Writing

A Gringo Cyclist’s Colombian Cheatsheet

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.

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Provisions of the Paisa, Part 1: Breakfast.

The first of three parts on an oft-neglected topic of pieces on Colombia: Food. 20140214-IMG_2626

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.

Huevos en Cacerola

Huevos en Cacerola – Fried Eggs.

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This is Medellín

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.

Medellin from the balcony near the city’s Velodrome.

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?

Las Palmas, halfway up as it tiptoes the rim of the Valle de Aburra.

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…)


Feeding a family of five. With baby sheep.

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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).

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Caffeinated Peter Pan

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.

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Age and Treachery

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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.

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Alto de Letras

Letras from Ruiz

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.

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On Driving

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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.
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