Oro Y Paz, Cycling’s El Dorado

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You can’t miss it. As you look out at Lake Guatavita, some 50 kilometers northeast of Colombia’s capital city, the sizable, triangular cutout in the mountain surrounding the lake is startling. Created as part of an attempt to drain the lake in the 1890s by British explorers, the large chunk of missing earth stands as a reminder that it was here that the legend of El Dorado was born. As part of religious rites, native chiefs would cover themselves in gold powder, and swim in the lake’s waters. Likewise, members of local tribes threw gold offerings into Lake Guatavita. So severe was the draw of the myth that eventually the Colombian government had to put a stop to all attempts to salvage gold offerings that may remain in its waters. But not after parties from multiples countries tried to drain the lake by methods ranging from constructing tunnels, to buckets. The latter approach took three months, and only lowered the water level a meter or so.

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Today, as Colombian cycling comes to the forefront through the Oro Y Paz race (the name translates to Gold and Peace), it’s hard not to think about the legend of El Dorado. Colombia, this mythical land that everyone in cycling has heard of, but so few have seen, is opening its doors through a race of this significance for the first time since the days when the Clasico RCN and Vuelta a Colombia drew some of the sport’s biggest stars. This time around, European teams come in hopes of gaining greater understanding of this country, but also in hopes of finding talent. Particularly now that riders like Fernando Gaviria have made it clear that Colombian talent is not limited to climbing. There’s cycling gold in Colombia, and this race is perhaps one way to find it.

 Back home. Colombian pros compete at the national championship race, two days before the start of Oro Y Paz. (Photo: Tinno Cycles)

Back home. Colombian pros compete at the national championship race, two days before the start of Oro Y Paz. (Photo: Tinno Cycles)

The name of the race is, in a way, strategic and full of meaning. Gold and peace are two things Colombians want to be known for. One an export, the other a mindset and way of living. Both distant from those difficult times that made so much of Colombian culture, cycling included, become dormant during the 90s. Managed correctly, this race could grow into a sizable part of local cycling. Much as the days when Greg Lemond, Bernard Hinault and so many others graced Colombia with their presence at the Vuelta a Colombia.  A race with a history dating back to the 1950s.

Unusual as it may seem, that a race like this is taking place in Colombia is an unexpected surprise. Perhaps because so few of Colombia’s current crop of cycling super stars (Uran, Quintana, Chaves) have raced much in their own country since they were juniors.  This helps account the sizable crowds that gather to see men like Quintana train in the Colombian countryside. It’s the only time local fans can normally see their heroes on top of a bike.

For Colombian riders, Oro Y Paz is a homecoming of sorts. For Colombian fans, it’s a sign of rebirth, one that shows just how much their own country has changed, and just how much others remain interested in our riches. But with cycling (unlike whatever may lay at the bottom of Lake Guatavita), these are riches that Colombians are happy to share with the world.