Image: Sabana Centro team training
William Fernando Martinez  /  AP
Members of the Sabana Centro team ride during a training for the upcoming tour of Colombia in Chia, Colombia on June 7.
updated 6/25/2007 8:43:26 PM ET 2007-06-26T00:43:26

It's the most punishing cycling race you've never heard of. Stretching 15 days, the Tour of Colombia traverses the length, width and - most challengingly - the height of the mountainous landscape in this violence-wracked nation.

Reaching head-piercing altitudes thousands of feet beyond anything found in the Tour de France, the race, whose 57th edition begins July 28, is a test of stamina that would likely leave even Lance Armstrong gasping for breath.

The suffer-fest's toughest stage is a 10,875-foot pass known forebodingly as "La Linea" ("The Line") - in which riders setting off in a lush, tropical valley must grind their way 13 miles up to the freezing, oxygen-starved Andean plateau before embarking on a treacherous, winding descent back into the jungle heat.

In addition to the leg-numbing climbs, there are also stray mules to dodge and the forced detours caused by mudslides. Menacingly near to the road, leftist rebels may also hide in wait, though except for a three-hour delay when a platoon was spotted near La Linea during the 1962 Tour, the presence of the four-decade old insurgency has been more feared than felt.

With a first-place prize of barely $10,000 - versus $600,000 for the Tour de France winner - the Tour, or Vuelta as it's known in Spanish, has been all but shunned by the sport's top European and American riders.

Instead, it's become a showcase for the unique brand of hardened riders known in Colombia as Los Escarabajos - the beetles - for the "beetle-like" determination that they use to haul themselves up almost any mountain.

Almost universally, the beetles hail from peasant families in the heavily Indian, mountainous regions of Colombia. Ironically, their gaunt-like, stringy physiques - the result of poorly nourished upbringings - are a source of their aerodynamic strength in the saddle.

True to their modest roots, the beetles have created a niche for themselves as climbing specialists among Europe's premiere pedaling squads, acting as domestiques, or "servant" pace setters, to star teammates, among them Armstrong.

"They're like moths drawn to light - no amount of logical reasoning can explain how or why they do it," said Matt Rendell, an English author of "Kings of the Mountains," which chronicles the travails on-road - and off - endured by Colombia's cycling heroes.

As difficult as completing the Tour may be -and only 83 of last year's 133 entrants did - for many, just making it to the starting line is a steep challenge.

To fund a strict training regiment that begins every day before dawn, Juan Carlos Benavides, 23, works as a day laborer digging potatoes near his peasant family's modest home on a high-altitude plateau outside Bogota. Other racers must sell raffle tickets to pay the nominal entry fee. Almost all of them, before the Vuelta, will take their bikes to church to be blessed.

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"My goal is just to finish the race," said Benavides, whose bare-boned team Sabana Centro trains outside Bogota for its first-ever Vuelta.

Part of the race's allure - and the reason why riders well into their 40s still compete - is its rich tradition. Nowhere else in Latin America does cycling figure so prominently in the national culture.

In the 1950s and 1960s, winners were feted like superstars - with one legend, Ramon Hoyos, being immortalized in 1955 in a series of chronicles written by then journalist and future Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The fame associated with the Tour's early years has been steadily eroded by the popularity of soccer, car racing and other sports. But live radio broadcasts of the Tour still saturate airwaves nationwide and entire villages can still be counted to cheer on the passing peloton.

The wholesome look of the Tour can be deceiving, however. The pressure to win, and catch the eye of a European team, makes the competition fierce.

As with major European races, doping is widespread. In last year's race, seven riders were disqualified for abnormally high red blood cell counts, three of them, including the race leader, hours before the final stage.

And although the prize money is negligible, in a country where half the population survives in poverty on less than $355 a month, it's still a significant carrot.

"Cycling in Colombia pays barely enough to live day to day whereas in Europe even a second-division rider can make at least 25,000 euros ($33,000) a year," said Gianni Savio, coach of Italian team Selle Italia DiQuiGiovanni, one of four foreign teams confirmed to compete this year.

This year's favorite to be crowned with the traditional "collar de arepa," a wreath made up of fried maize pancakes, is former world champion Santiago Botero. The Colombian native, who stands out from his compatriot beetles for his middle-class background and speed on the flats, is riding in his first Vuelta in a decade after he was dropped last year by Swiss-based team Phonak, for his connection to a short-lived Spanish doping probe.

"It's the toughest race course in the world," said Botero, one of only four riders to ever outpace Armstrong in a Tour de France time trial.

Hoping to steal the limelight, and the great hope for the future of Colombia's cycling, is 21-year old Fabio Duarte, who was invited by Savio to compete to Europe after finishing fourth in his 2006 Tour debut.

Breaking into the cycling big leagues isn't easy - the beetles' reputation within their sport is surpassed only by the black mark of drug trafficking that immigration officers all too often associate with their passport.

The government-sponsored "Colombia is Passion" team was barred last year from competing at the prestigious Tour de l'Avenir, in France, after visas for the team were rejected. The rebuff may have arisen from the fact that during the heyday of Colombian cycling in the 1980's, several cyclists - among them the brother of deceased cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar - were known to smuggle drugs stashed inside bike frames.

Even though Europe remains the goal of most cyclists, in the wake of doping scandals at the Tour de France and the unsung role Colombians play on most teams, the dream has lost some its glitter.

Juan Pablo Forero, 23, who won three stages at last year's Tour, said he turned down an offer to race for a Belgian team in order to compete at home. "For any racer in Colombia, there's no greater achievement than the Tour."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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