Monday, 30 September 2013

Over the Hills - Cycling in Medellin, Colombia

Over the Hills - Cycling in Medellin, Colombia

It must be the most cycling friendly city in South America. Medellin is situated at 1600 metres in a deep valley running North and South in the northern Andes and in the green and hilly department of Antioquia. It is surrounded on 3 sides by hills, some occupied by high rise luxury apartments but in greater part by the poorer 'barrios' such as Comuna 13 where once Pablo Escobar once meted out favours and rough justice. His reign was fuelled by the first Colombian multi-national, otherwise known as the drug cartel, Oficina de Envigado. Medellin was once dubbed the murder capital of South America and was fraught with drug gangs and political tensions between rebels and para-military. It is now much improved with a developing infrastructure and commerce, known as a city of innovation and an unparalleled cycling destination.

When asked, as I often am, what is the security like cycling in Colombia, I can truthfully report that it isn't or hasn't really been a problem. Cyclists here have reached a critical mass and are revered locally and nationally, probably only second to football; that said it is probably prudent to keep to the better known cycling routes that are generally populated by many fully Lycra-clad enthusiasts mostly with high end American bikes bought from the Brand shops of Specialized and Trek. You will see pro and semi-pro teams out on the hills and people of all ages. I usually cycle with friends, Los Marielas a groups of around 40 cyclists sponsored by a local school of beauty. For me at least there have been no incidents during nearly 6 month's on the roads and I would suggest that it is probably more dangerous to go night clubbing in the Zona Rosa Parque de Lleras than to go cycling in the hills.

The other voiced concern is about safety on the road given different traffic and driving conditions. I would describe cycling here as benignly challenging. The roads are generally in good condition and drivers bear no grudges, and unlike some UK motorists have few prejudices towards cyclist. However they drive fast and quite assertively and use their horns a lot. Motorbikes 'motos' are more of a problem and they sometimes make risky right turn departures from main roads cutting in front of the flow of traffic - this requires attention and defensive signalling to prevent their bad behaviour. On the plus side I have not had one shouting match with a driver and other cyclists are friendly and welcoming.

The overriding cycling experience in Medellin is one of hills. If you don't like climbing this isn't for you. There are 5 main exits from the city and all but one of them necessitates a climb of 9 miles, typically at an average of 6-8% but in one case, Escobero much steeper. The most popular ride is to Alto de Las Palmas, a well ridden route, for me a demanding 1hour 20 to the top. Just over the brow one is rewarded by one of the best local restaurants where breakfast is served from open wood fired grills on bare wooden tables hewn from huge tree trunks. I would usually have a modest pan de queso and cafe con leche, baked cheese rolls with milky coffee from a wood-burning oven but locals might opt for the Colombian equivalent of a full English breakfast called 'Bandeja Paisa' comprising meaty blood sausage, crispy belly of pork, egg and rice accompanied by agua panela a drink made from sugar cane.

As well as road cycling there is a lot of mountain biking, an accessible to all open air velodrome and a 1.5km cycle practice track, the latter comprising of daily training from 6am and weekly league races. Stunt cycling and BMX is also a speciality and the facilities for this are excellent. On Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings the city has road closures for cyclists opening 11 miles of highway and some inner-city roads to car free access for all.

It is clear that cycling is becoming evermore popular in a city that has been home of some of the defining stages of the South American tour circuit. Current local heroes include Rigoberto Uran of Sky and Mariana Pajon, world champion BMX. Back in the day it was Martin 'Conchise' Rodriguez who broke the Hour Record in Mexico in 1970 and was and accomplished stage racer.

Further afield from Medellin are some iconic rides and climbs, the longest climb of 90km La Linea dwarfs the great climbs of Europe and the punishing Las Letras, 28 km with some 14% sections, each ride taking you up to an oxygen starved 3000 meters plus. One can easily see why Quintana did so well in the tour and why Colombian cycling is in the ascendancy in more senses than one.

Cycling in Colombia is worthy of serious consideration – for the road and club cyclists seeking new challenges and with a head for heights and spirit of adventure it can be a demanding but rewarding cultural and sporting experience. As yet, as far as I know, there are no cycling holidays in Colombia but it can only be a matter of time. I'll be back in the country between and February and the end of April, avoiding the UK winter and on my bike - I would be happy to assist any lone travellers or groups that feel attracted to this excellent destination – It is so good I can't really keep it to myself can I?

Alan Malarkey, Addiscombe Cycling Club,

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