After the last post, which largely dealt with the tough realities that some Colombians had to deal with in the past, today we fast forward to the present, a vastly different time in the country's history. A time so different in fact, that professionals like Ben King are able to safely spend time training in Colombia, in order to prepare for the season ahead.
As I've stated numerous times on the blog, I retain a special spot in my heart for Americans and Europeans who are willing to put aside preconceived notions, and travel to Colombia. In so doing, they often become enamored by the very things that years of bad press have managed to overshadow. They see a country that has changed drastically, and one that is completely different from what is so often portrayed internationally.
This off-season, Ben spent time in Colombia for the second year in a row. I asked him a few questions about his take on the country, riding there, as well as advice he'd like to give to those who are considering a trip to Colombia in order to ride. Thanks to Ben for his time and patience.
How did the idea of spending time in Colombia toward the end of the off-season first come up last year?
Every Colombian I’ve met talks about his country the way I talk about the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I knew it had to be good and wanted to go. I enjoy latin cultures and speak enough Spanish to make friends and get around. January is cold in Virginia, and there is nowhere in the USA that you can get altitude and weather like this during the winter.
Where specifically did you stay last year, and where will you be staying this year?
I met Janier Acevedo at our first team camp in Boulder November 2013. He invited me to stay with him, and by January 2014 I was there. This is my second trip of over a week in Colombia and the second time that I’ll leave wishing I had more time here. I’m incredibly grateful to Janier, his family, and friends for their hospitality.
The reservations that some people have about Colombia as a travel destination are well known. Did any of those things concern you or anyone around you before you trip?
People make assumptions and fear what they don’t know. Of course, there are real dangers anywhere, but the country has changed dramatically in the last decade. My parents were concerned but they are used to my wanderings. I’m only familiar with Antioquia, but have not felt a bad vibe yet. There is an intense cycling culture here. I see between one hundred and three hundred other cyclists on the road every day. I could be naive, but I feel safer here on the outskirts of Medellin than in some places in the USA.
What things surprised you the most (if any) about Colombian upon getting there, and spending time riding?
The number of cyclists on the road. How early they are on their bikes. We’ve averaged 7 AM this week. And the fact that most Colombians don’t drink coffee.
Yup. We Colombians don't drink much coffee. The little bit of coffee that we do drink is usually of so-so quality—at best— and sometimes instant. With that in mind, your thoughts about drinking coffee in Colombia are...
It’s shocking that Colombians don’t drink much coffee and when they do it’s usually instant. They export almost all of the coffee they produce. I brought a french press for Janier to see if he can develop a taste for good coffee before his return to Europe. [I've written about Colombian's relationship with coffee before, which you can read here].
How do you spend your days in Colombia? What's your schedule like, and do you get to see any of the museums, local sights etc? There's lots to see all over Antioquia.
Since we train so early, there’s time for a huge lunch, a nap, and an adventure in the afternoon. Janier showed me a lot of amazing sights on this trip like the Piedra del Peñol. We rode to the Rio Claro and went swimming. We dropped down to Medellin for some sight seeing. I also really enjoy resting, soaking in the culture, and getting to know people. I end up stopping to take pictures on a lot of training rides because the views are unbelievable.
I'm sure that Janier introduced you to some local food, especially being that he's from Antioquia. Any favorites, or conversely anything you disliked or found to be a bit outside of your comfort zone?
I’ll try anything. I love arepas con chocolo, agua panela. One of my favorite things to do in South America is go to the markets and look for exotic fruits that you don’t find in the USA. Guanabana and guava are two of my favorites. On the contrary, I can’t develop a taste for mondongo (beef stomach) or lengua (beef tongue).
I know you really enjoy fishing. Have you been able to do any fishing in Colombia?
No, but I met a man today who showed me pictures of the extraordinary fish he catches. Next time!
You start your season in San Luis, what's the rest of the early season looking like for you?
San Luis, then from Argentina I fly to VA for one day to repack. Then to Barcelona for three days before training camp in Mallorca. Paris-Nice is the first major objective on my program.
Would you recommend Colombia as a training destination to other Americans or Europeans?
If so, any tips you'd like to give those who are interested?
Get connected with a local or a ride guide who can make sure you see the best of the best. Things like that are inexpensive relative to the USA. Bring a Garmin so you don’t end up wishing you had. Be careful not to do too much. The amazing riding will suck you in but the altitude is brutal at first. Wear sunscreen.