EQUIPMENT (* indicates casualty of battle):
- 1 Orbea Avant M10D road bicycle, 53cm, pink and black (*)
- 1 Specialized Tarmac S-Works SL4 SRAM Neutral Support road bicycle, 56.5cm, red
- 1 53t SRAM Force 22 front chainring (*)
- 1 pair ENVE XC 29er tubular disc-brake wheels (*)
- 2 Challenge Tires Parigi-Roubaix 27mm tubular tires
- 1 CaffeLatex rescue inflator
- 1 700c 23-25mm tube (*)
- 1 GoPro Hero 3+ Camera
- 1 Apple iPhone 5S, 32gb
- 1 LifeProof Nuud iPhone case
- 1 Orbea Odin helmet, L, black (*)
- 1 Castelli Entrata jersey, M, black (*)
- 1 pair Castelli Inferno bibshorts, M, black (*)
- 1 pair Castelli Rosso Corsa socks, XXL, white
- 1 pair Smith Pivlock V2 Max sunglasses, neon yellow
- 1 pair SIDI Wire shoes, 46, white (*)
- 1 pair MANUALFORSPEED waterbottles, zebra pink
- 72oz Skratch Labs, fruity, delicious
- 72oz water, it wasn’t organic
- 30oz Coca-Cola, it was fizzy
- 16oz Coors Light
- 10oz Sugar-Free Redbull, consumed in conjuction with Coors
- 2 Red Velvet-flavored Pop-Tarts
- 1 bag Sour Patch Kids
- 2 bananas
- 1 (shockingly tasty) Powerbar, peanut butter and jelly
- 7 fistfuls of pretzels and M&Ms, devoured at warp-speed
- 3 Bonk Breaker bars, sample-size
137 miles, (220km), 11,000ft (3350m) of climbing. Pavement, dirt roads, singletrack, water crossings. Sandy washes. Faux-Classics nomenclature applied to suburban San Diego hills (see: Muur van Dubbelberg and Zwartenberg). Steep climbs. Really steep climbs, especially after 125 miles of riding (aforementioned Dubbelberg averaging 11% over 1km). Road bikeable. Recommend chunkiest tires available.
“I think hanging it all on cycling really damaged his psyche when it went to shit,” I said.
Burke replied, ”Well, yeah, that’s being a bike racer.”
“Damn…feel you there.”
It resonated in my soul.
Living in the upper 5% of American bike racing is a case study in life at the margins. The ever-changing mass of 400 some-odd elite cyclists, men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 40, is a metaphorical transient encampment of aerobically-hardened, passion-driven, and slightly mentally-unstable individuals attempting to break through the ceiling to the ultimate echelon of cycling. Most won’t. Even the supremely talented. The careful mix of genetics, luck, work, and sometimes (not always) moral ambiguity (see Lance et al.) is an elusive recipe. If it hasn’t been nailed by 21 years of age through a careful (money-lubricated) pipeline, nearly any chance of cracking the “Big Leagues” is lost, though there are exceptions (Phil Gaimon is the most recent example). For the rest of us, it’s a Sisyphean quest with near-lottery odds of success. Some are happy to continue pushing the rock uphill Stateside, even as the number of domestic pro/elite cyclists making anything remotely close to a living wage dwindles into the teens. Racing at a high level in the hardest sport in the world requires complete devotion, even in its relative backwaters like Utah. The rest of life usually ends up falling by the wayside, sacrificed to endless weeks of 20 hours in the saddle, recovery, scrounging for ways to pay rent, and how to drag your exhausted, starving carcass to the next race a state away if the team isn’t footing the bill. Existence becomes bike racing. It is the ends, the means, the destination, and the journey. When it suffers, so do you. The converse too, rings true. There’s no feeling like showing up to a race with what we call “form” – when your body is firing precisely on every cylinder, and when you know you can lay waste to the rest of the field with ease. It’s a perfect example of the extreme polar opposites most cyclists perpetually find themselves in. Moderation never has been a mantra for those on the fringe.
Velódromo Martín Emilio “Cochise” Rodríguez.
Sticky subtropical Friday nights. No play-calling, snaps, or the crunch of pads and helmets in collision. The atmosphere is the vibrant hum of track tubulars inflated to 180psi, the whistle, and the lap bell.
A violent crash. Whirring tires, spinning cranks, and the sprints go on.
They ask me about the track back home. I tell them the closest velodrome is 1300km away from my city. It’s inconceivable to them that cycling, in all its forms, is not woven into the fabric of our culture, and my heart sinks a little. For them, it’s like meeting someone in the US that hasn’t set foot in a McDonald’s.
Cycling (bike racing!) is normal here. Normal for everyone, not only the wealthy, the privileged, and the elite. It’s not kooky, it’s not weird, it just…is.
I’m diluting what’s become an overwhelming torrent of sensory overload during the time I’m spending in Colombia (think 5 year-old in Disneyland), so I present to you…the Gringo Cyclist’s Cheatsheet.
I’d love for Gringos to come visit Colombia for the real reasons it’s paradise, and why its people deserve all the love the world can offer. The culture, the cuisine, the cycling, the history, and the warmth. Gringos (read: Americans, and to a lesser extent, Europeans) in Colombia get a bad rap, and it’s not undeserved. Most I’ve encountered, read about, and heard about, are in Medellin for two reasons: Cocaine and sex. Exploitation – a conquistador attitude for the modern times. It makes me a little ill, and I usually avoid other Americans and Europeans at all costs. It’s why I don’t live in El Poblado, Medellin’s richest, safest, and most expat-heavy barrio. I’m quite happy in the middle-class burg of Laureles-Estadio, showering with cold water, frequenting tiendas, frightening locals with my terribly accented Spanish, and gorging on kickass street food on the weekends. Read on for tips on how to survive, and possibly thrive.
A Cheatsheet for the Gringo Cyclist in Medellin, Colombia:
- Get used to this guy. He’s hard to catch. He’s hard to drop. He’s faster than most Cat 2 road racers in the United States on his 20 year-old department store mountain bike – and he’s just going to work.
- Altitude is real. Dwell around sea level? Welcome to suffering. Medellin sits at 5,000ft above the ocean, and most rides only get higher. Do yourself a favor, stay more than a week, and acclimate.
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.