UNKNOWN ROADS – COLOMBIA
Words and Photos by Matthew Clark - Stirl and Rae Photo
Bleary-eyed and a little foggy from the hours spent zigzagging my way to Colombia, I awoke to the sounds of the pilot announcing our descent into Bogota. I peeked out the window to see low-lying clouds sticking to the vibrant, lush mountains. We would be scaling and exploring those same mountains in the days that followed.
Unknown Roads was a project long in the making, spawned from a backpacking trip some years ago.
In a typical scene to anyone familiar with traveling through Central America, I sat jammed between two local Guatemalans on a two-seater, a third of the way back on a chicken bus bound for the highest point in Central America. As the driver maneuvered in erratic fashion up, down and around goat trails otherwise known as the main arteries of the area, I watched a young Guatemalan kid, no older than 16 years of age float up what had to have been a 15% grade. His fluidity on the pedals as he rose up above the large lake we were heading to always stuck with me. How many of these roads had been documented? How many had been ridden by anyone other than the locals that called the areas home? We love to explore the famous climbs of Europe and North America - but what lies outside of these continents.
Colombia seemed to be the logical option to launch this series for three main reasons. One, it has quickly become a hotbed of talent amongst the pro peloton in the last five years. Two, although many stories have been written of the humble beginnings of such riders as Quintana and Chavez, few people truly know and understand the area that they call home. And three, though we are all familiar with Colombia hosting some of the highest paved roads for a cyclist to ride, there appeared to be endless options to take a detour off-road. What would we find down the road less-traveled?
Fast forward to 5am the following morning. Our group meets at the Fuga Café, the local cyclists hangout. The ever present smell of good coffee and surroundings that ooze cycling culture always help you deal with any time starting with a 5, especially in a foreign city.
Day 1 would find us rising high above the densely populated city of Bogota. The beauty of this city for cyclists is the ability to escape 8 million people in less than 10 kilometres of riding. With very little fuss you could ride yourself onto empty roads surrounded by a National Park minutes from your hotel.
The target for today was ‘Alto del Verjon’, a piece of road that weaves in and out of the mountains that dwarf Bogota. At 27 kilometres in length, sitting 3385 metres tall with a gain of over 2000 meters, the climb is a local favourite and one that was sure to be a wake up call to the legs.
Our small group of riders was a mix of Bogota locals and a few that made the trip from the Northern hemisphere. We started with a warming pace and pedaled out a conversational rhythm, but with each switchback the laughs and volume slowly evaporated as the air became thinner. A thick humidity was always present and as Bogota fell away into a sea of high rises and terracotta, the focus was truly on reaching the top of this famous climb.
The temperature gradually dropped as we climbed into a new ecosystem, one that was filled with tall cactus called frailejón that locals say stand over the mountains on guard.
We reached the summit and stopped at a local food stand where local riders congregate for hot tea and arepas before jumping back on the bikes and rolling down the other side of the mountain to our first night’s stay.