Far from the Tour de France, Colombia falls hard for cycling
By James Wagner
The route up Las Palmas starts near the valley floor, but it doesn’t stay there for long. It is 10 miles up to the summit, an arduous climb of roughly 3,400 vertical feet, a journey of long rises and sharp turns, of straining muscles and heaving lungs.
Some riders stop at the lookout point halfway up for the views of the city and don’t continue. A few take extended breaks. The reward comes at the top, where restaurants, bike stores and coffee shops await, and where this month amateur riders have gathered day after day to watch their countrymen competing a continent away in cycling’s biggest race.
“Not everyone dares come up here,” Anderson Murcia, 37, said in Spanish as he stopped briefly to drink water and snap photographs on a recent morning.
The top of Las Palmas, though, is more than a vantage point, a rest stop high above Medellín and its 2.5 million residents. In some ways, the popular route is also a perfect place to take the measure of a sport that has made Colombia the cycling epicenter of Latin America.
Amateur cyclists take on Las Palmas’ challenge every day, but so have professionals, including some of the Colombians racing in this year’s Tour de France. A pro can do a version of the ascent in 30 minutes. A weekend warrior will need nearly twice as long, or much more. The pride is in the punishment, and the achievement, and in being part of a sport that, among Colombians of all ages, has become an unexpected national pastime.
“Soccer beats all, but cycling is the second-biggest sport in the country,” said Jorge Mauricio Vargas Carreño, the president of the Colombian Cycling Federation. “It’s the sport that has the most affection among all Colombians because of the successes we’ve had at the international level.”
The roots of that connection go back decades. Colombians have been riding on cycling’s biggest stages, like the Tour de France, since the 1970s. In 1984, Luis Herrera, known as Lucho, became the first Colombian to win a stage at the race. Three years later, he became the first to win one of the three so-called European grand tours, prevailing at the Vuelta a España.
Herrera passed the baton to riders like Santiago Botero, who won the king of the mountains title at the Tour de France in 2000, and Nairo Quintana, who finished second overall in the race in 2013 and in 2015. Colombian women have since won Olympic medals in road cycling and BMX.
Their countryman Egan Bernal, however, did them all one better: In 2019, he became the first Latin American to win the Tour de France.
“It’s part of our culture,” Bernal, 26, said in a recent telephone interview. “In Colombia, I think 90% of the homes have a bike. And a lot of people use them as a mode of transportation, especially the more humble people, and over the years they’ve used it more.”
He added: “Everyone in Colombia is happy when they’re given their first bike.”
The main reasons cycling blossomed in Colombia, according to cyclists, officials and coaches, are the nation’s socioeconomics, history and topography (large swaths of the country are at higher elevations, such as Medellín, at 4,900 feet, or the capital, Bogotá, at 8,600).
“Cycling has become very important in our country,” said Rigoberto Urán, 36, a Colombian cyclist who has finished second in the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Olympics. “Colombia is a country with a lot of problems — political problems — and our history is stained by narcotrafficking. So cycling has sort of given us a new image for some time.”
José Julián Velásquez, the sporting director of Team Medellín-EPM, a professional team founded in 2017 to develop cycling in a city and region known more for the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, said many Colombians were raised riding hills and mountains since bikes are a more affordable way to get around. Quintana, for example, grew up in a town 9,300 feet above sea level and had to pedal up steep gradients every day just to get home from school.
As a result, many Colombian cyclists are known as escarabajos, or beetles, for their doggedness as climbers.
Colombia is the only Latin American country in the top 20 of the rankings by Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s global governing body. In a sport dominated by and centered in Europe, Colombia was ranked 10th.
The coronavirus pandemic only deepened Colombia’s connection with the sport, with people buying more bicycles to get around and exercise.
Martha Gómez grew up around cycling because her father was a fan, following the careers of the Colombian riders and watching the Tour de France every year. She said she learned to ride as a child but didn’t start taking cycling more seriously until 2021. She now averages as many as 60 miles a week.
“Women were more about being in the gym or walking,” Gómez, 41, said. “But with the pandemic and being locked up indoors, it led us to find a healthier life. Riding up Las Palmas, you didn’t use to see many women, but now you see more. And women aren’t just riding on the road but up the mountains, too.”
On Sunday mornings and holidays in Medellín, as in Bogotá, the local authorities shut down main roads, including the high-speed lanes of the city’s biggest highway, for exclusive use by cyclists. On a recent morning, they dotted its lanes and inclines. Several wore the jerseys of professional cycling teams, or the Colombian national squad. One child pedaled away in a Quintana shirt.
“I feel like that when something starts to take off, everyone gets that craving,” said Sara Cardona, 39, a pediatrician who averages about 40 to 60 miles a week.
It is not uncommon, Cardona said, to run into Colombian stars and even their European rivals on training rides. Amateur riders, both competitive and hobbyist, like to measure themselves against the times posted on familiar climbs like Las Palmas on the popular cycling app Strava.
Last week, Cardona left her house at 7:30 a.m. to make sure she made it up the mountain in time to catch the end of that day’s Tour de France stage on television. On the way to the Safetti bike store and coffee shop, she ran into a store employee who was also cycling up Las Palmas. They made a friendly wager on who would win the Tour de France stage.
The prize: a strong cup of Colombian coffee.