Climbing defines Colombia

Words by Fabio Cuttica (translation by Diana Peláez) with images by Cuttica

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In Colombia, when we talk about cycling, the sport’s enthusiasts project images of long, steep climbs and remember the legendary feats in Europe of our professional cyclists in the 1980s or the more recent achievements of Nairo [Quintana], Rigo [Urán] and [Esteban] Cháves. These immediate associations have their roots in the difficulties provided by the country’s terrain and the recognition of the strength and training it takes to endure the long, hard journeys through the mountains. But how did this climbing culture come to exist in Colombia?

Located on the equator and bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, this country of almost 50 million people is known as the gateway to South America. It’s crossed from north to south by the Colombian Andes, which are divided into three parallel chains—West, Central and East—that provide the territory with deep valleys at sea level and steep mountains at over 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), mainly in the Central range. And the most widely used means of transportation of the campesinos [peasants] in these rugged, high-altitude regions is the bicycle. So the mountains become the people’s allies, their companions when traveling to school, to work in the fields or to take their produce to market. This countryside is where our top professional cyclists usually come from; it is where they train; and it is where the special and intimate relationship between them and the mountains has developed. It is here, where los reyes de la montaña (“Kings of the Mountains”) will continue to be born, just as Matt Rendell baptized Colombian cyclists in his 2003 book of the same name.

It is unknown when exactly the first bicycles arrived in Colombia, but their use rapidly spread and became very popular with entire families at the beginning of the 1900s. In the countryside, donkeys, mules and horses were gradually replaced by bikes, and were even given animal names: burras (“female donkeys”) or caballitos de acero (“steel horses”).

Colombia’s most important annual cycling road race, the Vuelta a Colombia, was first held in 1951. Back then, paved roads were a luxury and they still are in some regions. The idea of uniting a nation through cycling soon captivated and enchanted Colombians. The race protagonists—including first winner “Zipa” Forero, Ramón Hoyos, “Cochise” Rodríguez, Rafael Niño, Patrocinio Jiménez and Lucho Herrera—became national sports heroes, and their conquests on the country’s longest and hardest climbs became legends. The names of mountain passes such as Mina, Letras, La Línea, Boqueron, El Trigo and El Vino became as mythical as Europe’s Galibier, Alpe d´Huez, Izoard, Stelvio and Gavia. A local chronicler once said that in order to win any of the races in Colombia you had to climb like an escarabajo (a “beetle”).

My personal passion for cycling began in the 1980s, when my family left our home in Italy and settled in Colombia. I was 10 years old when, like any other Colombian kid, my heroes were these cyclists. This passion made me as Colombian as them. It was the time when the first national team began winning legendary races in Europe. Their conquests filled up national newspapers, sharing space with the dramatic events related to the guerrilla warfare and narcoterrorism afflicting the country. Hard times were lightened by the pride of a stage win at the Tour, Giro or Vuelta.

Every Colombian remembers Herrera’s victory at L’Alpe d’Huez in 1984, the first amateur cyclist to win a Tour stage. What a performance! The first triumph by a Colombian in the world’s most important race. It wasn´t just his, the escarabajo’s, triumph; it was a huge feat, a joyful cry for a whole country. The media, especially the radio broadcasts, brought me and other thousands of Colombians to Europe every day. We all followed our riders’ achievements; we all felt we were making history on the climbing stages; it was the way they all got ahead in the race. However, we also knew that our heroes’ drawbacks were those never-ending flat stages, so strange to us. In our naïve outlook, we all asked ourselves: “How could it be? What is a race without a climb?”

In those years, when riding with my friends in the surroundings of our home near the Central Andean range, we felt every climb as if it were the famous Alpe d’Huez, Tourmalet or Lagos de Covadonga. With respect toward the steep climbs, we all measured our strengths—standing on the pedals, of course, in our best en danseuse style.

By the mid ’90s, those golden years of Colombian cycling history were over. No more Colombian teams reached European climbs. Some say it was due to an economic crisis or it had stopped being so popular. Although many people still practiced the sport, it did not have as many followers as before. But it was a short rest in Colombia’s cycling history, because it was so deep-rooted in the culture that it didn´t take long before a new generation of heroes appeared.

Nairo, Cháves and Urán have again put the name of Colombia at the top of the list among the best in world cycling. And, in my opinion, they have given the definite irreversible impulse that has boosted a whole local cycling movement. The number of people practicing cycling has increased, and racing bicycle sales and accessories have never reached such high figures. The times of the “steel horses” and of Herrera’s heroic cycling seem so far away, but their legacy is as alive as ever; it lives within us.

The love, respect and devotion we feel for the mountains that traverse our country and have filled us with memories are the ones we would like to face on every climbing journey. We owe that to our heroes, their humbleness and their campesino culture, which taught us how to endure the rides and climbs with our pockets full of bocadillos veleños (guava sweets) and our caramañola (water bottle) filled with aguaepanela (sugar cane drink).  This culture commands us to reach a mountain pass and eat arepa con queso (corn patty with cheese), enjoy a salpicón (freshly cut fruit cocktail drink) or a tintico (small coffee) at 3,320 meters (10,890 feet) above sea level. That is how they reached their climbs and that is how we’ll continue doing it.

Climbs in this country are very different from any others in the world. Colombia has a tropical climate with very high temperatures and high humidity at sea level. But as one climbs up into the mountains, the landscape and ecosystem changes drastically. It is how we could start our Alto de Letras ride in the city of Mariquita at 200 meters (650 feet) with a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), advance through tropical vegetation to end up at 3,600 meters (11,800 feet) with cold weather and freezing winds in the middle of a unique type of vegetation called páramos. And all this experienced within an 80-kilometer ride.

Every weekend, the different climbs in Colombia look like a bike festival. Thousands of passionate cyclists ride them either on the latest De Rosa model or on a Chinarello—the local name for those bikes that are a fake copy of the famous Pinarello—or on an old “steel horse.” In this diverse population, all of them are seeking one thing: to conquer the next mountain, the main “spice” for a great ride, without which it constitutes no feat to talk about or even to share on Strava.

Many of the big cities in Colombia are surrounded by mountains and, in most of the cases, they are just a few kilometers from home. It is common to see a great number of cyclists on the weekends who urge themselves to reach the nearest summit early in the morning. A well-known climb by the country’s capital, Bogotá, is El Alto de Patios at 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) with its 6.5-kilometer climb on a gradient of 6 percent. Also very popular are La Cuchilla at 3,365 meters (11,040 feet), which runs for 11 kilometers up a 6-perecnt gradient, and the 38.5 kilometers of El Alto del Vino at 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) with a 5-percent grade.

Near Medellín, the country’s second most important city, there is the 16-kilometer climb of El Alto de Santa Elena at 2,504 meters (8,215 feet) at 6 percent and the 15 kilometers of Las Palmas at 6.5 percent. Finally, much farther away from the cities, we have the longest climbing ride used in a race, and one of the most legendary, the aforementioned Alto de Letras at 3,677 meters (12,063 feet) with a 4-percent gradient.

In the end, climbing provides Colombian cyclists with a wide range of motivations. Be it for taking pictures at the top, for the story behind it, or for the taste of the salpicón, aguaepanela or arepa at the top; but the common feeling among us all would be to feel ourselves, every time, a bit more like the escarabajos, a bit more like the Kings of the Mountain, a bit more Colombian.

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