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Colombia’s Crazy Cycling Culture

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When a group of cyclists from bike-mad countries like Holland, Belgium and Denmark are impressed with the cycling culture in certain city, you know that you are on to something big. That is exactly what happened one Sunday in 2015 as the riders of the South American Epic rode into the Colombian capital city of Bogota.

As I sat in a restaurant on the outskirts of the city, waiting for all the cyclists to arrive so that the group could ride together to the hotel in downtown Bogota, I could not believe what I was witnessing. I watched as thousands of cyclists of all ages and styles passed in front of my eyes – a sea of cyclists. Street vendors were all selling bike gear – helmets, sunglasses and uniforms.  Everything was about cycling. I had never even dreamed of anything like that, but once one of our Dutch riders told me that he also had also never witnessed anything similar, I realized that what I was seeing was absolutely unique.

The concept of closing the streets to vehicles on Sundays and creating “ciclovias/ciclorutas” (which has now spread across the Americas and the globe) was officially born in Bogota in December 1974. On that day over 5,000 people closed a few streets in downtown Bogota, protesting against the lack of recreation options, the proliferation of automobiles and the subsequent environmental contamination. By 1976, the municipality had approved laws that created both temporary and permanent cycling routes in the city. Between 1995 and 2000 the city decided to expand the project and increase the number of paths, improve the signs and turn the Sunday event into the largest temporary “Bike Park” in the world. Originally the streets were closed from 9 am to 12 noon but soon the hours were extended to 7 am to 2 pm and the cycling network grew from just 20 km to over 121 km. These days more than one million people get out on their bicycles every Sunday to enjoy the ciclovias in the city. Those are very impressive numbers, especially considering the city’s terrain, altitude and weather.

Of course, even in 1974, cycling was nothing new for Colombians. The astonishing and gruelling “Vuelta de Colombia” race has around since 1951 and Colombian racers have been winning races all over Latin America for years. They were known across the world as great cyclists and indefatigable climbers. Lately, pro racers such as Nairo Quintana and Esteban Chaves have taken on the world. A lot of attention has been directed to the country and the roads that have been building all these champions over so many decades. Now, with the political situation in the country being more favourable for people to visit, some of these legendary climbs are seeing more and more international cyclists every year.

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The South American Epic route through Colombia is divided into 2 sections – The Undiscovered Country (Cartagena – Bogota) and Coffee & Cocoa (Bogota – Quito). Parts of the 1st section actually take in some of the same roads that the Vuelta de Colombia does. Here are 3 of the most memorable stages between Medellin and Bogota.

Stage- 8 – Medellin to La Pintada (Alto de Minas)

80 km ↑1300 m, ↓2100 m (Strava link)

When it comes to cycling climbs, Medellin is probably the best large city in the world. There is good and steep cycling going on in any direction you take. After riding into Medellin on a Sunday (so that we can experience its ciclovias and ciclorutas), the riders on the South American Epic leave the city on a Tuesday morning in a convoy. Once outside Medellin, they will cycle the Alto de Minas, a stage which is famous in Colombian cycling world.  Even on a Tuesday morning, this road will be full of cyclists. Fortunately for the less motivated riders, we will be taking the reverse direction of the one taken during races like “Vuelta a Colombia” and “Clasico RCN”. The participants will climb a little bit to the summit and then begin the long downhill (42 km, parts with grades of -11%) into the town of La Pintada by the Cauca River.

Stage – 10 – Manizales to Mariquita (Paso de Letras)

120 km ↑2300 m, ↓4000 m (Strava link)

Known by many as the longest climb in the cycling world, this 84 km ascent is a classic. Part of both the Vuelta de Colombia and the Clasico RCN, the summit sits at 3679m but the grades are never steeper than 11% making it  around 3300 m of overall climbing. While the riders of the South American Epic may be going mainly down (80kms) on this section, getting from Manizales to the summit (30kms) is no easy task.

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Stage 013 – La Vega to Bogota – (Alto del Vino)

75 km ↑1800m, ↓1500m (Strava link)

The ride between Vega and Alto de Vino, on the outskirts of Bogota is such a long climb that in many countries it would be left exclusively to serious cyclists – but not in Colombia. Over a regular weekend and especially on the Sunday morning, hundreds, if not thousands of local cyclists will take the challenge. Although the climb really begins before La Vega in a town called Villeta, South American Epic cyclists will not ride those first 8 km. Nevertheless, the ride up to Alto de Vino (where we try to do lunch) is almost 40 km long with 2000 meters of total ascent. The average grade is 5% but there are parts that approach 10% towards the end of the climb. From Alto del Vino (the summit) it is an easy ride to the point where we gather for the group ride in to the city of Bogota. After completing this challenging climb the riders can sit back and watch as thousands of local cyclists enjoying their Sunday ride.

Suggested Reading:

Kings of the Mountains: How Colombia’s Cycling Heroes Changed Their Nation’s History

“La fiebre del ciclismo” en Bogotá

Cycling South America: 8 Epic Climbs and Descents


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