rendell weaves between sections on each rider, giving you an insight into their story and does not dwell too long on the political history of a troubled country and its darker sides. Reading the book will provide you with an in depth knowledge of the back story of Colombian cycling and a deep and resonant depiction of overcoming personal difficulty and struggle to get onto a path that brings you joy and meaning.

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