Death threats, doping and disillusion: the troubling state of cycling in Colombia
It’s a country that has been in the news for both good and bad reasons this season.
Of the good, Colombian riders Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves and Rigoberto Uran had superb performances. Quintana was second overall in the Tour de France and also took Tirreno-Adriatico. Chaves won two stages in the Vuelta a España, led the race plus finished fifth overall, and then went on to win the Abu Dhabi Tour. As for Uran, he showed strong late-season form with a fine win in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec.
More recently there was a setback for the country’s cycling: Team Colombia collapsed, with its riders hoping delayed salary payments come through and also keeping fingers crossed that they can all find contracts for 2016. The development meant that the country’s sole Pro Continental squad is no more, and a clear path towards professionalism for Colombian riders has come to an end.
But there was another story that bears consideration, and may reflect an even more serious issue than what happened with that team. It involves a rider who is less well known than Quintana, Chaves and Uran, but who is nevertheless highly important.
It’s not because of what he won, but rather what he said, and what happened afterwards.
Let’s jump back several months: in February of this year Juan Pablo Villegas, a then-27 year old Team SmartStop rider chose a brave path and spoke out publicly about widespread doping in Colombia.
Talking to the excellent Alps & Andes website, Villegas said that he had personally been offered products, knew of many riders using them and had been ridiculed after he and his former team, 4-72 Colombia — now called Manzana Postobon — had made clear that they would not dope.
He said that certain races in the country were raced at what he termed supernatural speeds, and that products such as AICAR and the cancer-causing GW1516 were amongst those being used.
What happened next was even more troubling than what he had revealed.
“The media reactions were highly negative, since this was the first time anyone inside cycling spoke openly about doping in Colombian cycling,” he explained to CyclingTips. “In particular I got a lot of criticism from people from inside the organization of cycling and in some media outlets.”
However what was worse was that Villegas received threats against himself and his family, sinister messages which made clear that he was in danger for speaking out.
“I got them to my Facebook and to my cell phone, by text messages,” he confirmed.
Klaus Bellon was born and raised in Bogota but now lives in the United States. He was the former publisher of the Cycling Inquisition website and now runs Alps & Andes. He was the journalist who interviewed Villegas and said that after 4-72 Colombia stopped, the rider was at a crossroads.
Villegas was faced with a choice of retiring or racing for teams in Colombia where pressure would be put on him to use doping products. He choose to hang up his wheels, got a second opportunity when Team SmartStop brought him on board, but then came under pressure in the aftermath of his interview.
Bellon spoke at length to CyclingTips and reiterated what Villegas said. “He started to receive threats which came in through anonymous blocked phone numbers as texts and also from anonymous accounts on Facebook that were created to send those threatening messages,” he stated.
“Juan Pablo sort of wrote them off as unimportant but his wife became aware of them. She became concerned for his and their safety.”
Ignacio Velez is a well-known Colombian coach and manager who was involved in running the Colombia Es Pasion team, which then became 4-72 Colombia. While as a Continental team it was outside the UCI’s biological passport programme, the squad paid for its own internal testing system. According to Velez, the squad was a clean one and ensured that riders such as Quintana, Chavez, Fabio Duarte and others had a good beginning in international racing.
He explains the extent of the abuse Villegas received.
“He received messages from people in the peloton that he wouldn’t be allowed to race again, that they would eventually take him down.
“He had threats to his life, and so he got a lot of pressure from his wife. He was very nervous. He couldn’t handle the pressure, so he quit.”
Coming under pressure to withdraw comments
The importance of whistleblowers in society is well understood. Those who come forward at personal risk to speak about wrongdoing need to be protected by those in authority. Sadly, as was the case with earlier whistleblowers such as Paul Kimmage, Graeme Obree, Giles Delion and Christophe Bassons, this didn’t happen.
Bellon said that some of the pressure Villegas came under was actually from those who should have backed him up.
“For Juan Pablo, things were complicated by the fact that someone from the Colombian federation asked him to fully retract the interview he had done with me,” he revealed. “He refused because he said point blank that everything he had said was 100 percent true.”
Asked about this, Villegas confirmed it was the case.
“They [the federation] felt that speaking openly about doping in Colombian cycling was doing a lot of harm, and that they wanted me to recant what I said,” he stated.
Frustrated by this plus the threats he received, he walked away from the sport in July.
“It was not an easy decision to retire, since cycling was my way of living,” he said recently, explaining the choice he made. “However I was so disillusioned about such corrupt environment.
“As I was striving for a good cause, I was being mistreated permanently.”
Since then he has been considering returning to the sport, and is training again.
Omerta of another sort
Villegas’ story is not the only concerning one that Alps & Andes has told. Bellon loves the sport and, faced with the light and dark it contains, seeks to use his website to highlight both. He celebrates what is good about cycling but also pushes for change where necessary.
In January 2014 Alps & Andes featured a story that showed the same shadows, but from a different angle. Bellon interviewed a writer who had decided to investigate where doping products were being sold.
That story, which we recommend you read, can be found here.
Bellon told CyclingTips what happened. “He met riders that are riding in Colombia at the highest level, doing races such as the Vuelta a Colombia. Through befriending a rider from one of these teams, he asked point blank, ‘hey, where are people buying this stuff?’
“The rider said that he had no involvement in it, but it was a well-known fact that it was sold in a bike shop in Bogota.
“With that knowledge, he went to this bike shop and inquired about these doping products.”
Initially the shop tried to give him vitamins, but the writer said that he wanted to improve more quickly. At that point Bellon said that things became more serious.
“Right in the middle of the store, over the counter, they put out ampoules of GW1516. He then said the price was too high and he was not really interested.
“However now he had the proof that this was in fact happening. His aim was to see if he could write about this…there was a magazine that was possibly interested in the story or he could write something on his blog.”
Bellon said that having made his excuses and left, the writer returned to his car and drove away. “Just a couple of blocks away at a stop light a guy on a motorcycle who had a helmet on – so his face was covered – came up alongside. He had an extra motorcycle helmet around his elbow. Using that, he completely smashed the window of the his car, telling him to basically keep his nose out of other people’s business.
“Fortunately the window didn’t fully collapse because there was a lightweight sort of tinting and it stopped the glass fully coming in on him. But needless to say, that was the end of his attempt to pursue that story.”
‘We are ten years behind’
Taken together, the two examples show that the situation in Colombia is very troubling. Not only are doping products available and being used – something which is indicated by blistering climbing speeds in Colombian races and borne out by a number of positive tests there – but there also appears to be a climate of intimidation against those who dig too deeply, or who speak out too freely.
Velez feels the issue is not being taken seriously enough. “There is a video online where the former president of the Colombian federation says in public that doping is not his problem.”
In this video, which can be seen here, the-then president Ramiro Valencia stated the following: “When people speak to me about doping, I tell them that I take the point of view that testing for doping products and illegal drugs is not my objective. It absolutely is not the objective of the Federation at all,” he said. “This is because I must assume that the sport is clean. I can’t conceive of a doped sport. So that’s the basis, and sure we must fight those things….but our true objective must be the cyclist as a human being.”
This sort of approach is compounded by the national federation fully supporting 46 year old Maria Luisa Calle, who tested positive for the growth hormone-releasing peptide 2 GHRP-2 at the 2015 Panamerican Games. Rather than staying objective and allowing the case to play out, the federation president said that he is behind her in every way. She had been racing as a rider under contract with the Coldeportes-Claro squad.
Legally, too, Velez feels that more could be done.
“Doping or selling doping is not yet a criminal offence in Colombia,” he said. “So there is actually no law to impose the new rules about doping. We are ten years behind from a legal structure, so it makes things more difficult.”
Both he and Bellon point out that riders who had been involved in Operacion Puerto relocated to Colombia.
The latter points out that one of those riders, Oscar Sevilla, won the country’s biggest race this year.
“The Vuelta a Colombia is a race that has just unbelievable, beautiful history. It being won by someone like Oscar Sevilla – an ageing Oscar Sevilla – is not a great vote of confidence.
“Sometimes we Colombians fail to see what’s happening, and in Sevilla’s case, he’s in Colombia because no one wanted him in Europe.”
Time for action
So what should happen next? All three are united in believing that those in authority need to do much more. The Colombian domestic scene needs to be cleaned up in order to knuckle down on those cutting corners and to enable clean riders to compete.
Improving the country’s scene is also important for the big names, those riders who are racing in the WorldTour.
If Colombia has a reputation for inadequate testing and easy availability of products, the time these riders spend at home training with their families may – fairly or not – lead some to question them too.
The likes of Quintana, Chaves, Uran and others are best served by having a federation which takes such matters seriously and ensures the domestic scene is as clean as possible.
“They should assume a strong and clear position,” said Villegas, “with strong messages. Regarding the Colombian Cycling Federation they should support the efforts of certain teams and/or people that are trying to clean up the sport. In particular I suggest both to Coldeportes [the Colombian department of sport – ed.] and the Colombian Cycling Federation to start testing programs, especially the bio passport.
“They feel they do a good job with their in competition testing, but we all know that this is not a very effective method.”
Velez says that he will continue working with the Manzana Postobon team, which continues to test its riders to a high level. He believes that there are some very promising young competitors coming through and that their example will show to others that it is possible to race clean and succeed.
He lays out his own suggestions for what needs to be done. “I think the Colombian federation has to change the culture, the attitude to the problem, be more proactive. And get some help from Coldeportes.
“I think that legally the first step is to create an independent WADA-like agency in Colombia. Because when you have Coldeportes and the Colombian cycling federation in charge of the doping controls, they probably have their own incentives because they are looking for medals and recognition and where the budget comes from.
“So if they fight against doping, to some extent they are fighting against themselves. That’s not just a Colombian issue, it’s for all the national federations. Anti-doping needs to move outside the sport people because they have their own incentives.”
Bellon accepts this suggestion as a way forward.
“I would agree with that,” he said. “It would just be interesting to see where the people that govern that type of a body would come from. I think it would be imperative that they not come from the world of sport. That goes without saying due to potential conflicts of interest.
“Even if it was worse a few years back, things need to change right now. Colombia has served as a place where people in exile from things like Operacion Puerto knew that they could operate. And that needs to stop.
“Colombia has too deep and too beautiful and too long a cycling history not to tackle this.
“It is really sort of a cycling superpower, and it needs to start behaving as such.”