The route up Las Palmas starts near the valley floor, but it doesn’t stay there for long. It’s 10 miles to the summit, an arduous climb of about 3,400 vertical feet, a journey of long rises and sharp turns, of tense muscles and heaving lungs.
Some riders stop at the lookout halfway for the views of the city and don’t continue. Some take extended breaks. The reward comes at the top, where restaurants, bike shops and cafes await, and where this month amateur riders gathered day after day to watch their compatriots compete from a continent away in cycling’s biggest race.
“Not everyone dares to come here,” Anderson Murcia, 37, said in Spanish as he stopped briefly to drink water and take photos on a recent morning.
The top of Las Palmas, however, is more than a viewpoint, a rest stop high above Medellín and its 2.5 million inhabitants. In a way, the popular route is also a perfect place to take the measure of a sport that has made Colombia the cycling epicenter of Latin America.
Amateur cyclists take on the challenge of Las Palmas every day, but so do professionals, including some of the Colombians racing in this year’s Tour de France. A professional can do a version of the ascent in 30 minutes. A weekend warrior will take almost twice as long, or much more. The pride is in the punishment, and the achievement, and in being part of a sport that, among Colombians of all ages, has become an unexpected national pastime.
“Soccer surpasses all, but cycling is the second biggest sport in the country,” said Jorge Mauricio Vargas Carreño, the president of the Colombian Cycling Federation. “It is the sport that has the greatest love among all Colombians because of the successes we have had at the international level.”
The roots of that relationship go back decades. Colombians have been riding on cycling’s biggest stages, such as the Tour de France, since the 1970s. In 1984, Luis Herrera, known as Lucho, became the first Colombian to win a stage at the race. Three years later, he became the first to win one of the three so-called European grand tours, triumphing at the Vuelta a España.
Herrera passed the baton to riders such as Santiago Botero, who won the king of the mountains title at the Tour de France in 2000, and Nairo Quintana, who finished second overall in the race in 2013 and in 2015. Colombian women have since won Olympic medals in road cycling and BMX.
Their compatriot Egan Bernal, however, did them all one better: In 2019, he became the first Latin American to win the Tour de France.
“It’s part of our culture,” Bernal, 26, said in a recent telephone interview. “In Colombia, I think 90 percent of the homes have a bicycle. And many people use them as a mode of transportation, especially the humbler people, and over the years they have used it more.”
He added: “Everyone in Colombia is happy when they get their first bike.”
The main reasons why cycling has flourished in Colombia, according to cyclists, officials and coaches, are the socio-economics, history and topography of the nation (large areas of the country are at higher altitudes, such as Medellín, at 4,900 feet, or the capital, Bogota, at 8,600).
“Cycling has become very important in our country,” said Rigoberto Urán, 36, a Colombian cyclist who finished second in the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Olympics. “Colombia is a country with a lot of problems – political problems – and our history is stained by drug trafficking. So cycling kind of gave us a new image for a while.”
José Julián Velásquez, the sports director of Team Medellín-EPM, a professional team founded in 2017 to develop cycling in a city and region better known for notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, said many Colombians were raised riding hills and mountains because bikes are. cheaper way to get around. Quintana, for example, grew up in a city 9,300 feet above sea level and had to pedal up steep slopes every day just to get home from school.
As a result, many Colombian cyclists are known as scarabs, or beetles, for their tenacity as climbers.
Colombia is the only Latin American country in the top 20 of the rankings of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s global governing body. In a sport dominated by and centered in Europe, Colombia was ranked 10th.
The coronavirus pandemic has only deepened Colombia’s connection with the sport, with people buying more bikes to get around and exercise.
Martha Gómez grew up around cycling because her father was a fan, following the careers of the Colombian riders and watching the Tour de France every year. She said she learned to ride as a child but didn’t start taking cycling more seriously until 2021. She now averages as much as 60 miles a week.
“Women were more about being in the gym or walking,” Gómez, 41, said. “But with the pandemic and being confined indoors, it made us find a healthier life. Riding Las Palmas, you didn’t used to see many women, but now you see more. And women not only ride on the road but also on the mountains.”
On Sunday mornings and holidays in Medellín, as in Bogotá, the local authorities closed main roads, including the high-speed lanes of the city’s largest highway, for the exclusive use of cyclists. On a recent morning, they dotted its lanes and inclines. Several wore the jerseys of professional cycling teams, or the Colombian national squad. One kid pedaled away in a Quintana shirt.
“I feel like when something takes off, everybody gets that craving,” said Sara Cardona, 39, a pediatrician who averages about 40 to 60 miles a week.
It’s not uncommon, Cardona said, to run into Colombian stars and even their European rivals on training rides. Amateur riders, both competitive and hobbyists, like to measure themselves against the times posted on well-known climbs such as Las Palmas on the popular cycling app Strava.
Last week, Cardona left her house at 7:30 am to make sure she got up the mountain in time to see the end of that day’s Tour de France stage on TV. On her way to the Safetti bike shop and cafe, she met a shop employee who was also cycling up Las Palmas. They made a polite bet on who would win the Tour de France stage.
The prize: a strong cup of Colombian coffee.