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.
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.
Day 12 – Weott to Leggett, CA
It was too cold to sit and eat breakfast in the forest, so after breaking down our tent, Dallas and I rode about 3.5 miles before we found a space where the sun penetrated through the trees. We sat in the warm sun and shared an apple, banana, pear, and an energy bar. We only had to ride another mile before coming to a coffee shop in the town of Myers Flat. Three shots of espresso and two cookies later, we were back on the road.
This was one of those rare days where I was ahead of Dallas for most of the day. I was able to keep a fairly good pace once I got going, but would stop and wait for Dallas every few miles. The stopping and going was draining though, and overall we progressed at a slow pace. We stopped again outside of Garberville to eat our tuna and crackers with some pistachios, a grapefruit and dark chocolate. Even though we were on the road before 10am, we had only gone just over 20 miles by 2pm. As the day went on, the terrain grew hillier, and the second half of our ride involved a LOT of climbing. Dallas was feeling undernourished and sluggish, and I was feeling frustrated for having to stop and wait.
As we crested a hill just a mile or two before Leggett, I saw signs for food across the street. I suggested we fuel up over there (The Peg Room) while deciding our next move. The burgers we ordered there were incredible, and they had outdoor picnic tables where we could sit with our bikes. It was starting to get dark, and we had completed just under 50 miles since morning. A couple that showed up while we were eating told us they had biked the coast two years ago and that there is a pretty tough hill coming up to Leggett. It didn’t look like there were any other campground options for another 27 miles, so we ultimately ended up camping across the street from the Peg Room. Maybe we can get breakfast there too!
Day 11 – Eureka to Weott, CA
Getting started this morning was a struggle. Dallas and I didn’t roll out until almost 11am, then stopped less than a mile down the road at the grocery store for another 20-30 minutes before we really hit the road. I think the long days and miles without much rest in between has been wearing on us, and it has been tough to motivate ourselves out and onto our bikes for another long ride. Personally, I have been dealing with some knee pain and saddle sores, while Dallas has struggled with an ingrown toenail and mental challenges. Miles have been going by painstakingly slowly lately.
Fortunately, it was another beautiful day, and it’s hard not to be happy out in the sunshine. The traffic and hills were not too bad today, and after lunch we got to experience riding down the Avenue of Giants, through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We stopped about halfway through our ride in the quaint town of Rio Dell, where we had amazing Mexican food at Tonetta’s. The Avenue of the Giants took us off the highway and into the forest, where it grew darker and cooler under the super tall redwood trees.
The Avenue also took us through a small town called Redcrest, where we made one last stop for hydration and a bathroom break. The lady working at the shop where I bought some lemonade asked in a hoarse voice if I thought it would be a good idea for people who use bicycles for transportation to be required to have registration and insurance. I’m curious to know what other people think of this, but I like that bicycling is accessible to people of all ages and income levels, and I’m afraid requiring registration and insurance would only be an obstacle to discourage cycling. I do think that it’s a good idea to teach cycling to kids in schools like they do in other countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark. Maybe having them pass a course in school so they can earn a license to ride will make cycling more popular as a transportation method. As for insurance, I all insurance is generally a rip-off.
We continued through the forest until Burlington Campground, after having gone just about 50 miles. Dallas and I had just enough time to pitch our tent before needing our headlamps to see. Now, under these giant trees, it is really quite dark. Our campsite is pretty close to the road, but hopefully traffic will be light enough for us to get a good sleep. I think we’re both so tired that it probably wouldn’t matter anyway.
Day 10 – Rest in Arcata, Ride to Eureka
After such a long day of riding, Dallas and I slept in at his cousin’s house and enjoyed a relaxing home-cooked breakfast while playing with Mike and Toni’s son, Felix. Mike brought us on a walk through the Redwood Park and Arcata Community Forest, and then we went out for lunch and ice-cream in town. It was a much needed day of rest, since our limbs were still aching when we finally did hop onto our bikes again. It was after 5pm when we left Arcata, so we didn’t make it too far today. We’re spending the night in Eureka and hoping to cover more distance tomorrow.
Day 9 – Crescent City to Arcata, CA
Dallas and I started our morning off by breaking our bags before even getting onto the road. Dallas broke the zipper on one of his panniers, and I forgot to tie down the straps for my Seal Line backpack, so one strap got caught in my rear wheel and wrapped around the hub several times before being wrenched off of the bag with a loud snap. This was going to be a very long day.
We were planning to get to Arcata to stay with Dallas’s cousin, Mike, and his family. Arcata is 80 miles from Crescent City, and the bike directions provided by google maps showed that we would encounter three major hills along the way. The first hill began not even 2 miles after our departure, and rose to 1200 feet over the next 3 miles. As we approached what looked like the top of the hill, we saw another cyclist mounting her bike and getting ready to descend. We eventually caught up, and it was then that we learned there were three summits to this hill. A bit past the bottom of the hill, after stopping for a snack, we caught up with two other cyclists from Amsterdam. The woman we had passed on the hill was riding with another man to raise money for cancer research, and all three pairs of us ended up coming together on the same road at one point.
After talking with them for a bit, we took off first since we were trying to make it another 65 miles. The next major hill came after a town called Klamath and only climbed to about 800 feet. The descent on this hill was my favorite part of the ride, since we were riding down a winding road amongst enormous redwoods. We stopped several times just to appreciate these trees and read some of the information signs at various trailheads.
By the time we had reached the next town (Orick) it was already 2pm, and we were still less than halfway to Arcata. We ate burgers and milkshakes at the Palm Cafe and inspected the map on our phones. We decided to stay on highway 101 a bit longer and take a more coastal road instead of take a detour to the east suggested by google bike directions. This meant we would be on a higher speed road for a few extra miles, but we ended up avoiding the last monster hill we had seen on the elevation chart. It still wasn’t an easy ride.
In between all of the giant hills were more hills, too small to register as anything on the elevation chart, but definitely registered as tough hills in my legs. The coastal roads we took were scenic, with beautiful views (we got to see elk by a lagoon and seals by the ocean), but they were narrow, winding, and not flat. My legs would have been happy to quit riding after lunch. We made one last snack stop in Trinidad before tackling the last 20 miles to Arcata. Dallas is a wonderful cycling partner, and has been very encouraging and supportive for all the times I have doubted my ability to carry on. I’m very lucky to have him here with me.
We watched the sun dip into the Pacific Ocean before cycling away from the coast on a bike path that grew darker by the minute. When we finally reached Arcata, I felt energized knowing that we were almost to our destination. The last few miles uphill to Mike and Toni’s house in the dark were no longer painful. Mike greeted us and helped us unload our bikes. He had dinner ready, which was salmon caught from the Klamath River, chantrelle mushrooms he harvested locally, and baked winter squash. Not only is Dallas an excellent partner, but he has amazing and supportive family! It has been wonderful getting to meet some of them.
Day 7 – Langlois to Gold Beach, OR
Today marks the end of a week since when we left, and in total, we’ve gone 350 miles. Both of us woke up bright and early, with high expectations for the day, which we failed to meet. Dallas started tuning his bike derailleurs and tightening spokes, and a man in the campground named Mike struck up conversation with us, delaying our packing. This guy had ridden up and down the coast 13 times before, and also around Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. He stuck around for a while, and went on about bicycles, his dogs (at one point he had 12 of them living in his RV with him), and the felony he got after 13 years of selling marijuana in Michigan. We were hoping to get to Port Orford and into a cafe before the predicted rain began, but it started misting just before we were ready to leave. When we did venture out from the safety of the tree cover, it started to rain steadily.
The first 14 miles to Port Orford were pretty miserable, but it actually stopped raining just before we got there. Paradise Cafe is a small diner on Route 101 that boasts free WiFi. We sat down in a booth next to a couple, and the man immediately started talking to us. He told us that they were also camping around there, and they were impressed with our riding. He also told us about their pug (named Pugsly) that only has three teeth and needs to eat special food. Then he must have thought we were bowing our heads in prayer when we were actually trying to steal glances at our menus, because he told us how nice it is to see young people pray before a meal. We politely engaged the couple in conversation, but then moved to a different table after ordering so we could sit by the one outlet we could find and charge our phones. Before leaving, the woman gave us $20 for our breakfast! We are always so blown away by the generosity and kindness of strangers, and this was no exception. It definitely pays to be nice to strangers.
We had perfect weather for the rest of the day, but we were way behind our hopeful schedule, and our legs were just too tired to maintain a fast enough pace. Much of the ride after Port Orford was within view of the ocean, and it really was beautiful riding. We were still 28 miles away from Brookings (our goal) when we stopped in Gold Beach. We found a really cheap motel, although we ended up spending more on dinner at the Port Hole Cafe (we were really hungry!).
Day 6 – Reedsport to Langlois, OR
This morning I woke up before Dallas’s alarm sounded. I had actually fallen asleep and slept fairly well all night! So I guess its not impossible to get a decent sleep in the tent, but I definitely appreciate a good bed. Both of us were in high spirits this morning after having had some good rest, and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of apple, cheese, and turkey jerky before packing up the tent and getting on the road.
This is when I discovered that the lighthouse, which we had climbed so steeply to reach the previous night, was not even halfway up the hill. We started our morning off by finishing the ascent before rejoining with highway 101. From there, it was about twenty miles to the next town of North Bend, and another 3 miles to get to Kaffe 101 in Coos Bay, where we remained for a good hour or two. This place was adjoined to a Christian bookstore, and was much larger inside than it appeared from the street. We snagged the table just on the other side of the window where our bikes awaited us and then ordered two cups of soup, a panini, a carrot cake muffin, marionberry scone, chocolate peanut butter cupcake, chocolate covered espresso beans, and two triple-shot lattes. AND we took advantage of their WiFi. So yeah, we were probably there for two hours.
Our goal for the night was a campground by Lake Floras, about 46 miles away. The Pacific Coast Highway is much different from the country roads and forest roads we were on before. This road sees a LOT of traffic – large, heavy, loud, fast-moving traffic. For the most part there is a shoulder or a bike lane to ride on, but the traffic was still far too close for comfort in many spots. In spite of this traffic (or maybe motivated by it) Dallas and I made great time after leaving the cafe…until we reached East Beaver Hill Road. I despise any road with the word “hill” in its name. This was the steepest climb we’ve encountered by far, and it continued for far too long (over a mile…maybe two miles). It was so steep that I tried to stop and walk, but had more trouble pushing my bike up the hill than riding up it.
We stopped again for groceries in a town called Bandon. It was my turn to go in and buy food, and I came out with half of a roasted chicken. I normally don’t like chicken, but it was strangely appealing to me in the market. We sat on the ground just outside the entrance and ate the warm, delicious chicken before hopping back on our bikes for the last 17 miles or so of rolling hills.
Aside from Beaver Hill, our ride went pretty smoothly and quickly. We had a tail wind and managed to cover 66.66 miles of rolling hills for the day. It was, however, dark when we arrived at the campground, and once again we had to set up the tent in the dark. Hopefully we chose a decent spot!
Day 5 – Out of the forest and onto the coast!
Today was a long day. I have so much trouble finding comfort in the tent, I hardly ever get a good sleep when we camp. Last night was no exception. We had chosen to camp about halfway between Eugene and Reedsport, and in between there were absolutely no services of any kind. Our morning started off with a climb up to the Oxbow Summit. We literally started going uphill about a mile into our ride, and we didn’t have any water or a way to treat or filter water. Dallas kept a slow pace, trying to conserve energy, and for once I spent most of the day leading the way, feeling great for how little sleep I had the night before.
Four and half miles later, we reached a clearcut area of forest where loggers were working. Shortly beyond the logging operation was an RV, and as we pulled up to it a woman stepped out to greet us. After we asked if there would be anywhere to get water up ahead, she offered to give us some water. We are so grateful for this, because we still hadn’t reached the top of Oxbow hill and we weren’t going to see anywhere to get water for another 40 miles. We talked to the woman and her husband for a few minutes – they were watching after the logging equipment while the workers were off duty, and had been in that spot for about 6 weeks already. It’s kind of sad to see them cutting down the trees, but apparently this area that is being logged was burnt in a forest fire in 1966 and is all second growth forest within the last 50 years.
We finally reached Oxbow Summit, and from there most of our ride was relatively flat, but we weren’t through the hills just yet. We stopped for lunch, which consisted of an apple with almond butter, cheese, hazelnuts we gleaned from a farm a few days ago, and chocolate. My stomach was grumbling again probably thirty minutes later. Even though we were both starving at mile 25, we agreed to wait until mile 40 before eating the rest of our food, but at mile 38, there was a nice spot to sit off the road, in the sun, and halfway up a pretty steep hill. We finished off our last two packets of tuna salad and the rest of our crackers, and one more baby bel of cheese each. Halfway down the other side of this hill, about a mile after we stopped to eat, there was a little convenience store.
We were still in a zone without phone service or internet, but there was an ATM here. We tried to take out $80, but the machine returned $4. It was filled with one dollar bills instead of twenties! Thankfully, the lady at the store apologized for this and replaced the ones with twenties for us. After refueling on water, sugar and caffeine, Dallas was a rocket. I could not keep up with him for the rest of the day. I had been feeling like my legs have gotten much stronger in the last few days, and the rest day really helped. Now I felt deflated and wanted to give up. Dallas stayed with me though, and we made it to the end of Smith River Road where it met up with Pacific Coast Highway 101.
Turning south onto this road, we had made it to Reedsport! We made a stop a Safeway to stock up on more food, and by this time it was dark. Dallas had told me about a lighthouse he really liked when he was riding down the coast two years ago, and it just so happens that we were only 5 miles from that lighthouse. Also coincidentally, we ended up getting there exactly two years to the day after Dallas had visited it himself! The Umpqua Lighthouse is pretty awesome. It’s also impossible to photograph so I’ll just have to describe it (but you really have to see it to appreciate how cool it is). We had to climb a nasty hill in the dark to get to it. It’s bright red and white beams of light point downwards to the ocean below, and rotate like a carousel, hitting the trees behind it.
Now we are camping in the same spot that Dallas camped two years ago, and are once again the only hiker/bikers at this campsite. There is a constant howling or whistling of some sort in the background. The wind, maybe? The lighthouse? After a long day of cycling over 62 miles of hilly forest roads, I just hope I sleep better tonight!
Day 3 – Monmouth to Corvallis, OR
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.