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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!

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.

Day 2 – Gervais to Monmouth, OR

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A lovely trike with flowers at Graham and Peggy's house - note the apple tree in the background!

This was supposed to be a rainy day, which was going to be quite miserable for riding bicycles.  I awoke to the sound of rain outside our window, but the sun hadn’t risen yet so I fell back asleep, thinking about what a wet start we were going to have.  When Dallas and I finally did wake up for real, the rain had stopped and blue skies were visible behind the dissipating clouds.  The weather forecast had gone from 80% to 0% chance of rain overnight.  Dallas and I are seriously the luckiest people ever.

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Troy's bike shop in Salem

We got back on the road about an hour earlier than we had started the day before, hopeful to make it about 60 miles.  Twenty miles and almost 2 hours later, we were in Salem.  We stopped at the bike shop owned by Troy, Graham and Peggy’s son – and we arrived just as the sky darkened and started to spit rain at us.  Troy wasn’t there, but the other employees were friendly and said we could leave our bikes inside while we went to get lunch.  By the time we had finished eating, the sky was blue again and the sun was shining.

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Rainbow!

Our next stop came just 13-14 miles later.  Exhausted from the headwind and rolling hills, we took a short detour into the town of Independence to pick up some food at the market.  Just a block before the market, we passed a cafe advertising pies and ice-cream.  This was just what we needed.  The man working there came outside and watched as we were locking our bikes together as if we were crazy.  “Nobody ever steals in Independence.  They’d get shot.  The cops here are good, and everyone knows each other. No one steals.”  Still, we weren’t going to risk losing our new bikes!  No sooner than stepping inside, the sky opened up for the third time that day and poured rain onto our bikes.  The man, who called himself Dutch, asked how he could make our perfect day any better.  He explained that the kitchen had closed two hours ago, yet their Open sign was still on and there were three people sitting at a table drinking coffee.  He then ignored all of our attempts to say we just wanted dessert while he went on listing the sandwiches and quiches and salads that he could still make for us (it seemed that the only thing out of the question was the soup, which was apparently delicious).  Once we could finally get a word in, we managed to order lattes and pie (ice-cream came with the pie at no extra charge!).  As we were finishing up our pie, Dutch came over to our table and told the story of the historical town of Independence, which is the end of the Oregon Trail.  Then, he seamlessly interluded into a discussion on natural disasters and how the whole west coast from Crescent City to Vancouver is going to be destroyed by earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.  Independence is the epicenter of the fault subduction zone, but Dutch isn’t concerned.  He’s prepared.

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It was after 4pm when we finally said goodbye to Dutch and left his 2EZ Cafe.  The sun was shining again, but daylight time was limited.  Until just before Independence, we had been following the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, but we decided to take a different route from here and try to cut 7 miles out of the trip.  This brings us down the opposite side of the Willamette River and through more farmland.  The scenery has been good so far, and the hills and headwinds haven’t been any worse than they were before we deviated from the bikeway.  Amongst all the farms and private property, we lucked out again today and found a small spot of state park land with a trailhead.  There was a no camping sign, and there was a bar across the entrance to the parking lot, but we were able to slide in with our bikes and find the perfect spot to pitch our tent just as the sun set.

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.

New Connections

In four months of living in Portland, the only job that I managed to get was a temporary position as a seasonal employee for the Columbia Sportswear outlet about 3 miles from where we lived.  I started working there shortly before Thanksgiving, and quickly learned that retail jobs are not for me.  After the first week or so, I was grateful for the little income it provided, but I was equally grateful that it was a temporary position.  The hours of walking around and being on my feet were not a problem, but the lack of intellectual stimulation and challenge that I normally seek was wearing on me.  I must say that I really liked my coworkers, who were mostly outdoorsy, active, and friendly people – an important element that can make or break job satisfaction.

Knowing that my job would eventually end, but not knowing when Dallas would be ready to leave Portland, I continued to search for and apply for jobs, ranging from bicycle delivery to food service to biological research jobs.  I also continued to work out, despite the dismal climate.  Instead of running or bicycling outside, I was mostly cycling to the nearby community center to go swimming.  I was receiving no positive feedback from the outside world regarding any of my job inquiries and was starting to lose hope about being in Portland.  Then, one night after my swim, as I was getting ready to leave the community center, came a sign that maybe there was something for me in Portland afterall.

A man rolled up in a wheelchair and started talking to me as I was about to leave, complimenting me on my swimming.  My reaction?  Who, me?? This guy must have me confused with someone else.  I’m a terrible swimmer.  Surely, he can’t tell me apart from any of the other women in the pool when we’re all wearing swim caps.   But he insisted that he saw me swimming laps and that I was a great swimmer.  I engaged him in conversation briefly before leaving, and he revealed that he was a cycling coach with a team in Portland that rides every Sunday.  He also leads rides for kids on Saturdays from the Boys and Girls Club in Northeast Portland.  He sounded a lot like my friend, Dick, who started the US Open Cycling Foundation.

I told Dallas about my encounter with John Benenate when I got home, and he was intrigued as well.  We agreed to meet at his house for breakfast that Saturday and join in on the kids ride to see what it was all about.  When we arrived at John’s house on Saturday, we met Cody, who was cooking breakfast, and her daughter, Jasmine.  John had a whole room of cycling gear and apparel that he encouraged us to pick from before we headed out in the freezing cold rain.

Cody, Jasmine, Dallas and I, at John's house for breakfast before the kids ride

Cody, Jasmine, Dallas and I, at John’s house for breakfast before the kids ride

Riding in the rain

Riding in the rain

At the Boys & Girls Club, we met Tim, who was a regular on both weekend rides.  Only two other kids were brave enough to show up for the 4 or 5 mile ride in the cold Portland rain.  John gave Dallas, Cody, Tim and I radios to wear so we could hear him as he directed our ride from his station wagon.  Jasmine, Blessing and Demario were outnumbered by “shepherds” as we all followed John through the city streets.  For a stretch along the river, we rode in a paceline before heading back to the Boys & Girls Club.  It was a slow, but rewarding ride, and the kids were still smiling when we made out way inside to thaw out.

This was the first ride of its kind for Dallas, and he was a natural.  We both looked forward to helping out with more rides like this, and hopefully more kids.  I had to work the next day, but Dallas joined John for the Sunday ride with his race team, Cyclisme.  They rode about 40 miles through cold temperatures and intermittent downpours.  Seeing Dallas’s refreshed face after work that evening, I could tell that these rides would provide a spark of energy for us throughout the depressing winter.

Dallas rides with the racing team

My schedule at Columbia seemed to exactly mirror Dallas’s schedule, in that I had to work during all the times that Dallas did not.  We never really got a day off together, and I never got to ride with John’s team, aside from a Saturday women’s ride that he put together specifically taking my schedule into consideration.  I was relieved to hear that my last day of work would be January 5th, but my outlook for earning any income was bleak.  Spending my weekdays alone in a home that houses 6 other people is a lonely feeling, and having to go to work when my best friend is actually home was wearing on my psyche.  I had spent more of my savings than I was comfortable with and started to think about going back to New Orleans to recover some of my losses.  The Super Bowl was going to be this season, right in the middle of Mardi Gras, and my pedicab license was free to renew – I just had to pick it up at the taxicab bureau.

Happy New Year, from Portland!

Happy New Year, from Portland!

I didn’t have the time or money to visit my family for the holidays, but I did get to meet Dallas’s family on his father’s side.  Unfortunately, we both spent half of our time in California crippled with food poisoning.  Shortly after returning to rainy Portland, I decided to go back to New Orleans.  I would go for six weeks, and Dallas promised to visit me for a week while I was down there.  However, a few days after I bought my ticket, Dallas, overcome with sadness, bought a one-way ticket to New Orleans.  He would meet me two weeks after I arrived, and we would stay until we figured out our next move.  I would have liked to train with John’s cycling team, but the timing wasn’t right.  I am glad to have connected with him though, and plan to ride more seriously the next time I find myself in Portland (hopefully not during the winter!).