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Cycling in and around Medellin

Cycling is among Colombia’s most popular sports, second only to football (soccer), and you will find all sorts of riders out training or commuting on the roads both inside and outside of the cities.

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A mural outside of Parque Salado in Envigado

 

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One of the ciclovias on Avenida Poblado

Aside from the heavy traffic and air pollution, Medellin and its surrounding areas are incredibly conducive to cycling. Following Bogota’s lead, Medellin also hosts a Ciclovia every Sunday from 7am to 1pm, closing 42 kilometers of roads to motor vehicles so people can feel safe to bike, run, walk or skate freely. Some of these same roads host a smaller version of Ciclovia every Tuesday and Thursday night between 8 and 10pm. Additionally, there are over 100km of ciclorutas (separated bike paths) within the city. For the BMX riders, there are parks and pumptracks sprinkled throughout the city, including a pretty big one named after world champion Mariana Pajon, a native of Medellin. While there’s no velodrome (yet) in Medellin, there is a decent track where roadies can train, riding circles as fast as they want out of traffic.

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Bike touring through Antioquia and Caldas along one of the highways

If you’re comfortable riding with traffic, the autopista (highway) is one of the fastest ways to get around town, and it is not off limits to cyclists. While there are many bike routes throughout the city, they can be slow due to the numerous pedestrians who are not paying attention to their surroundings while strolling down the bike paths. Most road cyclists will end up riding out of the city on one of the highways and inevitably end up climbing switchbacks up one of the steep mountains on the outskirts of town. It is not uncommon to see pelotons of professional cycling teams training on these roads every week. Possibly the most popular spot to ride on the weekends is the road leading to the airport in Rio Negro. It’s basically straight up a mountain for 16 kilometers, but you can find hundreds of riders on both road and mountain bikes cycling up Avenida Las Palmas on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

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The ciclorutas throughout Medellin are painted at intersections

The worst part about riding in Medellin is undoubtedly the pollution. Medellin is currently the 8th most polluted city in South America, and you can really feel it when you ride a bike. Most of the buses and trucks emit thick clouds of black smoke that encompass you and your bike as they accelerate away from you, and the numerous motos are not much better. Traffic can be very slow, and you really have to be careful when going around buses and taxis because the motos are usually speeding along in between the lanes of cars. I regret not having a GoPro to take video footage of one of my rides through traffic, because I think the video would be quite exciting.

bicitourOn our first full day in Medellin, Dallas and I took a tour of the city with BiciTour Medellin. Carlos and Mateo were excellent guides, and I was lucky to be able to ride with both of them a few weeks later when I had finally acquired my own bike. The tour is a great way to learn about Medellin while seeing more of the city than you would be able to on foot. They will teach you about the city’s violent history, show you some of the graffiti, buy you salpicon, and take you to Pueblito Paisa, a model colonial village with one of the best views of the city.

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Taking a break in a park during one of the Sicleadas

Every Wednesday night SiClas organizes a ride called Sicleada that leaves from Carlos E. Restrepo park at 8pm. The route changes weekly and is never repeated. It varies from easy, flat rides within the city to fairly difficult rides that include climbing the surrounding mountains of Medellin. This ride draws over 1000 riders every single week and is a great way to meet people and make friends. The ride is usually more or less 20 kilometers, and very slow. Volunteers block cars from intruding on the ride from side streets, and the front of the group waits at the top of every hill for the rest of the group to catch up before moving on. There is always a break about halfway through, where some of the riders sell homemade sandwiches, cookies and juice. People are talking, laughing, whistling, playing music, and generally having a blast throughout the entire ride. If you ever find yourself in Medellin on a Wednesday night, you should rent a bike from SiClas and do it – this is an experienced not to be missed.

enciclaAnother encouraging program in the city is EnCicla, a free bike share service. Drawbacks to this are that it can take a few days to get a card to use the program, since you have to apply with ID and a utility bill to prove you are a resident. The other down side is that the service is only available on weekdays from 5:30am until 7pm. There are some stations that are manned by a person and others that are automatic. Because it’s a free program and doesn’t generate any income, it’s expensive to operate. Maybe in the future it will be more like existing bike share systems in the US that are all automatic and available 24 hours a day, but this will probably require them to charge a small fee to rent the bikes.

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Mountain bikers bomb down a trail from Tres Cruces, in the heart of the city.

The cycling community in Medellin is expansive, and there is something for every type of rider. Groups on Facebook, Meetup, and Couchsurfing exist for mountain bikers, road cyclists, and casual riders who just want to socialize. The people are friendly, and it’s very easy to make friends and find people with whom to ride. I did have a bit of trouble finding a good road bike, and it’s not easy to find a good, inexpensive second-hand bike. Most shops sell new bikes for the same price that they would cost in the US. They do come with an ownership card that includes the serial number in case your bike ever gets stolen, which is a system I think should be adopted everywhere. If you know where to look for used bikes, they can be very cheap (30,000-100,000 pesos). But depending on what kind of riding you plan on doing, I’m not sure how reliable these bikes are.

Now that I’ve written enough material for three blog posts (and I could go on), I should conclude by saying that cycling around here is really great, no matter what kind of biking you’re into. There are obvious concerns with exercising in such heavy air pollution, but I think my positive experiences and the excellent views have outweighed the risks.

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New Job for Nomadic Cyclists

Dreary Providence at the cusp of winter and spring

Dreary Providence at the cusp of winter and spring

Dallas and I have persevered through the worst of winter in New England, while apparently the rest of the country has had the warmest winter on record.  It’s probably the worst timing for us to be leaving, when we should be reaping the reward of spring and summer after having suffered through such misery for the past 3-4 months.  Summertime is really the only reason to ever live in Rhode Island.  I’m sad that I won’t get to experience it to it’s fullest in the Ocean State, but we have a pretty good reason for leaving now.

Hiking in sunny Boulder, after our job interview

Hiking in sunny Boulder, where it’s warm enough to go topless, after our job interview

We applied as a team for a job with PeopleForBikes, a non-profit based in Boulder, Colorado, whose mission is to increase cycling (and cycling infrastructure) in the US five-fold by 2025.  This is a seasonal job, and the ultimate opportunity for Dallas and I to play an active role in bicycle advocacy while remaining nomadic and (hopefully) still cycling every day.  The job is sponsored by Volkswagen, so we will be getting a brand new car to travel around the country to various events, setting up our tent and giving out prizes to people who sign on to our movement.  We are very excited to be starting this new chapter of our lives, but at the same time very sad to be leaving Providence so suddenly.  We will be back.

Multi-use paths are everywhere in Boulder!

Multi-use paths are everywhere in Boulder!

Dallas and I are going to be the East Coast Crew – they are still looking for the ideal candidates for a West Coast Crew, so if you’re ready to drop everything and travel around the western half of the US for the next 6 months, you can apply here!  Part of our job involves blogging and posting to instagram – so if you’d like to follow us on our PeopleForBikes journey, the blogs will be posted here, and you can follow PeopleForBikes on instagram (and if you don’t already, follow nomadiccycling on instagram too!).  And, after reading all of this, if you haven’t already joined the movement, you can sign up here!

Reflections of life in the Bay Area

Dallas and I decided to go to Durango, CO to visit with our friends and pet-sit for them and their friends over the holidays.  In the month that we were living in the bay area, we were able to get by working random jobs found on craigslist.  We also could not have stayed as long as we did without the hospitality of Dallas’s sister, Sherilyn, and step-mom, Sandra.  We also were warmly welcomed by Dallas’s friend Linus and his family, his cousin Tommy and his girlfriend, and his Aunt Lisa (who makes excellent banana bread) and her husband John.  I am very grateful for Dallas’s friends and family and so glad I could meet them!

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Apparently, I have really nice feet. Who knew??

Dallas was lucky to find a part-time job as an assistant for a man who had just had foot surgery and needed help running errands, picking the kids up from school, and general help around the house.  He was just able to start driving again the week we left California, so the timing worked out pretty well.  I found gigs as a foot model for ankle jewelry being sold on Amazon, and spent another three days as a background runner for a Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial.  Sandra also gave me some work, as she needed help tagging assets for one of the biotech companies that employs her as their facilities manager.  For the amount of time we had in the area, we did pretty well.  Living as a temporary resident of the bay area, I was able to observe and take note of a few unique characteristics.

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Biking around downtown San Francisco, everyone is in a hurry.  There are also lots of traffic lights (and tons of traffic).  I got to practice my track stand and acceleration from a stop countless times on each commute, while other bike commuters rolled on through most of the lights.  This never happened in Portland.  I wonder if the difference is that there is more enforcement of traffic laws applied to cyclists in Portland, or if they are just better educated since there is a higher percentage of bike commuters there.  San Francisco has more tourists, and many more people riding around on rental bikes, but it is clearly the commuters who were riding on city streets and disobeying traffic signals.  I also noticed that the bike share program, which was recently initiated in the bay area and is expected to be one of the largest in the country after its planned expansions, is getting plenty of use in the city.  In Redwood City, however, where there is a hub of bike share bikes, I didn’t notice anyone using them.  It is definitely promising to see so many people commuting by bicycle, and so many bike lanes in the area, but it has a ways to go to catch up to Portland (which, doesn’t even have a bike share program, yet).  Most of the bay area is accessible by bike, but (especially as you get further from the city) there are plenty of inconveniences and obstacles for cyclists to endure in order to avoid autocentric areas and unsafe roads, heavy with multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic.

Another noticeable thing about the bay area is the smog.  We actually lucked out with pretty sunny weather every day that we were there, but some days you could see a tan haze hovering over the city.  This is apparently normal, especially in the summertime.  Every time I went outside, there were numerous planes in the air.  Sometimes you could see ten or more planes in the sky around the airport, which wasn’t too far from where we stayed with Sandra.  This, plus all of the traffic on the roads, probably leads to some pretty unhealthy air quality.

While I really enjoyed my time in the bay area, I’m glad that we didn’t stay long enough to get caught up in whatever the big hurry is around San Francisco.  Everywhere we turned, everyone seemed so rushed and stressed out, and most drivers seemed angry.  I’m sure it’s because the cost of living is so high, people have to work so much just to pay for their home, food and gym membership – they probably don’t have any time to spend at home, eat good food, or work out.

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A view of the city from Coyote Point Park in San Mateo

On a positive note, San Francisco is one of the greatest cities in North America.  There is literally anything you can imagine available at your fingertips.  There are numerous selections of restaurants and markets for any kind of food you could want – plus, there are courier services that will deliver the food to you if you don’t want to leave your condo.  Pretty much anywhere is accessible via public transit, and there are transportation options for everyone – trains, subways, buses, streetcars, electric trams, ferries, cars, and bikes.  As for entertainment and recreation, there are museums and theaters that attracts all of the big names in art, music or acting and there are parks and gyms for any kind of activity you would ever want to do.  For water sports, you can go swimming, sailing, kiteboarding, kayaking, rowing or windsurfing on the bay, along the Pacific coast or on one of the lagoons (we witnessed part of a rowing regatta in the lagoon behind Sandra’s house two days before we left).  There is excellent road cycling and mountain biking just outside of the city.  AND it seems there are job opportunities everywhere – San Francisco seems like the place to be if you want to start up a company or are involved with any kind of technology.

Dallas and I took a one way flight to Durango, but we left our bicycles behind so we do expect to be back in the bay area to pick up where we left off on our cycling adventures.  Until then, we will definitely be borrowing mountain bikes and skis, and doing a lot of trail running with other people’s dogs!

Day 3 – Monmouth to Corvallis, OR

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Dallas and I didn’t make it very far today, in spite of our early start.  We were on the road by 8am!  Neither of us slept very well in the tent the night before.  As I was trying to fall asleep, I kept hearing what sounded like fireworks going off sporadically in the distance, with no discernible rhythm.  This sound went on for hours.  Then, I must have actually slept a little bit because I remember both of us being woken up by the sound of howling in the distance.  Maybe coyotes?  We were awoken a second time by the howling a bit later, only this time it was MUCH closer.  Like, right outside of our tent.  Dallas asked me if I had my pepper spray near me.  Terrified, we lay there hoping it would go away.  That night I dreamt that I had to use my pepper spray – on a hitchhiker.

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We were packed up and on the road before daylight really filled the sky.  We finally met back up with the scenic bikeway about 7.5 miles into the ride.  Here, there was a convenient cafe that offered breakfast sandwiches, quiche, and coffee.  I figured we would stop briefly to refuel and then be on our way to Eugene, but once settled in, we ended up staying for about 2 hours!  (Dallas’s excuse was that his coffee was still too hot to drink).  Here is where our luck seemed to have run out.  The weather forecast for the day included lots of rain and possible thunderstorms.  We were both tired, and we didnt want to end up stranded somewhere in the middle of farmland, 20 miles from the nearest cover when the storm hit.  Since we didn’t sleep well on the ground the night before, we decided to splurge on a cabin rental at the nearest KOA campground.  This was just an 8-9 mile bike ride from where we were, and we would be safe from the rain.

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Upon arriving at the KOA, we unloaded our bikes and made ourselves home in the cabin.  First order of business was showers, then laundry.  Food options at the KOA were rather limited, so we ordered a pizza.  Then we went for a walk on their “Nature Trail” – a short loop around various trees and blackberry bushes.  Back in the cabin, we will rest our legs for the remainder of the evening.  It barely sprinkled while we spent our day lounging around the campground, but Dallas assured me that just 30 miles south of us it was probably stormy and miserable.  Let’s hope so anyway.

Missing: Two Touring Bicycles

I write this post with both sadness and hopefulness.

On our last day in New Orleans last year (in May of 2012) we celebrated by going out to a bar.  Our bikes were just outside and a few doors down.  When I went to check on them, I noticed someone standing over them.  As I approached him, I realized the man was attempting to steal our bikes by twisting a broom handle that he had stuck in between the cable lock and the bike frames.  I confronted the man, who looked both drunk and homeless.

“What are you doing with our bikes?”

“These bikes? These aren’t your bikes.” He lied.

“Ummm…yes. That’s my bike, and that’s my helmet!” I retorted, pointing at the helmet that he was wearing backwards on his grimy head of long, tangled grey hair.

He finally decided against messing with me any further and stumbled away.

Having my bike stolen was one of my biggest fears about living in New Orleans.  We made it until our last night without incidence, and I was lucky enough to divert the one feeble attempt that was made to take our bikes from us.  Unfortunately, it was in Portland that our bicycles were successfully stolen.  Unless of course, our bikes had overheard Dallas considering buying a new bike and decided to run away together before I got the same idea.  I can only hope they are together and being treated respectfully, wherever they are, and that they are not too afraid.

Opus Largo with green frame, brown handlebar tape and saddle and army green handlebar bags, and Bianchi Volpe with black frame, Terry Liberty saddle and white handlebar tape - both bikes have steel frames and spd pedals.

Opus Largo with green frame, brown handlebar tape and saddle and army green handlebar bags, and BianchiVolpe with black frame, Terry Liberty saddle and white handlebar tape – both bikes have steel frames and spd pedals.

We were on our way back home from visiting Dallas’s mom in Oregon City, and stopped at REI.  Our bikes were locked up together on the bike rack outside of REI, and we left them alone for maybe an hour, while we browsed the store and ate a quick meal next door.  Walking back to the bike rack, I did not see any wheels sticking out.  That’s when my heart sank in my chest, and we saw the cleanly cut lock on the ground by the rack.  Fortunately, Portland does have good public transportation, and we were able to get home within 40 minutes and only one connection from the MAX to a bus.  But I felt a bit of shamefulness having to walk to the MAX in our bike shoes, helmet in hand, with no bikes.  I started thinking of all the things that I could have done differently to prevent our bikes from being stolen, and I felt as if it were my fault.  We shouldn’t have stopped at REI.  We should have taken the ride that Dallas’s step-father had offered us back home.  We should have locked our bikes somewhere else, or gone back to check on them between shopping and eating.  But in reality, there’s no way I could have known, and of course it’s too late to change what has happened.

Dallas and I are looking on craigslist, ebay, pawn shops and bike shops in hopes of recovering our lost bicycles.  But in the end, we cannot complete our goals without bikes, and we may just have to break down and get new ones.  This gives us an opportunity for something good to come out of it, and perhaps we can strike up a partnership with a bicycle company that would be interested in sponsoring us.  We are totally open to ideas.  In our current circumstance, we will probably end up riding whatever we can find on a budget.

A few months away from rainy Portland

On the eve of my departure from Portland I lay awake thinking about everything that has happened since our arrival.  I was feeling incredibly sad that I would be leaving Dallas for two weeks, but at the same time I was excited to go back to New Orleans and hopefully recover a bit financially.   My alarm clock rang to wake me up before I ever fell asleep.  It was going to be a tiresome trip.

St Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square is all lit up for the Super Bowl

St Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square is all lit up for the Super Bowl

New Orleans was colder than I would have liked it to be, but the spirit in the city was just picking up for the Superbowl and Mardi Gras. I came just at the right time to start pedicabbing at the height of the tourist season. It did warm up considerably after a few weeks, and Dallas joined me for a month before going back to Portland. I had planned to fly back to Portland on the same day as Dallas, but I ended up passing up my flight to stay longer and enjoy a visit from my dad. My pedicab license actually expired on my birthday, so instead of pedicabbing in New Orleans, I carpooled with my friend Ryan over to Austin, where my pedicab license was still valid for another year.

Biking around Austin on a sunny day

Biking around Austin on a sunny day

Austin was warm and sunny during the days, but dropped to cooler temperatures once the sun disappeared for the night. I arrived a few days before SXSW, the festival that attracts thousands of people to the city each year. I didn’t want to work as hard as I had last year, but I needed to work enough to make up for the expense of being there. At this point, I had bought another plane ticket to go back to Portland and see Dallas, but it was three days before the festival ended, and I would have had to miss out on two of the best nights for pedicabbing. I also wasn’t looking forward to leaving the lovely weather to go to a place where I would be mostly alone, unemployed, and uncomfortably cold. I decided at the last minute not to take my flight, and instead stay in Austin until the end of March.

Mayan ruins of Tulum

Mayan ruins of Tulum

After SXSW was over, I got in touch with my friend Dainy (D), another nomadic free spirit who showed up both in New Orleans and Newport while bouncing around between other various locations. She had been in Austin for SXSW and was planning to drive to Mexico that day with her roommate, John, from New Orleans. After thinking over her invitation for a few minutes, I decided to join them. A few hours later, the three of us were driving south in her car, headed for Monterrey. We arrived around 4am, where Perla, a couchsurfer in Monterrey, so kindly let us stay on her couches. She even made us pancakes and drove us to the airport in the morning, where we caught a discount flight to Cancun. From there, we took a bus to Playa del Carmen and spent 4 days exploring beaches, cenotes (underwater caves), and Mayan ruins in Tulum. D’s friend from Mexico City, Stephen, joined us in Playa and introduced us to some of his friends as well. Once back on the bus to the airport, D decided to stay in Mexico and actually stopped the bus driver to get off at the next stop. Back in Monterrey, John and I were met by Karina, another couchsurfer that D had arranged to host us. Being the only two ‘gringos’, she easily recognized us and took us to an awesome barbecue at her friend’s house. This was the most memorable night of my time in Mexico, since it was more authentic than eating at a restaurant in a tourist town, and the people were amazingly welcoming and friendly. I still find it amusing that Mexican meals always seem to include the same foods, and this barbecue was no exception. Tacos made with fresh corn tortillas, meat, cheese, and spicy salsa. We stayed at Karina’s house that night, and her mom fed us breakfast (similar to the barbecue, but with eggs too) the next morning before we drove back to Austin in D’s car.

Me, Karina's mom, John, and Karina before leaving Monterrey

Me, Karina’s mom, John, and Karina before leaving Monterrey

Driving back, the line at the border was so long, and the sun was so hot, that the car overheated and the radiator leaked. We noticed this after smelling something burning and seeing smoke rising from the hood. Mexicans are very resourceful, and there were plenty of guys walking around all the cars waiting in line, selling various goods. I kind of wanted to ask if any of them were handy with fixing overheated car engines. We eventually made it to the front of the line, but had to keep turning the engine off and back on again to move forward a space (people would cut us in line if we left more than half a car’s length of space between us and the car in front). I think border crossings should all be at the bottom of a slight decline, so cars can all turn off their engines and coast down the line. Either that, or do something to make the line move faster! The officer who inspected our car did not seem surprised that our engine had overheated, nor did he offer any help with our situation. We did manage to find a shaded area to park once we crossed into Laredo, and after letting the engine cool down I was able to refill the coolant without it leaking again. A mechanic at Sears told us that it’s very common for cars to overheat while waiting at the border. I think there has got to be a solution to prevent this from being a common occurrence.

Oldest tree in Roger Williams Park, Providence, RI

Oldest tree in Roger Williams Park, Providence, RI

I enjoyed the warm weather and company of friends in Austin for a few more days before flying to Providence to visit family for a week. I also reconnected with some good friends from home and started to get back into a regular running routine. I finally flew to Portland at the beginning of April to be back with Dallas. Apparently the weather wasn’t so bad while I was away, but the city greeted me with cold weather and persistent rain upon my arrival. That’s just when it started to warm up in Rhode Island too!

While we were in New Orleans, Dallas and I applied for and accepted jobs as bicycle tour guides in Skagway, Alaska. We will be leaving Portland at the end of April to spend the summer in Alaska. Our plan after that is to head south by bicycle towards Patagonia, with likely stops along the way to work and recover financially.