If the cycling gods could have designed their own country, it would likely look something like Colombia, a country where the Andes mountains split into three huge ranges, making for a nation of epic uphills and dramatic downhills. Throw in high-altitudes and long-distances, and you have a recipe for some truly amazing – and challenging – cycling. This perfect mixture means that Colombia has produced more than its fair share of world-class cyclists over the years.
Colombian cyclists have long been a thorn in the side of the – generally – European-dominated professional cycling circuit: indefatigable climbers, with remarkable stamina, and a real knack for dominating uphill stages in major competitions, Colombians still make up a disproportionate percentage of competitors in events like the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. In fact, in the 2017 Tour de France, Colombians represented 7 of the 198 riders – a very large share for a non-European country. Colombian cyclists have also regularly found themselves on the podiums at these major events. Colombians don’t just show up to cycling competitions, they win them!
The geographical challenges of learning to ride in Colombia is the principal reason as to why the country has produced so many great cyclists over the years – if you train regularly enough at high-altitudes on such steep roads, it’s only natural that you’d develop a gift, especially for climbing. Take Nairo Quintana, Colombia’s current cycling hero, for example – he “trained” on the mountainous roads of Boyaca region, riding a heavy-framed bike over 10 miles to school every day (locals even say that he would tow his sister on the tough uphills).
The cycling culture in Colombia is hard to trace to any “road to Damascus” moment – there’s no single event that caused Colombia as a nation to grow to love cycling. The gruelling race, the Vuelta de Colombia, has been going since 1951, and Bogota first started its weekly ciclovia – when over 120km of roads in the capital are closed for cyclists – back in 1974 (a tradition that originated in Colombia and has spread around the world). So why do thousands of Colombians don their lycras, saddle up, and hit the streets and mountain roads every single weekend?
The answer appears to be simple – Colombia is an amazing place to ride a bike. Just as birdwatching has exploded as a national hobby since people started to realize that Colombia is home to more bird species than any other country, cycling has found a home in Colombia simply because it’s a dream cycling destination. If you’re interested in picking up a new sport and you live in Colombia, then cycling is an obvious choice! Colombians also love to see their country positively represented on a global stage, and Colombian cyclists have been doing that for longer than anyone else. That’s why Colombians crowd around televisions across the country, glued to every stage of the Tour de France – when there’s a Colombian racing, they’re not just racing for personal glory, they are doing it for the nation.
So perhaps there’s no great hidden story behind Colombia’s obsession with cycling, the simple fact seems to be that Colombians live in an ideal country for cycling, and truly respect and admire the talent of their premier cyclists. Not many people know that cycling is the most popular sport in Colombia – after football, always after football! – but it is and, as long as world-class Colombian cyclists keep emerging, and Colombia’s mountain roads don’t somehow disappear, it probably always will be.