October 26th to 29th
We meet Omar when he spots us from his car riding through heavy traffic into Ibague. He calls us over to check we are OK and assures us his friend will give a good price in his hotel. Somewhat sceptical (we often get 'very good price' offers) we follow as he slows the traffic to a crawl so we can keep up with him. This offer turns out to be very much a good price as we occupy our sumptuous room for just 30,000 Pesos ($US16) and I cannot guess at the discount he has got for us. After the valet(!) has whisked our gear upstairs we relax on the balcony with fine furnishings and city views....
Omar turns out to be a champion cyclist who spent years travelling the world, riding in competitions and also commentating on major events for Colombian radio. He interviewed all the greats and worked all over Europe, including of course, The Tour de France. He's really interested in all thing bici and practically adopts us during our stay in town.
By association we seem to have acquired celebrity status and the valet accompanies us to show us the restaurant Omar recommends. Omar meets us an hour later and explains he has been busy speaking to a friend in a bike shop to get my seat fixed and also the sports reporter from 'Q'Hubo' newspaper to set up an interview! He seems to know everybody in town and works his cell phone to help smooth our time here.
We deposit the bike with 'Nezario' the guy who just happens to maintain all the bikes for a local Ibague race team and I get to meet the director of sports cycling who arranges all the training and race meets plus a couple of the racers. Then Omar takes us for dinner and refuses to let us pay for anything. He's a fantastic guy, interesting and intense and Sue tries to get a word in edgeways before the soup course....
Next day we meet reporter 'Ronal' and Omar drives us all to the bike shop to pick up my bike for a photo shoot, while Ronal starts the interview. Unfortunately - same old problem - the bike shop cannot source a seat post anywhere despite trying to call in a couple of favours. Not to worry though, the local machine shop has taken measurements and is milling a shim to size as we speak!
Riding back to the hotel the interview continues and despite it being a day off, we 'get in character' loading up our bikes and riding through city streets for video and stills. The demands placed on celebs these days....
It's a hectic day as Omar moves and speaks like he's on a sprint in the last leg of a race. As he drives he gesticulates wildly and the car meanders out of control across the road whilst he looks at me or worse, at Sue in the back seat. I stare fixedly at the road - hoping he will follow suit, and I sympathise with the pedestrians being skittled out of the way. It's definitely a British thing as the Colombians just seem to take near misses in their stride and don't even notice....
My knuckles are white!
Early next morning the hotel corridors reverberate as Omar arrives - bellowing 'Maaaarteeeeen' to make sure I'm awake. A trained radio presenters voice really carries!
He comes bearing gifts! A brand new cycling jersey and a full page spread in the morning paper....
We visit Nazario in his shop and he's come through for us as well.... a freshly shimmed, standard sized seat post. He also spent two hours freeing up the bottom bracket that had also frozen solid after our boat ride. Total cost.... nada. Muchas gracias amigos....
If anyone needs a top notch service in Ibague - Nazario is the man...
Nazar Sports Bike - Carrera 5 No.21-27, Ibague
After picking up the bikes, the boys are off to play. Omar takes me on a tour round the town and on a 25km climb straight up into the hills through a series of tiny villages through to an incredible river valley. The man can really ride and for me - a guy more used to a more measured touring style, his maniacal sprints on the steepest sections are exhausting. I cool off in the river in my shiny new shirt....
The views are spectacular....
The ride back to town is a helter skelter dash back down some dirt tracks mixed up with a detour along some single track.
With built in obstacle course.... The track follows a water pipe bound for the city water treatment plant. Some are a bit leaky, wet and treacherous. There are five to cross and the drops are around 20 feet. Omar makes it look easy....
In between we put on a bit of speed....
Back in town, I get a tour of Omar's apartment and a glimpse into his life as a reporter when he shows me through his memorabilia from all the big cycle races through Europe. It's an impressive collection!
No time to lose, we pick Sue up and again, Omar insists on buying lunch, then drives us to his family's Finca just outside town. Ibague is built on a sloped section of land and sprawls for a good 10 miles. Dropping for 12 miles to the finca, the climate changes noticeably and it's much warmer. The Finca is maintained by a live-in couple who prepare it for family get-togethers at weekends and it's a fantastic getaway....
Omar smashing me at one-on-one basketball....
Next day we ride out towards Armenia that sits at roughly the same altitude (1,500m - 5,000ft) as Ibague on the other side of the Cordillera Central. The pass over the top is the famous 'La Linea' - second highest pass on the gruelling cycle race 'The Tour of Colombia'. It tops out at a cloud skimming 3,200m (10,650ft).
Omar insists on seeing us off and of course wants to try riding the beast....
Frankly it's a shaky start and I'm a little nervous. After a 17lb race bike - this 175lb super tanker takes a little getting used to....
Omar, being Omar though, with his oversized cojones is soon overtaking 22 wheelers on blind bends....
One thing a touring bike is good for is going fast downhill - all that weight just keeps on pushing and I think he is starting to enjoy himself....
There are two big climbs on route to Cajamarca where we plan to stop for the night and progress slows as the going gets tough under a hot sun....
At the half way point Omar and I swap bikes and I think he has gained a new respect for our tour. He looks to me; then the bike, and keeps repeating 'just too heavy... too much weight'. I think it's just a bit frustrating for a true racer, used to being able to up the effort and put on a sprint to suddenly learn that these bikes just don't respond to hitting it hard. It's a patience and slow grinding kind of game.
Once back on his mountain bike, the racer in him comes to the fore again and he's all energy and shouts of encouragement. It's a bit alarming on some of the steeper bends when the bike suddenly gets weightless and kicks on a bit as he lends a helping shove....
As we reach the outskirts of Cajamarca, Omar suddenly remembers he has a business to run that he has been neglecting all the time he has spent with us....
Omar - what can I say.
Thanks for everything. To take four days out to show us round and help us out with everything was just amazing.... not to mention picking up the tab for food as well! The rides around Ibague and to Cajamarca were truly memorable and even by the high standards of Colombian hospitality you are an absolute diamond.
If you ever get to England.... you know how to find us....
That's are the stories you will never find at a factory job and that's it what makes a touring cycling job different.
A big smile about the "enamorados de colombia". I "loved" most of the time the the delicious food "arroz con pollo con nada mas".
And now I know real celebrities too.
Cheers my friend.
Now I drink a mulled wine and wait curious for the next story.
Very nice article... .many thanks.
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