In the cycling world, there is an annual tradition that generally occurs sometime between the end of one season and the beginning of the next. This event can come in many forms but typically involves warm weather, new teammates, lots of bright shiny equipment, and many hours in the saddle. This crazy tradition is known as team camp, and this year I got to spend camp in the beautiful country of Colombia. For me this team camp was a bit of a new beginning as I transition from Orica AIS in 2016 to UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling team in 2017. I went into camp without a clue as to what to expect from both the team and Colombia but I was looking forward to the new adventure. Now at the end, I can happily say that I am leaving with nothing but excitement and admiration for my new team and a deep love of Colombia.
It was interesting to observe the various reactions I got from people when I told them that I was heading to team camp in Colombia. I experienced everything from confused and hesitant looks, to the common “Oh (dramatic pause) wow, ok. Isn’t the Netflix series Narcos about that area?” Admittedly I had the same somewhat mysterious misconception about Colombia and the most I honestly knew about the country was that some delicious single origin beans are grown there. It only took one day in the country for my preconceived notions of what Colombia was about to be completely flipped.
First off Colombia is a huge cycling hub. I saw more people, especially women, on bikes during one ride there then I see in a week in the Bay area. As I see it, the main reason for this is the roads. The terrain for cycling there is nothing short of dreamy; rolling lush green hills lined with farm after farm, smooth pavement, and descents that leave a permanent smile plastered to your face. All it takes is a few days of riding there to realize it is a little slice of cycling heaven. Secondly, the food in Colombia is phenomenal. Fresh fruits, the best avocados, mangos, papaya, and pineapple I have ever tasted, along with plantains prepared in many different but equally delicious ways. All of this kept my mind happily occupied and dreaming about lunch while pedaling hour after hour through the hills around Medellin.
What struck me the most about Colombia was the people, they are the warmest, most incredible individuals I have had the pleasure of meeting. We stayed in a lovely family owned casita in Rionegro, and the family that worked there were some of the most welcoming people I’ve met. The language barrier was no problem, between hand signals and google translate I made special bonds with our host family as they worked unbelievably hard to feed us three incredible meals a day. This is no small feat either, a single cyclist eats about three times the amount of food a normal person eats and with the men’s and women’s teams combined there were 26 cyclists to feed. Not to mention the physiotherapists, mechanics, directors, management and media, which at one point during the trip meant feeding 62 people, three full meals a day! A few nights during the camp we had outdoor family style BBQ’s in this beautiful space that allowed us to watch as they prepared delicious local specialties of Arepas, fried plantains, and Natilla with Buñuelos.
Being something of a coffee fanatic I was excited to explore the coffee culture in Colombia. We were staying in the high-altitude region of Antioquia, which is known for its delicious coffee grown slope side. Unfortunately, the intensity of our training schedule made it impossible to plan a visit to a coffee farm, however riding past them day after day gave me a huge appreciation for what it takes to grow and harvest those delicious beans. We enjoyed some incredible single origin coffee beans from a local family owned company called Pergamino that my teammate Katie had researched. My favorite beans were grown just miles from where we were staying on a farm called Finca Lomaverde in the hills of Santa Barbara, Antioquia.
On one of our rest days we went into Medellin and explored a small portion of that incredible city. Medellin, home to four million people, is set in the largest valley I have ever seen, surrounded by towering green mountains. It is the biggest city I have seen from above in terms of sprawl and density and is the definition of breathtaking. Once again my preconceived ideas of Colombia were completely transformed as we wandered the streets around Palma. The cafe and food scene is on par with most major cities I’ve visited around the world, but with the distinct Colombian character that comes alive in the bright colors, traditional music that makes even the stiffest of bodies want to move, and the smiles of the people around you. Leaving the city at night and making the long, winding drive back up the mountain, you see dozens of cyclists out on their post work rides, slogging up the brightly lit climb with the most spectacular of views. Looking down at the city from above was like looking into a giant glowing treasure chest.
Sitting on the plane, flying farther from that beautiful country I can’t help but plan my next trip back and dream about all the places I have yet to explore. I hope that someday all the notions and misconceptions people have about Colombia can be erased and replaced by all the wonderful things I now know it for. Colombia truly is a unique and beautiful place and holds a special place in my heart.