Away from the Tour de France, Colombia is falling hard for cycling

The road to Las Palmas starts near the valley floor, but doesn’t stay there for long. It’s 10 miles to the summit, a grueling climb of about 3,400 vertical feet, a journey of long climbs and sharp turns, of straining muscles and lungs.

Some riders stop at the lookout point midway for views of the city and do not continue. Some take long breaks. The payoff comes at the top, where restaurants, bike shops and cafés await, and where this month amateur cyclists gather day in and day out to watch their compatriots compete on a faraway continent in cycling’s biggest race.

“Not everyone dares to come here,” Anderson Murcia, 37, said in Spanish as he stopped briefly to drink water and take pictures one morning.

Las Palmas summit, though, is more than just a viewpoint, a stop high above Medellin and its 2.5 million residents. In some ways, the famous course is also an ideal place to take a measure of the sport that has made Colombia the epicenter of Latin American cycling.

Amateur cyclists challenge Las Palmas every day, as do professionals, including some Colombians who are racing the Tour de France this year. A professional can do a version of the ascent in 30 minutes. The weekend warrior will need twice as long or much more than that. Pride lies in punishment, achievement, and being part of a sport that, among Colombians of all ages, has become an unlikely national pastime.

“Football beats everyone, but cycling is the second biggest sport in the country,” said Jorge Mauricio Vargas Carreno, President of the Colombian Cycling Federation. “It is the sport that has the greatest affection among all Colombians because of the successes we have had at the international level.”

The roots of this association go back decades. Colombians have been riding cycling’s biggest stages, such as the Tour de France, since the 1970s. In 1984 Luis Herrera, better known as Lucho, became the first Colombian to win a stage in the race. Three years later, he became the first to win one of the three so-called European Grand Tours, which prevailed at the Vuelta a España.

Herrera has handed 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 in the race in 2013 and 2015. Since then, Colombian women have won Olympic medals in road cycling. and BMX.

But their compatriot, Egan Bernal, made them all even 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 phone interview. “In Colombia, I think 90 percent of homes have a bike. A lot of people use it as a form of transportation, especially the more humble people, and over the years they use it more.”

“Everyone in Colombia is very happy when they get their first bike,” he added.

The main reasons for Colombia’s cycling boom, according to cyclists, officials, and coaches, are the country’s social economy, history, and topography (large swaths of the country are found at higher elevations, like Medellín, at 4,900 feet, or the capital, Bogota, at 8,600).

“Cycling has become very important in our country,” said Rigoberto Uran, 36, a Colombian cyclist who finished second in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and the Olympics. Colombia is a country with a lot of problems – political problems – and our history is stained with drug trafficking. So cycling has kind of given us a new image for a while.”

Jose Julian Velazquez, sports director of Team Medellín-EPM, a professional team founded in 2017 to develop cycling in a city and region better known for notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, said many Colombians grew up on hills and mountains since bicycles became way more affordable. Reasonable to get around. Quintana, for example, grow In a town at 9,300 feet above sea level and I had to climb steep steps every day just to get home from school.

As a result, many Colombian cyclists are known as escarabajos, or beetles, because of their tenacity in climbing.

Colombia is the only Latin American country in the top 20 ranked by the Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s global governing body. In a sport that is dominated and centered in Europe, Colombia is ranked 10th.

The coronavirus pandemic has deepened Colombia’s association with sports, as people buy more bikes to get around and play sports.

Martha Gomez grew up around cycling because her father was a fan of it, following the careers of 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 up to 60 miles a week.

“Women were more interested in being in the gym or taking a walk,” said Gomez, 41. But with the pandemic and confinement indoors, it has led us to find a healthier life. While riding Las Palmas, you didn’t used to see many women, but now you see more. And women not only ride on the road, but also climb the mountains.

On Sunday mornings and holidays in Medellin, as in Bogota, the local authorities closed off major roads, including the high-speed lanes of the city’s largest highway, for use exclusively by cyclists. One morning, they dotted its paths and slopes. Many of them wore the jerseys of professional cycling teams, or the Colombian national team. One of the kids took off in a Quintana jersey.

“I get this feeling when something starts to take off, everyone gets these cravings,” said Sarah Cardona, 39, a pediatrician who averages about 40 to 60 miles a week.

Cardona said it is not uncommon to meet Colombian stars and even their European rivals on training tours. Amateur riders, whether competitive or amateur, like to measure themselves against posted times on familiar climbs like Las Palmas in The popular cycling app Strava.

Last week, Cardona left her home at 7:30 a.m. to make sure she made it up the mountain in time to catch the finale of the Tour de France that day on TV. On her way to Safetti’s bike shop and café, she ran into a shop employee who was also cycling in Las Palmas. They made a friendly bet on who would win the Tour de France stage.

The prize: a strong cup of Colombian coffee.