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.
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…)
What if: Instead of taking another low-or-no-paying domestic US cycling contract to sacrifice the whole of your being to ride awful races in parking lots, suburbs, and places where spectators would normally run you off the road on a training ride…you went your own way?
Welcome to 2014 – the initial season of the ridiculously titled project, ”THE LOCALS ARE PAINTING MY NAME ON THE ROADS” (and to my knowledge, no one ever has).
Back for another winter in Colombia. Those of you who’ve followed along before know the story. This time, with my recently-acquired (and equally talented bike racer) wife, redefining the word “Honeymoon”. Also this time, we’ve opted to spend our days in one of the beating hearts of Colombian road cycling: Medellin. A consistent slew of awe, excitement, passion, insane food, and incredible people will be fed through the meatgrinder here, the Instagram, and various other outlets.
The Project is: THE LOCALS ARE PAINTING MY NAME ON THE ROADS, We’re fast on pavement, we’re fast on dirt. We’re disillusioned road racers with an axe to grind on the most unique, marketable, and interesting events and locations on the planet. We are not pros. We are the anti-pros. We’re interesting humans with stories to tell, and we know how to tell them. An aesthetically smashing creative team that happens to pump six watts a kilo on a given Sunday. We run on passion, excessively-stamped passports, espresso, adrenaline, street food, and good IPA. We’re Top Gear meets Anthony Bourdain meets Rapha meets pro-level racing. We can win a time-trial Friday, an enduro Saturday, and the local gravel race with 10,000ft of vertical on Sunday. We do not screw around, except when we do. Michelada at the C-Store stop on the local hardman ride after dropping everyone? Yes.
Partners are Castelli, Orbea Bicycles, Blendtec, and Reynolds. Expect to see their graciously provided products over the coming year exceeding design specifications.
The Initial Spring Event Calendar:
- 3/24 – La Ruta Colombia (Antioquia Gran Fondo), Medellin, Colombia
- 3/29-3/30 – Gorge Roubaix, The Dalles, Oregon
- 4/6 – Tour of the Battenkill, Cambridge, New York
- 4/12 – Paris Roubaix Challenge, Paris, France
- 4/27 – SPY Belgian Waffle Ride, San Diego, California
They won’t let me race the Classics – so I’ll make my own, on the best equipment possible, preferably fueled by Liege waffles and Tripel.
In conjunction with the calendar, and in an effort to make the lofty (read: insane) race calendar possible, custom kits are now going to start rolling out the door. The first:
Blaze camo meets ubiquitous modern-day racing, with a dash of WW2 fighter ace-inspired kill cards and typography. Get ‘em while they’re hot, the presale runs until February 28th, with kits rolling out the door within six weeks – just in time for hunting season.
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.