embraced a new national hero in July when 23-year-old Nairo Quintana finished second
in the Tour de France, the highest-ever finish by a Colombian cyclist in the
world's most famous bike race.
Colombia's capital Bogota, near where Quintana grew up, and it is easy to see
how a grand cycling career was born here. Pinched between the Andes ranges and
sitting 2,600m above sea level, Bogota is unexpectedly one of the world's great
mountainous surrounds, South America's fourth-largest city is predominantly
flat and the cycling infrastructure is excellent. Around 350km of bike
paths – more than in any other Latin American city – radiate from the city
centre, and every new street that is built must also include a bike lane. The TransMilenio rapid bus transit offers
secure bicycle storage near major terminals, and it is law that parking lots must
include space for bicycles.
citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car,"
former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa, a key advocate of the city's cycling
infrastructure, declared in 1999. On taking office in 1998, Peñalosa scrapped
plans for a new highway, investing the money instead in bike lanes and the bus
impact on this enormous city of seven million people is easy to see. On most
Wednesday nights for the last seven years, hundreds of cyclists have joined in
ride, a Critical
Mass-style pedal through the city streets that is about the fun of riding and
also stands as a political message about cycling rights in the city.
Bogota's greatest gift to cyclists is unquestionably Ciclovia. For seven hours
every Sunday, the city closes more than 100km of roads to motor vehicles, and a
wildebeest-worthy migration of bikes and pedestrians takes over the city.
as “bike way”, the Ciclovia concept began in Bogota almost 40 years ago. It is an
idea that has spread to cities around the world, such as Ottawa, Mexico City
and Paris, but it started in Colombia when the streets were handed over to
cyclists on a Sunday in the mid-1970s to encourage cycling in a safe environment.
They were never handed back.
remember a time when a past mayor proposed an end to Ciclovia – and was met
with citywide resistance. Today, it is as much an accepted part of a Bogota
Sunday as a tamale (a local favourite of rice, chicken, pork, egg and
vegetables wrapped in a palm leaf) for breakfast.
At 7am the
streets close and cyclists flood in from the wealthier northern suburbs, through
the popular visitor district of Zona Rosa to reach La Septima, one of Bogota’s major
thoroughfares. At this point, Ciclovia becomes a vast cast of human-powered
of the numbers of people who partake each week vary from one million to two
million, and the city fills with mountain bikes, road bikes, fold-up bicycles
and children on training bikes. There are cyclists in team-name Lycra and
others pedalling in flip-flops. There are hundreds of joggers and dozens of
rollerbladers. There are small dogs in baskets, and large dogs towing youths on
skateboards. It is a snapshot of Bogota simultaneously at rest and play.
mechanics set up camp every few hundred metres along the road, prepared to do a
roaring trade in punctures and repairs. Roadside carts sell snacks and drinks,
from fruit punch to arepas (corn
cakes) and salted green mango.
the city centre, the ride passes through the greenery of Parque Nacional, where
Ciclovia started with the Sunday closure of the park’s roads. Mechanics and
vendors congregate in a line along the road’s edge; mountain bikers catapult
through the park, and hundreds of people partake in Recrovia , Ciclovia's free aerobics
and dance classes. At no other time do you see Bogota this relaxed.
cyclists are white-shirted “guardians” who are employed to control the ride.
When the city first tried to employ Ciclovia guardians in the 1990s, just 20
people applied. Borrowing from Colombia's then-favourite TV show, Baywatch, it rechristened
the job as Bikewatch, and more than 1,500 resumes immediately poured in.
the guardians' job is to dispense first aid, since in a wheeled crowd of this
size, accidents do occur, especially as La Septima narrows into the city centre
and the historic La Candelaria district, turning Ciclovia into a
Candelaria, Ciclovia acts as a sightseeing tour of Bogota’s best, passing the
city's famed Gold Museum,
which contains the world's largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold, and
entering the European-style grandeur of central Plaza de Bolivar, which is
ringed by grand edifices and crowded with pigeons.
de Bolivar, Ciclovia burrows through Bogota's poorer southern suburbs.
Immediately south of the plaza is the district of La Cruces, which has all the
beauty of La Candelaria but which, for most of the week, is considered unsafe
for visitors. On Sunday, however, La Cruces is crowded with families, cyclists
and pedestrians, as Ciclovia tames the city. There are no dangers here beyond a
bike accident. Look around and you may just see the next Nairo Quintana
wheeling through the streets.