Powered by Panela — Cycling in Colombia

Cycling Bogota
View over Bogota.

Motorcycles. Cars. Trucks. Buses. People. Horses. Dogs. Chickens. Cyclists. Rollerbladers. Potholes. Speed bumps. Blind corners. Debris. Never ending ascents and descents. Fog. Sun. Rain. Exhaust. Mix these all together with a healthy a dose of high altitude hypoxia and you have cycling in Bogota. It’s fantastic.

Cycling is the second most popular sport in Colombia behind soccer. EVERY Sunday, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Bogotanos, grab their bikes and head out to ride the more than 120 km of the capital’s city streets closed to traffic known as ciclovías. It makes a bike-choked Sunday in Marin County look pretty tame by comparison.

Riding ciclovia.

With steep mountains, high altitude, and good food, Colombians, both men and women, are absolute crushers on the bike. This is no more evident than with the number of Colombians on the pro circuit, including Nairo Quintana, the rider whose mountain stage attacks in the 2013 Tour de France stirred up the entire race–he finished second behind Chris Froome before going on to win the Vuelta a Burgos and the Giro D’Italia in 2014.

Because of Colombia’s proximity to the Equator, the country has no seasons and temperature is instead regulated by altitude. This means that in a single  ride, alongside the soul crushing altitude, temperatures can swing wildly from 35°F to 90°F and back down to 40°F. Neck gaiters, knee warmers, arm warmers, and wind jackets are pretty much a necessity on every ride. This is the reality of cycling in Colombia’s mountainous regions–somewhat similar to riding through the microclimates of the Bay Area.

Vuelta a la Sabana

On our first day in Colombia, Stephen Regenold from Gear Junkie and I headed out with local cyclists Alejandro and Andrės to ride the popular Vuelta a la Sabana–a roughly 80 km loop that takes you north out of the city along a six lane highway, back south on a quieter two lane road through Sopó, ending with a spectacular climb up to the summit of Patios before dropping sharp and fast back down into the city to join up with the ciclovia.

Vuelta a la Sabana.

Coming from sea level and a notoriously poor acclimator, I felt fine on the flats but once the climbing started, both my lungs and legs screamed in protest. No amount of “Shut Up Legs” was going to help.

Thank God for bocadillo. Made from guava paste and unrefined sugar, the bocadillo is Colombia’s answer to the energy chew. Inexpensive and blissfully sweet, bocadillo traditionally come individually wrapped in a thin bijao leaf, so they are easy to transport in your jersey pocket and eat on the bike.

The 6 km, 400 meter climb to Patios from the city center is a popular training climb for local cyclists, with grades ranging from 5%-12%. At the summit, everyone stops to refuel before heading down (and back up!) the other side or plunging back down into the chaos of Bogota.

Aguapanela with farmer cheese at Patios.

The Colombian fuel of choice and the secret to their power on the bike is aguapanela or agua de panela. Panela is basically unrefined sugar sourced from sugarcane. Panela has fewer calories than simple sugar, and supposedly also contains calcium, potassium, glucose, fructose, vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, C, D2, E, as well as protein.

Usually made by simply letting a chunk melt off in boiling water, half a lime is squeezed into the hot drink right before it’s delivered. Aguapanela is often served with farmer cheese–a white cheese much like mozzarella that you stir into your hot sugary goodness until it melts and gets all stringy. What could be better than cheesy sugar water to get you back in the saddle?

Aguapanela is so beloved by the country’s cyclists that in the mid-80s, the Colombians were accused of doping by their European competitors in the Tour de France–never mind that it probably had more to do with the Colombians’ ability to endlessly climb rather than the sugary drink in their water bottles.

Road to Coachi
Endless switchbacks down to Coachi.

For our last day in Colombia, we had the opportunity to ride the less frequented road from Bogota to Choachí. Once controlled by the Farc and deemed way too dangerous to drive, the paved road (with plenty of potholes to keep it interesting) now offers a beautiful 15 km, 700 meter climb out of the city, before a never ending 35 km, 1700+ meter drop down into the warmth of the White River Valley, all with endless stunning views across to the Andean mountains of Chingaza National Park. Just make sure you have fresh brake pads and strong fingers.

Ride to Coachi

I loved cycling in Colombia so much that I am already making plans to return this fall and explore more of the country by bike, including a little known climb that is supposedly bigger than Haleakala. If you are looking to ride in a cycling mad country with great climbs, stunning views, welcoming, friendly people, and great food–look no further than Colombia.

playing tejo
A great way to finish a long day on the saddle--beer, locally sourced food, and a game or two of tejo.

Photo by: Graham Averill

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