Almost every mid-sized locale in the US has it. Wednesday Worlds. Tuesday Night Nationals. Ubiquitous weekly races, that some take far more seriously than others. Utterly Hobbesian in nature – nasty, brutish, and short. The Paisa version is very much the same beast – a little nastier, a little more brutish, and at 10AM on a Thursday. With six professional teams based in Medellin, and the majority of Colombia’s WorldTour contingent inhabiting the City of Eternal Spring, local racing becomes a more elevated experience.
This is the Chequeo. Chequeo means Check. I have no idea why it’s called a Check. At this check, Carlos Betancur showed up. Ostensibly to race the Check. So, we raced. 75 pro/elite cyclists in a city of 2.5 million, and by most local accounts, a small attendance day by Chequeo standards. Incredible.
My hot wife, crusher of local male masters racers, received a quick tutorial in Canon 5D camera usage, and produced the following images. Yours truly representing in Poler’s best urban camo Castelli kit.
Medellin, Colombia is cycling’s Narnia, a hidden world affordably accessible through numerous wardrobes. If being selective, a transfer via JetBlue at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International is the most agreeable with a bicycle.
Writing about it feels like giving away the password to the hottest speakeasy in town during Prohibition on City Hall’s door. Except, unlike Yelping about a new Afro-Slovakian fusion dive bar in the Mission, I doubt even one in fifty who read this will make the inexpensive trip. Instead, they’ll book tickets for far-flung locales like Tuscon, San Diego, and Sedona (note: Aging snowbirds and racing cyclists, not that different at all). Nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring”, Medellin is situated at 1,500m above sea level, and experiences an average temperature of 72F. Every. Day. This is equatorial Earth, where the daylight doesn’t change, seasons are more or less constant, and temperature is something of an unchanging beast. Curious about a typical training day in the city most gringos only know as the one-time home of the most powerful narco-kingpins on earth?
The ascent out of Medellin’s most wealthy neighborhood, El Poblado, is locally legendary. The Alto de Las Palmas is, from the floor of the Valle de Aburra, a 15.5km long, 980m of elevation gain climb. It’s also a four-lane divided highway, and a major artery to the Department of Antioquia’s international airport, Jose Cordova (known to travel websites as MDE). That said, unlike most American highways, drivers on Las Palmas are frighteningly polite to cyclists – a surprising irony, given that one generally takes one’s life into one’s hands behind the wheel on the roads of Colombia. Here, cycling, secondary only to the omnipresent popularity of futbol, is revered. Donning a kit on a racing bicycle cements one’s place in the pantheon of sport, and even riding two-abreast on a busy road is not only tolerated, but applauded. This isn’t Amsterdam, Belgium, or the revered passes of the Alps – this is Latin America. (more…)
Recently, there was an engagement. Yes, one of THOSE engagements. My engagement, even – hell hath frozen over. Not only that, but I’m buying into three step-children. Boys. Mostly teenage boys (sidenote: my total aversion to having children is legendary, making this all the more amusing). Allow me to shoot the proverbial elephant in the room now – I’m 26, she’s 37. This has led to numerous hilarious encounters, especially given that the oldest, at 15, looks approximately 22.
I write this the day before my wedding, so things are a little hectic. When a pair of bike racers decide to get married, two crucial elements in the cyclist psyche engage: Impatience, and “Is this going to interrupt the race calendar?”. So, Kemi (note: part-owner, all-around badass racer on elite women’s squad DNA/K4) and I looked at the calendar, and the magic timing dartboard said “Two Months From Now”. February 8th, followed by a two-month-long training-adventure-honeymoon in Latin America (Colombia and El Salvador, if we’re being accurate).
I’d long since parted ways with my impromptu Colombian friend. That was the way it went there. By now I’d become accustomed to these on-the-road friendships and acquaintances. An oddity in my homeland, in South America a regular occurrence. Fellow riders. Soldiers. Bakers. Truck drivers. Tienda owners. What’s increasingly a function of the internet – giving something a like, a follow, was a much more tangible interpersonal experience in the Cafetero. The genuine interest strangers had in my everyday life was nothing short of a humanizing, grounding experience.
It happened again.
Dawdling up a local climb – Emigration Canyon. A mild, pleasant cruise up a slight hill with a wide shoulder, conveniently located adjacent to Salt Lake City. The cocktail results in the cycling equivalent of a Screwdriver, a Whiskey Sour, a Jack & Coke – that ride everyone knows, and everyone can ride. To wit, it’s the closest Utah gets to a recreational cycling highway.
Inevitably, no matter the pace, there’s always someone going slower in Emigration. It’s perfectly fine. I’ve accepted that I generally ride faster than 99% of the population, even when I’m riding slow. Rocketing past gaggles of folks trundling the drawn-out 1,200ish feet of vertical to the summit is normal. It doesn’t bother me, and I hope it doesn’t bother them.
Cycling is a sport with a long history of function following form. Or fashion. We bike racers (and for those of us staunchly opposed to the pursuit of greatness, “riders”) shave our legs, ostensibly because it makes road rash easier to clean up. Bullshit. We do it because it looks damned good, just like we follow a ridiculous list of rules published by a self-appointed board of cycling chic. Tan lines, sunglasses over straps (NEVER under), proper water bottle sipping technique, stem positioning, and nutrition are just a short list of victims of dernier cri. Yes, nutrition – I’m told by a sports drink company that he-who-must-not-be-named refused to drink their pre-race electrolyte formula because it kept his veins from popping out. The extent to which vanity rules our sport rivals the runways of Milan. And I’m perfectly okay with it.
Photos courtesy of Manual For Speed and myself.
Colombia. A piece of me is still a hemisphere away.
I miss your people. I miss your food. I miss your mountains. I miss your air. Dearest Grancolombia, you have captured mi corazon, more than I’d like to admit. The zenith of my love for pedaling, for crushing myself – it was on your breathtaking escarpments, it was wolfing down arepas and pandebono, it was laughing at my monito compatriot in his attempts to seduce the local populace. The grass is always greener, and it will always be, but you were where this lifetime grazer found some really goddamned green grass.
Meet Michael Schär, owning rivet face like only a Swiss national champion can.
Driving and cycling tend to occupy separate spheres of the time/space continuum in my mind, but in Caldas, they’re starting to meld. I was invited to a party at a finca (a country house) on Christmas Eve by some ever-hospitable Colombianos, who proceeded to treat the two lonely gringos like their own familia. I came away from the experience with two thoughts unaffected by the aguardiente and copious volumes of deep-fried deliciousness.
One, Utah Mormons (my upbringing, though no longer) and Colombian Catholics are not terribly different, save I might wager those that swing towards the Vatican vs. Salt Lake City know how to have a touch more fun. Remarkably strong family ties transcend culture, ethnicity, theology, and income. People are people, and tradition is tradition. It’s a comforting fact.
Truly, another world to behold at 12,500ft. Color bleeds from the landscape like an Ansel Adams shot, as unrequisite as the thin foliage of the air-starved peaks. The lungs and legs scream for oxygen, if for nothing but the mental solace of pushing forward at some speed more befitting an “elite” cyclist. Elite or not, when the sky touches the ground, and when one visits that juncture, experience, training, weight, and all things that should matter? They don’t. Survival here is a laborious, sedentary business, and the insignificance of pedaling a bicycle is far down a long laundry list of more pressing import.