Colombia: Altitude vs. Attitude

Fleche Wallonne podium 2013 Henao Moreno Betancur

Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur flank Dani Moreno on the podium. If all three speak Spanish, two are Colombians. It comes after several other remarkable results by Colombians this year, notably Nairo Quintana’s win in the Tour of the Basque Country.

With the emergence of several Colombian riders this year I’ve seen many citing their nationality and background as a factor for success. In particular the altitude of several South American countries is cited as an explanation for improved performance. Does being born at 3,000m above sea level give you an advantage? Can living higher than the Passo Stelvio or Col du Galibier make a rider faster?

I come from a small village called Boyaca that is at 3,000 metres above sea level. Every morning I rode to school down in the valley 16 kilometres away. And in the evenings you had to climb back up home. We did the route with five friends. I was the strongest so I started racing. I did my first race aged 16 wearing football shorts and sneakers. That day I was bitten by the cycling bug.

That’s Nairo Quintana speaking after his win in the Tour de L’Avenir in 2010. Did riding at high altitude from an early make him a better rider? I don’t think so.

First a quick primer on altitude. Some people say air gets thinner the higher you go. But what we’re really talking about is a lower partial pressure of oxygen with altitude. There’s a linear aspect where the higher you get the more the partial pressure of oxygen drops although if it helps, it’s said once you pass 1,500 metres above sea level the body begins to adapt and 2,400m is deemed “high altitude.” These are easy labels of course because if you are at 1,499m and move to 1,501m you can’t tell the difference. Also there are other issues once people go above 4,000m but that’s well beyond any race.

Humans can acclimatise to altitude but having scanned the literature there’s little permanent benefit. In other words you can go on an altitude training camp for a few weeks, you can stay for a few months or even a few years and your blood chemistry will adapt to the hypoxia from the altitude but once you go back down towards sea level the gains are lost. This is to skip over the subtleties of altitude training but for the sake of brevity, the gains, if you get them, can be totally lost in a month.

In fact Quintana lives in Pamplona, Spain where the elevation is about 450 metres. Even if his bedroom is on the top floor and he’s in the hillier part of town he’s sleeping no more than 500 metres. It’s not just Quintana but Team Sky’s Sergio Henao and Ag2r’s Carlos Betancur all live in the same house along with the building owner Rigoberto Urán, Sky’s mane man. In other words the childhood altitude is some 8,000km away and “base camp” for these riders is at a comparable altitude for almost every other member of the pro peloton.

Besides, be careful of the lazy assumption that all Colombians live at altitude. Yes there is the altiplano area and Colombian capital Bogota is at 2,600m but many other areas are much lower. The country has a fine Caribbean coastline.

There are genetic gains for populations at altitude. One Italian study show people in the Himalayas, especially the Sherpas, have undergone some evolutionary gains to altitude. But a lot of Colombians are Spanish/European in DNA because of the conquistadors and colonialism. Even many of the indigenous “Amerindians” are believed to have settled on the high plateaus of Peru in the last 15,000 years compared to perhaps 500,000 that period for some people in the Himalayan regions.

Another paper compared the genomes of Tibetans to Han Chinese and found some adaptive changes. But it should be noted many would-be sherpas on lucrative mountain treks have to turn back because of the difficulty. Put simply just because someone is from Tibet doesn’t mean they can carry big loads at altitude. By extension we can’t equate being Colombian to being a mountain climber.

Environment and culuture
I could easily be wrong but for me Colombia is just a part of the world where cycling is popular. In a country where the sport has networks of clubs, teams and other structures then it helps to take ambitious young riders onwards to success. It’s quite possible that the person you see on the bus, train or at work tomorrow has the DNA to win the Tour de France but they’ve never given sport a thought. By contrast in Colombia cycling is a way out, a way to earn a living.

Boyacá is where Quintana is from and Matt Rendell in “Kings of the Mountains” describes this as Colombia’s mining heartland. The mines are always hard work and cycling has many tales of riders who escaped grinding poverty thanks to cycling. See Jean Stablinski or Tom Simpson for examples. It’s not the altitude that makes riders, it’s the climb out of the mine.

National Ramp Test
Cycling remains a popular sport in Colombia and the altitude has one obvious feature: climbing. There’s no better way to detect ability than a long climb. On a hard mountain pass the benefits of sitting on a wheel vanish, it quickly becomes a personal test of power to weight. Assuming nobody is especially heavy then it’s all about the natural ability to produce power and it only takes a few races to discover this. Or as Quintana’s anecdote recounts, he crushed his classmates. This must have felt good so he persisted with the cycling.

Today Quintana drops Team Sky, yesterday he dropped his classmates

The Counter Case
Let’s take Alpe d’Huez as the proxy for cycling’s ultimate summit finish. Which nation has won most often there? Hup, hup Holland. Yes, the a quarter of the Dutch nation is below sea level but it has produced eight winners on the Alpe, one more than Italy.

Beyond Cycling
Athletics has seen many Kenyan runners achieve success. The reasons for this are still up for debate. There can be genetic advantages, there are cultural values where importance has been placed on herding skills on foot and more recently children would run to school, those that got to class with ease would surely find a career spent running a natural choice.

Yes we Kenyan

Altitude plays a part, in fact European athletes have visited Kenya for altitude training. Also, journalist Hajo Seppelt – the man who flushed out Alberto Contador’s positive test from the UCI – found doping was prevalent.

El Dopaje
Which brings us to the D-word. Colombia is not an island immune from doping. Meet Santiago Botero or Óscar Sevilla. But an interview with Carlos Betancur says one reason behind the Colombian resurgence is the retreat of EPO and blood doping. Here’s an excerpt from Velonews

Betancur echoed a growing sentiment for why Colombian riders are suddenly doing well again in the peloton. One rationale for the recent Colombian boom is that the abuse of the blood-booster EPO has been greatly reduced in the peloton. With less EPO, the natural benefits of living 10,000 feet above sea level are once again becoming an advantage.

“With so many anti-doping controls and the biological passport, it’s helping us because we live and train at altitude,” he said. “So when we come down, it’s a bit of an advantage for us.”

The Antioquian has a point if riders are coming straight from Colombia. But if some do travel direct to races, several are staying in Europe for long enough to lose the advantage. Or in the case of riders like Urán, having to visit Tenerife for altitude. I’m wary of Betancur’s hypothesis, it’s a nice idea but I don’t see why Colombians have been noble in their refusal to dope when huge sections of pro cycling have been caught in recent years. It might explain why Betancur is doing well because he’s not having to race against supercharged riders but can it explain a national resurgence? Only if we see three or four riders as a national phenomenon.

There’s also the boring aspect of timing. As discussed on here recently Nairo Quintana convincingly won the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir. The 2009 U-23 world championships saw Carlos Betancur cross the line with his arms high… although Frenchman Romain Sicard had been their first but Betancur was still on the podium along with Astana’s Egor Silin. Looked at it another way these two won big as amateurs so pro success is no surprise.

Don’t think of Colombians as some Amerindian race from afar. Because of history it’s a much more complicated story. After all the country has a big coastline where many live at sea-level. But even if the champion cyclists inherited special DNA there are few gains from being born at altitude. Instead maybe it’s the hard life and the popularity of cycling in Colombia that explain some things?

Perhaps the real story is our human frailty to look for comforting patterns? If several Colombians start doing well we search for unifying theory, a shared experience, an explanatory factor. But for now it’s just three or four men succeeding in sport, hardly a statistically meaningful sample. Just because we see three or four Colombians winning does not make a pattern. It’s as if we try to look at Australian cycling via Cadel Evans and Matthew Goss or British cycling via Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome when in fact their career paths are so different.

The only thing is that these riders are new and exciting. What ever might explain their success, it’s good to watch.

58 thoughts on “Colombia: Altitude vs. Attitude”

  1. There’s a BBC TV programme that gives examples of how living at altitude has effects on physiology. If I remember correctly it said that after the Spanish colonised much of S. America the Conquistadors began to reproduce with naives living at altitude. In the high mountains, above 4000m or so, it was over 50 years before any of the women pregnant by Spanish fathers gave birth to a live child. This was attributed to the genetics of the fathers being ill-adapted to high altitude living, compared with local males….This doesn’t fully translate to the climbing success of Colombian riders, but indicates some genetic advantage may be at work.

  2. I’m a great exhibit a. Grew up in Bogota, came to states at 10. First 2 years here, my endurance was my main weapon in soccer games and track. I lost that in the next 4 years, even though I was doing daily exercise. Now, there isn’t a Granny gear out there I don’t jump to on the hills.

  3. Very good piece. Two comments:
    – genetics: not easy to rule out. Of the different ethnicities present in the country, about all the great Colombian champions seem to have a strong pre-Columbian. Cochise Rodríguez, Patrocinio Jiménez, Edgar Corredor, Pacho Rodríguez, Lucho Herrera, Fabio Parra, Oliverio Rincón, etc… All of those looked really “indian” (Paisa or Antioqueño or otherwise) and indeed some of them appeared to have close to zero European blood. I don’t mean necessarily altitude or other cardio-related factors. Could simply be that their body structure and their musculature are specially apt to uphill cycling (yes, power-to-weight), and it could also well be that their muscles are naturally built to perform better over extremely lengthy exercise than in more explosive activity.
    – Colombian mountains: the Páramo de las Letras is a 80km long climb, with almost 3200 vertical metres ascent. It goes up to 3.677m. ( ). And it is used in races, actually quite often. It’s a different kind of effort from your usual Marmolada, Bonaigua, or Madeleine, and it’s not impossible that having trained and raced up there does generate a physiological change in the rider.
    – Doping. I believe Colombian riders dope as much as English, Spanish, Canadian, Belgian, French or Russian ones: to the limit of getting caught, and within the limits of their finance and expertise. I also believe that blood doping doesn’t benefit equally all types of riders, and I also think that weight reduction in equipment benefits comparatively more the lighter rider (500g are 1% of a 50-kilo rider but 0,66% of a 75-kilo rider).

  4. Nice article and glad to see some more attention being paid to Colombian Cycling.
    Some good points but also some off the mark such as saying that 3 or 4 riders are being called a National phenomenon. Its quite a few more than that actually. Sure only Henao, Betancur, Uran, and Quintana for the moment are on the top 3 podium steps, but look just a further bit down…and you still always see other Colombians in the Pro Tour races taking top 20´s especially when there is climbing( Sarmiento, Suarez, Chalapud, Ospina, etc) I do full heartedly believe your points in the Environment and culture section though. Just take a look at the numbers in Colombia at the local races. There is readily 200+ rider fields for most national tours. Amazingly you also see 200+ riders in U23, Junior and even 15-16 Tours!!
    When you have that kind of participation at those young levels surely the ones who are the best, not unlike Quintana, will find success and keep moving on.

    • Thanks, I think this is showing Colombia as a big cycling country. When I say 3-4 people I mean we only see the visible results just as we see British cycling with Cavendish and Wiggins but not everyone else.

      What will be interesting to follow next is if more success from the national champions leads to more participation.

  5. Interesting article. Like many of yours, at the start I find it either slightly dull or disagree with what you’re saying. But, as always, by the end I’m enthralled and in total agreement.

    ‘It’s not the altitude that makes riders, it’s the climb out of the mine.’ – That was a good bit.

    Colombians are great climbers. All Soler could do was climb. West Africans have speed, East Africans have endurance. Scandinavians can throw javelins. Tongans are good at sports where you have to be huge. And so on. There are intrinsic, deep-rooted reasons for all of this. I don’t know what they are. But they exist.

    • The great 200/400m runner Michael Johnson did a doco before the London games where he looked into the phenomena of west African speed and power being somehow bred into these great US & carrabean sports stars historically through slavery. Despite some strong evidence he ultimately rejected it and believes it is mostly environmental – more of a certain race or nation do a sport so there are more role models to follow, more belief and a greater pool of participants.

      • That is a factor. It’s chicken and egg. Are the Chinese great at badminton because they play it loads, or do they play it loads because they’re great at it. The truth is inevitably somewhere in between, but there seems to be a reluctance to actually voice these opinions for fear of seeming in some way racist. The (incredibly outdated) logic goes something like this – if you can say black people are physically superior, you can say they are intellectually inferior. That’s how crude it is. And somewhere, at the back of a lot of people’s minds, that sentiment exists. And I believe this vague and wrong-on-so-many-levels sentiment is one of the main reasons behind an apparent reluctance to attribute athletic or sporting prowess to genetic factors. It’s a socio-political hot potato. Jkeltgv – catch!

      • Syed concludes it is nurture rather than nature and that nothing beats hard work and practice. There would also be an element of experience for cycling as riders must react almost instinctively at crucial times. I found the book accessible and it covers the academic literature and studies as well as more somewhat more subjective studies.

  6. Yeah, I liked the ‘mane man’ quip as well. It looks like Betancur is going for that look as well.

    Single explanations likely to be insufficient and this article argues that it’s the nurture rather than the nature that ultimately matters:

    As Daniel Kahneman argues, success = talent +luck, i.e. there’s always some element of chance or probability that comes into play. In the case of the Colombians, as is being pointed out, maybe it’s more someone giving a talented youngster a bike rather than a soccer ball that makes the difference.

  7. Cycling inquisition may have nailed it. The real reason: braces. Everyone in the WT with braces is getting to podiums. Sure, they are all Colombian, but its probably the braces 🙂

    • Hope not, as there is – apparently – a link between adults suddenly needing to wear braces, and the use of medication that stimulates bone growth. Most notable in athletics’ sprints.

      • Easy enough to find out.
        If the teeth are messed up before adult braces there you go.
        Consider that growing up poor leaves no opportunity for orthodontics. Earning a Protour salary will change that rather quickly.
        Some of these young racers buy sports cars when successful some fix their teeth.

        • This is true. A young Colombian earning a good wage for the first time is in a completely different situation from, say, a middle class American sprinter in his mid-20s.

        • There’s also a potential sporting link to braces, namely that an open-faced road bike helmet provides no protection for the mouth region in a crash. Mark Renshaw lost a tooth in the Tour of Turkey pileup the other day, we could see him racing with braces when he makes his return depending on what work needs to be done to put him back together.

      • Yes, growth hormone abuse causes the bones to grow. People get larger hands, the jawbone grows (which brings dental problems) and ridges of bone grow on the forehead. One famous French cyclist from the 1990s, a wearer of the Tour’s polka-dot jersey, changed shoe size during his career.

  8. There was a Vuelta a Colombia in the last 5 years where a ridiculous number of riders in the GC top ten where tested postive. I think it was 6 or 7. If someone would make a ranking i wouldn’t be surprised if the Vuelta a Colombia is the one with the highest number of positive tests over the years. So much to that.

  9. Colombians and Alititude:
    My wife was born and raised in Bogota. She Came to Melbourne, Australia and lived at sea – level and for the first 6 months kicked all my friends’ butts in running type activities (keep in mind that 2 of my friends had represented European Nations as amateur cyclists a few years before) and ran circles around us at soccer practise, etc.

    HOWEVER! One year later she took me back to Bogota to meet her parents. The whole journey she was concerned that I would have altitude issues – this was common for flatland visitors to her household. What happened? I was fine but SHE had altitude affects including headaches and fatigue.

    Having met many cyclists in Colombia and attempted to do some of their ‘Sunday morning’ rides up the sides of local cliffs, add me to the list of those that think that its not the altitude that matters, it is the fact that almost all rides include decent climbing and that to be successful as a racer at National level in Colombia you HAVE to be brilliant going up hill.

    • Yep, the motto is pretty much if there is no climbing, it’s not a real ride. Back home in Valle del Cauca (SW Colombia), you can really do a long flat ride if you really want to. But I bet almost all the rides end up with some kind of serious climbing, as the Cauca River valley is flanked on both sides by the Andes. Attitude definitely counts.

    • I visited Medellin a couple of years ago, which is at a lower altitude than Bogota, but still over 5,000 ft. I didn’t have any major altitude issues, but I did feel quite tired while I was there, it was definitely noticeable. And yeah, I saw people riding up those crazy gradients as you leave the city towards the airport. Scary steep.

  10. WRT doping. You’d expect poor countries to have less money and other resources to assist with doping. So poor countries, such as colombia, will do better in a dope-free sport.

    • The counter argument is that athletes from poorer nations feel a bigger pressure to dope in order to reach the pro ranks, since their sport is their only way out of poverty. As Inrng said, for many it’s between making it in cycling or the mines. With that kind of pressure hanging over your head it’s easier to say yes when someone comes and tells you he can help you make pro. It’s different if you’re from a first world middle class family with a possibility of a good education as your backup plan.

    • Why the focus on “poor” nationality when cycling is, traditionaly (and perhaps still true of most Pros), a working class sport. I’d suggest that peoples’ motivations are usaully to find something they can do which pays (and that they enjoy or are good at) – so I can’t see that this would mean that anyone from e..g columbia would dope more or less than someone as in need of a job or income from Europe or the US (Hi Lance!).

  11. One of the most exciting athletes of our time, Kilian Jornett, was born and grew up (and is always training) at altitude. He has one of the highest VO2 max ever measured. Not sure it is genetics or just very consistent training.

  12. “Also there are other issues once people go above 4,000m but that’s well beyond any race.”

    I had to take the challenge: Some races do; enter the Doble Copacabana de Ciclismo or as it is known today Vuelta a Bolivia. Read more here:
    “Año tras año, el pueblo de Bolivia vive una fiesta poco común que organiza el Grupo FIDES, la XIII DOBLE COPACABANA DE CICLISMO, una prueba UCI (Unión Ciclística Internacional), recorriendo aproximadamente 976 kilómetros en 6 Etapas y 2 Semi Etapas, esta competencia se llevará a cabo del 6 al 11 de Noviembre 2006, por las carreteras de Bolivia, integrando las Ciudades de Oruro, La Paz, El Alto y el Santuario de Copacabana, compitiendo a 3.600 m.s.n.m. y alcanzando una altura de 4.250 m.s.n.m. en (TOCOPA), catalogada como el “TECHO DEL MUNDO DEL CICLISMO” el 2002, por el Presidente de la UCI Hein Verbruggen el año 2000.

    Radio Fides Ciclismo, con el propósito de darle un mayor brillo a la XIII DOBLE COPACABANA DE CICLISMO, trae para esta versión 7 equipos internacionales y 12 equipos nacionales, Tarija, Cochabamba, Oruro y La Paz.”

    I had the rare opportunity to experience the 1999 edition final finish in La Paz. The riders were speeding down from the Altoplano through La Paz for the last 10 km reaching speeds well above 90 kmh passing the finish line. It is – without a doubt – the fastest sprint I have ever witnessed. I am happy I did not have to sort that sprint out; no photo-finish was available. 😉


  13. Good piece. I take this rather simplistic view:
    1) Colombian bike races (and school roads) favours natural climbers (W/kg sustained).
    2) The level of supercharging in the pro peloton has fallen a lot since it’s 2007 climax.
    Back to the level(ish) playing field, alas.

      • Holland also dominates speed skating way more than Colombians ‘dominate’ cycling. The nr of days with rideable ice in NL averages <10 annually I would guess shooting from the hip. It has a lot to do with being more or less the only country where you can make a living as a professional speed skater, as it's the 2nd popular TV sport after football. In the Alpe glory days of Dutch cycling, there were a lot fewer nations participating in the Tour. We've been dry on tour stage victories for years now. Must be because of all those Colombians, no?

  14. Think there’s an extra zero in the bit about Himalayan peoples. 500,000 years ago, all homo sapiens were living in Africa, so perhaps you meant 50,000? (And the other piece you linked to suggests that Tibetans split from Chinese about 3,000 yrs ago, so maybe 5,000 is just as accurate?)

  15. In the context of your excellent article, it may be better to classify Chris Froome as African rather than British.
    Genetically he is British, but born in Nairobi, Kenya (1660m asl) and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa (1750m asl).

  16. I submit an example to argue it’s more cultural/environmental than genetic makeup. My American Football high school team has won several state championships, as have 2 other schools in my county. However, all of the other schools have little success. Populations are homogenous. I would therefore submit it is a culture of success in each school program, as well as an importance placed on the sport in each school.

  17. I submit an example to argue it’s more cultural/environmental than genetic makeup. My American Football high school team has won several state championships, as have 2 other schools in my county. However, all of the other schools have little success. Populations are homogenous. I would therefore submit it is a culture of success in each school program, as well as an importance placed on the sport in each school that drive the localized success.

    I think this model can be fit to cycling in South America. If it was purely altitude and genetics, we would likely see many great pros from other high countries with similiar indigenous populations.

  18. One aspect that we may be ignoring in terms of physiology, is the biomecchanics of muscles adapted to climbing up steep slopes. Climbing with a bike resembles going up stairs, especially when out of the saddle. Quite apart from the endurance effect of living or training at altitude, the build of the people living there adapts to the terrain they encounter (in Columbia and the Himalayas for example, short with thick-set leg muscles). My hypothesis is that mountain folk have an advantage not just because of altitude but the steepness they encounter as they walk up and down mountains. As for the Dutch doing well on the Alpe d’Huez, maybe it’s all those stairs they have to climb in their Amsterdam homes, that replicate a mountain environment 🙂 But, if you think about it, not such a stupid suggestion. In my cycling I find I go faster when I get a 1 or 2% grade. My legs spin better, as if that grade makes them work more efficiently. My background is the mountains around Venice and the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps riders used to steeper grades in their day-to-day find their legs optimised at steeper angles, able to spin more efficiently. Add some additional endurance from living in a rarefied oxygen environment, and it’s the combination of these two factors that make the Columbians marginally better at climbing. OR maybe all these riders living under the same roof visit the same Pharmacy across the road. Dunno.

  19. Thanks. Good piece – comme d’hab and some good responses too.

    My ha’pennies worth…

    The basic rule that countries where cycling is popular (and visible) produce lots of winners is incontrovertible. You only have to look at where cycling’s champions hail from to see where the sport is strongest. Europe dominates because it’s where the mode of transport originated and where it is still the most popular as a pastime.

    Globalisation and 24/7 media mean that other places are feeding winners in to the system simply because they now have aspirations that probably didn’t exist a few years ago. Without the goal of riding for a European Pro team most of these “New World” riders would be failed football players.

    Herrera blazed a trail and created another option in Colombia during the 80/90s, Greg Lemond showed a generation of Americans a new sport (as opposed to the big three). Both countries now have a strong presence in the peloton, albeit from rather hit-and-miss origins. I’m certain that more and more riders will emerge from the former Eastern bloc states to make their mark in future for the same reasons.

    The UK and Australia have practically appeared from nowhere via a different path. Both founded state-backed “bums-on-bikes” programs, the side effect of this is rider ‘production lines’ turning-out good riders quickly and with that comes some success. This, in-turn, generates more funding and seeds further growth – frankly massive expansion in the number of “ordinary” cyclists in the British Isles. I’m certain this is a self-propagating cycle (no pun intended).

    We obviously can’t discount doping in this change of guard but it seems the benefit of doping is starting to be outweighed by the increasing likelihood of a very big payback day down the line and it seems to be waning as a practice. Perhaps the mythical level playing field is just over the horizon (in another universe). As a Brit. – I can’t forget the years of coming from a second-class cycling backwater and knowing that our riders couldn’t compete through of lack of support and naivety. A “don’t dope” mindset is pretty ingrained because of what happened to Tom Simpson – a sobering event that has coloured national psyche to this day. Despite the understandable cynicism, the current success of British efforts (and of course riders) makes me want to wave the Union flag because I know how much the people running the sport in Britain don’t want to visit that awful place again – I’d (respectfully) wager that Simpson’s death changed the direction of UK cycling for the better – but it’s taken a long time. I wonder if more recent events won’t do the same for American cycling in the long run?

    Sure – genetics and environment play vital parts in winning races but only on an individual level and only insofar as opening a new avenue and giving kids with the physique and mental toughness the opportunity to use their talents.

  20. Let’s not forget that all those guys only weigh 60kg/130lbs. It’s not like Colombians are tearing up the Flat TT’s or sprints. Weight could explain it.

  21. Actually, looking at the two Colombians in the picture, reading their surnames is quite funny:
    – Henao is the Spanish name of the Belgian province of “Hainaut”, and it has no other meaning. Go figure how that name got to Colombia.
    – Betancur is one Spanish spelling of the heraldic French name Béthencourt, which is also the most widespread surname in the Canary Islands, after they were conquered and ruled by a Jean de Béthencourt from Normandy, a long, long time ago.
    …so in Wallonia, these two riders should perhaps be Serge Hainaut and Charles Béthencourt.

  22. Compelling topic and analysis and thoughtful and intelligent dialogue via comments. Tacit example of the Joy of INRNG. 🙂

    Note: Lee Rodgers is writing some cracking race analysis over at Pez. Perhaps he is channeling INRNG, as the writing is superb.

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