With over 450,000 cases and 6,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in Colorado, our community has spent the last year grieving the unexpected toll of the pandemic. Last month’s massacre in Boulder further shook our foundation, damaging our trust and feeling of safety with one another, just as we begin to emerge from isolation.
Amid these tragedies, Pedro Nel Gil Gallego, my grandfather and a Colombian cycling legend, passed away at the age of 93. In some ways, my grandfather experienced a period similar to the one we’re going through now. His cycling career occurred during La Violencia, a decade-long period of Colombian history where over 300,000 people died due to unpredictable and politically motivated attacks against civilians.
I believe his story, which was integral to the establishment of Colombian cycling and the country’s eventual healing, could help us embrace our own outdoors as a means of healing and reconnecting with one another.
Our state is blessed with the Rocky Mountains, which, in the modern era, contains trails and roadways that are easily accessible to outdoor enthusiasts and weekend warriors alike. Colombia is similarly endowed with the Andes, the longest continental mountain range in the world – but, in the 1940s, this rugged terrain had eluded most Colombian recreators given its extreme topographical variability and underdeveloped roads.
Attacks on civilians from multiple sources, such as Marxist guerillas, private armies, and criminal gangs, kept Colombians in perpetual fear of one another, and the death toll grew by the tens of thousands each year. In short, Colombia was a dangerous place with little room for leisure activities like cycling.
Yet, in the midst of this long tragedy, Colombians began rallying around sports, especially as a means of unifying Colombians as part of one culture. In the late 1940s, cycling clubs began staging road races throughout the country. In this environment, Colombia’s answer to the Tour de France – La Vuelta a Colombia – was born.
La Vuelta’s route was the first race connecting Colombia’s various regions together, spanning 1,100 kilometers (approximately 684 miles) over 16 days. By comparison, our Ride the Rockies – a grueling race by any account – is about 418 miles over six days (but with modern equipment)!
My grandfather qualified for the first La Vuelta and represented the Department of Antioquia (the subdivision that includes the well-known city of Medellín). As a textile worker from a poor family, he raised funds from his coworkers to purchase a bicycle and equipment capable of making the trek.
Even with this financial support, he did not have the same types of gear or food that other competitors in the race had, but he did not let that hold him back. Instead, he used what resources he had and enlisted his mother as part of his road crew. She followed him throughout La Vuelta’s winding roads on the back of a flatbed pickup truck.
His supporters in Antioquia admired his pioneering spirit, his scrappiness, and his willingness to undertake such a daunting challenge through unknown territory and in the midst of horrible bloodshed.
La Vuelta began on January 1, 1951, and it quickly captured the nation’s attention. Thousands of Colombians met La Vuelta’s competitors at the end of each stage, and over 50,000 Colombians welcomed the cyclists at the race’s end in Bogotá, Colombia. My grandfather became an instant hero to the Colombian people, finishing the race in third despite a painful fall during the second stage that broke several bones in his hand and dislocated his shoulder.
He competed again in 1952 and came in third for a second year in a row, becoming one of only a few Colombians to finish La Vuelta on the winners’ podium twice.
Pedro Nel’s hard work helped transform La Vuelta from a pipe dream to a national celebration. By helping to conquer Colombia’s treacherous roads, which went through valleys, highlands and the Colombian Andes, my grandfather emerged at the end of the race as an example of perseverance in the face of unknown and seemingly insurmountable challenges.
His triumph and dedication to cycling helped divert the country’s attention from the uncertainty and violence of that era. He inspired a new generation of racers and helped envision a safer and more united Colombia. And, only a couple of years before he passed away, my grandfather was lucky enough to see the first Colombian and Latin American, Egan Arley Bernal Gómez, win the Tour de France.
When I reflect on my grandfather’s life, I can’t help but draw parallels between the seemingly ever-present threat of La Violencia and what we face 70 years later. The COVID-19 crisis and Boulder massacre have led many of us to live in a perpetual state of fear, just like Colombians during La Violencia. But like my grandfather, we don’t need to give in to feelings of doom or hopelessness.
Instead, I hope that readers of this story can be inspired by my grandfather’s example and find comfort in the great outdoors, where we all can find new hobbies, visit inspiring locations and reflect on a future that will hopefully heal the wounds of our present era.
(Special thanks to Louisiana State University Professor Manuel Morales Fontanilla and his research on La Violencia and the founding of La Vuelta a Colombia.)
Andrés Gil is an attorney who lives in Louisville.