Colombian bike shops. Knowledge and Colnagos with a motherly touch.

My first bike was purchased at a shop owned by one Mr. Gomez, near the Floresta neighborhood in Bogotá. To say that the bike came from a "shop" is an unbelievable overstatement. Perhaps bike hovel is more accurate, considering that the tiny square space was so dark that it appeared to lack electricity. The entire shop was roughly the size of two handicap bathroom stalls, and its dusty walls were made of raw, unpainted cinder block. Like most such shops in Bogotá (fine, I'll call it a "shop" for the sake of simplicity), Mr Gomez had a few of used bikes for sale, and made most of his money on repairs, welding, painting, and selling Colnago, and Pinarello decals. Most importantly, shops like his have always welcomed trades. This means that you can always offset the cost of your new (but used) bike, by trading in your old one.

My first bike is a great example of how these shops operate. It was a heavy, Colombian-made BMX frame that I shared with my brother. It was used, and my mom had it painted in a purple to black fade. The finishing touch came in the form of Mongoose stickers that went on the down tube and seat tube.

Picture of a typical bike shop in Bogota, which I found online. This is similar to what Mr Gomez's shop near our house looked like, though this one is bigger and decidedly nicer on the outside.

The bike district
Today, many people throughout Bogotá continue to favor shops like the one Mr. Gomez ran all those years ago. But the most common type of bike shop is a good bit bigger, and usually in an area near the city center. More importantly, these shops are always grouped along with as many twenty other shops. This is common for most businesses in Colombia, which usually group themselves into districts of sorts.

Do you want cake making equipment? Go to 45th street and you'll have dozens of shops to choose from. Fabric? 12 and 9th. Coffee makers? Caracas Avenue and 19th will give you about a hundred different storefronts to choose on and so forth (if you want to see an impressive directory of such groupings, go to this site, which is in English, and lists many such districts)

Like other shops in Medellin, this one only carries its own brand of frames. Some of those frames, however, have decals for some of the most high-end companies in the world. Despite what you might think, customers know that they are not that brand, and the shop is not trying to fool them. They are just seen as part of the aesthetics of the bike, and can be changed out later on anyway. The bottom left of this picture shows the many decals that you can have applied to your bike.

These larger bike shops are usually busy, with some opening as early as 7am. Customers are loyal, particularly because in some cases, their fathers (and maybe even their grandfathers) frequented one particular shop. Because of Colombian tastes (and the realities of the Colombian economy), these shops don't often carry what Americans and Europeans would consider to be high end products. The market for such goods is very limited, and thus relegated to small specialty shops in some the richest areas of the city.

The average Colombian bike shop, however, will carry utilitarian parts and focus on repairs of any kind. Do you want your current road bike made into a tandem? Drop it off, they can do it. Just pick the new paint color, and it will be done in a week. Do you want your current mountain bike converted for food delivery, including a rack and integrated stand? It can be done easily.

Aside from repairs, these shops usually sell Colombian-made steel frames (many with Colnago stickers for road bikes, and the shop's name for other types of bikes), and fairly low-end components. This is because many of their customers use their bike as a primary mode of transportation, or for work. This requires simple parts that they can afford. Even if their bike is used for leisure, customers don't normally have incredible amounts of money to use up on what is a hobby at best.

The legendary Ramon Hoyos stands in front of the shop that bears his name in Medellin. The shop is now run by his two sons. The shop is located in Carabobo, a street that hosts many bike and paint shops.

The notion of Colombians using bikes for utilitarian purposes brings me to a joke that an employee in one Medellin shop told me two years ago. It's not a great joke, and will seem even less funny after I translate it, but here it goes:

What's the difference between a European climbing 10,000 feet on his bike, and a Colombian climbing 10,000 feet on his bike? The European is training, the Colombian is going home.

As I said, not particularly funny, but it gives you an idea as to why so many Colombian shops carry the parts and bikes they do. The market for high end goods is limited, and those who seek out nicer road bikes in particular are picky. It's for this reason that shops will work with customers to build their bikes, rather than carry inventory that will just sit there for many years.

Aside from the obvious differences that make Colombian bike shops unique, there is one aspect that stands out. You may not notice it at first, but once you realize it, you'll see how unusual it seems. In most shops, all the employees you will interact with are women. They wear uniforms, are extremely helpful, and most of all, are insanely knowledgeable. Unlike in other countries, working at a bike shop is a life-long career for these employees, not simply a job. Women who work at bike shops won't be going off to college soon, and they won't be getting another job in the bike industry. They are lifelong, devoted bike shop employees. Some are actually second-generation shop employees, so the business is in their blood. There's a certain degree of authority in their voice, which comes as a result of their experience and knowledge. You quickly learn not to question them, because they simply know more than you ever will. Period.

These women take their job very, very seriously. They understand compatibility between components better than any magazine's tech writer. These women also appear to have a photographic memory when it comes to every product catalog that has come out in the last twenty years. As such, they know vintage parts, frames and paint schemes. They know what was available from what vendor and when. This is particularly true since most of these shops thrive on selling parts, and keeping people's old bikes running, more so than selling new bikes. But don't worry, they know current products lines just as well.

The end result is that you deal with extremely knowledgeable employees whose entire life is and will always be devoted to bikes, bike parts, and helping customers. More often than not, they don't ride bikes themselves. This is a business, and their livelihood, and they treat it as such. It's an astonishingly different way of interacting with someone in a shop once you've experienced it.

This particular bike shop in Bogota employs three generations of the same family at once.

But perhaps the most amazing difference in many such shops, is the warmth with which you are received and treated by the employees. In my favorite shop in Bogota, a hug and a kiss on the cheek is not uncommon as I walk in. Also not uncommon is me getting an instantaneous answer regarding which frames in one company's line in the mid 1980s were available in English or Italian threading. No guesswork, no need to look it up on the internet. The answer is always there to be given.

Getting ready for the Christmas season in Medellin. These frames were all purchased from a Colombian supplier, then painted in the shop, and assembled there. All the wheels were built in the shop as well.

So if you're in the mood for shopping in a one-man operation, Mr. Gomez and shops like his continue to thrive throughout Colombia. If you want an American-style shop (but with half the inventory and twice the price), those shops exist as well. But if you want great service by a knowledgeable staff (all with a warm motherly touch), I suggest you ask where the bike shop district is.

Once there, look for a shop that's named after a winner of the Vuelta a Colombia. Go in, ask questions, and don't be surprised if you get a hug and a kiss by your second or third visit.

Alvaro "The Condor of Cundinamarca" Pachon, standing outside his shop in Bogota's bike district. His shop (which he inherited from his father) is next door to another shop owned by his great rival at the Vuelta a Colombia, Miguel Samaca. I've written about them and their shops before, which you can read here.