Gravel Grinding Colombia: Transformation on Two Wheels, Great Adventure by Ryan Cross of Sports Garage

By sportsgarage March 11, 2020

Words: Ryan Cross
Images: Dane Cronin Photography & Ryan Cross

When Sports Garage ambassador Ryan Cross arrived in Duitama, Colombia for a seven-day cycling journey, he was prepared for a seven-day, 350-mile ride through the stunning Colombian countryside with a whopping 35,000-feet of climbing. However, he was unaware that he was about to stumble upon a larger story about how the beautiful South American nation is attempting to put a period of violence behind it and take a trip that would change the lens through which he would view the country. It was a cycling tour, sure, but it ended up being so much more than that.

Our group rolled out of Duitama to begin the first ride of our epic journey together, led by our new friend and local cafe owner, Mayra. As we soft-pedaled through the chaotic streets of Duitama, we were greeted with cheers and whistles, children turned their heads, and cars honked in excitement. “Vamos Gringos!” they said, over and over. The people in Duitama were absolutely thrilled to see a group of Americans taking to the streets on two wheels exploring their country. Our group of seven riders moved along with a palpable energy. None of us had ever experienced a welcome quite like this, and we were only two miles in.

Mayra (center) directs us through Duitama. Rolling through town was an adventure in itself. 

Until recently, the idea of riding your bike in rural Colombia wasn’t just unsafe, it was unheard of. Colombians did not travel in their own country. The political violence and drug wars took a deep toll on the country’s people. A local may not have considered setting off on the remote areas that we pinpointed as destinations on this trip, let alone a group of foreigners like us.Yet, Colombia persevered. The government fought back against the famous narco cartels and over the course of a decade-long war, reclaimed a certain level of peace for its people. The country still has its issues, but the transformation that occurred has turned this once-dangerous landscape into an open book of exploration, and what better way to do it than on a bike?

After taking off from Duitama, it didn’t take us long to find the gravel. I tend to go for the route less traveled and this adventurous bunch was no different. I’d taken two trips to Colombia prior to this one and had the pleasure of spending a week in this region last year planning out this trip.Our group was perfectly matched for this mixed-terrain route, and we set off on our first few days with an appetite for adventure and empanadas.

The stunning countryside had us all in awe, each and every day.  Colombia was untouched ground for almost our entire group, and the adventure that came next was one that would be one of the best of their lives. I’d ridden all of our routes on this trip but one: our point-to-point ride from Duitama to Villa de Leyva. I mapped the seemingly straightforward route online and consulted a few locals. It looked like a lot of gravel but our friend selling panchos said that they were well-maintained gravel roads… So, off we went.

Two hours into the ride, we descended a 30km sharp gravel downhill that tested our bodies and bikes. The group accumulated seven flat tires throughout the day and crossed over a landslide, before guiding ourselves home in the dark with some makeshift ponchos (read: trash bags). The driver of our support car, our beloved guide Andres, couldn’t pass through the landslide and had to drive four hours out of the way to meet us in Villa de Leyva. We arrived 12 hours later (yup, 12) and all reveled in what was the most adventurous day we’d ever had on a bike.

We pushed our bikes and bodies to the limit. 

After descending over 20 miles, we appreciated the smoother roads at lower altitudes. 

The gravel roads in Colombia are some of the best any of us had ever ridden. 

Over the course of our seven-day tour, we traversed through jungles, crossed high-deserts, rainforests, and palermo (alpine) climates. Each day presented its own variety of fun and excitement, and our crew had the trip of a lifetime.

We’d spend the last three days of our trip in the laid-back colonial town of Villa de Leyva. With incredible access to calm and quiet gravel roads and the famous “Nairo Pilgrimage” ride at our fingertips, we saved some of the best riding for last. World Tour road sensation and national hero Nairo Quintana was born nearby and on day seven, we would ride to his home of Combita and stop at his cafe and enjoy some hot empanadas served by Nairo’s Mom.Our final ride wasn’t without its share of challenging climbing (about 7,500 feet of it) but it provided a moment of reflection for me. I was able to show my friends this wild and transformative country that I love so much while bringing joy to the Colombian people. To see their smiles day in and day out affirmed that what we were doing was meaningful and impactful to a group of people that have been faced with adversity for decades.I felt the pride of the Colombian people in the hills on that day. I’ve always known that the bicycle is a tool for exploration, but today it felt like something more than that. The bicycle brought us closer to the Colombian people. Their cheers and smiles throughout the week were confirmation that our bike tour was something bigger than ourselves. We were living proof that Colombia is stronger than ever before.

Trip Beta:  Trip organized, guided and produced by La Cicla Tours.

Ride Stats: 7 days, 350 miles, 35,000 feet of climbing.

Riders: Katrina Englestad, Dane Cronin, Jason Mulawa, Joe Brzuchanski, Kate McLaughlin, Jimmy Smith, Tony Orozco and Ryan Cross

.Favorite Rides:Day 3: Corrales Loop, 50 miles, 3,200’ verticalDay 4: Point to Point Mayhem, 79 miles, 9,600’ verticalDay 7: Nairo Loop, 55 miles, 7,000’ vertical

Support: Christian Arbelaez (empanada King) & Andres Cuervo

Gear: I traveled with my beloved Open U.P. gravel bike, which was the perfect tool for the job. I ran tubeless 36mm tires and had a flat-free week. I wouldn’t recommend traveling to Colombia with a road bike, there’s just too much great gravel to explore.

Trip Locations: Duitama, Gambita, Laguna de Tota, Sogamosa, Paipa, Villa de Leyva, Combita, Bogota.

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