The first of a regular musing from an ex pro and all-round good guy.
To do with cycling, a bit.
Back in 1995 I headed over to Colombia as part of the British Cycling team to participate in the World Road Championships with a view to qualifying GB for the following years Atlanta Olympic Games. I’d never been to the South American continent before, let alone raced my bike there at altitude, so was excited, intrigued and a touch nervous at the prospect. Colombia, to me, seemed a remarkably removed place, not just because of it’s sheer distance from my home in Cheshire but because of the perception I had. Colombia, at that time, was one of the most dangerous places in the world to visit. It was a place of stark contrast to anywhere I had been before.
It was with trepidation that I boarded the flight from Denver, Colorado, to Bogotá, after spending a couple of weeks at altitude to prepare us for what lay in wait; the rarefied air 2500m/8200ft above sea level in the city of Duitama, home of the fearsomely hilly road circuit the championships were to be contested upon. Immediate thoughts of the course were however far from my mind; we’d learnt that the Swedish national road team had been victims of a roadside robbery when armed men snatched their bikes at gunpoint whilst they were out training. To add to my mounting concerns, upon arrival at our modest hotel in the town of Piapa, we were told that all of our road training, without exception, was to be carried out in the company of armed guards (ie the Army and police), bizarrely booked as casually as taxis via the reception staff. The area we were staying in was notorious ‘bandit country’ and lycra clad cyclists astride valuable assets in the form of racing bikes were easy prey.
As you may have deduced, I did survive that first, and subsequent, training ride accompanied by my machine gun toting, fatigue clad protector. We never actually spoke but I felt strangely safe in his company as he never appeared concerned or unduly worried, his ruddy face set in a perpetual, warm, beaming smile.
A couple of days prior to the race itself we rode to Duitma where the road circuit had been closed off to traffic, giving us the opportunity to test ourselves up the climb and down the steep twisting descent. The course itself was punctuated at regimented intervals of 30 metres by soldiers ordered to shoot on sight any stray dogs who wandered onto the course, although thankfully this was something I never saw happen. Given the incongruous but apparently necessary military presence we had no need for our guard at this point. I was riding with Jeremy Hunt, a teammate of mine on the GB squad, and after a couple of laps riding I began to feel the need to visit the toilet, a need that within only a few dramatic minutes turned into a painful, stabbing urge. Jez and I searched frantically for a bar or public loo but despite our best efforts (and worried of venturing too far off the beaten track) we drew a blank. I was starting to sweat. My lower abdomen was beginning to spasm. I’d had this feeling before. It wasn’t good.
Now, I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never knocked on the door of a stranger’s house and asked to use their loo. Conversely, no one has ever knocked on my door asking the same. But, due to my dire circumstances I was on the cusp of carrying out exactly that. I couldn’t do it in the street! I was in full Great Britain kit, essentially dressed as a Union Jack.
I told Jez I was going to do it (knock on a door that is), so, at the foot of the course’s main climb where alongside the road there was a long row of one story, modest concrete and tin terraced dwellings I simply rode to what I thought was a front door, propped my bike against the wall and knocked..
A few short moments later the door opened. A small middle aged man stood in the doorway looking at me, smiling, flanked just behind by what I assume was his wife and three young children. I spoke no Spanish and I assumed (correctly it transpired) that he spoke no English. With my lower intestine now bubbling angrily, my legs crossed and buttocks clenched I simply said, in a comedy Spanish accent with a questioning tone, whilst airily gesturing to by groin area, “Toiletta?” Thankfully the kindly chap was fluent in international sign language and immediately got the gist, ushering me in to his home.
The door led straight into a sparsely furnished 10ft x 10ft living area, which in turn led into a quite tiny kitchen with a two ring hob (I seem to remember insignificant detail so forgive me). As I surveyed the room, looking for a door to a bathroom I desperately hoped existed, the chap pointed to what appeared to be an alcove in the wall; around 3 foot deep and 3 feet wide with a piece of string spanning across its entrance about 4 feet up. Inside the recess was a toilet.
To accompany the ongoing maelstrom in my stomach fear was now added to the mix. Was that it? That’s the toilet? Where’s the door!? I glanced back at the chap hoping he’d usher me elsewhere to reveal a somewhat more private place for which to unburden myself in. It didn’t happen. He pointed again to the alcove with renewed purpose , his smile widening, eyebrows raised, as if to say ‘There you go mate, sorted.’ I was in this kind man’s house. He had invited me in. His family were there too. He was helping me. I couldn’t simply walk away. In fact, I literally couldn’t.
So, in I stepped., ducking under the piece of string. That’s all it took. One step. I turned to face the family as I stood in the alcove thinking ‘Why, God, isn’t there a door?’ At that moment the chap pointed to my left. Where the string met the wall was a medium size towel draped over the string and tethered by a clothes peg that he gestured for me to pull across. I’d found the ‘door’.
With our respective modesties protected only by this singular towel I stripped off my top, pulled down my bib shorts and sat on the loo. From this lowered point of view I saw, under the towel back into the room, five pairs of feet, all in a neat row, pointing directly at me. I had an audience.
Resigned to this embarrassingly odd situation I simply did what I had to do. And the feet didn’t move. A bit. When I was finally done I drew back the towel and was greeted by five beaming Colombian family faces all smiling at me as if asking, ‘Are you okay now?’ I smiled back, my initial embarrassment turning to a feeling of humbled gratitude. Unable to effectively articulate myself yet wanting to thank them for their kindness I went out to my bike, still being guarded by Jez, and took both bidons and also a GB cloth cap from my back pocket and gave them to the children. I’ll never forget the joy on their little faces as I gave them these modest tokens of thanks, or the firm yet warm-hearted handshake from their father as I left.
The simple, good-natured, kindly spirit of the Colombian people, particularly set against the backdrop of their country’s travails, has stayed with me, undimmed since that trip in 1995.
Matt Stephens is an ex professional cyclist who has competed at the Olympic Games, Giro d’Italia and World Championships, amongst many others. In 1998 he won the British Elite National Road Race Championships and wore the winners' jersey in bed that very night. After a period of time with the police (employed as one) he now ‘talks cycling’ for a living, being a regular commentator for Eurosport and ITV as well as presenting for Global Cycling Network.