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Colombia: Land of the bicycle

2 Aug 2019

This article was originally published in issue 89 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Spender Photography Mike Massaro

Medellín rises out of the jungle like a comic book city. At its heart are clusters of skyscrapers, yet these slender giants are themselves overlooked by the favelas, whose ramshackle brick-cement houses cling to the upper slopes of the Andes mountains nearly a kilometre higher still.

Medellín’s airport is just 35km away, but even in the late evening the journey down National Route 56 – affectionately known to Colombian cyclists as ‘Las Palmas’ – takes over an hour.

In another place on Earth, Las Palmas would seem tantalising but quite unsuitable for cycling. It’s a 12km climb from the city’s edge to 2,529m, averaging 7% and peaking at 14%, and is heavily used by a slew of HGVs and breakneck motorists snaking up and down its four lanes.

But this is Colombia, where cyclists are uncowed by small matters of traffic and high altitude.

Currently the Palmas Oficial Strava segment has 12,512 names on its leaderboard, and is topped by Team Ineos’s Ivan Sosa in a time of 30min 12sec, with teammate Egan Bernal in second and Rigoberto Uran in 13th.

Barely a non-Colombian name graces the top 100, which says not only that cycling is in the country’s blood, but also that in an age of globalisation and the internet, this news largely hasn’t crossed the border to anywhere else.

None of this is to suggest that Colombia is some kind of secret cycling nation. The WorldTour roster sports many Colombian names, the path to the pro peloton having been beaten by Martín Emilio ‘Cochise’ Rodriguez back in the 1970s and Luis ‘Lucho’ Herrera and Fabio Parra in the 1980s.

But until you come here, it’s impossible to appreciate how deep the cycling obsession runs, and just what forms its bedrock. Which is why we ask our guide Ben Hitchins, who runs PiCO cycle travel, based in Medellín, to show us what makes Colombia’s cycling so rich.

Riders, writers and insects

If there is a historical heart to Colombian cycling it beats on the Avenida Carabobo in Medellín’s rough and ready downtown, El Centro. Here amidst the fruit stands, the tiendas and the trick-turners are two of Colombia’s oldest bike shops: Bicicletas Ramon Hoyos, established 1959, and Colbic Bicicletas, established 1957.

‘My father started the shop and I work here with my brother,’ says Jorge Hoyos, pointing to a series of black and white photographs running up the wall next to the shop till of lithe men in woollen jerseys. ‘Everyone in Colombia knows the name Ramon Hoyos,’ he says matter-of-factly. And that is very probably true.

Outside Colombia, cycling fans might only have noticed Ramon Hoyos Vallejo riding for his national team at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, but for the compatriot spectator he dominated the country’s premier calendar event, taking top spot at the Vuelta a Colombia five times, including winning 12 of its 18 stages in 1955.

Hoyos is possibly the only cyclist in the world who can claim a Nobel Prize winner wrote his life story: Colombia’s most celebrated author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, penned Hoyos’ biography for the Espectador newspaper in the 1950s. Yet this cyclist might be most famous for something else – the nickname he would get that would go on to describe all Colombian climbers, el escarabajo de la montaña or ‘the beetle of the mountain’.

It’s a somewhat complicated plot, but Hoyos junior explains that his father first competed in the Vuelta a Colombia in 1952 as a 19-year-old, much to the chagrin of more established riders unable to find the financial backing to race.

He crashed on the first stage and missed the time cut, but next day he appeared on the start line and successfully argued his way back into the race, eventually being allowed to set off several minutes late up the notoriously difficult 80km Alto de Letras, which runs from around 450m to nearly 3,700m.

Remarkably, he pedalled back to second place, but poor luck struck again and he crashed.

On another occasion this story may have been lost to history, but when Hoyos finally crossed the stage finish his herculean effort was immortalised by radio commentator José Enrique Buitrago.

Seeing the spindly, battered limbs of the flailing yet defiant rider, Buitargo exclaimed, ‘He is not a human, he is a beetle on a bicycle!’ (Although another layer to this story suggests Buitargo had meant to say ‘he is a grasshopper’, but got his insects mixed up in a fit of emotion.)

In years to come, the beetle label would be a catch-all term for a certain type of climber from Colombia. If you want to see an escarabajo in action just watch Nairo Quintana up a 1-in-10.

So given all this, why was Colombian cycling so hidden from the rest of the world for so long? Especially given that international riders were frequenting its events – that 1952 race, for instance, was won by Frenchman José Beyaert.

‘Simple. When Colombian riders first went to Europe they couldn’t handle it,’ says Hoyos junior. ‘It was too cold, there was snow, the rain, they had to race on the pavé.’

Shaped by the land

It would be four decades on from Hoyos before Colombian cyclists managed to capture the hearts and minds of European fans, and even then its riders initially received nearly as much hostility as they did admiration.

At the 1985 Tour de France, three stage wins, two top 10 GC finishes and a polka dot jersey by Café de Colombia’s Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra were met with French newspaper articles suggesting doping, while Laurent Fignon is alleged by Herrera to have publically referred to Colombian riders as ‘an inferior race’ (Herrera had taken the Alpe d’Huez stage from Fignon in the 1984 Tour and would go on to win the 1987 Vuelta a España, with the Frenchman only third).

At any rate, Colombian riders were getting big results, and Santiago Toro, whom we meet at his business, Scarab Cycles – sitting poised like many a high-end bike shop on a useful road out of the city to the countryside – has a theory as to where Colombia’s cycling obsession derives.

‘The Colombian federation of coffee built the Café de Colombia team in the 1980s, so there was the money to make the team. But if you dig deeper there are stronger links between coffee and Colombian cycling,’ says Toro.

‘Coffee is grown at altitude and the people that farm it, they are tough people. These guys, you see them walking up mountains when they are 12 years old carrying 40kg sacks. Not because they are forced to work, but the family has a little coffee finca and they see their dad working, they want to help him, copy him.

‘Or maybe it is not coffee but another kind of farm, but it’s work like this, at altitude, that shapes our riders. They are not born in labs – they come from their environment.’

Indeed, Luis Herrera was nicknamed el jardinero, ‘the little gardener’, as he farmed flowers, while Nairo Quintana grew up on his parents’ smallholding situated at 3,000m – higher than any French col. Yet that’s not to say all Colombian success stories come from rural backgrounds, nor to infer that such upbringings are always impoverished, says Toro.

‘But there are big social and economical factors. Cycling, I think, comes first because many people, especially in the countryside, are poor, and the bike is a tool for transport. So everyone has a bike here. But that leads to people using them for pleasure, for freedom and sport, not just for transport.

‘When the Vuelta a Colombia came along [in 1951], it became one of the ways people learned more about Colombia – what the landscape is like, what the people are like in different parts of the country – because during the races the radio commentators were describing what they were seeing. I mean, my mum knew about cycling in this way, even my grandmother used to listen all the time to the Vuelta!

‘For all these reasons, cycling is very much in our blood. It was kept like a secret from the rest of the world until the 1980s and 90s, overshadowed by stories of drug trafficking, and people were terrified to visit here. But now they are coming and discovering this marvellous place, and seeing it is cycling paradise.’

The bike shops

Part retailer, part museum, part lifeline

‘People want to get stuff fixed rather than buy new, which is why we carry a lot of old stock. We’ll have that bolt someone needs to fix a brake,’ says Tata Otalvaro, who with her two siblings owns Colbic Bicicletas in the centre of Medellín.

True enough, the stock room of Colbic runs bigger than its shop floor, the two areas separated by display-case counters housing everything from the classic red-blue woven pump adaptors to a hen’s-teeth-rare, new old stock carbon fibre Dura-Ace chainset, priced at the equivalent of £510.

Alongside sits every type of bike you can imagine, from kids’ fat bikes and cheap alloy road bikes to expensive own-brand carbon bikes, and there’s even a row of 1980s-looking fan-resistance exercise bikes.

‘This shop and Ramos Hoyos across the street were the first two bike shops,’ Otalvaro says. ‘My father and my uncle set it up 62 years ago doing small mechanic jobs.

‘It quickly grew into a shop, and this area became like the bike district. We carry so much inventory now that we supply other bike shops and mechanics in small villages. I employ lots of women, because they are faster learners than men and can remember where everything is!

‘December is our busiest time as that is when we get the best weather, so from a very young age my brother, sister and I would work here in the holidays. I think I changed my first inner tube for a customer when I was 12.

‘My father sponsored teams long ago, and my brother used to be a professional. I ride too, three times a week. It is a way of life. For some people it is just for transport, getting out of the traffic of the city.

‘But everyone feels joy riding a bike, and the more you ride the longer you go and the more tired you become and the more joy you have when you get home exhausted. It is addictive, and the terrain here and the geography is perfect for riding.’

The framebuilder

Santiago Toro wants to re-introduce Colombians to the joys of steel

‘I used to be a tennis player but my dad was always saying, “Get a bike.” Then I got injured and as part of my rehab I was using a spinning bike in a gym,’ says Scarab Cycles’ Santiago Toro.

‘I was like, “If this thing is interesting staring in a mirror, what about being outside?” I got a bike and now my tennis racquets hang in the hall.

‘Before long I was riding so much that my dad said, “Let’s start a bike business together.” So five years ago I found Agustin, a traditional framebuilder here, one of the last in Colombia.

He was not aware of the trends going on around him, so we updated his brand and made a commercial push using new materials and technology.

‘Unfortunately we ran into difficulties and went our separate ways. We stayed on here, and I think that makes three custom builders in Colombia: Agustin, Jose Duarte in Bogotá, and Scarab.

‘Colombian riders trust the material, as everyone grows up riding steel bikes. But those bikes are mild steel because historically builders just used whatever they could get their hands on, and that meant the kind of cheap, heavy steel that was used in furniture.

‘Now when a customer comes here and picks up one of our steel frames and feels the weight, they are like, “Wow!”’

The racing

You’re never far from a bike race in Colombia

The Tour of Colombia is held in early spring, while the Vuelta a Colombia takes place each summer, this year in June (the Tour and the Vuelta are separate events, with only the Tour of Colombia recognised as a WorldTour race).

When Cyclist visited the country in February we happened upon the National Track Championships being held on the outdoor Velódromo Martín Emilio Cochise Rodriguez in Medellín. It felt serendipitous, but as Scarab Cycles’ Alejandro Bustamante explains, you’re never far from some form of bike racing in Colombia.

‘There are lots of opportunities to race here, especially for juniors,’ says Bustamante. ‘The towns have cycling schools that compete against each other, or the local mayors put on races. And there are chequeos – literally translated like “checking”.

‘They put the juniors to race for an hour, crit-style. There will be a couple of pros or elites in there setting the rhythm, then the coaches and scouts come down and write down the names of the kids who can hold on.

‘These take place all over the country every weekend. The riders they produce are different depending on region. If you are from Antioquia [where Medellín is located] where they eat a lot of frejoles [beans], you grow up strong; Boyacá [where Nairo Quintana is from], they eat lots of soup and live high, so they are very thin with incredible cardio.

‘In Cali it’s so flat and warm, they make incredible track riders. But wherever you are from, for most Colombians cycling is a rite of passage.’

The ride out

In Colombia, cycling is as much about community as it is about racing

‘Ciclovía started in Bogotá in the 1970s, then spread to other cities in Colombia and is now an event in cities across the world,’ says Ben Hitchins, an English ex-pat who moved to Medellín to start bike travel company PiCO.

‘The local government closes certain streets to cars every Sunday morning and the roads are free to use for runners, cyclists and skaters. Even the mayor comes out running with his bodyguards.

‘The routes are marked by cones and stewards are at every junction, keeping it all safe. There’s also a smaller Ciclovía on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.’

It’s no small undertaking – Medellín is a densely populated city of some 2.5 million people, Bogotá larger still at eight million, yet each Sunday morning and every public holiday, the city closes off 60km of roads running through its heart, including part of the Palmas climb.

‘Ciclovía is great for competitive cyclists, if used sparingly – with so many people on the streets of varying abilities, you can’t just bomb through on your bike. Las Palmas has a lane cordoned off for cyclists.

‘They can’t close it entirely as it’s the main route to the airport, but one lane at least gives you the space and safety to take on this legendary climb.’