Posted by Editor on 08/17/15
Colombia, glorified for its cartels, rebels and conflicts has never been the top of most travelers' lists when they think 'cycling trip'. At a personal level, when I read up on stories about past political influencers, like Pablo Escobar, who had a reputation built on fear and corruption I did not immediately want to throw on my flashy lycra, jump on my carbon cyclocross bike and explore rural Colombian roads, without protection. However, I'm here to tell you that Colombia is one of the safest, most friendly places I have ever travelled. Not to mention, it is also the most scenic, adventurous and all-round incredible cycling trip I have ever been on.
Day 1, group shot
The Birth of Tour d'Afrique
Tour d'Afrique (TDA), a company owned and created by the prominent humanitarian Henry Gold, started as a modest stage race in Africa in 2002. The purpose was to meet local transportation needs by providing new or refurbished bicycles to locals, health care workers and community development workers. They also hoped to increase cycling advocacy and generate monetary funds for local cycling and environmental initiatives. Over 30 riders attended the first, four-month tour - commencing in Cairo, Egypt, all the way to Capetown, South Africa - and as a result, more than 2500 bicycles have been distributed since that inaugural ride in Africa.
Since the early days, Tour d'Afrique has expanded worldwide. They now host eleven unique tours, including the South American Epic. The South American Epic, starting in Colombia and finishing in the bottom of Argentina, was labeled the most challenging of the eleven TDA tours. Now, I haven't done any of the other tours, but I wouldn't doubt that for a second!
Bike repair draws an audience
On average, riders spend about five nights a week in a tent
Colombia: scenic, adventurous and all-round incredible
For six months cyclists participating in the South American Epic travel rugged, mountainous terrain, with distances ranging from 50 km to 135 km a day, with a rest day thrown in here and there in absolute paradise. Each route tends to take the road less travelled, so cyclists have plenty of opportunities for a Kodak moment or to mingle with the locals. Given my lack of Spanish, it was less 'mingling' and more like sign language and the odd buzzword, like "agua" - a critical word to know when you ride in 35-degree heat, with humidity levels that challenge a steam room.
Fortunately, TDA allows riders to experience the adventure in sections. Like many, I lack the time to complete the full tour, but riders can register for segments, which are approximately 16 days depending on where you start. TDA has a saying for those looking to complete the full six-month tour without any vehicle support - "EFI" (every fucking inch). Or, "every fabulous inch", as tour organizer, Cristiano would say.
I was lucky enough to participate in the first ten days of the South American Epic on their inaugural year, travelling from Cartagena, Colombia and finishing in Medellin, Colombia - the birthplace of Pablo Escobar. Approximately 45 riders joined, several of them looking to complete the full six months. Riding day in and day out, they quickly became like an extended family... a very large and fun extended family, swapping battle field stories from past TDA trips and pushing each other to complete each day. Though it was difficult, it was the greatest cycling trip I've ever done!
How Does the Tour Work?
Tour d'Afrique sends a small, but incredibly hard working group of staff. This group consists of mechanics, nurses, cooks, drivers and guides - which often alternate between roles throughout each day. They have two buses, a lunch bus and a gear bus.
Cristiano, the tour organizer will travel ahead in his truck each day and install the orange flagging tape, indicating turns. Each morning the route was explained and we would depart around 6 am. We would find the lunch bus at our mid-point, and at the end of each stage we were free to explore the destination we were at.
The tours are self-guided, so, aside from the lunch van, the orange flagging tape on a rickety homemade fence just when you think you may be lost is the most beautiful sight in the world. Though support is always a quick phone call away, TDA encourages riders to explore at their own pace. This allows participants to stop and talk with locals when and where they want, explore the phenomenal views at their leisure or to challenge themselves to the local KOM - whatever they choose.
On average, riders spend about five nights a week in a tent, which added that much more to the 'epicness' of this tour. And this camping isn't at your local national park with hot water and manicured sites - we stayed, for the most part, on a farm owner's land, close to the road we travelled. To me this was exciting and made the experience a true adventure; perhaps not for the five-star resort folks, but we always had everything we need. Locals would more than thrilled to find you a cerveza, fill your water bottles, or a hose to help you clean your bike.
But that's the type of trip TDA delivers. Though each day is well planned and calculated, unavoidable obstacles do arise; however, I can guarantee you this is a ride you will never forget!
My Highlight Reel
• Rode in to a small village and greeted by a mass crowd of locals watching us and cheering for us like we were the Beatles. It turns out that they had never had tourists visit their village before, and were fascinated by our bikes, our trip and us. They helped clean our bikes in the river, they cheered as we fumbled to communicate in Spanish and they towed us across their river in a small boat. In all my years of travelling I have never experienced such a unique and wonderful interaction with a local community. They were warm, welcoming and incredible group - happy to help and completely eliminating any of my past judgments of Colombia.
• Completed a 35 km climb with 2400 metres in elevation gain. Hands down, my favourite day of the tour. The road weaved along the side of a mountainside with pitches so steep trucks were breaking down.
• In contrast, another top day was the ride in to Medellin. Fast, hair pin descents with a never-ending view of the city of Medellin. My mountain bike skills were tested that day.
• Along each route there were designated 'coke stops'. To the untrained eye some of these stops seemed like normal Colombian homes. Take a closer look in the window and you see a small Coca-Cola machine full of bags of water and cold Coca-Cola. Many residents run humble convenient stores along highly travelled roads. Fortunately, they were mapped out for us each morning otherwise some would go unnoticed.
• One of my fondest memories was of the participants. Each rider brought their own unique flare to the group. Many were riding with TDA for the first time and others had completed several, making for some great stories on-road and at dinner.
If you are looking for a new challenge or more intimate way to experience a new culture, travelling with Tour d'Afrique is highly encouraged. Their team runs an exciting and organized tour that really appeals to cyclists and the adventurous types. The ten days I joined was like a gateway drug to more touring. I look forward to registering again in the future.
To register or learn more, visit www.tourdafrique.com.
We would like to add a thank-you to Colombia tourism
Brendan Matheson, Cycling Tourism Coordinator for Tourism Simcoe County, through the project Cycle Simcoe, participated in the first leg of the South American Epic as a guest of the organizer and Procolombia, the tourism board for Colombia. Neither Tour d'Afrique or Procolombia reviewed this article prior to publication.
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