It started with a simple request. How do I find a decent bike ride when I’m in a foreign city? I was heading to Colombia and had dreams of pedalling over the roads used by Nairo Quintana, the rider whose mountain stage attacks in the 2013 Tour de France set the whole race ablaze (he finished second behind Chris Froome), and who has just won this year’s Giro d’Italia.
First stop was to check all the cycling apps but, outside the UK and US, coverage is patchy; in Colombia, it’s non-existent. I wasn’t looking for an event, just a day’s riding with locals. The best way, I decided, would be to contact a local club – pretty simple with a spot of Googling. But the language barrier kicked in and in the end I just asked my travel agent, Felipe at Sumak Travel. He turned out to have a friend in Bogotá who organises regular weekend rides with a local group. They were willing to take me along. “They ride in Boyacá – Quintana’s home area,” he told me.
Two months later I’m at a roadside 80km north-west of Bogotá waiting – rather apprehensively, in my lycra – for a peloton from a local club to arrive. I’m told they will come with a support vehicle bearing spare bikes, apparently a legal requirement in Colombia.
I tuck into some delicious arepas, flatbreads made from maize, and wash them down with weak coffee – Colombia grows great coffee, but doesn’t often make it well. As I finish, a gang of riders sweeps in, full of bonhomie and joie de vivre. Everyone is talking at me in impenetrable Colombian accents, but a smile seems an adequate reply for everything. Cycling here, I quickly ascertain, is intensely sociable.
I’d sent my measurements ahead via Felipe, so the bike fits perfectly and we are soon off, making a big sweeping descent on a busy highway before turning left and heading up into the hills. Most of the riders are friends who ride out with a group called Talleres Gomez, but a few professionals have come along for the day. One of them, Camilo Suárez Albarracín from Team 4-72 Colombia, settles in beside me and we manage a chat in a mixture of English, French and Spanish.
“Nairo rode with us before he made it on to the Movistar team,” he says. “His home village, Cómbita, is nearby.”
A few schoolchildren, bags flapping over their backs, pedal furiously to keep up with the peloton for as long as they can.
“You can see why Boyacá produces great cyclists,” Camilo laughs. “We’re at altitude, around 3,000m, and they all ride long distances to school, sometimes up big climbs. That’s just how Nairo started. His parents couldn’t afford the bus, so they got hold of an old mountain bike. He got strong!”
The significance of Quintana’s emergence cannot be underestimated for Colombian cycling. His looks are pre-Hispanic and his manner is reserved yet confident, the quiet good manners of the mountain people. A whole new generation and social class are being inspired by his success.
We crest the hill and descend rapidly into the town of Samacá, where there is a lovely square surrounded by shops and crowded with people. The peloton raid the shops for drinks and then someone notices a cluster of people around a lone cyclist in the gardens in the centre of the square. It turns out to be Hector Leonardo Páez, world mountain bike champion in 2006, who lives nearby and just happens to be passing through on a training ride. He confirms Camilo’s opinions on why the area produces great cyclists.
“The altitude and climate are good, as is the food – we have great food – but it’s the cycling to school that really helps get kids started.”
Having had our photograph taken with Hector, we leave town and push on up a long climb. I’m soon struggling for air, but Camilo is sitting up, hands free, chatting away on his mobile phone. (I had worried about keeping up, but the group encompasses a wide range of abilities and I’m not the only one puffing.)
The summit brings views of green mountain ranges and broad valleys – wonderful cycling country. The roads seem good too, certainly as good as in Britain. Eventually, we drop down into the ancient colonial town of Villa de Leyva, where we get half a mile of wicked cobbles before the entire peloton stops at a restaurant and sets about a massive lunch with wine.
Camilo recommends the cocido boyacense, a delicious stew with innumerable local ingredients. After demolishing that, I am definitely incapable of riding, but that’s all right because we are all staying the night here. The peloton will continue next day, circling back to Bogotá, while I spend a day exploring Villa de Leyva, with its whitewashed walls and cobbled streets.
That evening, bikes safely stowed, they insist on taking me to play the popular pre-colonial sport tejo. “You’re gonna love it – even though it is crazy. Cycling and soccer are our national passions, but tejo – that’s our national sport and in Boyacá it is very strong.”
We leave the gentrified heart of the town, crossing to a more dilapidated quarter where, from behind an inauspiciously battered door, I hear what sounds like gunshots followed by ragged cheers. A dark tunnel leads to a large clapboard barn with a dirt floor and a bar on one side, where dusty looking men in straw hats are knocking back bottles of Aguila beer.
Out in the main hall there are three tejo courts and a couple of games in progress. The idea, I see, is to lob a large heavy metal weight, the size of an ice hockey puck, the length of the barn and into a metre-long wooden box filled with soil. Drawn on the soil is a crude target and buried within are several firecrackers. Throw well and there is a flash of light and a small explosion, followed by a drifting pall of smoke.
This climatic moment is the goal of tejo, though in ancient times it was merely to hit the target. The modern version is a bit like petanque, with added dynamite. I take a slug from my bottle of Águila and give the puck an almighty heft.
Safety in tejo really relies on the skill of the participants – after all you don’t want half a kilo of lead flying randomly across a crowded barn. That, however, is exactly what happens. The weight, now resembling a missile, whizzes off at a 45-degree angle, smacks into the barn wall, removing a plank, then lands on the floor in the gutter between bar and barn. Finally it slides forward and disappears into a dark unsanitary exit hole. My tejo career, it appears, has ended. But no: the men at the bar are keen to see more and find me another puck.
After many more attempts, I am finally rewarded with a detonation and a cheer from the bar. It is enormously cathartic and, I find, a bit addictive, the perfect way to wind down after a long day in the bike saddle.
“Does Quintana play?” I ask.
“Sure! All the Boyacense play tejo.” This peculiar national sport is, I reckon, the true secret of Nairo’s success.