Cycling kings of the concrete jungle

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.

The Colombian capital, in turn, has become a Mecca for recreational riders.

Since 1975, Bogota officials have on Sunday and holiday mornings closed major thoroughfares to vehicles and turned them over to cyclists. During the week, some commuters forego cars, taxis and buses to make use of nearly 200 miles of paved bike paths.

“Bicycles have become part of our lifestyle,” said Gilberto Serrato, who trains handicapped cyclists, including Colombian soldiers who have lost limbs in land mine explosions.

Those with a competitive streak can usually test their strength and endurance at a weekend race, like last Sunday’s individual time trial, in which riders pedaled through a crowded ghetto called Via Gloria.

Among them were semi-pro racers from the more prosperous neighborhoods of northern Bogota, who rode $3,000 bikes with carbon-fiber frames.

Others donned T-shirts and tennis shoes and rode clunkers with faulty brakes and missing derailleurs. One cyclist, Luis Granados, was missing his right arm, the result of an accident at a sugar mill when he was 15.

“I’ve been into cycling since I was little,” said Granados, 34, a bike messenger who was once a member of Colombia’s Para-Olympic cycling squad.

Granados and about 100 other cyclists faced a brutal, one-mile course that rose 700 feet. Some of the asphalt and cement streets were so steep they would have been rated “beyond category” — or the toughest of the tough — in European races.

Even the best riders struggled, while some were forced to zig-zag their way up the inclines. A few stopped entirely to catch their breath. But no one gave up.

Along the way, they pedaled past red brick huts with laundry hanging from the rooftops. They crossed a bridge spanning an open sewer. Sidewalk vendors hawking tamales and fried chicken watched the action and cheered.

After crossing the finish line, wedged between a vegetable stand and a shoe repair shop, the winners in the youth, under-23, and elite categories were awarded coupons that could be redeemed for merchandise at bike stores.

And because the race was broadcast on local radio, they also soaked up a few minutes of fame as the newly crowned cycling kings of the concrete jungle.

More on Colombia:

A Colombian experiment in nation building

Books by donkey

Drug traffickers move underwater