Ride Report™: Bogotá, Colombia

This post is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series about the cities in which I've had the pleasure of riding a bike in. No, I don't take cycling vacations per se...I don't pack a fancy road bike into a case, I don't pay people to arrange rides for me which include wine tastings. I also don't have the vacation days or funds to travel through Europe or Central America by bike for three months...because I'm not an 18 year old college kid, or a rich dentist. I mean, I wish I could do those things...and my anger is merely my way of dealing with the fact that I can't ...but you get my point. Since I don't take such trips, what I do is that during my travels (be they for pleasure, weddings, work etc.), I try to ride my bike or find a bike I can borrow so I can simply ride around for the fun of it. These are not "epic" rides, though some can be longish and epic-ish. Few involve wearing my full superhero outfit. They are basically what a local person would do as their fun ride, commute, or to get around town. Much like that guy from the TV show on National Geographic who immerses himself in nature by living out in the wild (and always ends up eating turds for their water content), I try to become one with the city. "Become one with the city", I know I sound like a douche, but you get my point. Happily, I can report that unlike the guy from National Geographic, I try not to eat any turds during my trips. I merely try to ride within the city and take it all in, even if that doesn't always include searching out that mythical local climb. I mean I get some climbing in there from time to time in some cities (I'm a man damnit), but it doesn't always work. You see, even if I wanted to, the bikes I usually end up borrowing weigh in at around 65 lbs...so merely riding them in a straight line is epic in my book.

Cycling Inquisition's Proprietary Ride Report™ Metrics:

Length of the ride: 42 miles
Bike used: A pink mountain bike, borrowed from a security guard. Mismatched flat pedals.
Quality of the roads: 8.5
Relative sense of safety while in traffic: 8
Fun Index: 10

Last week's post
briefly mentioned Colombian cycling, which brought back memories of my recent trip to that country's capital. With a population of over 8 million people, Bogotá is rather large. Most cyclists imagine Bogota as merely being a city where you can't just say that the wheels on your bike are "bombproof", without them actually being bombproof. But that's not the case at all. To say that I love this city would be an understatement, and let me explain just a few of the reasons why. Sure, there's the great food, unbelievable shopping and the decriminalized prostitution (uh, I mean, if you're into that sort of thing.) The city is vibrant, friendly and all that crap. Negatives? Well, there's petty crime in Bogota, just like any other city this size. It's perhaps for this reason that it was best for me not to ride around town in a Colnago with Zipp wheels. The other reason, aside from petty crime, is that I don't have such a bike...but for the sake of this post let's just all pretend that I didn't ride a Colnago due to me being a very street-smart and wise city dweller. Speaking of Colnagos, I know we're all supposed to bow before a Colnago (should we encounter one on the road), and that their paint jobs are the most overworked object in the world aside from Joan Rivers' face, but seriously look at some of their paint jobs. What was the inspiration behind this atrocious creation? The kidney stones that Ernesto Colnago has passed? Perhaps one of Sinbad's many man-blouses? My god, even a pimp would laugh at you and tell you it's a bit "over the top".

But let's get down to business. Due to the theme of this fine blog being cycling (and not decriminalized prostitution), I shall focus on the aspects that make this city appealing to me as a person who likes to ride a bike:

1. Ciclovia
Started in 1976, the Ciclovia is a weekly event in which about 75 miles of the largest streets and avenues in the city are closed to car traffic, thus enabling the general population to ride their bikes throughout the city safely. Every Sunday from 7am to 2pm, 1.8 to 2 million (!) Bogotanos head out on their bikes and ride through a large network of streets that go from the wealthy northern suburbs to the poorest areas of the southern part of the city. I'm not gonna lie to you, there's also a few douchebags on rollerblades, and a recumbent or two...but let's ignore that. Much in the way that we have all ripped out the chunk of bread that has mold in it, only to eat the rest, I will choose to ignore that part of Bogota in order to enjoy the good part.

Valet bike parking? Why yes, certainly. Although this option is not ideal for all uses, it works very well for those who ride their bikes to one of the main public transit hubs throughout the city

The ciclovia has a general party atmosphere, and includes vendors, musicians, aerobics and dance classes at major intersections, as well as skate parks. The city also provides free bike repairs and rentals. Sickening huh? I certainly thought so, it was almost too good to be true. Was there a dark and perverse side to all of this? Well, not really. I mean, some vendors were selling what certainly appeared to be hot merchandise, namely Hincapie clothing...which is made in Colombia. There was also some Rock Racing kits being sold that looked like knock-offs, but that's about the extent of it. Not bad huh? I mean, I know some of you consider the sale of Rock Racing kits to be as bad as selling smallpox-infected blankets, but when you put it in perspective, it could be much worse.

Once a year or so, there is also a night time Ciclovia, usually around Christmas time. Here's a short documentary about the ciclovia. If the video is cutting off on your computer, you can watch it here.

2. Bike lanes and paths
Unlike mostly idiotic bike paths in the United States, which usually take you from nowhere to nowhere within suburban neighborhoods, Bogota's paths were created with commuters and everyday citizens in mind. The path's follow the major arteries on the city, and are incredibly easy to use. They are usually fully enclosed within the medians of avenues. The network is extensive, with over 450 miles in total.

Most major streets in Bogota feature bike lanes like this one, within the median. In smaller streets, the bike lanes run along the sidewalks, but are separate from both the sidewalk and the street.

This brings me to a point that I've been thinking about for some time, and here it is. Please don't hate me for saying this, but I mostly hate bike paths/trails in the United States. Why? Because they often go from nowhere to nowhere. I'm talking about the 1 to 15 mile trails that are common in many American cities and suburbs, the ones often photographed for that city's advertising and public relations efforts, the ones that often start and end at parking lots in the middle of nowhere. There are exceptions when it comes to the usability of these trails of course, but this is mostly the truth. What good is it for someone to drive their car somewhere so that they can ride their bike on what is basically a sidewalk that was plopped down in the middle of nowhere? I see the good side of it, people riding their bikes and getting out to do something, but I'm insanely bothered by the fact that the money wasted on these paths could be put to better use (more on that in a few sentences). Also, bike paths reinforce the notion that riding a bike is an activity that is only done for exercise, that riding a bike should not be done within the context of a city, and should not have anything to do with you actually going anywhere for any reason (unless you consider looping around and going back to your car "going somewhere"). I strongly believe that the reason why douchebags threaten us with their cars as we ride in traffic is that they believe riding a bike is for kids...and that if you're an adult, you should do so in the safety of a bike path/trail that goes through the woods and ends at another parking lot. While there's nothing inherently wrong with American bike paths, they certainly reinforce the notion that bikes don't belong on the road. Wouldn't you gladly give up two local paths through the woods, for a few good bike lanes in crucial parts of your town/city? Ones that could lead you to the supermarket, downtown or (oh my god) work? Wouldn't this be a better way to spend all that trail money? Stupid trails strengthen what is already in most people's minds: that bike paths are like a shooting ranges, luge tracks or a jai alai courts. They are places where certain crazy, insane activities must take place for the safety of everyone involved. Much like you don't see a guy using your street as his personal luge track (unless you live in Jamaica, and your neighbor was an extra in Cool Runnings), most people think riding a bike in a city and/or on a street is not only insane but also wrong.

Okay, let me get back to Bogota and how the mindset is so different from that of the American bike path/trail. Bogota manages to see cycling as exercise, but also as transportation and as an essential need for many within its population.

3. Car free days.
Yes, it's true. Since about the year 2000, Bogota has set aside one day out of the year where cars are not allowed in the streets. For a city this size, this is an impressive accomplishment, and the side effects it has had are interesting. You see, on that day, lots of people ride bikes to work. The result? Many realize how easy it is to do so, and continue to do so afterward.

Car-free days may seem nutty, but this is the same city that employed mimes to mock pedestrians and drivers for not following traffic laws. No, I'm not making this up. If you were a driver, and risked having a creepy mime mock you, wouldn't you follow the laws? I know I would.

Can you imagine having a car free day in your city? Insane, I know. By the way, this event is not to be confused with the similarly unusual "Man Free Night", where all men must stay home in order for women to have fun and safely enjoy the city's night life. I told you the city was crazy.

About the ride
So after asking around, I was unable to find any place that would rent a decent bike. My solution? I asked the security guard of the building I was staying in if he had a bike I could borrow, or if perhaps he knew someone that might. As it turned out, he did know of a bike I could use, a small mountain bike clearly meant for a kid no older than 13. This was okay with me, since I'm roughly the size of a 13 year old. The bike belonged to the nightime guard, and he kept it there in case he needed to run to the nearby grocery store for snacks in the middle of the night. The bike looked sort of like this, but was pink. Its shape reminded me of a cricket, a cricket made out of pink rebar. Upon seeing it, I must have let out an audible gasp, because the security guard asked me if I was okay. Together, we made some adjustments to the bike so that I could actually ride it. As we did this, I squinted in order to pretend he was my team mechanic...dialing in my bike for a lengthy training ride. Sadly, my dream-like state came to an end quickly, as the kind security guard farted loudly when he bent over to check the tire pressure. Unapologetic, he continued with the task at hand as though a small piece of the apocalypse had not just escaped from his polyester pants. Since he was doing me a huge favor, and letting me use his co-worker's pink cricket rebar bike, I chose to ignore his gas problem and proceeded as though nothing had happened. I had to wonder though, did this sort of thing ever happen to Merckx as he waited for his bike prior to Paris-Roubaix? Probably not...so I guess that's yet another thing that makes me very much unlike Merckx. That list keeps getting longer and longer through the years. Bummer.

I chose a Sunday as an ideal day to ride around the city for the first time, so I could enjoy the ciclovia and all that surrounds it. From the building I was staying in, I rode through ten blocks of Bogota's streets, and the cars were very courteous...especially when you consider how insane traffic in Bogota can be. Soon enough, I found myself within the ciclovia. That day I rode 42 miles, mostly running north-south and back, along 7th Avenue. The majority of the people riding were doing so at a quick but leisurely pace. Still, people knew how to handle their bikes and I was seldom frustrated by anyone's stupidity. As I made my way into the the city center, the amount of bike traffic rose quickly, as did the amount of vendors, musicians and repair stands on the side of the road. By and large, the people riding their bikes were out for fun, and not hard training. Having said that, I did see a couple of teams out on training rides. Full kits, some carbon fiber, these guys were often cheered on by vendors, and people on their rusty mountain bikes. Colombia has a great past in the world of cycling, and these guys seemed like real heroes to many in the ciclovia. One unexpected thing about these guys is that I saw one complete team come to a sudden stop in order for them to flirt with an attractive girl on the sidewalk. Training, it would appear, is important...but so is flirting with the girl in tight yoga pants. Is this lack of focus to blame for most Colombian cyclists not being great time trialists? Perhaps.

Although the weather was rather cool that day, and mostly overcast, when I got back to the apartment, I quickly realized that I was insanely sunburned...worse than I have ever been in my life actually. Why? Well, it's easier to get sunburned at higher altitudes, and Bogota is 8,600 feet up. As such, I should have remembered to wear sunscreen...but didn't. The upside? After my trip, I told everyone who would listen that I was sunburned because I had been "training at altitude" for the past week. Did anyone I made this comment to understand it or find it even slightly funny? No. Do any of you? Probably not.

Below are just a few pictures of my first ride that Sunday:

You know how whenever you ride, you end up getting into a bit of a race with total strangers who happen to be riding around you? On this day, this guy was my cycling arch-enemy. Laugh if you will, but the guy was insanely fast, and could climb like madman. His bike, like many others in Bogota, is a lugged steel frame with fake Pinarello stickers. It may not be a real Pinarello, but it's actually something better...a handmade steel frame from a Colombian maker who puts the stickers on in order to slightly up its value. The city is filled with these.

You know how annoying it is when people say the extremely annoying phrase "only in New York"? Well, as annoying as it is, I have to say it: "only in Bogota!"

I would love to say that wearing horrible cycling jerseys and talking on your cell phone while ridding are two things that Americans, and only Americans do. Sadly, that's not the case.

Normally, I make fun of people in unicycles...and why wouldn't I? Still, having seen this guy tackle fairly steep climbs, as well as a couple overpasses throughout the day... I can say that he can probably outlclimb 80% of American cyclists.

Powerbars my ass. Plenty of restaurants around the city will provide you with an unbelievable amount of fuel to keep you going as you ride. Pictured above is a fantastic, meat-free feast loaded with carbo goodness. Unlike food in other South American cities, Bogota's gastronomic offerings won't make visitors have the usual explosive diarrhea...which is a real plus. Having said that, I do have to ask: Was this type of meal to blame for the severe anal explosion that the security blasted my way?

If this post wasn't long enough for you, and you still want more content, watch this great slideshow (with audio) which Velo News published recently about the Vuelta A Colombia.

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