Getting High in Colombia

In the high-altitude mountains northeast of Bogotá, there is a small lake, and around the shores of this lake, there are ancient villages, and in one of those villages, there is something new, brought by a foreigner from the north. He’s brought several two-wheeled machines, made not for asphalt roads, where the men of the city ride, and not for the treacherous trails, where the men of the deep mountains ride, but for the dirt roads, where the villagers ride by horse.

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The foreigner joins with three locals — two men and one woman — and they ready themselves for a trip over a cloud-enshrined high mountain. The rains come. The paths grow slick. Puddles swell. The four riders saddle the new machines and venture on, undeterred by the weather. They climb toward the top of the mountain, into the rain and wind and cold. They ride until they can be seen no more. In the evening, they return from the other side of the mountain, weathered and weary, but very alive. They have seen this country in ways most two-wheeled adventurers never have. The machines have revealed a different face of Colombia; they have made it's old roads new.

In the long, acclaimed literary career of Gabriel García Márquez, there is a small but significant footnote:

he spent part of his writing life as a journalist for El Espectador, covering cycling among other things. And though Márquez’s writing about the sport has since been overshadowed by his rich stories of the people and history of Colombia, cycling remains core to the country’s national identity. "We say fútbol is our national sport," said Mauricio Ordóñez, co-owner of a Bogotá café and bike studio, Fuga. "But I think cycling has always been the national sport of Colombia."

Out in the mountains, the landscape’s tangible beauty and the local’s love of cycling is readily available to encounter in real life — no magic realism needed. Up at 9,800 to 11,500 feet, the Andes are all too tactile, you can feel the altitude in your head, heart and lungs. And the traditional Colombian way to conquer these mountains is by bicycle.

Cycling culture in Colombia is cleanly split between mountain bikers and road cyclists.

With the Andes mountain range dominating most of the country’s geography, the former is the predominant form. It is said that for every single road bike sold in Colombia, nine mountain bikes are sold. Yet, in the sprawling metropolis of Bogotá, road cyclists are most common, rolling out from the city in the early mornings, heading to the mountains to stretch their lungs and legs.

Ordóñez, along with friend and fellow Fuga investor, Camilo Jaramillo, guided a cycling adventure with "the foreigner," James LaLonde of Cannondale, and local athlete Ana Bonilla Paez. LaLonde brought with him Cannondale's SuperX SE and CAADX SE bikes, equipped with 700 x 37c WTB Riddler tires. This style of bike — "gravel," "all-road," "cyclocross" — is unfamiliar to many Colombians, despite the surplus of ideal territory for gravel exploration. "I believe people in Colombia are content enough to ride the same trails over and over," Ordóñez said. "The percentage of the population that likes to explore, doing trips like this, is still growing." Ordóñez is setting the pace for change. With his cyclocross bike and his dual-sport motorcycle, he explores the backroads of his country and beyond. "I'm a curious person, and I get bored of things very quickly," he said. "That has urged me to go out and explore; I'm the sort of person that likes new adventures." In describing the SuperX, Ordóñez drew comparisons from the familiar frame categories. "The SuperX is a road bike that wants to be a mountain bike. It's a little more aggressive. A little more agile — it responds faster."

That has urged me to go out and explore; I’m the sort of person that likes new adventures.

The dirt roads around Guatavita, seldom used by anyone other than the farmers and rural residents, are pristine proving grounds for the SE line. "With this bike, you don't have to go to the middle of nowhere to have fun," Jaramillo noted. "Just go to the place that you always go, but take a small detour." Splitting from the path well trodden, the riders took on the rough-hewn roads. "You always find a piece of road that's not good enough for your road bike," Jaramillo added. "But if you have this kind of bike, you can go anywhere." They headed into the high altitudes, leaving behind the paved roads that restrict the riders from the city. The Colombians took the off-piste riding in stride. "The Colombians didn't flinch," LaLonde said. "Nothing affected them."

Both Ordóñez and Jaramillo have spent extensive time on the paved roads of this area, but unencumbered by the need to remain on asphalt, they were now able to see the region as an entirely new landscape. At the end of the ride, refueling on Club Colombia and Cerveza Poker, the crew recounted highlights from the route. "We were like, man, we were in the middle of the nowhere," Jaramillo said. "But when we looked at a map, we were right next to where you've been going all year."

This is the freedom of the all-road machine, and while the trend may only be beginning to catch on in Colombia, the locals were an easy sell. "I'm going to get one," Jaramillo noted. "And I am going to make sure a friend of mine gets one, too."

By Matthew Ankeny

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