Words by: Klaus
Gossip travels quickly within the peloton, and at the 1985 Tour de France one story was being passed around by European riders. The Colombians, the rumor went, were doping. And they were doing so mid-race, out in the open, and for everyone to see. Like most rumors, this one took hold because it attempted to answer two questions that riders were asking themselves: First, how could these relative unknowns climb like they did? And second, what was the brown substance they were putting into their mouths during stages, which they also dissolved in their water bottles?
Not only did riders suspect something, but the press did as well. Race organizers heard complaints on the matter. Finally, a writer from Winning Magazine asked Café De Colombia’s assistant director about the supposed doping.
“Rumours say that the team fills their bidons with a kind of ‘magic potion’. Is there something to that?”
Ruben Dario Gomez chuckled a bit. “It’s panela,” he answered. Not a banned drug, a stimulant, a sophisticated dietary aid or energy bar, panela is perhaps the most rudimentary of all foods to ever be consumed by a cyclist. But in Colombian cycling, and to Colombian fans, panela has long been seen as a symbol of the country’s underdog status, as well as the tenacity and stubbornness of its riders. Put simply, panela is unrefined sugar in a dense, block form.
Nearly as hard as a brick, panela is sourced from sugarcane, which grows readily in Colombia’s warm lowlands. Once harvested, the sugarcane is ground in order to make the watery contents of the stalks come out. As they are squeezed between metal wheels, the liquid that comes out is boiled again and again in separate copper pots, until the thick syrup is poured into molds. There, it hardens into the chunks that Colombian riders were seen putting into their mouths during arduous stages through the Alps.
Panela has long been a part of Colombia’s cuisine, culture and thus its cycling. To this day, Colombia retains the highest consumption rate of panela per capita…and is also its primary producer. Unlike refined or brown sugar, panela has a more complex flavor. This is due in great part to the level of caramelization that it undergoes. Flavor aside, panela actually has fewer calories than refined sugar, but also contains nutrients (vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, C, D2, E, potassium, magnesium among others) in higher concentrations than sugar.
The truth is that Colombian riders used it simply because it’s what they were used to. Many of them had been raised in the midst of extreme poverty, and panela was always readily available due to its low price, portability and overall ubiquity within all of Colombia. It should come as no surprise that the Colombian press readily touted the fact that the diminutive climbers from humble backgrounds were winning stages against the most well-funded teams and the fittest athletes while riding on nothing but panela. Was it a slight exaggeration? Perhaps, but there was truth in that statement, and it resonated with the Colombian public, which by that point was absolutely mad for the sport.
Enjoyed by poor farmers and the wealthy elite alike, panela is most often enjoyed as part of a beverage that is simply called “aguapanela”, which—as its name indicates—is simply made up of water and panela, with an occasional squeeze of limejuice for flavor. It was exactly this drink that Lucho Herrera and his teammates had been drinking at the Tour, since (like tea) it can be enjoyed either hot or cold. And like with tea, some prefer to dissolve their panela in milk, not water. But for farmers in the Colombian fields, the most convenient way to consume the sugary treat is by sucking on a chunk of it, allowing it do dissolve slowly during a hard day of work. Just as some riders were doing during the Tour.
Asked about panela, and how it was misunderstood at the Tour, Patricinio Jimenez (who was in the first Colombian team to ever ride the Tour) commented:
“Everyone bothered us, and asked us about panela. They all asked what it was. I remember that Pedro Delgado even asked if he could try some. I gave him a piece; he bit down hard and began to laugh uncontrollably as he nearly cracked his tooth. At that time, we didn’t understand that cycling was even remotely possible without panela.”
Lucho Herrera also has interesting memories of panela while racing in Europe:
“In a feed zone, I put a piece of panela in my mouth. The moment I put it in, a wasp got into my mouth and stung my tongue. I bit down, and my bridgework went flying. I got to the hotel that day after the race, and I was pretty scared. The team sent me to a local dentist, and I came back to the hotel at 5 am, with brand new teeth.”
Fabio Parra, the only Colombian rider to ever stand on the podium at the Tour, has commented that Colombian cycling began to change–and not for the better–when riders stopped eating and drinking panela. Teams began to buy into the nutritional bars and beverages that European and American teams were using. Although the simple fact that Colombian riders were no longer consuming panela can obviously not be blamed for the change, but many still see it as a symbolic shift. It was the end of an era, a point that marked the loss of innocence that first made Colombian teams wildly exciting to watch. Many riders went on to ride for European teams, only to languish as domestiques. Slowly, the magic of Colombia’s climbers started to dissipate.
But even as the sport changes, and Colombian riders continue join some of the most well funded teams, panela is always lurking about. When I asked Rigoberto Uran if there was still room for panela and other Colombian delicacies within the context of today’s highly methodical approach to nutrition, he was quick to answer.
“Of course there’s room…because they are our customs as Colombians, and most importantly, those things taste really, really good!”
And who could possibly disagree with Uran?
_This article was adapted from an original piece on CyclingInquisition.com_