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.
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.
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.
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.
On 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.
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.
Another 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.
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.
During our travels this summer, Dallas and I were lucky to meet a few of the good folks from Green Guru, an awesome company out of Boulder that up-cycles old bike tubes and tent fabrics to make useful things like wallets, backpacks and panniers. We applied to be ambassadors after talking with them at RAGBRAI, and at the end of our season we got to check out their shop in Boulder and receive some gear to test out. I’m writing my first review of the Hauler Bike Pack Saddle Bag in total honesty.
Here are all of the positive features. This bag is like an over-sized saddle pack that attaches to the rails on the underside of your saddle by a clipped strap on each side, and a Velcro strap to secure it to the seat post. The best thing about this bag is there is no need for a rack, so it can literally attach to any bike. At 425 cubic inches of space, you can pack enough stuff in there for an overnight trip if you needed. This pack is made of up-cycled tent fabric
and bike tubes on the outside with a waterproof nylon inner lining. It has a reflective strap that faces back towards car headlights when it’s on your bike. This strap is sewn into the bag as a series of loops, and a bike tail light can easily be clipped onto one of the loops. Also on the outside of the bag is a small zippered pocket on the top and a Velcro pocket on the bottom containing a removable plastic stiffener. It has a Velcro and roll-top closure, with 2 more clipped straps to keep it tightly rolled while riding. There’s also a removable, adjustable strap that clips onto the bag easily to convert it into a shoulder bag, or pannier-shaped messenger bag. It’s pretty versatile.
Now for the things that I don’t like about the bag. It can take a while to attach to the saddle, especially if your saddle is mounted all the way forward on its rails. The female half of the clip needs to be fed through the rails, and the bulk of the plastic can be tricky to get through and hold there while you try to bring the male half of the clip to meet it. I know in order to be able to tighten the straps down so the bag isn’t hanging low and loosely between the saddle and rear wheel the strap that is fixed to the bag needs to be short, but maybe the other strap could be longer to make this easier (or there could be a loop attached to the end of that strap so it’s easier to grab to tighten after you’ve loosed the clip all the way). The clips could also be smaller, but then you may sacrifice weight capacity for the bag. The only other thing that is annoying about the bag is riding with it. The bag swings back and forth when pedaling, and I don’t think it is avoidable. Maybe it’s my massive hamstrings that hit the side of the bag with each pedal stroke, batting it back and forth like a pendulum, creating some weird gyroscopic feeling while riding with a heavy load. I’ve tried using the bag with both my mountain bike and road bike, and still get this swinging. However, it’s much better than riding with a backpack! I’ve tested it on the road and on trails, and it’s actually less noticeable on trails, perhaps because the terrain is already bumpy and pedaling isn’t as frequent and rhythmic.
Overall, I am very happy with the Bike Pack Saddle Bag. I look forward to taking it on more long mountain bike rides, and using it to commute around town (although I’m going to have to add to my collection of bike packing bags if I want to take my tent with me). I don’t have a rack on any of my bikes right now, so I haven’t been able to use panniers, and this bag offers a solution, allowing me to carry everything I need without having to wear a sweaty backpack.
So many people have been shocked and maybe impressed that Dallas and I are riding our bikes through the winter. At least once a day someone tells me, “I can’t believe you’re still riding in this!” Well, to be honest, I would much rather ride my bike in this snow than drive a car. Don’t get me wrong. Cycling in the winter has its own drawbacks and discomforts, but I feel I have no right to complain about the choice I made not to have a car, even in the worst of winter conditions. I have no regrets and am happier than ever to ride my bike instead of drive. Here’s a few reasons why.
I am still getting outside and incorporating activity into my daily commute (and sometimes for fun as well, although we have both been heavier on the yoga and other indoor forms of exercise these past few months) – as long as I’m dressed appropriately, I feel much better than I would if I were sitting in a car (and in the crawling traffic jams that seem to be everywhere during snowy rush hours). From the moment I step outside I am moving, keeping my body warm. The snow adds a bit of a balance challenge, and the cars sliding around add a danger factor (how exciting). I have to ride my bike differently in the winter, watching out for snow and ice and taking my turns cautiously. I may have to change my course to avoid hills or roads that present hazards I would rather not deal with. I have a little more trouble looking over my shoulder for cars because I have to turn half my body around to see beyond my hood, which I have pulled up over my helmet. I adapt to these challenges, and I even enjoy them for a time. I feel more confidence on my bike as I learn how to improve my balance on these challenging surfaces.
Driving a car in this weather actually seems like hell. There is no room on the roads for cars to pass each other on many of the side streets, because the snow is stacked so high along the sides of the roads. The sidewalks are so inconsistently cleared that pedestrians are forced to walk in the street, creating yet more obstacles for drivers. Cyclists are forced to ride in the middle of the road, if there ever was a bike lane, because all the snow is in the parking lane and cars are parking in the bike lanes. Where there are parked cars, they stick out, adding to the difficulty of navigation. Why drive when you end up sitting in a line of traffic, catching the same red light for 3 or 4 (or more) cycles before you finally arrive at the intersection? Why drive when there’s nowhere for you to park your car? What are you supposed to do when you finally do arrive are your destination and there’s a parking ban because of the snow? It’s more work to have a car in the winter than it is to bike, in my opinion. If you’re not spending hours shoveling your car out of your driveway, you’re spending money for someone else to do it for you. Unless you keep your car in a heated garage, you spend the first 10 minutes of your trip just sitting there freezing, waiting for the heat to kick in.
The one thing I could live without are cars. And salt on the road. I know the salt makes the roads less slippery, but it really destroys my bike. If you are riding in the winter, make sure you clean off the salt to prevent corrosion on your bike. It’s not an easy task. If it weren’t for cars, the roads probably wouldn’t get salted. I wouldn’t have to worry about them slipping on ice and sliding into me, or driving way too close because the roads are half as wide as they normally are. I wouldn’t have to turn around so far to look behind me before making a left turn because there would be no cars to plow me down from behind.
As I mentioned, cycling does have its own drawbacks and discomforts during the winter season. But I believe they are far outweighed by the positives. The worst part about winter cycling (besides having to watch out for scary cars) is that my body can never seem to distribute heat evenly. My hands and feet and face are most vulnerable, while the rest of my body will be overheating. Maybe I just haven’t figured out the right gear – and this changes daily depending on the outside conditions.
My dad gave me a set of Bar Mitts for Christmas, which have been a lifesaver (or hand saver). They keep the wind off my hands and I’m able to wear lighter gloves, but depending on the temperature, but hands will still freeze with heavy winter cycling gloves inside the Bar Mitts, or they will be sweating profusely along with the rest of my body, while my feet are still solid ice cubes. This is a personal problem, and everyone needs to experiment with different layers in different conditions to determine what works for their own body. I’m afraid I’m just doomed to have perpetually cold feet (even in the summer). A face mask can help keep the cold wind off my face, but then my glasses usually fog up if I breathe. These are problems I can deal with temporarily, but they do require that I bring a dry change of clothes with me wherever I’m going. I still think it’s better than driving. All that said, I am ready for winter to be over!
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!
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.
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.
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!