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Cycling kings of the concrete jungle

Colombian cyclists have made their mark on the world racing stage.

BOGOTA — Ambitious Colombian cyclists often dream of pedaling over the Pyrenees, streaking through the Loire Valley and sprinting along the Champs-Elysee to win the Tour de France.

Then it’s back to reality.

During a recent race in Bogota, cyclists charged through a crime-ridden slum. They swerved to avoid drunken men and mothers pushing baby carriages down potholed streets. Several riders were chased by dogs.

But for bike racers, Colombia has at least one feature in common with France. With several peaks topping 17,000 feet, Colombia’s three Andean Mountain ranges can be even more challenging than the Alps.

The rugged landscape combined with a surplus of hungry teenagers looking to move up in the world help explain why Colombia has produced more world-class cyclists than any other Latin American nation. In fact, before the Lance Armstrong era, Colombians were widely viewed as superior to U.S. cyclists.

“The best come from poor families,” said Jose Duarte, a former pro rider who now runs a bicycle shop in Bogota. “They are more aggressive because they feel more pressure to triumph due to their economic situation.”

Though Europeans dominate the sport, Colombians have made their mark on the slopes of France, Italy and Spain. Several have scored stage victories as well as the coveted “King of the Mountains” title at the Tour de France.

In 1987, Lucho Herrera, whose hardscrabble family grew flowers on the outskirts of Bogota, was the overall winner of the Tour of Spain (called the "Vuelta a Espana" in Spanish) — which, along with the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, is one of the cycling world’s three biggest events.

Riding for the U.S. Postal Service team in 2003, Colombian Victor Hugo Pena wore the leader’s yellow jersey for several days and helped Armstrong notch the fifth of his seven consecutive Tour de France victories.

Some Colombians find glory in their own backyard.

Founded in 1951, the two-week-long Tour of Colombia is the oldest and most challenging multi-stage bike race in Latin America. Despite drug-related violence and an ongoing guerrilla war, the race has never been canceled. The 59th edition of the race started June 6.