How a Coffee Farmer Should Have Been (One Of) Colombia’s Greatest Cyclists

THERE IS A DISTINCT SHARPNESS in the Sunday morning Andean air as José Villegas plucks a tiny coffee shoot from the ground, barely as tall as an espresso cup. Looking out over the valley on the edge of the steep slope, the setting is idyllic, like something from a late 20th-century film epic. Dressed in little more than slippers, gym shorts, and a t-shirt, he studies the greenery carefully nestled in his palm, nods in approval, and continues scouting the steep slope around him for other shoots. His son, Juan Pablo, explains that this is how his father propagates new coffee plants on the farm, eschewing the far more common method of using commercial seeds. It keeps the fields GMO-free, organic, and high-quality. This is single-origin coffee grown at the perfect altitude (1800m/6000ft), something prized the world over. Everything on the farm is done mostly by hand. There are no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The family has been farming like this “from the beginning”, José explained, not because it was popular, but because it was the right way to do things. The only way.

I’d known Juan Pablo Villegas, former men’s professional road cyclist, for the better part of a decade. His convictions had been obvious. I’d witnessed his remarkable mental and physical strength first-hand, picturing him as something of a cycling Jedi. Still, I’d never really known where it originated, why Juan was one of the world’s strongest bike riders, yet also one of the most remarkable, kind, and genuine individuals I’d encountered. On that otherwise unassuming weekend morning in the northern reaches of the Colombian coffee region, the essence of Juan, one of cycling’s unsung heroes, became clear.

Juan’s story begins typically, akin to many others in rural Colombia. He grew up on the farm outside of the pueblo of Pácora, a small agrarian burg of some 20,000 people. Its larger setting is the department of Caldas, a place of rugged mountains, jaw-dropping views, incredible cycling, and high altitude. His family has been farming in Pácora for the better part of two centuries. Their specialty? Coffee. Lucrative? Not particularly. Rewarding? Often. As is the case with many pursuits here, financial gain isn’t the objective. Instead, the reward of work, and the ability to mark the majority of one’s days spent with loved ones check the boxes of accomplishment. As an outsider accustomed to the consumption-driven, non-stop lifestyle of the urban United States, this way of life is refreshing. Liberating. The sentiment was echoed in mundane, daily tasks. Before we could do anything that morning, Juan’s mother, Isabela, assigned us a dawn errand: Take breakfast to his elderly grandparents, a kilometer down the dirt road from the farm.

Juan’s grandparents’ home doubles as the coffee processing building for the farm, and that morning his extended family was already hard at work washing and drying picked beans. That didn’t stop them from sharing a cup of coffee with us, as Juan and his grandmother, Gabriela, explain the coffee production process. Juan is quite tall for a Colombian of mixed indigenous descent, and he towers over his tiny grandmother. It’s easy to tell he’s her favorite. She radiates absolute joy at the sight of him.

Growing up on the farm was physically taxing. At eight years old, Juan hauled loaded 70kg/155lb coffee bags up steep mountainsides to the waiting multi-colored Chiva bus, where they’d be taken into town to be sold at the coffee exchange. The consistent work ethic instilled in him by the daily farm labor stuck, and his father noticed his unusual physical strength and mental endurance from an early age. Like many in agrarian Colombia, his main mode of transportation around the steep dirt roads of the coffee region was an inexpensive mountain bike. He developed an affinity for riding as he ran errands for his mother, who daily prepared lunch for all who worked on the farm. He frequently rode to town three or four times a day, shuttling supplies and eventually dubbing the steep, rutted climb home the “Hell Repecho”. He’d give the hill as much effort as he could muster each time he tackled it.

We returned to the farm to find Jose having finally relinquished the task of picking through the fields for shoots, and breakfast is set on the table. The elder Villegas was no stranger to the bike, either. When Juan was in his early teens, he fondly recalled seeing his father compete in an amateur road race from the low-lying town of La Pintada to Pácora. It was a competition of only 58km/38mi, but mostly on dirt – and with 2200m/7200ft of climbing. It was then, watching his father race, that Juan knew he wanted to be a professional cyclist. After long days in the fields and at school, he’d rush home to watch European races broadcast on the television, while his father regaled him with tales of the original escarabajos, legendary Colombian riders like Cochise and Lucho Herrera.

The dream was a difficult one to come by in the Colombian countryside. He knew that as a farm laborer descended from generations of farm laborers, pro cycling was far out of reach. A proper road bike was financially impossible for the Villegas family, and traveling around the country to race was equally difficult. Still, Juan continued to punish himself on local hills, fantasizing winning atop cycling’s greatest climbs, with the workers in the fields his adoring fans. He showed up to his first informal race near Pacora, handily winning over the insults of the other riders who mocked him for competing in cutoffs and a t-shirt. His raw talent and ambition caught the attention of a local cycling beneficiary, Mario Restrepo (father of current Colombian pro Jhonathan Restrepo). He lent Juan a bike and helped him travel to races.

Like that, he was on his way to a budding pro career, recruited by a small domestic team (Orgullo Paisa) at 18. He left the farm in Pacora for the big city: Medellín. His parents beamed with pride, Isabela swallowing her matriarchal fear of Juan being injured racing. The fierce work ethic instilled by hard days in the coffee fields flourished. The following year he took second place in the Under-23 edition of the Vuelta a Colombia, the nation’s biggest road race. With that, the world opened in a spectacular fashion to the young farm laborer, beyond his wildest dreams. He raced in Switzerland at the World Championships and went to stage races in Italy. He was experiencing things he never thought he would, and he was riding well, making a name for himself as an extraordinarily powerful time trialist and stage racer. The domestic Colombian cycling community took note of its rising star, and the pressure on him to perform intensified.

That pressure evolved, as it does for many young pros: Encouragement from coaches and teams to use performance-enhancing drugs. It became clear to him cycling wasn’t just for the strong, but it was also for the dopers. It was a pivotal moment, he recalls through bites of arepa. He realized, “Cycling has a narrative of deception.”

He consulted his parents. It was their example that had taught him to live a clean life with pure, honest intentions. Just as with their organic coffee farming, the Villegas clan did everything a certain way. It wasn’t always the easy way, but it was always the right way. Armed with his familial fortitude, Juan decided he would quit the sport. At age 21, he was at peace with his decision to end his brief, promising career with what he terms a “clear mentality”. No guilt, no demons, no secrets, no health risks. He didn’t know it at the time, but this was a precipice he’d stand on multiple times over the next ten years.

ISABELA POURS US ANOTHER COFFEE, our breakfast of tamal, arepas and cheese long since devoured. She shows me the shrine to Juan’s cycling career in their modest home, a waist-high cupboard in the living room overloaded with medals, trophies, plaques. Photos of Juan decorate the wall. She smiles as I pore over each award, each as hard-fought as the last.

Juan’s second act would come via the storied Colombia es Pasion team. They had formed in the late 2000s with the goal of taking a Colombian team back to the Tour de France. This was the same professional team that launched the careers of the likes of Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves, and other Colombians who’d go on to race at the highest level in Europe. Led by Luisa Rios and Fernando Saldariagga, the squad was truly professional, with regimented training and coaching, a cohesive squad atmosphere, and owned team facilities.

Colombia es Pasion was one of the only upper-echelon cycling organizations in the country that had a zero-tolerance approach to doping, and they were the only squad in the country to embrace the newly-developed biological passport, a far more effective (and expensive) method of catching drug cheats than traditional testing. The “Clean Team” approach made it the perfect home for Juan, the rider who’d contemplated cutting his career short because of cycling’s issues around drug use. In 2011, instead of hanging up his wheels, Luisa recruited Juan to the squad.  He found a way to give professional cycling another chance – on his terms.

The next eight years of his career were rewarding for Juan, if tumultuous. The team would find itself pinging around from government sponsor to government sponsor, backed by 4-72 (ironically, the Colombian postal service) after the Colombia es Pasion sponsorship ended. Their year-to-year future always seemed uncertain. The team’s unpopular approach to anti-doping had made them more than a few enemies in the Colombian cycling community. They frequently met success in European racing, but could hardly attain results at Colombian events owing to the amount of drug use in the domestic peloton. The media ignored, even scorned their pioneering approach, which compounded their sponsorship issues. They dropped from pro cycling’s second tier to the third, until finally almost disbanding in late 2014.

In the meantime, Juan was finding his legs as a professional with the team. With more than a few European campaigns under his belt and an overall win at the grueling week-long Vuelta Mexico, he was hitting the apogee of his career. Racing full-time in Europe seemed like the most logical next step, perhaps within the next two years. Instead, his beloved Colombia es Pasion “clean team” (now known as 4-72) was crumbling in the closing weeks of December 2014. It was far too late for him to find a contract with another team, let alone one that would represent advancing in the sport the way he wanted to: The clean way, the right way. Dejected, he was back to the moment of four years earlier, contemplating quitting cycling. Instead, he took one of the only available options: Leave Colombia for the United States to race for the third-tier upstart SmartStop professional cycling team in the 2015 season.

While Juan’s deeply-held convictions are well known to those who know him, they were never something he’d discussed openly with the media – until 2015. After moving to the US for the year, he delivered a bombshell interview with Klaus Bellon of the Alps & Andes blog. The revelation was motivated by the end of his beloved Colombian “clean team”, a team that had worked so hard to change things. In it, he detailed the overt doping culture in Colombian cycling, calling out its teams, sponsors, and coaches for exploiting riders’ health for financial gain. Quite intentionally, he didn’t name any names, but the backlash was still swift and dangerous. He received death threats, his family in Colombia was harassed. While the rest of the cycling world had seen the omertà culture largely exposed after the 2012 Lance Armstrong ban, Colombian cycling lagged behind. Cycling in Colombia is ingrained in politics, and politics in Colombia are ingrained in cycling. When power and corruption (in this case, doping) are intertwined, the consequences of challenging that structure can be severe.

His mental anguish amplified, compounded by an incident at an early-season California race where he was accused (with scant evidence) of intentionally causing another rider to crash. American racers murmured about the frighteningly strong “doping Colombian”, without evidence – or knowing what he’d been through to stay clean. Finally, his American team lost one of its title sponsors, significantly cutting the amount of racing he’d be able to do that year. Racing that would help him advance his career, that would make his sacrifices worth it. He simmered, feeling guilt about the circumstances he’d created in Colombia for those close to him. His wife begged him to return, and he missed his family. He went home, and prepared once more to end his cycling career, quitting the American team. As a final insult, the Colombian cycling federation asked him to retract the interview he’d given earlier in the year. He refused, and announced his retirement from the sport.

Or so he thought. Midway through the year, like a phoenix from the ashes, the team formerly known as Colombia es Pasion rose again with the same “clean team” ethos. They had secured a lucrative sponsorship from the famed Postobón soft drink company, a huge, iconic Colombian brand. As Colombian cyclists were racing clean in Europe (and winning), it became apparent domestic cycling would need to move that way too, attracting investment from such high-profile backers as Postobón. The team wanted Juan Pablo Villegas and his myriad talents back in the fold racing with his old squad, now called Manzana Postobón. He obliged, spending the next three seasons successfully racing across the world with the now financially-stable team, the one that had saved him during his first time in the wilderness.

By 2018, Juan was entering the later phase of his cycling career, still with Manzana Postobón. Slowly, it seemed the influx of money from a big sponsor had slowly begun poisoning the well of Colombia’s “Little Team that Could”. It does bear mentioning at this point that in most cases, cycling sponsorships are little more than line items on vast corporate marketing budgets. The sponsor usually has little to no input on how the team is run.  Needless to say, the individuals who’d fought tooth and nail for the team’s core values of clean cycling and transparency were being forced out by internal politics. The familiar, apathetic approach to doping seeped in, paired with pressure to attain results domestically in Colombia. At the end of the season, Juan’s contract wasn’t renewed, and he wasn’t sure he wanted it to be, either. He and most of the other riders who’d been part of the original cohort had left the team. Exhausted from the decade-long fight, Juan finally called cycling quits for good at 31 years of age. The following spring, the Manzana Postobón team would post two doping positives from a pair of riders. In response, Postobón immediately withdrew their sponsorship, folding the squad. It was the final ending for what had once been Colombia es Pasion. Juan wasn’t surprised.

OUR COFFEE CUPS ARE EMPTY and Juan is looking out over the tranquil valley from the same table he sat at growing up. Misty clouds roll over the ridge line, slowly evaporating as the sun climbs higher in the morning sky. If he harbors resentment toward cycling, he doesn’t outwardly show it. Instead, he seems at peace, grateful for the connections, experiences, and friends his career gave him. He feels badly for his former teammates who saw their team collapse around them. There isn’t a hint of ego in his voice as he matter-of-factly discusses how and why Colombian cycling finds itself where it is today, a place where he is no longer welcome.

Colombia is a country where poverty is still rampant. Given his circumstances, it was a small miracle that Juan was able to even start racing at an amateur level, let alone make it to racing in Europe with Colombia es Pasion. He knows the intense financial pressure many young cyclists feel as they aspire to climb the ranks of the sport. For many Colombians, becoming a pro cyclist isn’t just an achievement of glory and passion, it’s one that can give their family upward economic mobility. It’s no wonder that winning at all costs is commonplace, a social construct weaponized by those in power to exploit young riders, of which there are thousands. In a country crazy about cycling the talent pool runs deep, going hand in hand with a lack of opportunity and extreme economic disparity. Countless Colombian cyclists find themselves chewed up and spit out by this machine, whether it’s through burn-out, health problems, doping positives, or just plain not cutting it – and these riders tend to have little to fall back on.

Juan is lucky in that sense. Both his upbringing and his struggle around his commitment to an ethical approach in cycling seem to have buttressed him against the issues that plague many riders during and after their careers. He was always mentally prepared to quit if he had to. When asked if he knows how to improve the situation in Colombian cycling at a grassroots level, his response is very Juan: “Colombian cycling is a zero-sum game of winning or nothing. That mentality needs to change. There are no life lessons taught, no value placed in the work accomplished. Teams, sponsors, and riders need to know that there is more to the sport than victory.”

Almost two years later, Juan Pablo Villegas has been reinventing himself while staying true to his roots. After retiring, he returned to Pácora and started working with his father on the farm again. His family pivoted to planting most of their fields with plantains, as green coffee prices plummeted. He helps manage the farm’s production and sales, working on the farm in his beloved ‘82 Nissan Patrol, loading a truck weekly with plantains to drive to Medellin to sell to wholesalers.

He now has a young son, a wife, and a beagle. Leaving cycling lets him spend more time with his family. His life seems – and feels – quite full. After a brief stint without cycling, he’s back to embracing the euphoria of riding a bike. Especially of riding hard, something that was on full display when the day before, he rode 130km/80mi of mostly rough gravel roads from Antioquia to Pácora with pro mountain biker Sara Botero. While he knows he’s never going to compete at a professional level again, he’s keen to get back to occasional recreational competitions, whether on a road, mountain, or gravel bike. He’s taken on a few clients for coaching, sharing his deep knowledge of the sport. He’s started a role as the Technical Director for the Panamanian Cycling Federation. While his work in Panama is mostly on pause until travel restrictions lift and widespread racing resumes, he’s still writing the national team training plans, keeping the team motivated from afar.

JUAN PABLO VILLEGAS is the sum of his experiences, and how he’s met those experiences his way. He’s now also a father and a mentor to younger cyclists. He’s learning how to run a business. He’s rediscovered his love of riding. After meeting his family and seeing where he grew up, it’s obvious that Juan isn’t remarkable simply for his story or his strength. It’s his persistence in doing the right thing in the face of harrowing odds, paying little regard to the cost. In his own words, “I want to help people be good people, not just win races.”