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Words: Janosch Wintermantel | Video & Photography: WhereNext
Colombia is arguably one of the world’s greatest hotspots when it comes to road cycling. With its enthusiastic fans and perfect riding conditions, it is no surprise that it is home to some of the best cyclists in the world. Perhaps the cyclist who represents the Colombian cycling lifestyle better than everyone else is Esteban Chaves. We head out with the “always-smiling” former Giro d’Italia runner up takes us on his favorite ride in the Eje Cafetero in Colombia.
When Esteban told me about his country, and more specifically about the region from which he hails, it was a location that immediately found itself on my bucket list. To have the honor to explore the country with the Mitchelton-SCOTT climber and his family was something I couldn’t say no to. We were on a multi-day road trip with his family (by bike, naturally) when we reached the Eje Cafetero, which is by many considered as the best coffee region in the world.
I don’t really know where the connection between coffee and road cycling comes from, but it is clearly visible everywhere you go. More professional cyclists probably have a Rocket espresso coffee machine at home than an MTB and stopping during a ride for a coffee break is just as normal as the shower afterwards. The fact that the riding in Colombia matches the level of coffee, and vice-a-versa, makes it a “no brainer-location” for cyclists worldwide.
Esteban clearly picked this region not just for its famous coffee, but more for its perfect riding conditions. Stunning scenery, perfect climate all year (around 20 degrees Celsius) and quiet roads by Colombian standards. Add incredibly friendly locals and delicious cuisine to the mix and you have everything you want to enjoy your time on and off the bike.
We started our tour in Salento. It is a laid-back town in the heart of the Eje Cafetero, which became world famous for the stunning Cocora Valley and is today amongst the most popular tourist attractions in Colombia.
Early morning, around 8:00 am. The sun rises between the stunning mountains in the distance. After another coffee it was time to hit the road. It was the 25th of December – Christmas day. The perfect day to get up early and enjoy the empty roads. 155km on average around 1800m altitude were waiting for us. Luckily Esteban was up for an “easy ride” and I felt surprisingly well adapted to the altitude.
We started the ride with his brother and Dad to tackle the first hills towards Pereira. It didn’t take long until the first person recognized Esteban, even though we were 300km away from his home town Bogota. Drivers were leaning out of their car windows to take a photo of him or even stopped on the road side to take a better shot and cheer him on.
This admiration for one of their best cyclists was heart-warming. To see the joy on their faces when they saw the first South American Monument winner (Lombardia, 2016) passing by was infectious. We passed through endless coffee plantations on narrow roads with the higher mountains, such as the world’s longest climb – the Alto de Letras (around 100km from bottom to top) – in the distance. This monster of a climb wasn’t on our program today as we opted for a more rolling terrain between Salento, Pereira and Armenia.
After 90 kilometers we decided it was time for another coffee. We stopped at a petrol station. Who knew, even petrol stations serve great coffee in Colombia and have some delicious Arepas. It’s a round bread made of maize or flour. Nothing crazy, but it was the perfect tasty snack to fill up our tanks for the second half of our ride.
When we left Armenia, we end up on a beautiful road with coffee plantations everywhere. Trees were hanging sometimes completely over the road and it felt like riding in a jungle for a few hundred meters before it opened again. It was exactly the kind of riding I like. Up and down. Left and right. Barely a flat meter, but also no long climbs in the burning sun.
We had no time to stop for a photo. Esteban was here to prepare for the Giro d’Italia and his training always came first. Some people assume mistakenly with his smile and relaxed vibe that he doesn’t take his training seriously, but this couldn’t be more wrong. He loves cycling more than anyone I’ve ever met, but he also knows what it needs to be competitive in the biggest races in the world. Cycling is his work and passion. Not many can say this about their job.
After 135km we climbed back up a twisty road to Salento. We were just 1km away from our hostel and it would have been easy to go straight back, but one of the highlights was still on the menu for today. The one-way road in the Cocora valley. It was a tiny road next to the Quindio river with an outstanding view on the mountains around. The perfect ending to a great Christmas day.
In June, Scott will release a 25min documentary providing insight into Esteban’s life.