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Meet Diana Peñuela, the Colombian in UHC’s bluetrain

penuela2_lapatria

(Fotografía tomada de LaPatria.com

Por: Natalia Santamaría
@nsantam

On November 12th, 2015 the UHC women’s team revealed its roster for 2016. Diana Peñuela was on that list. Diana was born in Manizales, the capital of the state (departamento) of Caldas. That part of the country belongs to the “Coffee Growers Axis” (Eje Cafetero in Spanish), a local name given to the coffee-growing region in Colombia. Manizales is 2,160 m above sea level and sits in the central mountain range of the Andes and it’s known in Colombia as “the city of open doors”; thanks to its location Diana says that when riding a bike, there is no other way but up.

Here Diana tells her story and shares her goals for 2016. Enjoy.

I understand that in 2010 an ankle injury from roller-skating led you to ride a bicycle as part of the rehab process. When did you start competing in cycling?

Yes, that’s correct, that injury made me change the roller skates for a bike. I started with a MTB and joined a group for their rides during the weekends, mostly on “destapado” (this is an adjective used by Colombians to refer to our unpaved roads, which usually have the width of a car lane and are an uneven mix of dirt and stone fragments). After that I joined “Club Rueda Libre”, perhaps the biggest cycling club in Manizales, current national downhill stars like Marcelo Gutiérrez were part of it. Fellow riders at Rueda Libre started to motivate me to compete in cross-country (XCO). I was 23 years old, just starting, and in the races I had to compete against the Colombian champions of that time, the likes of Angela Parra and Viviana Amaya, because there were no other racing categories available for women.

In my first races I was being lapped at the very beginning. When I finally managed to cross the finish line, organizers were already deflating dummies and packing things up, and my friends were starting to consider going on a search and rescue mission to look for me. I finished so far back. But I loved it and wanted to keep doing it, somehow I was very motivated. Seeing that, the club told me I needed to prepare better to avoid being dropped in the first lap and to work on my endurance. That’s when I bought my first road bike. At that time I had a job as a graphic designer, the pay wasn’t good but enough so I could manage. A week later I competed in a road race, El Clásico El Colombiano (http://clasicoelcolombiano.com/), and won the intermediate sprints and the last day criterium. I beat the mountain bikers that lapped me all the time in the XCO races. I said this is it.

How did the transition to become a professional cyclist take place?

Everything started with the Panamerican MTB races in Chía in 2011. I did my preparation and the goal was to try and snatch some points for Colombia, I knew that I wasn’t at the level to fight for a podium place. But what I really wanted was to get myself to a road race coming up after that, and planned to use the Panamericans to network and ask for support. And so I did. I asked and asked, I was confident I could do a good job, but everyone told me that since I wasn’t killing it in XCO I was just going to waste my time with road racing. So I decided to use all my savings and paid for myself to be at that road race (Clásica de Anapoima). That was the first time I was competing at a national level on the road. There I won the points, mountain and sprints jerseys and also the last day criterium.

Those results made me put my life in perspective. I was working in a marketing agency, making barely minimum wage because I was told to be too young and to need more work experience to be able to improve my salary. But the days were long and I was struggling to find the time for training. The question was, do I keep my job and spend my life trying to make more than a minimum wage, or, do I take a risk and become a professional cyclist.

Diana en los Panamericanos de Cota.  Foto tomada de Instagram @josepachecom

Diana en los Panamericanos de Cota. Foto tomada de Instagram @josepachecom

Finding sponsors in Colombia to be a professional cyclist is a particularly difficult task for women. How did you find a team? When did you quit your job?

In Anapoima I met another road cyclist, Ana Sanabria, she was part of a women’s team that a utility company from the state of Santander (ESSA) wanted to sponsor. They asked me if I would be interested in joining the team, and I said yes. I was very excited. When I came back from Anapoima, I quit my job and decided to pursue my childhood dream: to become an athlete. I wasn’t able to start earlier because my mom is a single mom so she couldn’t back me up financially. I played tennis until I broke the raquet, did roller-skating until I destroyed the skates, everything always ended when I needed money to buy/replace equipment.

From 2011 through 2014 Diana was part of the national road cycling team representing Colombia in Panamerican and Suramerican Games and the World Championships. She competed locally with the ESSA-Formesan, the ESSA-EPM and the Specialized-Colombia-Indeportes Boyacá during those years. Unfortunately none of those teams had continuity and disappeared. She believes the causes are that in Colombia few people care about women’s cycling and there are no sponsors. You decide which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Let’s skip ahead and tell me how did you end up with the Dallas Racing in 2015

Since 2015 was a National Games year (National Games in Colombia are held every four years and comprise competitions in various disciplines, each state sends a delegation and the medal count declares the winning state), none of the teams with state funding -which are pretty much all of them- were willing to put me in their roster, they were reluctant to use resources preparing a cyclist who could win a medal for other state. My state does not have a cycling team or ties to one, so the other teams saw me more as a threath than an asset. At the end of 2014 I had no team and I started to contact everyone I knew to try to work something out.

At some point someone suggested me to look at the public directory USA Cycling has on its website and encouraged me to contact them. And so I did. I had nothing to lose. Of all the e-mails I sent I only heard back from Dallas Racing (http://www.dallasracing.org/). They told me that they’ve looked at my palmarès, did not have the resources to pay me, and were surprised I was looking for a team, that all they could offer was to help me with race registrations, provide me with a place to live and help me cover some of the travel expenses. The only thing I knew about the team at that point was that I’ve seen cyclists from Puerto Rico racing with them, but I didn’t know anybody. I resolved to be positive and took their offer.

Diana en el Hotter n Hell Hundred Criterium, Wichita Falls, Texas). Foto: Richard Cleaver

Diana en el Hotter n Hell Hundred Criterium, Wichita Falls, Texas). Foto: Richard Cleaver

How did you set up your racing calendar?

Initially I was going to race the Joe Martin Stage Race (UCI 2.2) in April and then head back to Colombia to try to win a spot for the Panamerican Road Race in Mexico. However after finishing Joe Martin I made some calls and I found out that due to budgetary reasons the Colombian Federation was not going to send a women’s team to that race. And so I cancelled my plane ticket to go back and stayed competing in the USA.

How did you do to finance yourself?

I targeted crits and the intermediate sprints in races against bigger teams with strong sprinters. With that I was able to make some money to stay and keep competing.

Why did you decide to look for a team in the USA and not in Europe?

Is just that I heard stories about how cyclists are exploited in some European teams, I got the feeling there was this lack of clarity and transparency regarding what was expected, and that could lead you to a tight spot. I had much less fears to be facing that in the USA, it seemed to me that expectations were stated clearer.

Talking to Diana I remembered the interview that Bicycling Magazine did with Carmen Small in February 2014, in which she briefly mentioned not being able to put up with the “bullshit” some (small European) teams had. (http://www.bicycling.com/racing/carmen-small-has-really-big-heart).

If I understand correctly in 2015 you combined road racing in the USA and XCO racing in Colombia, and one of your objectives was to be selected for the Panamerican Games in Toronto. I recall seeing your name in that list, but then you never made it to Toronto. What happened?

I came back from Dallas three weeks before the trip to Canada, I wanted to rest from crit racing, focus a little on mountain biking and ultimately prepare at altitude for Toronto. After being in Manizales for a week I got a call from the National Mountain Biking Comission informing me I had to compete in one of the races of the cross country national championships in Pasto, Nariño. My first reaction was to remind them I was just back from racing at sea level and Pasto was a little higher than 2,500 m, so I was not going to be able to perform. They told me that didn’t matter, that I just needed to show my face. So I went, I was doing OK in the XCO race, but I made a mistake in a downhill, a very silly one, I still cannot believe I fell there, and I broke my collarbone. But it was a simple fracture with no displacement and it did not require surgery. However, I consulted my orthopedist in Manizales to see if with surgery I could still compete in Toronto.

Diana en el Hotter n Hell Hundred Criterium, Wichita Falls, Texas). Foto: Richard Cleaver

Diana en el Hotter n Hell Hundred Criterium, Wichita Falls, Texas). Foto: Richard Cleaver

I had the surgery, the next day I was on the rollers and three days after I was back to normal and training as usual. A BMX race for the national championship was taking place in Manizales at the time and people from the National Cycling Federation and Mountain Biking Comission were attending, so I decided to show up in my MTB to talk to them and clear any doubts about my injury. I showed them the medical report clearing me for competition. I was told then that everything looked good; that they had decided I was going to compete in the road race and that was a little over three weeks so there was plenty of time.

So it seems the injury was not an issue, the orthopedist cleared you to compete, you were training without problems, why didn’t you make it to Toronto?

Well I started to call the national federation asking for my official appointment for Toronto and they were very evasive. Then they told me the Colombian Olympic Committee (COC) had decided they were not going to let me race because of the injury. So I called the COC and they told me they didn’t know what I was talking about. Everything was very fishy, no one would tell me if I had lost my spot and I didn’t know what to do. I managed to secure the phone number of the person coordinating things for Toronto in Coldeportes (Coldeportes is like a Ministry for Sports in Colombia, they help to manage travel and related affairs for teams/individuals representing Colombia in international competitions), he told me that he was notified I was not going to compete in Toronto the day after the collarbone fracture happened.

What the heck…

Nobody gave me an answer, I asked the national selector and he wouldn’t tell me, I asked the National Cycling Federation and they wouldn’t tell me, I asked and asked and no one would tell me something. In the middle of my despair I even contacted the track selector to see if he could help me save my spot. But there was nothing to do. It turned out that from day one they had taken me off the list.

That is so dishearting, I can’t imagine the moral punch it was for you.

It was really hard to swallow. A week after the road race in Toronto, I was racing the Tour of Utah and managed to finish 10th in the GC. I didn’t have a strong team and was facing the best teams in the USA. I was in good shape for Toronto.

Yenny Colmenares, Camila Valbuena and Maria Luisa Calle formed the Colombian national women’s team for the road race in Toronto 2015. Calle never made it to the road race, after the team pursuit competition in the track she tested positive for GHRP2 and was removed from competition.

Let’s switch to happier subjects. How did you seal the deal with the UHC team?

It was truly moving, every time I think about it I get very emotional. After the road race in Richmond, when I was leaving the press area a friend was waiting for me, I had raced the Gateway Cup in St. Louis (Missouri) with her, my last race before the worlds. She congratulated me, told me I had done a good job, and then told me UHC was looking for me and that she had given my cellphone number to the manager of the women’s team (Rachel Heal). I couldn’t believe it and I started crying (laughs). After a little while the cellphone started ringing.

Wow, what came after the “hello” in that call?

She told me Diana we need to talk, I don’t know if you have plans for next year but we would like to offer you a contract. I couldn’t hold myself, I cried and yelled out of emotion. I didn’t win a medal in Richmond, but I got a contract with one of the best women’s teams in the world. It was beyond belief.

The meeting with them put the treatment we get in Colombia in perspective. Sadly, everytime one gets selected to represent Colombia they make you feel as if they were doing you a favor, and not as something you earned. And you have to beg for everything. For example, they didn’t want to take me to Richmond, I had to fight for that spot and pay for my plane ticket. I was very insisting, telling them that I was racing in the States, that I knew the circuit, that I could do a good job. I begged them to register me and to use all the spots because they were planning to use only two of the three spots we had. I told them I was willing to pay my way to get there and finally they agreed. It was very frustrating because I sent my race results, with the race profiles, to the national selector and I never got any feedback. So going from that to hear that someone has been following your performance during the year, witnessing your effort, and think you will be a good addition for such strong team it is very rewarding.

I have to ask you an uncomfortable question, if you don’t want to talk about it feel free to pass. This year we had three positive doping cases of Colombian women in the Panamerican games, Vuelta a Costa a Rica and the GFNY. Did this subject come up in your conversations with UHC?

No. It didn’t and it hasn’t. I’m aware of the issue, but fortunately American races are very radical and take doping controls seriously. You enter a doping control in the USA and have to declare how many miligrams of Gatorade you drank, which flavor, how many gels you took, what you had for breakfast, lunch, I mean everything.

My conscience is clear, what I have accomplished is the result of training and discipline. But it’d be a shame if doors start to close for us because of a bad reputation. I know where I stand with respect to my principles; my trainer and the group of people I work with are committed to fair play. Also, since I started late with cycling already having a professional degree, I know that if I can’t make it as a professional cyclist, I’ll find something else, I have my degree.

Do you know your racing calendar for 2016?

For now I know I’ll start the season at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina.

What types of races suit you? What do you think it’s going to be your rol with UCH?

I’m strong in crits and one-day races. I think I have a good sprint, but since I’ve never had the opportunity to launch myself from a train contesting a bunch sprint and see how I do against strong sprinters like Coryn Rivera, I don’t know for sure what level I have. I imagine I’ll be on the blue train formation for Coryn, and then see if it could be me the one going for the sprint. I also feel strong in medium mountain climbs, not so much in the long high mountain climbs. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be the last cyclist up there, I can go over them no problem, after all I’m from Manizales, but I’m not a climber. My thing is more towards power and explosiveness.

What are your next objectives?

Something I set my eyes on with my trainer four years ago: the Olympics. We decided to prepare for it, even if the chances of being there seemed (and are) slim. What I have done to compete in Panamerican, Suramerican and Bolivarian Games plus the last two World Championships I’ve done towards that objective. This year I’m going to have the chance to compete in UCI races so I want to win as many points as possible to help Colombia win a spot for Rio. The other objective is to work very hard so at the end of 2016 I have a chance to extend my contract with UHC.

Since 1984 when the women’s road race was included in the Olympics, Colombia has made only one appearance. In Atlanta 96 Maritza Corredor competed both in the road race and the ITT (the first time it was included in the Olympics), she had to retire from the road race because of a fall and a series of mechanicals and finished last on the ITT.

Last question. Suppose you had the power to introduce three laws that the Colombian Cycling Federation has to uphold. For example, that every year a Women’s Road Cup has to take place, comprised by one day races according to UCI regulations. What would your mandates be?

  • First, that every professional men’s team has to sponsor/support at least four women, juniors or elite.
  • Second, that all the cycling trainers working for a state’s cycling program have to have an appropiate degree and pass a test to get the job.
  • And third, that the performance of the directives at the state and national level includes a metric related to the well-being and the support given to cyclists from juniors to elites, instead of media presence and UCI recognitions. For example, a “report card” stating how much a director is spending in cycling development programs at a competitive level in his state. We need to align the incentives of the directives of Colombian cycling with the development process of their cyclists.

I just want to add that Diana’s voice never showed resentment or anger when she told me about her interactions with colombian cycling directives or when after a good 2014 season nobody will support her in Colombia (she won medals in the Suramerican and Bolivarian games and finished second in the national road race championships). The only addition to the lovely Manizalita accent in her voice, is an iron-will determination.

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Random facts about Diana

  • Favorite indulging food: Her grandmother’s bean stew with chicharrón (words fail me to describe this Colombian delicacy, in short, think about deep fried pork belly).
  • Music she listened to in her last roller session: Muse (she also made it to their concert in Bogota).
  • Favorite part of training: stretching.
  • The ride she has enjoyed the most in the road bike: somewhere in Utah, she loved Utah’s landscapes.
  • The ride she has enjoyed the most in the mountain bike: climbing to “El Nevado” from Manizales through La Gruta. About 55 kms southeast of Manizales an imposing volcano with a (dissapearing) glacier summit stands, “Nevado del Ruiz” or simply “El Nevado” is one of the many tourist destinations Manizales has to offer. The route that goes through La Gruta (a spot with hot springs) is moslty unpaved and susceptible to mud slides during the raining season.
  • How long she had to keep her UHC signing as a secret: 2 months, she signed the contract two days after talking to them.
  • Pro tip for new cyclists: say no to saddles that are big and chusiony. Get advice and invest in a saddle with the appropiate size and thickness for your tushy, that contact point with the bike is key.