It's the most punishing cycling race you've never heard of. Stretching for 15 days, the Vuelta a Colombia traverses the length, width and the height of Colombia's mountainous landscape.
Reaching altitudes hundreds of meters beyond anything found in the Tour de France, the race is a dramatic test of stamina. The toughest stage includes a 3,315m pass. Riders setting off in a lush, tropical valley must grind their way 21km up to the freezing, oxygen-starved Andean plateau before embarking on a treacherous, winding descent back into the jungle.
In addition to the leg-numbing climbs, there are also stray mules to dodge and detours caused by mudslides. Leftist rebels also might hide in wait, though the only interruption caused by the four-decade-old insurgency was a three-hour delay in 1962 when a platoon of rebels was spotted near the course.
With a first-place prize of 20 million pesos (about US$10,000) -- compared to US$600,000 for the Tour de France winner -- the race has been all but shunned by the sport's top European and North American riders.
Instead, it's become a showcase for the unique brand of hardened riders known in Colombia as Los Escarabajos -- the Beetles -- for the determination with which they haul themselves up almost any mountain.
The beetles hail from peasant families in the heavily Indian, mountainous regions of Colombia. Ironically, their gaunt, stringy physiques -- often the result of poorly nourished upbringings -- are a source of their aerodynamic strength in the saddle.
True to their modest roots, the beetles have created a niche for themselves as climbing specialists among Europe's premiere pedaling squads, acting as pacesetters to star teammates.
"They're like moths drawn to light -- no amount of logical reasoning can explain how or why they do it," said Matt Rendell, an English author of Kings of the Mountains, which chronicles the travails on and off the road that are endured by Colombia's cycling heroes.
As difficult as completing the Tour of Columbia may be -- only 83 of last year's 133 entrants finished -- for many, just making it to the starting line is a steep challenge.
Cyclist Juan Carlos Benavides works as a day laborer digging potatoes near his peasant family's modest home on a high-altitude plateau outside Bogota. Other racers sell raffle tickets to pay the nominal entry fee. Almost all take their bikes to church to be blessed before the tour.
`Just to finish'
"My goal is just to finish the race," said Benavides, whose team is training outside Bogota for its first Tour of Colombia.
Part of the race's allure -- and the reason why riders well into their 40s still compete -- is its rich tradition. Nowhere else in Latin America does cycling figure so prominently in the national culture.
In the 1950s and 1960s, winners were feted like superstars -- with one, Ramon Hoyos, immortalized in 1955 in a series of chronicles written by future Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The fame associated with the tour's early years steadily has been eroded by the popularity of soccer, auto racing and other sports. But live radio broadcasts still saturate airwaves nationwide and entire villages cheer on the passing peloton.
The wholesome look of the tour can be deceiving. The pressure to win and catch the eye of a European team, makes the competition fierce. As with major European races, doping is widespread. In last year's race, seven riders were disqualified for abnormally high red blood cell counts -- three of them, including the race leader, were suspended hours before the final stage.
And although the prize money is small by European standards, it's still a significant payout in a country where half the population survives on less than US$355 a month.
"Cycling in Colombia pays barely enough to live day to day, whereas in Europe even a second-division rider can make at least 25,000 euros [US$33,000] a year," said Gianni Savio, coach of Italian team Selle Italia DiQuiGiovanni, one of four foreign teams expected to compete this year in Colombia.
This year's favorite to be crowned with the traditional wreath of fried maize pancakes is former time-trial world champion Santiago Botero.
The Colombian native, who stands out from his compatriot beetles for his middle-class background and speed on the flats, is riding in his nation's tour for the first time in a decade.
Botero was dropped last year by Swiss team Phonak after his name surfaced in the Spanish doping investigation that implicated 56 cyclists. He was cleared of doping allegations last November by the Colombian Cycling Federation.
"It's the toughest race course in the world," said Botero, one of only four riders to outpace Armstrong in a Tour de France time trial.
Even though a job in Europe remains the goal of most Colombian cyclists, that dream has been tarnished by doping scandals at the Tour de France and the unsung role Colombians play on most teams.
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