Colom­bia Ris­ing


Bicycling (South Africa) - - INSIDE - BY AARON GULLEY

When you’re day­dream­climb­ing, you think of Europe: the Alps, the Pyre­nees. But South Amer­ica is rapidly be­com­ing pop­u­lar with hill junkies – and Colom­bia tops the list. Take a closer look at the home of Nairo Quin­tana and Win­ner Ana­cona, and dis­cover how the nat­u­ral ter­rain breeds nat­u­ral climbers.

The as­phalt rib­bon, pocked by decades of over­loaded lor­ries and frayed at the edges by tor­ren­tial rain, snakes sky­ward into the cloud for­est. A cou­ple of stray dogs wince into the drip­ping green­ery. Only a quar­ter of an hour has passed since I set out to­ward Matarredonda Pass, and al­ready the thrum of Bo­gotá’s 8 mil­lion res­i­dents is a whis­per. High in the An­des, on the pre­cip­i­tous edge of the Cordillera Ori­en­tal range, I’m in the cul­tural and ge­o­graphic heart of the coun­try, chas­ing the soul of Colom­bian cy­cling. I be­came ob­sessed with the coun­try in 2013 on a trip to the Tour de France, where I wit­nessed a pint-sized, barely-known climber un­set­tle the world’s strong­est stage racer.

It was Nairo Quin­tana, of course, the most prom­i­nent of a new wave of Colom­bian pros. Since then, a brigade of his com­pa­tri­ots has crowded UCI podi­ums. Este­ban Chaves podi­umed at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Es­paña, Miguel ‘Su­per­man’ López won the Tour de Suisse, Ser­gio He­nao cap­tured Paris-Nice, and Jar­lin­son Pan­tano climbed to a moun­tain stage win in the Tour de France. Most of their suc­cess comes in the high peaks, though the coun­try also has win­ning sprinter Fer­nando Gaviria. Over the past four sea­sons, the coun­try’s racked up more grand tour podi­ums (10) than any other. It’s even claimed what must be the best name in the pelo­ton: Win­ner Ana­cona, the 28-year- old Mo­vis­tar racer.

Dom­i­nated by a his­tory of co­caine traf­fick­ing and a 52-year armed con­flict that left more than 220 000 cit­i­zens dead and nearly 7 mil­lion dis­placed, Colom­bia is an un­likely cy­cling in­cu­ba­tor. For decades left­ist guer­ril­las strug­gled for in­de­pen­dence, right-wing paramil­i­taries fended them off, drug car­tels dis­patched any­one mess­ing with their prod­uct, and armed ban­dits rou­tinely took hostages for ran­som.

That started to change around 2002, when the pres­i­dent, Ál­varo Uribe, aban­doned ne­go­ti­at­ing with guer­ril­las and be­gan quash­ing them by force, an ap­proach that was con­tro­ver­sial but re­duced kid­nap­pings by 79% dur­ing his ten­ure, and drove the rebels to ca­pit­u­late. Uribe’s suc­ces­sor, cur­rent pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos, won the No­bel Peace Prize last year for bro­ker­ing a deal to end the con­flict.

What Colom­bia has lacked in sta­bil­ity it makes up for with brac­ing to­pog­ra­phy. The first day’s ride up Matarredonda starts at 2 600 me­tres and rises at a 4% av­er­age grade over 18 kays to a 3 400-me­tre sad­dle. Near the top, my rid­ing com­pan­ion and de facto guide, Gregg Bleakney – an Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher and film­maker who set­tled in Colom­bia af­ter bike tour­ing from Alaska to Patag­o­nia – turns to me and says, “Good lit­tle warm-up, eh? Don’t worry, we’ll do some real climbs this week.”

Longer than Alpe d’Huez, where Quin­tana an­nounced him­self in 2013, Matarredonda is a rarely rid­den warm-up.

Not even Quin­tana has done it, de­spite com­ing from this re­gion, which speaks to Colom­bia’s vast un­tapped potential. I’d go home happy if it was my only ride in Colom­bia. Just an hour from the cap­i­tal, I spin un­der a canopy of oak and waxy myr­tle, and the air is flush with the shrill cries of spar­rows and the pat­ter of driz­zle.

The road de­scends east to Choachí and the Rione­gro, a long-time rebel hold­out. As re­cently as 10 years ago, Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (FARC) guer­ril­las stopped buses here to kid­nap any­one whose fam­i­lies might pay to get them back. Julián Man­rique, Gregg’s Colom­bian buddy who will al­ter­nate driv­ing sup­port and rid­ing along­side me through­out the trip, says that he and his friends didn’t be­gin rid­ing this climb un­til a year ago for fear of vi­o­lence. Now he spins in­ter­vals here a few times a week.

Judg­ing by the drop off the east side of Matarredonda, the road it­self has re­placed the guer­ril­las as the big­ger haz­ard for cy­clists. Cars are few, but the un­pre­dictable mix of halt­ing trucks and im­pa­tient driv­ers makes the traf­fic hard to read. Sev­eral times I swing past a car only to find another ca­reen­ing to­wards me, and just barely squeak through the gap. A menagerie of con­fused chick­ens, sulky dogs, and the oc­ca­sional don­key com­pounds mat­ters.

A hand-let­tered sign, ‘Pala­cio del Zan­cudo’, marks the gate to a farm that Gregg leases, where we’ll stay the night. From the pass we’ve plunged 35 kays and more than 1 800 me­tres, and this road con­tin­ues to sea level in the Ama­zon Basin. The air here is thick, sticky, and hum­ming with mos­qui­tos. Wealthy Colom­bians keep prop­er­ties like this one, lush with cit­rus, cherry, mango, and cof­fee trees, where they es­cape the clam­our of Bo­gotá and ‘change the spark plugs’. “You eat bet­ter here, can stay up later, sleep bet­ter,” says the 72-yearold care­taker, Don Sala­mon. With eight days ahead all big­ger than to­day’s warm-up, the spark plugs al­ready need chang­ing.

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