Monday, January 7, 2013

Riding in Colombia: Moving in, making friends, eating and racing.



Two years ago, during a warm Sunday morning in Bogotá, I saw my American mother-in-law squint as she looked into the distance. "How long could we ride our bikes without having any cars around us?", she asked. "75 miles", I responded. Her eyes opened wide in obvious disbelief. It was her first time in Bogota, and I'd brought the entire family to the weekly ciclovia, where every Sunday two million people ride their bikes through 75 miles of major avenues that are closed off to traffic from 7am to 2pm. Her expression said it all, and I had to agree. Bogotá has always been, and remains an unwieldy, yet lovable city. In today's post, I speak with two Americans who have found themselves living and riding in Bogotá for different reasons, though they are united by the strange hold that the city of almost 11 million (along with Colombia as a whole) has on them.

In the last two posts in this series, I touched on those non-Colombians who visit Colombia in order to ride for leisure, as well as Nate King, who is spending his winter in Manizales for training purposes. Today, we meet Mike and Andy, who ended up in Bogotá under different circumstances. Mike, a native of Florida, took up mountain biking during his first post-college job at Hewlett-Packard in Colorado Springs. Eventually, he "broke down" and bought his first road bike. Soon he was racing, and since Colorado Springs has velodrome, he focused his energy on the track. This remains a passion for him to this day.

Mike Dancel racing in Cali's velodrome
Andy Grabarek was born and raised in Clinton, CT, a small coastal town on the Long Island sound with a population of 13,000. He's been riding and racing under different circumstances for the last 16 years. Like Mike, he currently finds himself in Bogotá.

Andy G. out for a leisurely ride around Bogota.

How did each of you end up living in Bogotá, and what were your thoughts about Colombia leading up to the move?
Mike:
My wife is a diplomat with the US Government, so we move around every few years. We’ve been in Colombia since August 2011. We will be here until August 2013. Leading up to moving here I didn’t really know what to expect. From our friends in the government we knew people loved it here.  I had heard that biking was very popular here so I was excited about that. I knew there was a velodrome so even more excited about that!

Andy:
I visited Colombia for a friend's wedding a few years ago and it never left my mind. During one trip to the countryside, I saw the potential of this exquisite landscape. Also, my wife is an adopted Colombian. There's an obvious desire to live here.

In the time before our move I have to say I was mostly overwhelmed by the riding, and the exploration I was about to do. I certainly had concerns about safety, about my complete lack of Spanish, moving to another continent... there can be so much on your mind, but for me, the best way is to just go with no expectations and just let it all happen. But every sensation I had told me this would be one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.


Photo by Andy G

How did you adjust to living in Colombia at first, and what were those first few weeks like?
Mike:
The Colombian people are super friendly. Relatively speaking it is fairly easily to adjust to life here.   It is pretty much like the US. Fortunately I was able to study Spanish for 3 months prior to arriving so that helped ease the transition. 

Bogotá is at over 8000 feet so physically it took awhile to adjust. Those first few weeks on the bike were tough. On my 2nd day in the country one of the guys from the US Embassy took me out riding.  Let me tell you, it was hard to breathe!

Andy:
The first weeks are quite a tempest... but it's fun as anything. This city is crazy, I couldn't understand a word of anything, the altitude does funny things to you. Literally every one of your senses is upside down and your cortex is scrambled. Its not a vacation, this is where you live now. All you can do is recreate the things you used to do, and let all these things become normal to you. Make new habits, start saying hi to the people you see every day. All kinds of things are going to happen to you, just try to be smart about it and enjoy it - even the bad.

Bogota's weekend warriors. Picture from Altimetrias de Colombia

How did you first find routes and people to ride with in Bogota?
Mike:
Before moving to Bogota, I was at Master’s Track World Championship and met some Colombians.  I took down their contact information. When I arrived to Colombia I got in touch with them. They did not live in Bogota, where I live, but they put me in touch with some of their friends. One of the people they put me in contact with was a gold mine. He was very friendly and very inviting. He told me about the group he rides with, and explained to me where most people ride. 

The group meets every Saturday and Sunday and goes for a 3 to 4 hour ride. At the meeting spot there are actually several groups that meet around the same time and go off on various routes. If you are ever in Bogota, a good place to meet up with a group is at Calle 134 and Autopista, there is a Bodytech [a large chain of gyms in Colombia] on this corner. Lots of people meet up there on the weekends anywhere from 6:30 to 7:00 am. 
The routes varied each week, so through this group I learned a bunch of different ones.

Andy:
The esteemed author of this fine blog was actually my first source. Señor Klaus sent quite a trove of information which got me started. From there I actually just studied Strava maps and set out to get lost.
Kids line up to enjoy a spin around the Primero De Mayo velodrome in Bogota (one of two in the city), in an event aimed at teaching kids about track racing. In the mid 50s, novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez categorized Bogota as having a "cycling fever". That passion remains today.

At what point during your stay did you start racing?
Mike:
I started racing road almost right away. We arrived in late Aug and I was racing probably 3 weeks into it. With the altitude it was painful. I’m not a big road racer but I I wanted to meet Colombians so I raced. I found myself doing an uphill time trial to 10,000 feet. The whole way I was thinking "I don’t need to meet Colombians this badly!". It took about 4 months for our car to arrive. It was not until then was I able to get my track bike to the track to ride on it.  Luckily I ran into the coach of the elite program, and after talking to him he invited me out to train with the group.

Mike (second from the left), with Bogota's elite track team.

You've raced in Colombia a fair amount, what have those experiences been like?
Mike:
I wouldn’t say I’ve raced a ton but I can say that I’ve traveled to 4 Colombian velodromes to ride and train. It has been great. I’ve ridden on the track in Bogota, Duitama, Medellin, and Cali.

Cali is one of the best tracks in the world.  They have had a World Cup there the past 2 years and will be hosting the Track World Championships in 2014. The stands are absolutely packed for these events. For Master’s racing I just competed in the Master’s PanAmerican Track championships which were held in Cali. It was the biggest Master’s Pan Am to date. 240+ racers from North, South and Central America. 
Proud to say I took a bronze in the Match Sprints.

Cali's velodrome

What are your favorite training routes in and around Bogota?
Mike:
My favorite road route is a route that leaves Bogota on 80 and goes to Subachoque. To do this route you can either drive or ride your bike west on Calle 80 to get out of town. A popular meeting spot is Puente de Guadas just right outside of town. You continue west on Calle 80 until you hit a round about with a sign to Subachoque. Turn right at the round about. Continue along this road and then the road splits take another right and that puts you in Subachoque. There is a great bakery at Subachoque that makes the trip [those who have read Nate King's account of training in Manizales will no doubt remember his fondness for Colombian "panaderias", bakeries, as part of his riding]. Besides the bakery, I like the ride because it has some really great views of the mountains and is relatively flat. If you wanted to add on to this ride you can go past Subachoque to Pradera and come back.

Garmin file for the ride:


Andy:
I've only been here a few months so my knowledge is still incomplete, but I am most often found out in the Guasca area or in nearby Guatavita. And lately I'm completely enamoured with the route to PNN Chingaza. 

The road to Guasca and Guatavita is quite nice, with many cyclists, and then at the fork you have a magnificient decision. Left to Guatavita and the lake, beautiful and peaceful, or right to Guasca, and you can go right back into the mountains. Chingaza [National Park] is just unreal. You need a mountain bike for this area but it's almost beyond comprehension. Views which will make you weep, dizzying heights, unpredictable weather and isolation like I've never felt. Really after a point there's no one out there so you need to bring anything you might need and be careful.

Chingaza national park is located to the northeast of Bogota, and its elevation ranges from 800 to 4020 meters. The animals that live there range from toucans to pumas, ocelots, tapir and spectacled bears.

Based on your personal experience, how is racing in Colombia different from racing in the US? (people, attitudes, competitive level, quirks etc)
Mike:
One major difference is planning. Or I should say lack of planning. It drove me crazy at times. I was fortunate enough to get to train and race with Bogota’s elite team. I recall more than once where we were flying to a race and literally we would get the tickets the day before. I was paying my way so I always had to wait to buy my ticket after the team had theirs. I remember one trip where I got a call at 8am saying we were flying out at noon. I had to rush to the airport buy a ticket and hope on the plane.

I’m a master’s racer—I’m 40—and master’s track racing is not very popular here. However, road racing seems to be huge. There is a race almost every weekend.

Within the realm of cycling, have you had any difficulty getting used to certain things within Colombia?
Mike:
Cycling in Colombia is huge. It is literally inexplicable how popular it is. You just have to see it.  That being said, it’s a bit difficult to cycle here. Being a sprinter, there are days when I just want to go out and ride some nice flat routes or some rolling hills. The problem with that is it takes some effort to get out of town. You either ride through dangerous traffic or drive. Even for climbing, routes to get away from traffic you have to get out of town which takes sometime.

The other thing is we are on the equator so we have the same daylight hours every day of the year, basically 6am to 6pm, so there is no riding after work.

Photo by Andy G
Andy:
I haven't had the chance to race yet, but I can tell you these are a feisty people here. On any trip up La Calera [a common route out of Bogota, and THE climb that everyone takes on during weekends] you're bound to find someone stuck to your wheel and you can bet anything they're going to attack you at some point. It's all friendly, but everyone does it. And the sprint for the toll both at the top is life or death! I've been in something like a 30 man sprint between buses and cars for that honor! 

Any time you ride past someone you're gonna get a very serious once-over/stare. No hello or nod or anything, just one serious gaze. Still not sure what its all about but it's definitely weird at first.
Other than all that there's just people everywhere enjoying their bike, the scenery, the suffering—it's really inspiring. I wish people liked their bikes half as much in the U.S. All kinds of people push themselves up these roads. You can't believe it at first.


The top of the Calera climb, most commonly referred to by locals as "Patios". Due to the high number of cyclists who do this climb, there's an entire economy there which has developed as a result. There's foodstands, shops that sell beverages etc.  To this day, Patios remains a favorite measuring stick by which Bogota's cyclists measure their fitness. Retired pro Pacho Rodriguez told me earlier this year that he knew he was still in great shape because his time up to Patios was only two minutes off from when he won stages at the Vuelta, and nearly won the Dauphine. "Patios", he says, "doesn't lie".
Photo by Andy

Any other things you've had to adjust to, in a positive or negative way?
Andy:
The food....all I can say is BOCADILLO! It's magic. It's the most perfect food I've ever come across for riding your bike. One of those little blocks and you're right as rain. Why is this stuff not shipped all over the earth? 

Aaaand altitude... just give it time. Really the hardest thing I find is day to day recovery. Whereas back home, by the sea, I'm good for 5-6 big days in a row without problem, here after 3 or 4 long days I'm ready to order a Rascal Scooter.

Bocadillo, one of Colombia's original cycling super-foods

Bogota certainly doesn't have the biggest climbs in Colombia, but there's no lack of climbing either. Unless you want to ride the autopista north out of the city you're going up. And if you want to do rides of appreciable distances you're gonna put down some significant climbing. There's no escaping it.

Guatavita lagoon is located 35 miles east of Bogota in the municipality of Sesquile. This lagoon is widely considered to be the origin of the El Dorado myth. It was here that the leader of the Muisca people covered himself in gold dust as he and his people threw gold offerings into the water. If you look closely at the picture above, you'll notice a "v" shaped notch the hillside that surrounds the lagoon. This was done in 1580 in an attempt to drain the lagoon, in order to recover all the gold at the bottom. It didn't work, and a collapse of the mountain killed many laborers. A subsequent attempt was put together by a company from the UK in 1898, which also failed.

What do you like most about riding in Bogota?
Andy:
My brain has holes in it thinking about the size of the city I live in now. I mean this has the next largest place I've lived in beat by a factor of 70. Yet I get on my bike and in no time I'm somehow in the countryside and you wouldn't even know this city was behind you. Somehow you can live in this mass of people, yet escape it so easily. I mean NO one lives in Chingaza- I can ride from my apartment out to there and go from 8 million to zero in something like an hour. Then I can come back and enjoy the spoils of city living just that simply. And let's not forget ciclovia! When you see that many people who enjoy their bike, how could you not want to be a tiny part of that? Overall the culture of the bike is revered to a level which can only make me smile.


A short documentary about Bogota's ciclovia



What would you say has been the biggest revelation about Colombia and/or its people now that you've been there for a while?
Mike:
There is a saying here that loosely translate to “The only danger in Colombia is that you will want to stay.”  I find this to be so true.  Those that come here to live don’t want leave, and those that visit are so surprised of how beautiful a country it is.

Andy:
The Colombian people are NICE. Maybe the nicest I've met. This is not something that can be said enough. Once you've met and enjoyed something together, you are true friends. I've had people I've met once inviting me to their house for Christmas to spend it with their whole family. It's just amazing! The hospitality is second to none. Simply the lengths people go to for you for even something trivial will leave you feeling indebted. 

Photo by Andy G

What would you like people to know about Colombia, that they don't already know?
Andy:
This is not the Colombia that existed 20, 10 or even 5 years ago. Whatever you've heard you need to forget, buy a plane ticket, get down here and discover it for yourself.

At a mere 6.6 kilometers (4 miles), Patios is by no means one of Colombia's major climbs. Having said that, it holds a special place in Bogota's cycling lore, due to its accessibility, and the fact that it's a common route out of the city. Additionally, it's connected to one of the major ciclovia routes on Sundays. This means that all kinds of cyclists, not just kitted up die-hards will happily take it on every week.

What advice would you give to someone considering Colombia as a possible destination for a cycling trip or camp? Any tips or tricks that can help you through the adjustment period?
Mike:
Being able to speak Spanish would be the best tip I could give. The other is try to make some local contacts. If I were to do a camp, I would lean towards Medellin. The traffic is less crazy, it has some long climbs and some flats and the weather is really mild, not too hot.

Andy:
First off come here! Don't think about it, just come here. Colombia should be at the top of anyone's list. If nothing else, think of the crispest tan lines you've ever seen and then imagine them on you. If you're coming from the States, its quite easy and affordable to get here. Research the different areas of Colombia and pick the one that suits you. Maybe throw some thicker tires on and a proper climbing cassette, pack the bike well and land with an open mind. Just try everything and talk to as many people as you can. EVERYONE knows someone who rides and will probably try to hook you up with them. And rider or not, they'll tell you where the cyclists go and where they don't go. Your first few rides are pretty rough but just know it'll get easier as you adjust. Be sure to stay on top of your food and water situation as you ride, I feel there's a greater penalty at some of these altitudes if you skimp. And white folk beware, when the suns out those tans lines I mentioned can be had in one ride [remember: high altitudes lead to faster sunburn]. After that it's straight leather.

An average Sunday in the ciclovia, which has been in place in Bogota every sunday and holiday since the late 70s. No big deal, just your average Sunday where 2 million people take to the streets.

What's your favorite Colombian food, and conversely, what food do you miss the most from the United States?
Mike:
I’m a sprinter so bandeja paisa [which you can read about here], basically a pure meat dish, is my favorite  Also, when you are out road riding there always seems to be a stop at a panaderia [bakery] for fresh bread and coca cola.

But it’s really hard to get really good Mexican food here. The Colombians don’t like spicy!

Andy:
I don't even know where to begin with the food. There is so much good food here. I had ajiaco once that was just so perfect I could only hate my life when I found the bottom of that bowl. When I find a really good arroz con pollo I feel less bad about leaving my mother behind. Really there's too much good food here and in Bogota there's got to be more restaurants than you could try in your whole life.
But after all this food, no place in this world can match a pizza from New Haven, CT. These are just facts, proven by science, don't argue with me.

One of Bogota's sheltered bikeways. The full network has over 185 miles of sheltered bike paths.

What will you miss most about Colombia when you go back to the United States?
Mike:
By far I’m going to miss the Colombian friends I’ve made here.  The Colombians are amazing and very welcoming. 

Andy:
I've been here three months and already the thought of leaving hurts me badly. The people? The land? The food? It's all so good to me... let's just say I don't leave and I won't have to cry tonight.

Anything you'd like to say in closing?
Mike:
If you have any questions that you think I might be able to answer feel free to email me. And if anyone is reading this from Rabat, Morocco let me know. That is our next place after Colombia.

Andy:
I'm also more than happy to help people out here now that I'm situated [you can email Andy here].


Photo by Andy G

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Marginalia

If you're interested in Bogota's bike path network, and how the ciclovia came to be, read the interview I did with the great Gil Peñaloza, who made these and many other amazing things happen in Bogota.

If your cycling preference leans toward the mountain bike side of things, check out this blog, which details the adventures of an Aussie currently living and riding in the city of Armenia. 

7 comments:

  1. Another great piece, Klaus! It's great to see these guys enjoying the awesome riding opportunities back home. Can't wait for the track world championships in Cali!

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  2. I loved this series. Very enjoyable and it's getting my ass in gear to make a visit happen.

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  3. wow. what a beautiful place- just incredible. thanks again for sharing.
    d.

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  4. Andy
    Colombnia is in the same continent as the United States, it is called AMERICA! ;)

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  5. Hello Andy,
    This goes back to the whole sever versus six continents issue I suppose.

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  6. I do believe the united States went to great lengths to physically separate north and south america... I'm going with seven continents.

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  7. I am an American from Texas living in El Retiro, Antioquia which is 30 minutes from Medellin. The cycling is incredible. I have never seen so many pros and cyclists in one area. The enthusiasm is great, the cars respect cyclists and the pros all want to train here as it is at 7,000 feet. Rigoberto Uran, Maria Luisa Calle, Henao and others all live in this area and I see them training all the time. They are also the nicest and most humble people that you will ever meet. If you want to contact me about cycling in this area, write me at dougallenjr@aol.com.

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