Riding in Colombia: An American professional's winter retreat

Nate King, photographed at the Beaufort Memorial Cycling Classic by Manual For Speed

In early July of this year, I got an email from Competitive Cyclist's Nate King. He wanted to know just how feasible it would be for him, a domestic neo-pro, to spend the winter training in Colombia. He had a few specific questions, which I did my very best to answer. I encouraged him, and shared every bit of information I could. I suggested places to go, gave him contacts, and told him of common training routes. I sent that email, and wondered if he'd ever go through with it. How likely would it be that a young American professional would pack up his things and go to a country he'd never been to before? One where a language he didn't know was spoken? 

Though it seemed unlikely to me at first, I very much wanted him to go through with it. In fact, the prospect of him doing so made me happy. I suppose this is because the love I have for Colombia has always been one that I've wanted to share and tell people about....which certainly explains me having an entire blog almost exclusively dedicated to that pursuit.

In any case, a week ago, I heard from Nate again. No longer the American who was full of questions about Colombia, Nate is now calling the city of Manizales home. That's where he'll be spending his winter, as he brings his first season as a professional to a close, and he prepares for 2013. Because of this, I wanted to speak with Nate, in order to include his insights into my ongoing series about non-Colombians riding in Colombia (you can find the first post here). 

While the first post about this topic dealt with those who would rather travel in an organized group, today's post is about what it's like to go it alone-ish, and to do so as a professional with very specific training goals in mind. I wanted to know, how is Nate adapting? How does the food seem to him? How's the riding? But more importantly, how are Colombia and my fellow Colombians, treating him?

Before we start today's festivities, let me give you a little bit of background information about Nate. He's a 25 yard old neo-pro, who went from Cat 5 to Cat 1 in a single season, and became a professional the following year, 2012. He started the 2012 season with his weight "erring on the Kate Moss side of the scale", something he now calls the "embodiment of a rookie mistake". After the USPRO in May, his hematocrit level hovered around an anemic 30. With that, he decided to make some changes. New coach, new outlook, all in an attempt to make things better in the long run. 

Thinking back to his first season as a pro, Nate comments, "I gained a lot of perspective, wisdom, and respect for the guys that have done this for years upon years. I hit cycling very headstrong, and 2012 was humbling. Going from being able to hang with the fastest cyclists in the US to hardly capable of pedaling a bike in the space of half a year can seriously warp self-perception."

Part of his plan for a better 2013 is training in Colombia.

How did the idea of spending the winter in Colombia first come up?
Training Camp for the team in 2012 was held in Tucson—the typical winter home for a large proportion of American domestic Pro/Elites. Luckily, I only had to spend a week there. Don't get me wrong, Tucson is much better in the winter than say, Salt Lake City (my home), but it's sort of like deciding between ordering a caesar salad with chicken or a caesar salad without - at a premier steakhouse. And not getting any steak. In my twisted analogy, there's an 18oz porterhouse somewhere...and it's in Colombia.

Anyway, it was there that I began searching for an ideal winter destination. Colombia came up a few times, and then in April at Speedweek I got the chance to room with composited teammate Christian Parrett, who'd spent some time racing there the year previous and was hellbent on returning. I did some research, and Christian and I ended up hanging out with other teammate/Colombian native Cesar Grajales in Boulder in July. He offered to help us get situated if we wanted to go, and from there on out it was pretty much decided.

Digging into the matter of "where to go", Colombia quickly became a no-brainer. Being able to ride a 3000ft climb up to ridiculous elevation in the middle of January in short sleeves is a godsend from my previous years spent throttling the trainer for hours on end in Utah. The cost of living compared to anywhere in the US or Europe is somewhere around a half to a third, depending on lifestyle and locale. Cycling is revered here, and the cycling culture is a unique phenomenon that's incredible to behold as a gringo used to having to fight for his place on the road with the public. Flights down via Spirit Airlines from Florida are affordable, and with Cesar to show us the Colombiano ropes, it got easier and easier to say "yes". Added bonus? Learning Spanish.

Where are you now, and how long have you been in Colombia?
I'm living in Cesar's [Cesar Grajales] hometown of Manizales, a city of 500,000 that sits at 7,000 ft, of elevation. I've been here a month, and have a couple more to go.

What's your current living situation?
Cesar, Christian and I are all sharing an apartment. Christian and I have the same coach, so our training schedules are pretty synced up, which makes rest and made finding rides initially pretty easy. We share a Gringo addiction to aguapanela, bocadillos, and arepas.

What's your usual training schedule right now, and what rides do you commonly do?
It varies quite a bit depending on what's going on, but usually three or four longer rides (4-6hrs) a week, with a couple shorter (2-3hrs) cruises. Manizales sits on top of a few mountain peaks, and it's pretty difficult to do a "flat" ride. Options are to descend out of town on one of three 20-30km HC climbs into the valley below, or climb the "short side" of the Alto de Letras, a ~30km ascent to almost 12,000 ft.

Temperature around the equator is regulated by altitude, not by seasons. So whatever temperature you enjoy most, there's a town or city in Colombia that will have it year 'round. Is Manizales too warm for your taste? Try Medellin, commonly known as the "city of eternal spring". Want it cooler still? Bogota might be the ticket for you. There's also places in both extremes. Take your pick.

Have you climbed all 52 miles up Letras yet?
I haven't done the long side yet, sadly. It's on my "to-do" list before I go, and will involve hiring someone to drive us down to the base on the other side at Mariquita. Our first instinct was to ride it all in one day from Manizales (up the short side, down the long side, and back up the long), but three hours of descending doesn't sound like a lot of fun.

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How's the altitude treating you?
Initially it was a rough, especially since in my first days here I wasn't riding a lot down in the valley owing to lack of knowledge about roads. My home in Utah is at about 5,000 ft, but the added 2,000 ft of elevation to where I sleep coupled with riding at 6,000-10,000 ft every day made recovery difficult. My first rest after riding for a couple weeks here was magical, though—my body seemed to acclimate overnight and I no longer felt like someone was ripping my lungs out riding up slight inclines.

Favorite climbs in Colombia so far?
There are so many, and I haven't even done the "famous" ones yet! It's a toss-up. I really enjoy the climb to Manizales from the Tres Puertes junction, off the road to Medellin. It's very similar in profile to one of my climbs back home (Big Cottonwood Canyon), about 14 miles and 3200 vertical feet.

Initially, it gradually ascends from quiet fincas in the heat of the river valley, the narrow road hugging the side of a mountain like a loose scarf. Slowly it climbs through the pueblito of La Cabana, past individual homes (and the occasional errant canine) and a rock quarry. The views are magnificent looking back onto the valley and north towards Medellin. The latter half of the climb as you approach Manizales just gets mean. It's steep and relentless, switching back and dropping all pretense of views while delivering medical-grade pain rounding switchbacks that pitch to 15%. As the road snakes into town, the traffic gets hairy, the pavement gets rough, and traffic picks up. Eventually it devolves into dodging buses while grinding up a 10%-grade road in the middle of the city before the climb gives up the ghost in the bustling heart of Manizales, El Centro.

It's sort of my personal version of a descent into hell...except it's an ascent. And it's a bizarre, good hell. [You can see Nate's training rides through his Strava account].

That's Manizales over there

Are any friends and/or family completely scared for you, as a result of you being in a "dangerous and violent" place like Colombia?
A litany. The initial reactions I received were bad enough that I was reticent about telling people my winter plans. They usually revolved around cocaine, kidnapping, murder, Pablo Escobar, FARC, and the like. Western governments don't help, suggesting on their respective embassy websites that traveling to Colombia is a surefire way to find yourself up for ransom somewhere in the jungle. The truth is, I've lived in and spent time in places where I felt more afraid for my life in the United States.

Now that I've spent a good chunk of time here and have a great deal of fondness for Colombians, when friends and family in the US make drug running or kidnapping jokes, I get offended. I find it incredibly disrespectful, both to the country and the people that live here. I don't make jokes about widely-publicized mass shootings in the US, or suggest that visiting will cause instant type-2 diabetes. I feel like the reactionary generalizations many people at home make about Colombia are insensitive and ignorant, and they're a supreme demonstration of our oft-insular mindset.

What has surprised you the most about Colombia so far?
Easily the incredible hospitality demonstrated by nearly every Colombian I've met, spanning all walks of life, professions, and in a variety of interactions throughout the day. I'd been told Colombians are some of the nicest people in the world before I came, but I was still blown away by just how much they seem to genuinely care about each other, both friend and stranger alike.

My first experience with the warmth of the Colombian people was at the airport in Bogota. Thanks to our haphazard budget travel planning, our connection from Bogota to Manizales was booked separately from our flight down, and we had to physically transfer our luggage ourselves. During the flight from the US to Bogota, one of the zippers on my bike case had broken, exposing one of my wheels. It wasn't a huge deal, and I wasn't too concerned with it for the quick 40-minute jump to Manizales. When I checked my bike in with Avianca (the primary domestic airline in Colombia), the desk agent was fairly worried about my bag. I told her it wasn't a big deal, and went to board. When I got off the plane to retrieve my bike, I'd discovered the zipper on my bag had been fixed! I would never expect something like that to happen anywhere else. Ever - and things like that continually happen.

Roadside fruitstand near the town of Mariquita. Stands like these usually get all their fruits from the surrounding five to ten miles at the very most. As such, the selection of fruit varies by altitude. It all depends on what grows in that micro climate.

What have you liked most about Colombia?
Aside from my gushing about how nice everyone is? The riding itself is simply phenomenal, and I'm not even situated in a "hub" of Colombian road cycling. Even my boring days outclass many of my best days on American roads. The sheer volume of climbing can get downright brutal - if the day isn't spent climbing Letras, I'm faced with at minimum a 20km grind uphill to get to my house. Building roads and settlements on flat parcels of ground seems to be an anachronism. The scenery is boggling, especially given the huge swath of altitudinal zonation available to ride through. It's truly something straight out of an issue of National Geographic - coffee and orange farms, jungles, glaciers. Manizales itself occupies something like eight microclimates.

For a North American, it's truly spectacular witnessing the effect of elevation on climate, settlement and flora solely because of the equatorial locale.

Yes, this is just one of those videos that is put together by the board of tourism, and it's in Spanish. But if you watch it, you'll get a sense for the wide variety of climates, plant life, and nature in Manizales that Nate references.

What do you miss most from the US? 
Beer, with pizza and my own oven coming in tied for a close second. I'm a self-admitted beer snob - the domestic brew of choice, Club Colombia (negra o roja, por favor) isn't bad, but sadly doesn't quite measure up to the microbrews in the US.

Pizza in Colombia is quite popular, but seems more a vessel for cheese delivery, and I've steered clear for the most part. Those that know me are pretty familiar with my baking problem - cookies, cake, pizza, bread...it's a nasty habit that cycling pays for, in a way.

Anyway, ovens are certainly the exception versus the norm when it comes to typical apartment kitchens, and I'm definitely lacking. Last night I got desperate and baked a giant cookie on the stovetop by flipping an electric griddle over on top of a skillet. I was briefly proud of my Colombian Kitchen Kludging moment. Briefly.

Vuelta a Colombia winner Giovanny Baez sports the leader's jersey, which is often sponsored by Pilsen beer. Pilsen is owned by Bavaria, one of Colombia's largest companies. If you want to read more about how companies like Bavaria have helped shape Colombian society, and cycling in particular, you can read this post.

What are your favorite Colombian foods so far? Have you partaken in any of the Colombian super foods for cyclists? [which I've written before, see here, here, and here]
That's hard. A lot of people don't speak very highly of Colombian food, and I'm not quite sure why. The comida tipica I've sampled so far is really, really good.

No, visiting the mountains of Colombia isn't going to produce a revelatory culinary experience - Momfuku, Chez Panisse, and the French Laundry be damned. Instead, everything I've eaten that purports local origin tastes like it was made by the Colombiana Abuelita I never had. Simple, basic, comforting, and outstanding. Pinning down a favorite is hard...the panaderia culture is consuming, especially for a cyclist, putting the usual bread suspects high on my list.

Panaderias are, technically, bakeries. But they sell many other things, and are also a place where people meet to have a snack and drink a coffee, tea, and sometimes a beer. They come in all shapes and sizes. This is one in Bogota, is on the large side.
Pandebono (proof that hot cheese and bread can never go wrong), pandeyuca, and pastel gloria all get high marks. If we're going to skew towards "real" food, the chicharron in Colombia is fantastic. I'm accustomed to the Mexican variety, kind of a slimy, unpleasant experience—Colombian is much more of an ethereal bacon acid trip, especially torn up into a bowl of freshly-cooked frijoles, accompanied by an arepa.

Oh, the arepas - a new carbohydrate source for me. Arepa de choclo is a real treat, and something I fully intend to bring back to the US with me. Of course, aguapanela and bocadillos are on-the-bike staples - but I find myself usually avoiding them off, like most food I eat while riding.

Arepa de Choclo. Technically speaking "choclo" simply means corn, but in Colombia the word refers specifically to sweet corn, which gives these arepas their distinct flavor. Klaus tip of the day: if you live in or around New York City, and you want to try out some great arepas, go see Maria Piedad Cano

How is cycling in Colombia different? How is it the same as in the US?
Different? It's the most unrelenting riding I've ever had the pleasure of enjoying. Building roads (and cities) on anything resembling a flat surface in Caldas [department where Manizales is located] is verboten. As I get more accustomed to the sheer volume and size of the uphills, climbs that loomed like Alpe d'Huez when I arrived are now becoming targets for coffee rides—one can only spin around the velodrome (truly, the only flat road anywhere near Manizales) so many times. That's not to say there aren't difficult climbs near my home in the US, but they're generally things one rides to - a goal, a target. In Colombia, they're the road home.

Other aspects of riding I find different...the drivers. Make no mistake, drivers in Colombia, to my naive gringo sensibilities are complete and total lunatics - very skilled lunatics. But, for all the insanity and incredible feats of driving skill I witness on a daily basis, their attitude towards cyclists teeters on borderline respect. I've worked as a messenger in a few American cities, have had more than my fair share of getting tagged by cars, and I've never felt safer on a bicycle on the road than here. On foot, in another car, it's an entirely different story. A total about-face from home.

The store stop is always a treat, especially when I'm in a small town, or fairly far from home. Usually it involves stopping at the local panaderia for some pastel de chicharron, cafe tinto, and maybe a pre-packaged ice cream cone. Inevitably I'll start chatting with someone working there in my pidgin Spanish, and the conversation nearly always follows the same course: "Why are you here?" "Do you like Colombia?" "REALLY?! Do you like the food?!" "You like chicharron? I LOVE CHICHARRON!" "Bienvenidos!" At the conclusion of these exchanges, I usually find myself with a pile of free bocadillos. It's not a bad setup.

Palermo neighborhood in Manizales

Have you met or ridden with any local riders during your time there? Would you consider racing while you're there?
A few, though by and large Manizales is a mountain bike town - in fact, on our third or fourth ride here we met Marcelo Gutierrez, the national downhill champion riding up the short side of Letras (fact: guys with hairy legs who can stomp 10th at Downhill Worlds can also go uphill without any trouble, too). I've received numerous invites to ride dirt with locals, but most people seem to avoid pavement. That and my own training schedule makes riding with others hard... the travails of the road racer. 

Racing? Yes. There's actually a short circuit race here during La Ferias, a week-long festival in Manizales during the first week of January. Some heavy hitters are coming...rumor has it Rigoberto Uran might be making an appearance. As far as other races, I'd love to take a crack at the Vuelta Colombia or the Clasico RCN, but we'll see what the year holds.

Local downhill professional Marcelo Gutierrez takes on the streets of Manizales

Any insights into the Colombia mindset that you could share? Unusual quirks about the country or its people that you as an American have noticed?
I could probably write a short novel on this question alone, but for the sake of brevity, I'll try not to. I wrote a sappy paragraph on my blog that I think might illustrate the prime difference between the Colombian mindset and the American, from my perspective:

"...their attention is focused on things more immediate. This país, these people, they are the happiest encountered. A refreshing mentality, one driven not by a ravenous hunger for more, but motivated by an innate love of their compatriots. Happy to get by, to exist, to spend as much time with loved ones doing what they enjoy in life, and sharing it with anyone in shouting distance. This isn’t to say this isn’t a hardworking place - but its people are hardworking because they care about each other, not because they’re trying to get ahead of one another."

I'm incredibly appreciative of it. It's altered the way I approach things here, and I enjoy social gatherings and general good times more. Living in the moment, instead of always thinking forwards, as it were. Most people we've met are focused on enjoying life and sharing it with their peers, instead of proving themselves to others.

Quirky? Sure, there's a litany of amusing cultural quirks to this gringo. I've taken to bagging my own groceries - I'm fairly certain the grocery bagger's union here requires that all baggers place only a single item in each plastic bag before tying a knot and moving onto the next plastic receptacle. The minuto, or as Christian and I have taken to call it, the "chain phone". When we first saw the signs advertising "Minutos" with street vendors, we thought they were selling prepaid cell (popular here) minutes. No, they are actually selling talking time on a phone chained to their cart. The mystery of why so many of our new Colombian friends would call us on strange, random phone numbers was truly confounding until we uncovered the truth of the minutos. We've even thought about embarking on a new business venture, chaining other electronic devices to a cart for use by the public. Chain Xbox? Chain iPod? Chain laptop? Chain blender? The possibilities are endless.
My american wife lovingly refers to people who sell "minutos" in Colombia as "Colombian pay phones", and that's what they are. You pay them by the minute to use one of their cell phones. While an overwhelming number of Colombians have cell phones, many have pre-paid phones. This means that if they're running low on minutes, they'd rather use this service. Another reason to do so, is that calls between carriers are sometimes expensive. So if you're calling someone on another carrier, or a land line, it's cheaper to go to one of these people, and use one of their phones. By the way, In Bogota, I've seen people provide a similar service with phone chargers. You have them a coin or two, and they let you charge your phone.

Some other quick automotive-related quirks: Pedestrians here play a fairly permanent game of frogger. In Colombia, pedestrians NEVER have the right of way. Yes, that schoolbus, old lady, or ambulance will mow you down without second thought. Any flat surface is a parking spot, provided your vehicle is nice enough. Brand new Mercedes E63? You might be able to park on the Pope's grave [I have to say that in Bogota, things are very different, and parking on sidewalks, once a common occurrence, is now pretty much out of the question everywhere you go]. In that vein, free parking is the exception, not the rule. Park on a public street, and when you go to leave, you're liable to be hassled for a few hundred pesos by a guy wearing a vest. Motorcycles are a trip. Extremely popular, and tiny by American standards. I have a 900cc sport bike at home, and it would likely be one of the biggest bikes in the city. There are piles of 125-200cc standard bikes dressed up to look like big Yamaha R1s with enormous plastic fairings - it almost works until you peek at the lawnmower-sized engine and hear the racket it makes as it struggles to pass cyclists riding uphill.

The Universidad de Caldas velodrome in Manizales

What advice would you give to those considering a trip to Colombia for cycling purposes?
I don't feel especially qualified to answer yet, but I'll give it a shot. As far as getting here goes, Spirit Airlines is VERY affordable, but you'll have to deal with the headaches of a super-budget carrier (they lost my roommate's bike for a week), as well as your own transfer when you get to Colombia. If it's financially possible, booking all the way through on Avianca would be my preference - they're so much better than nearly any US airline, it's kind of silly. No domestic bag fees, meals on flights, hospitable staff.

Anyway, when it comes to equipment, I'd suggest beefier tires. Many of the roads and routes we ride here are smooth, glassy pavement, but those that aren't main thoroughfares have brief dirt sections and pretty choppy pave. Limiting yourself only to roads in the best shape will limit your choices. Aside from that, a rain jacket is a plus - it does rain here in the afternoons occasionally, but I've been pretty good at avoiding it. Winter gear isn't needed, but a windvest/jacket and knee warmers are good for the days climbing above 9000ft, it gets a bit chilly up there.

Warm cities like Manizales are oddly close to the snow-capped Nevado Del Ruiz volcano. In 1985, the Nevado Del Ruiz generated enough heat to melt much of the snow that surrounds it, causing a massive mudslide that killed 23,000. I wrote about that tragedy, which you can read here

Finallyand this applies to most international travel, arrive with an open mind. Try everything. Talk to locals, they're so incredibly appreciative that you've come to their country solely to enjoy what it has to offer, and are often astounded if you like it here. Learn to dance salsa, but tell girls you don't know it. Be humble. While the middle class is burgeoning in Colombia, there's still quite a bit of poverty. Colombia occupies a unique spot in that regard with a very strong cycling culture, yet a great deal of abject hardship. Also, Manizales prides itself on having very clean public water, but other locations are not so lucky. Finally, if you're trying to keep a lower profile, nothing is a dead giveaway like a gringo in shorts and flipfops.

Nate rides in and around Manizales

American professionals doing very serious training in the Colombian Andes

Thanks to Nate for his time, and for putting up with my endless questions. I also thank him for giving a place like Colombia a chance, and hope that others (perhaps inspired by him) will follow suit.

You can follow Nate's adventures in Colombia through his blog, on Strava, Instagram or on Twitter.
Lastly, I'm placing another order of Cycling Inquisition jerseys this saturday, Jaunary 5th. If you want to order, email me (contact information is on the right hand column of the blog).