Beeeeeep. Beep. Beep. Vwwwwwmm. Toot toot. Vwwwwmm. ‘Ehhh’. Beep beep. Neeee noooor neeee noooor….Bam.
And just like that, we’ve hit the city. Sounds, sirens, people, cars and motorbikes are everywhere, moving fast and for a moment it feels like we’re standing in the epicentre, paralysed and confused, senses on overdrive. And just a little bit overwhelmed.
The isolated Baja desert seems like a distant memory and now we’re in a new country, new city, new culture.
We’re in Medellín, Colombia, which twenty five years ago was known as the murder capital of the world. Now it is a thriving cosmopolitan hub with much development and streets full of bustling activity. The citizens here, of which there are two and a half million, ooze pride and hope, and it’s clear why as this beautiful city sits deep in a valley with majestic and steep mountains surrounding it on all sides. There is a race for space with informal, sometimes precarious, settlements clawing up the mountainside next to forty storey towers that reach for the sun like the the undergrowth in a dense rainforest.
Most importantly though, there are a lot of cyclists of all kinds. It feels very exciting to be around so many allies on two wheels. So we snap out of our overwhelmed paralysis, sign up for a walking city tour, then hit the numerous bike shops. Yup, we’re going to fit in just fine over here.
The walking tour reveals the history and politics that give Colombia its reputation and it’s really fascinating to hear the point of view of a thirty something year old, who has memories of extremely difficult times, but now the hope and yet realism of the strive for peace. It seems like it will be a long journey here and the western demand for drugs, which is the root cause of the instability, certainly makes it a global issue, not just a Colombian one.
Despite the excitement, the city was getting a bit much and soon we were ready to get on the road. By complete fortune (and due to the ‘requirement’ to catch an important stage of the Giro d’Italia), we decided to roll out on a Sunday. Now, rolling out of Medellín, no matter which way you go, isn’t actually a roll of any kind, it’s more of a consistent slog. Yes, the only way is up. 1000 metres in fact. And this would have been quite unbearable if it wasn’t for the fact our route happened to align with one of the weekly Ciclovía streets. Not only does Medellín (and several other Colombian cities) close certain streets in the centre every Sunday morning for sole use by cyclists, runners, rollerbladers and walkers, it also closes its longest road climb out of the city to give its citizens a serious work out. And, just by chance, we were on that road and my goodness it was exciting – the energy was infectious.
There were the serious Lycra-clad early-birds, already on their descent down in slick packs, the reckless teens following them close behind on their gnarly BMXs, the hybrid riders, eyes focused on the challenge ahead, dads pulling their kids up with a bungee rope linking their bikes, young women engrossed in their weekly social workout, mountain bikers with their suspension locked off getting some training in before the next off-road trip and the older generation on their vintage steeds showing everyone how it’s done.
And everyone called out ‘buenos dias!’ and some were so keen to talk; I imagine we rather stuck out with such a full load. We heard how they are proud that Medellín is a fit city, ‘we love cycling and keeping fit and healthy,’ one woman exclaimed.
And what a marvel it is to watch and participate in.
Not only were the cycling citizens a marvel, but the whole Ciclovía operation is a marvel too. As we were nearing the top, taking a moment out at a viewpoint over the city, we turned round to see a truck gradually moving up the road, with a guy leaning out the back to pick up the orange cones that had segmented the temporary cycle lane from the car lane (it was a dual carriageway in each direction). The weekly Ciclovía time slot was clearly over and it was time to get the roads back to normal operation. Another guy was calling out to cyclists to move over to the outside of the road to complete the ascent. All very slick and seamless and it was clear that drivers and cyclist knew the protocol. Not only this but throughout the ascent there were attendants standing at every junction where a car might need to cross, greeting riders, keeping things safe and organising the traffic. They all proudly wore their city uniform.
So why on earth isn’t this catching on around the world like hot cakes? I do not know.
The city website itself says ‘To encourage fitness and health, the local council closes certain major roads to traffic so that residents have a space for jogging, running, skating, cycling, and aerobics. It’s not only a space for exercise, but a space for the city to meetup with friends, family members, strangers of all ages. Dogs are welcome as well.’ https://www.medellincolombia.co/medellin-city-guide/ciclovia/
According to Wikipedia, ‘the inspiration for Ciclovías is credited to Bogotá, Colombia. The events have taken place since December 1974 when they started through the efforts of organiser Jaime Ortiz Mariño and others cyclist aficionados. However, it wasn’t until 1976, when Bogota’s Mayor Luis Prieto Ocampo signed the 566 and 567 decrees, that Ciclovía became an official program promoted by the City government and supported by the Transportation Department.’
Surely it’s time for London and other UK cities to start giving the streets back to the people to promote health and well-being, but also to activate streets, boost Sunday morning economies and inject some citizen ownership and pride. What are we waiting for?
With the ascent complete and both of us buzzing, we tucked into a large brunch at a busy cafe at the top before setting off on our Colombian bikepacking adventure.