The first of three parts on an oft-neglected topic of pieces on Colombia: Food.
Food. The cyclist’s greatest nemesis, and greatest friend. It’s no secret it’s a subject of great interest for much of the pro peloton – often, the saying is muttered “Eat to ride, ride to eat”. Why do I take such a big interest in food, cooking, and the techniques that follow? Bike racing is hard. Humans aren’t designed for intensive aerobic output for 24 hours-plus a week. It will suck the life out of your withering carcass without proper care. Before I started racing, I had creative outlets – photography, writing, design, et al. I found crushing myself on two wheels, and those fell by the wayside (see: lifesucking). Something functional to my newfound passion – but still stimulating – took their place. Cooking. Discovering others’ cooking. So, without further adieu, an initial introduction to la comida of my temporary (and beloved) home – Colombia.
Eating habits differ substantially from Americans. Like many Latin and European countries, priority is on lunch, typically the largest meal of the day. Many nutritionists say the American fondness for skipping lunch with a heavy supper is a source of our waistline woes. Following lunch, breakfast (Desayuno), tends to take some form of precedence. amongst racing cyclists in Colombia, a substantial waking meal seems to be standard.
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).
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.
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.
I’m not feeling very wordsmithy. It’s hard to express things creatively when my nerves are frayed. The racing here isn’t physically exhausting, but it requires a degree of mental resolve I haven’t experienced before.
It started nicely enough. Another night crit was on deck for the third stage, so Cesar and I took the day to go on a downtown Port of Spain adventure. After cruising around for an hour looking for a bakery, we ended up at the downtown square and Cesar’s gluten sense picked up the trail. A few cheesy pastries later and after telling multiple sketchy-looking inquiring locals our bikes cost $600TT (a little less than $100 US), we cruised down the square where I got distracted by the street food – par for the course. While a local college student chatted us up, I had my first experience with the local dish known as “Doubles”.
Doubles are pretty basic. Two pieces of cumin-flavored dough are pan fried, and some soft-curried chickpeas are slapped between them. Going rate on the street is between $.25-75 per, and it’s about as much food as three street tacos in the US. Filling and delicious, a wonderful curry-cumin assault on the senses. Apparently there’s lots of different varieties…I intend to try a few more while I’m here.
The square was soaked up for another few minutes, and we ripped through traffic back home. The race in the evening was held around the Queen’s Park Savannah, essentially a massive grass field surrounded by what the Triniboganians claim is the “World’s Largest Roundabout” near downtown Port of Spain. Start time was set for 8 PM, but…this is Trinidad.
We sat around for two hours waiting for the start. I regretted leaving my camera in the room.
The police plodded to close the inner two lanes of the road for the race while our legs cooled, and our guts rumbled with hunger. Meanwhile, the TTCF took its time to get things rolling with the eccentric announcer making bizarre jokes as the amateur racers completed single-lap contests around the 5km course. I was skeptical, to say the least – our protection from the outer lane of thick traffic was a line of intermittent cones about the size of a large Big Gulp cup. In the dark.
Racing started, and my fears were confirmed. This was going to be much like the Speedweek shenanigans I’d encountered in the spring. Guys with no place contesting the GC for the race were riding like men possessed, chopping every corner with little regard for themselves or others. A good chop by a Jamaican sent me into one of the aforementioned cones, but after locking up both wheels and sliding for a meter or two, I managed to keep things upright. We were screaming along at almost 40mph on the straightaways with a few guys ripping outside the cones to advance, and the corners were jam-packed with so much divebombing you’d think it was Pearl Harbor.
The danger intensified as random cars wandered onto the course. There was the occasional fender intrusion, but the true crescendo of insanity was encountering a 40-foot boat on a trailer exiting one of the last turns. Had it been a mere twenty meters back, a massive pile-up would have ensued. We were lucky. Emile Abraham, sitting in first, had his crew at the nose of the race. As the sprint went off on the last lap, I sat back and let the fireworks go – no sense in going for a hospital trip on the second day of racing. All of our guys stayed upright, a success in my book.
We rolled back to the hotel moderately shellshocked, but figured the day after (our first road race) would be a much safer affair, as they typically are – and in the daylight. How very, very wrong we were.
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