Bienvenidos to the Festive 500

The sun rises and oats simmer slowly on the stove in a concoction of raisins, cinnamon, and unrefrigerated milk – the norm here in Manizales. Coffee, likely grown no more than a 30-minute ride from here, percolates through the filter, filling my small flat with the millennia-old aroma of the morning.

The internet gets a quick perusal. Snow. Rain. Wind. Frigid temperatures. Winter’s icy tentacles are wrapping themselves around my home and hemisphere half a world over, squeezing hard, extracting every joule of thermal energy from everything they touch. Cruel timing, as friends and acquaintances begin their sojourn into the heart of the Rapha Festive 500, like the Missouri Donner Party staring into the snowy eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. I wander into the warm sunlight and peer east, towards the towering summit of a volcano where today’s ride will take me to an altitude of 3600m – in January.

“Flat” and “road” are two words whose marriage is strictly forbidden in the department of Caldas, Colombia. Colombia is cycling’s lost paradise. Most found themselves crushing their Christmas kilometers in the cold, while mine were under sublime equatorial skies but on some of the most brutal topography one can subject themselves to.

The traditional pilgrimage of Division III American racers to warmer climes for winter training is usually Tuscon, Southern California, and the American Southeast. All these carry as much appeal as suffering through another winter in frigid Salt Lake City; a prospect that included frostbite and languishing for hours at a time on a turbo trainer. I was led back to the phrase that has come to dominate life since my adolescence – omne ignotum pro magnifico – “everything unknown (is taken) as grand”.

Colombia, land of the escarabajo, is indeed grand, and where cycling-induced wanderlust has taken me. Ribbons of road pavement twist and turn like overcooked pasta, laid where no urban planner or cartographer ever dreamed. The routes pitch mercilessly upwards, downwards, and with no discernible logic. For the legs, this is hell. For the mind, the soul, this…this is cycling, pure and uncut.

Conditions on the tarmac vary from Autobahn-smooth to what’s normally encountered traversing rutted singletrack on a mountain bike. While the difficulty and variance of the terrain knows no bounds in the department of Caldas, the cafetero, its sharp contrast to the warmth and happiness of its people is a refreshing sensation. Colombians are a people that value passion for life over passion for material possessions, and the dignity conveyed in their words, in their very emotions when they speak about their land, is humbling. This is a populace that has been to hell and back, and with its principles forged in the fires of war and poverty, it has emerged with its head held high.

Kidnapping? No. Drugs? Nada. As is a common saying, the biggest danger about coming to Colombia is that you may very well not want to return home. The statement holds more than a kernel of truth. This is a veritable lost world of cycling, and asking for a better locale to conquer my own Festive 500 and (concurrently) my winter training would feel like sheer ingratitude.

Like many a competitive cyclist, the weekly training schedule handed down from the coach reigns supreme over all else – and my own Festive 500 was no different a time, complete with devastating news: the dreaded rest week – short rides with low intensity. In a place with more vertical than the Alps (and one of three roughly 30km HC climbs to get home), it spelled disaster when riding was boiled down to the essence of distance. I took it as a personal challenge to accomplish my week within the constraints, and I was successful… save for one 120km ride with 2,400m of climbing. Penance was achieved by stopping at an omnipresent Colombian bakery halfway through and gorging on guava pastries and cheese-filled yucca bread. By the end of the week, the damage had been tallied, and I escaped (by Colombian standards) fairly unscathed: just shy of 11,000 vertical meters of climbing, and a hair over 500 kilometers covered.

As my roommate and sounding-board always says, we wouldn’t be bike racers if we knew anything about moderation. Coming here, a venture into the abyss of the totally unknown, is one of the best decisions I could’ve made. And I couldn’t be happier.

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