WITH SOARING MOUNTAINS, A THRIVING CYCLING CULTURE, AND A PROMISING NEW PEACE DEAL, COLOMBIA JUST MIGHT BE THE UNEXPECTED BUCKET- LIST DESTINATION YOU’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR.
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.