Colombia is for Cyclists

With magnificent scenery and a vibrant cycling tradition, the country is among the world’s best for exploring on two wheels.

WORDS Jen Rose Smith
Abril / Mayo 2019
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After hours spent climbing the dizzy roads of Colombia's Boyacá department, my legs were ready to quit—the Andean highlands are as rugged as they're beautiful. But as we pulled into the town of Tunja looking for a place to spend the night, my traveling companion and I heard an encouraging shout: "Ey, Quintana!"

This region, where high-altitude tundra drops away to steaming forests and coffee-colored rivers, is home to Colombian cyclist Nairo Quintana, who won Vuelta de España and has twice been the runner up in the Tour de France. The same winding tracks that we were struggling up had shaped Quintana into one of the best climbers in the world. Now, near his hometown of Combitá, we heard his name while resting in road-side cafes, saw his smiling face on billboards, and ate beside posters from his greatest races. We'd traveled to Colombia to explore the steep folds of the Andes Mountains, and what we found was a country in love with bikes.

Bike tourism on the rise

To come here, we packed our well-worn bicycles into boxes for the flight to Bogotá. Everything we needed went into waterproof bags cinched to our bicycle frames; the packs bulged with tents, sleeping bags, and clothes. What we carried would warm us through chilly nights above 13,000 feet, then ward off the sun in the heat of the Cauca River valley.

We’re not the only ones. Bike tourism in Colombia is a growing trend, according to Anisha Ghoghari, the CEO and founder of cycling company Equipo, who was impressed by Colombia’s potential for international bike tourism after a stint living in Cali and Medellín. “It’s an emerging destination with a lot of culture, and it’s safe,” said Ghoghari, whose company has been bringing cyclists to Colombia for six years. “We get a lot of clients who say ‘I’ve never been to Colombia, but I’ve heard about Nairo Quintana and I want to check it out’.

They have a remarkable surprise in store: As we traced a route north from Bogotá, every switchback revealed another vista. In the high-mountain páramo, spiky frailejones plants towered above as we ate bocadillo de guayaba and cured chorizo, donning windproof jackets against the cold. Thousands of feet below, we pedaled through dense tunnels of vines in heat that we quenched with chilled glasses of lulo juice.

Healing the country from the saddle

It is a steep and lofty country—and it’s proved a natural training ground for generations of cyclists. Each year, the best riders gather for the Vuelta a Colombia, a multi-stage race that knits the diverse departments into a joyful event that has endured the country’s cruelest trials.

The first riders competed in 1951 as Colombia was convulsed by political conflicts known as La Violencia, but both cyclists and fans were undeterred. “All this violence was going on when the first bike race took place,” said Matt Rendell, who leads bike tours of Colombia and who wrote a history of Colombian cycling called Kings of the Mountains. “And yet people turned out in their tens of thousands, and it caught the imagination to an incredible extent.” 

Across years of painful conflict, cycling has continued to bridge deep divisions. When Nairo Quintana was riding in the 2018 Tour de France, Colombian Karina Vélez traveled with him, providing communications support for Telefónica Movistar’s cycling team. There, she saw countrymen gather to celebrate Quintana’s success—and noticed two men with rough tattoos and hard expressions who stood apart from the crowd.

They explained to her that they’d traveled to France from the thickly forested region of Caquetá. “We were guerilla fighters,” the men said. “We were using arms since we were children, because that’s all we knew.” For the men, watching Colombia’s greatest rider was a dream that only peace could fulfill. “Back in 2014, when were in the jungle, we’d hear about him,” they explained. “We listened on short-wave radio, that Nairo was going to win a stage of the race. And we made a promise that if we ever got out there, we’d come to France to see him.”

Vélez was deeply moved by the men’s story. “At the end of the day, cycling belongs to all of us,” she says. “There are no categories, neither rich nor poor, black, white or native Indian. It’s simply for everyone. It’s inspiring.”

A welcoming committee in every town

For us, that deep connection to cycling meant a warm welcome; we arrived to smiles and handshakes each time we pedaled into a village. When our daily rides took us through small towns in Boyacá and Santander, we slept in guesthouses or small hotels, grateful for a shower and a hearty dinner of Andean cuisine. In more remote communities, we’d buy supplies in tiny markets then pitch a tent in campsites, on local farms, or even in soccer fields. There, we’d use a portable camp stove to cook a simple meal as we waited for the inevitable visitors: children came to say hello, neighbors stopped by to chat about bikes, and farmers brought us milk still warm from the evening milking.

Starting early, we rode between six and eight hours each day, often pausing for the generous fixed-menu lunches served in small cafes. Traveling by bicycle is slow by design, and instead of ticking off a list of sights, we spent much of our time in the forests, valleys, and back roads that lie between towns. With vibrant rural culture and constantly changing scenery, Colombia invites this kind of off-the-map adventure, and you don’t need a bike for a rolling ride through the mountains—the places we visited would be just as inviting for a driving trip between whitewashed villages and towering peaks.

Be positive—and keep climbing

Midway through our journey into the Andes, we curved south from Medellín into the green-trimmed terrain of Antioquia. Over the next two weeks we’d climb to the base of smoking volcanos in Parque Los Nevados, pedal through the bright-painted towns of the Eje Cafetero, and soak in thermal pools that flowed steaming from the mountains.

First, though, we had to summit Alto de las Palmas, a sustained climb that extends for 11 miles from downtown Medellín. With heavily laden bikes, we climbed slowly; local riders tossed off words of encouragement as they spun past. Partway up the hill, a billboard loomed by the roadside with a message that seemed designed for cyclists like me: “Ser Positivo” (Be Positive).

The 2019 Vuelta a Colombia kicks off on the 4th of June, and compared with the challenges that riders face in that race, my hill was a bump in the road. For most, the hardest stage in the Vuelta a Colombia is a day-long climb up Alto de Letras, when cyclists ascend 10,500 feet over 52 miles. Those who reach the top will join an honor roll of Andean climbers stretching back nearly 70 years; it’s an unforgiving hill that’s become a Colombian tradition.

Not that the country’s riders are stuck in the past—anything but. Because there’s a new cohort of young Colombian cyclists—both male and female—hurtling onto race courses around the world at a blistering pace, often riding alongside the very cycling heroes who inspired their careers.

“Many Colombian children dream of being cyclists,” said Karina Vélez, adding that Quintana is living proof of how much a child from a rural, campesino family can achieve. “It’s an example of persistence, of never giving up.”

The future, it seems, is bright for Colombian cycling. “The current generation are these wonderful, wonderful athletes,” said Rendell. “But they’ll turn out to be the preface for what’s to come.”

IN THE SADDLE

Ciclovia de Bogotá

Bogotá traffic yields to the mighty bike every Sunday. Roughly 75 miles of roads turn into car-free cycling playgrounds between 7am and 7pm.

idrd.gov.co/ciclovia-bogotana

Casa du Vélo

Coffee and cycling might be Colombia’s perfect pairing. The two passions merged in summer 2018 when this bicycle-themed hotel opened in the coffee-growing town of Filandia with bicycle tours, workshops, and post-ride spa treatments.

en.casaduvelo.com

EnCicla Medellín

City of Eternal Spring? That means great riding, year-round. Sign up for an EnCicla account, grab one of the blue-and-green cruisers from stations across Medellín, then explore the city on two wheels—it’s totally free.

encicla.gov.co

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