It was well past 11 p.m. the night before the championship when the bus finally rolled into the station. The door popped open, and stunt riders Jimmi Navas and Neider Messino stepped out into the humid Amazonian air, stretching their legs.
The journey had taken them more than 30 hours. Without even a full night’s sleep, they would be expected to put on an incredible show the following morning during the first national stunt riding championship in Florencia, Caquetá.
Florencia is a “wild west” sort of town located in the Colombian Amazon. The department of Caquetá suffered some of the worst violence throughout the Colombian armed conflict, and is also one of the country’s biggest cocaine-producing regions. The area is burdened with a bad reputation and sits in isolation—both geographically and socially—from the rest of the country. No one comes here without a good reason.
Perhaps this isolation is part of what allowed stunt rider Julian Arias, a Caquetá native, to flourish independently as one of Latin America’s most talented riders. But it is this same isolation that has forced him to make similarly insane cross-country trips throughout his stunt riding career in order to compete. Without sponsorship, he pays for everything out of pocket, often going broke just for the opportunity to ride with others. Five hours, 10 hours, 18 hours, 30 hours. It all seems so irrelevant when you’re doing what you love.
This time, stunt riders from across Colombia would make the arduous trip down to Florencia, Arias’ hometown. For many, the journey was their longest ever.
Jimmi and Neider were farther away from home than they had ever been. Like the majority of stunt riders in Colombia, they come from humble families. Despite the immense odds stacked against them and active discrimination against their sport, they are trying to make a name for themselves without sponsorships or help from anyone. The only support Jimmi and Neider receive—which is more than the rest of Colombia’s stunt riders can attest to—is from Torque la Fundación, a Valledupar-based NGO that seeks to promote extreme sports like stunt riding.
Even with the help of Torque, they couldn’t manage to scrape together the resources to rent a car and trailer to make the cross-country trip down to Caquetá, so they were forced to travel by bus, paying exorbitant fees to convince unsympathetic bus drivers to stuff their bikes into the luggage compartment. The small economic contribution Torque managed to squeeze from the town’s mayor would cover only the first leg of the trip; they would have to come up with the trip back to Valledupar on their own. The couple hundred bucks of prize money they hoped to win during the championship would be their ticket home.
The situation for stunt riders in Colombia is frustrating, to put it lightly. I have been embedded in the Colombian stunt riding community for nearly two years now, and have watched the incredible evolution of the country’s riders and the tragic lack of support they receive.
I’ve watched riders get swindled time and again by event organizers who refuse to pay up prize money after an event. I’ve watched riders get their bikes confiscated by police, who see their sport as a crime, and go broke getting their bikes out of the impound. (I’ve also watched talented riders quit the sport because they couldn’t afford to get their bikes out of impound.) I’ve watched incredible riders miss out on the opportunity to compete in world championships because they couldn’t possibly afford to make the trip across the world; even a trip across their own country is economically impossible. But they still keep riding.
I’ve watched Colombian riders do tricks that only a handful of people in the world are capable of, and they do it on small, wobbly bikes that, in many cases, could quite possibly fall apart at any moment. I can only imagine what they would be capable of on the types of machines US and European riders use. The opportunity to train on a sportbike is practically all Colombian stunt riders ever think about, but the price tag keeps this dream out of reach for most.
Hopefully, in the coming years, the relentless efforts of Colombian riders will pay off. As their sport continues to gain recognition, perhaps they will finally get the opportunities and sponsorships they deserve, and will come to be treated as what they really are: world-class athletes.