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Cycling kings of the concrete jungle

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

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.

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