The Highlife

I’m over here in Colombia (not Columbia) with my good friend Santiago, a native of Bogota and the Milltag agent for the country. Amongst a busy program of meetings with retailers and cycle teams I’m hoping to sample some of the legendary riding to be had in this cycling-mad nation.

Bogota lies at 2650m above sea-level, about the same height as the highest mountain passes in France and from there it only goes up. So, for the weary traveller the first few rides are a baptism of fire. Barely 10 hours off the plane and i’m on the bike at first light to be guided by Santiago through the early morning rush-hour traffic. I’m staying in Chapinero, a district thankfully close to some of the most fabled climbs out of the city as I tentatively make my way along the wide Bogata boulevards - is there anything more intoxicating than arriving in an unfamiliar city and taking it in for the first time by bike? After a few km’s we swing off the main road and hit a 15% ramp, boom! - Hello Colombia. Thankfully the pitch is brief and the road settles down to an evenly graded 6-7% ascent. We climb out of the city, but the traffic remans heavy in both directions, its rush hour in a city of 9 million people. It’s a steady climb of around 5km to over 3000m, soundtracked by salsa music from roadside eateries and the tang of heavy diesel in the air. Welcome to South America, it’s a different world and this morning it feels like it.

Once at the top the option is to drop over the other side and descend 1000m but we turn instead onto a beautifully quiet road along a ridge with spectacular rural views of a lake to the east of the city. Bogata’s unique geography, on a high plateau flanked on one side by high mountains means the countryside is never far away so long as you are prepared to climb for it. Santiago takes me to a cycling cafe learnt and treats me to my first real Columbian coffee and Arepas, a local snack of fried cornflour and soft cheese - I can see this taking off in Shoreditch any time now, and the perfect recovery food for the jet-lagged cyclist. Its only 7.30am but its time to head back to the city and get on with the day job.

The next morning i’m still getting my bearings but the jet lag has one advantage in that getting up at 4.45am to join a group ride up the classic El Verjon climb is less tortuous than it might otherwise be. Every Thursday around 100 riders congregate uptown around an hour before daylight and are escorted by police motorbikes to the foot of the climb. Santiago tells me that the police are necessary as the ride passes through a rough barrio on the way to the start - a reminder that Bogota, for all its charm can still be a dangerous place. And hilly - right from the off we tackle a series of rolling foothills on a narrow dual carriageway that sees the group splinter almost immediately with short steep climbs followed by fast, sweeping descents. A sharp hairpin left turn signifies the start of the climb proper, mercifully free from any traffic, just quiet woodland similar to many climbs in the UK. The climb itself is pretty regular, nothing over 10% with shorter flatter sections but keeping a steady tempo was vital, at this altitude you pay for any hard effort almost immediately. We climb over 3000m, the fog rolls in as a grey dawn breaks and the landscape changes again, the trees disappeared to be replaced by open grasslands and the high plains. The gradient eased off after 5 or 6km, followed by a false flat and another rise up to the 3270m summit.

The faster riders are there already but I’m pleased with my effort, the climb was steady, I didn’t feel the altitude affected me and there are still plenty of riders behind me. There was a bit of a commotion at the top as a fight breaks out between a passing driver and a cyclist - just like being at home but it all seems to pass off without much concern, least of all from the police who were still in attendance. I saw a lot of new top-end bikes; Cervelo, De Rosa’s, Colnago’s - bikes which cost double here what they cost at home. I was keen to ride on but i’m told the circular route back is un-passable (there has been unprecedented rainfalll this season already, most likely the effect of global warming) and the only option is to turn back or continue on to the other side and face a 100km return trip. We descended down the same road, into the fog and then a rainstorm. The road surface is good but the locals take it very easy on the descent so I follow their lead, keen to keep out of a Colombian hospital if I can avoid it. Into the rush-hour traffic again but by now i’m getting more used to it, and the drivers in general seem aware of cyclists and give us room where possible. Our ride finishes at an upscale cafe in the financial district where Santiago is greeted by a prominent politician and former vice-president of the country - good to know i’m in safe hands over here.

We leave Bogota the next evening to head off for a weekend’s riding in the coffee region, it sounds idyllic and indeed it was but anyone familiar with the terrain is aware that coffee is grown on steeped, terraced farms and that means climbing, and lots of it. Our driver for the weekend was none other than Patrocino Jimenez a legend of Colombian cycling - the first man to wear the climbers jersey in the Tour de France, and latter-day gregorio for Lucho Herrera on the Cafe de Colombia team. My Spanish is rusty to say the least, a legacy of some South American travels 20-odd years ago, but I could follow some of his stories about the good old days riding against Greg Lemonde and Lauren Fignon, and Santiago filled me in on the more salacious tales of life on, and off the road back in the day. There was a group of 6 riders on the trip; younger, fitter and lighter than me with the advantage of living at altitude, I was facing a weekend of solo riding for the most part. But I knew what I was letting myself in for, or at least I thought I did. Part 2 follows here.