On Cycling in Medellín

Let me make one thing clear: Reckless disregard for one’s own safety is not a “cool” thing. It’s not “cool” when you toss yourself off the MGM Grand with only a small parachute attached to your back. It’s not “chill” to huck 50 foot drops onto a rocky landing on your mountain bike. And it’s definitely not “sick” to weave your way on a bike through rush hour traffic in a city where there are less traffic rules than in a drug fueled gang bang.

But damn it can be fun.

Motorcycles aren’t regulated on these streets. They weave in and out of cars looking for ways to beat a bottleneck, and pop out of nowhere when they want to. I nearly got killed by one when I stepped out the doors of a bus, literally had to pull myself back inside to avoid losing a leg. Of course, this means that as a bicyclist you need to be constantly vigilant that a moto doesn’t come tearing into your lane at a moments notice. However, this also means bicycles can behave similarly if you’re daring.

I find that on a good portion of roads I’m able to keep pace with traffic on my singlespeed quite easily, and what bicyclist wants to be caught in a traffic jam caused by bulky vehicles? In most situations I cruise along the non-existent shoulder, giving myself roughly a foot of space between my handlebars and traffic to my left. This can be harrowing when traffic starts to pick back up and buses don’t feel the need to move around you whatsoever. You just have to trust you’re not going to get clipped by a massive diesel machine carrying 50+ commuters. Fun stuff.

On quieter streets it’s possible to split the lanes like the motorcycles, just watch out for incoming traffic. Many cars (and especially buses) will cross randomly into different lanes with next to no warning. The necessity to be aware of this possibility makes Colombian drivers excellent at avoiding accidents, but doesn’t take away the fact that as a bicyclist you need to be twice as observant. A chain reaction of bus turning, to motorcycle slowing, to bicyclist flipping is incredibly possible, especially if you feel like hotshotting through the middle of traffic. Fast reactions, decent disc brakes and cool confidence were the only things that stopped me from having a rough encounter with pavement on one of my first bike outings many months ago.

Despite this, I would actually contest that riding in this city might actually be safer than being a cyclist in the US, or at least less annoying. Drivers are far more used to moving around people in their lane due to the general unpredictability of motorists, and therefore have no issues fluidly going around a cyclist that is pumping down a shoulder-less highway. You might get a honk once in a while to warn you against swerving into traffic, but In the grand ol’ USA drivers will stack up 10 deep because they’re afraid of passing a cyclist on the road. Not the case here.

In fact, I feel most in danger while riding on totally abandoned streets. Especially at night. No, I’m not worried about getting mugged or attacked or harassed. I’m worried about dipping my front wheel into an unseen pothole. The streets in Medellín, while mostly well maintained, can be extremely treacherous. Large holes can appear out of nowhere. Whether it’s a poorly dug manhole or natural crumble of asphalt, lack of attention can quickly end in an endo-facesplitter.

Medellín is not by any standards a “bike friendly” city, but they’re making advances in bike infrastructure that can make it feel less like you’re taking your life in your hands every time you hit the road. Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday shutdowns of major roads allow cyclists/runners/rollerbladers/speed-walkers all the space they need to move uninhibited, but that isn’t helpful for commuters. In one part of town there is a dedicated bike lane, but it weaves around in somewhat of a nonsensical manner that makes you want to just take the normal road if you really want to arrive anywhere. This issue has been acknowledged by quite a few people I’ve met, and creating more bike-friendly commuting options would reduce the need for “pico y placa”traffic reduction system. In layman’s speak “based on your license plate number you aren’t allowed to drive to work in your car today because we have too many damn cars and sub-par road systems.”

Medellín is now gaining recognition as being Latin America’s up-and-coming city, and increasing its biking infrastructure would do wonders to cement that claim. Reducing traffic, pollution and dependence on sometimes arcane bus routes are some of the benefits that come to mind. On the other hand we all know how much damn fun it is to just get out and ride.

So I’ll be out dodging cars for the time being.

 

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