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…)