Colombia loves cycling. These days, few people bring the nation more pride than Esteban Chaves and Nairo Quintana, who yesterday won the ninth stage of the Giro d’Italia to jump into the overall lead in Italy’s premier bike race.
Quintana, who hails from the Boyaca capital of Tunja and is nicknamed The Condor of the Andes, won the competition in 2014 and is hoping to equal that feat again this year. He also took the Spanish crown last year by winning the Vuelta de Espana, another of the sport’s three major Grand Tour races along with the Tour de France. Chaves, a Bogotá-born cyclist, finished third in the Vuelta de Espana last year and came in second in the Giro d’Italia 2016.
It isn’t just the professionals, however. Every Saturday in the capital, amateur cyclists flood the streets riding up the high mountainside into the lush rural areas surrounding Bogotá. Sunday gets even more people amateurs in on the act during the Ciclovia that shuts off 120 kilometers of city streets to automobiles from 7 am to 2 pm each week.
Two million people take advantage of the car-free roadways to get exercise and just enjoy some space in the normally congested capital, with bicycles being ubiquitous among the joggers. Though not as large, the story is the same in both Medellín and Cali, both of which further cement Colombia as the nation most committed to the Ciclovia concept that originated here in the 1970s and has exploded into a global success story for mobility, city planners, and health advocates alike.
To learn more about the evolution of the biking in Colombia, Finance Colombia Executive Editor Loren Moss sat down with Jose Eduardo Barrera of Exitos Imports. During this month’s Feria de las 2 Ruedas motorcycle and bike convention in Medellín, the two spoke about various aspects of the bicycle market and cycling movement in Colombia.
As commercial manager of a bicycle shop that has been in business for 20 years in Envigado in the department of Antioquia, he has seen firsthand how the Colombian love affair with cycling has grown over the decades.
Loren Moss: It’s interesting how cycling has grown here in Colombia. It’s something that surprises many people when they come to visit — and not only as a sport but also as a lifestyle and as transport.
Jose Eduardo Barrera: Yes. Basically the bicycle has become fashionable lately. But the way we look at it, it’s not a fashion. It’s a lifestyle that already has a 20-year tradition for us.
Loren Moss: How you have seen the growth and the changes in cycling as a lifestyle in Medellín, and in Colombia in general, in the last two decades?
Jose Eduardo Barrera: Well, we say that we want that evolution while being very much aware of taking care of the environment and taking care of people’s health. It’s something very positive, and the government has supported that, especially in terms of care for the environment.
Loren Moss: That’s interesting, because here in Medellín we’re in a valley, but going up to Rionegro and Las Palmas, for example, I always see people cycling up those mountains. It seems to me that there are different sectors. There are the people here in the bike lanes, but there are also other people who are, maybe not more extreme, but more dedicated.
Jose Eduardo Barrera: The topography of Antioquia is very mountainous, but one great advantage that we Antioqueños have is that the bike-lane system is integrated with the subway and with the busses. So we can pedal on the flat part and to use the bus to go up.
It’s a program called En Cicla, and it’s integrated into the subway. They have urban bikes and they can get you around to any part of the city with any hassle. There’s no longer any need to have a bicycle. They give you a bicycle with your identification, and you can get all around the city completely free by bicycle.
Loren Moss: Great. So, it looks like Exitos Imports has many lines and bicycles of all kinds, from those for beginners to those for advanced cyclists.
Jose Eduardo Barrera: Yes. We focus on the cyclist who is just getting starting to ride and on the cyclist who is already specialized and interested in bicycles with less weight or more durability.
Loren Moss: What about the culture of getting along together? For example, how accommodating are those people who have cars and those who go around on motorcycles? In Medellín, is it a well-established fact that there are cyclists sharing the roads? Or is much more education still needed in that aspect?
Jose Eduardo Barrera: I say that it’s a process. It’s a process that everyone is taking part in and that the government is supporting more and more in their communications and through the media to make people more conscious that they should respect cyclists and their space. We need to share the metropolitan area.
Loren Moss: As an importer, how have you seen the change in the market? How is the cycling market different? How has the market evolved in comparison with 20 years ago when you started out?
Jose Eduardo Barrera: I say that in any business — not only bicycles — everything evolves. But it is always for the better. There are better and lighter materials, and they’re not so expensive. They have become more affordable to a middle-income consumer.
Loren Moss: Which is the sector with the greatest growth in your client base?
Jose Eduardo Barrera: Well, let’s say that our prime sector is the massive consumption that uses the bicycle as a means of transport — a cyclist who use his bicycle to go to work, to his college, or to go out with his family on Sundays.