Thursday, August 31, 2017

Biking the Tour de Cartagena

You might not know this about me but I used to be in a quasi-bike gang back in Miami. Me, my friend Celia, and a group of wily fixie guys (guys who ride ‘fixie’ bikes and wear tight shorts and cycling caps) terrorized the streets of Miami (meaning we met up late on Tuesday nights and stopped at a grocery to pick up beers and sometimes ice cream on our way to a chosen park where we hung out for a while). So, when my friend and co-English teaching assistant, Fiona from Scotland, invited me to join her on a “recorrido,” or bike tour around the city, I happily jumped at the chance. Norbert had just put together a bike for me from various parts and I hadn’t yet given it a proper spin.

I left my hotel/home and immediately ran into a group of bikers heading towards the clock tower in the walled city, the starting place of the bike ride. Joining them, I figured it was a good omen to make bike friends right outside my place of residence.

At the clock tower, I immediately lost my new friends and meandered around the plaza looking for Fiona. The plaza was buzzing with bikers, and I realized with a sinking heart that most of them were men, and most of them were wearing spandex. Never a good sign. They looked like they meant business.

When I finally caught up with Fiona, she was getting her tire pumped. Shockingly, the group left at 8 o’clock on the dot, meaning we were left to scramble behind the peloton, trying desperately to catch up (which we never really did). At a red light just a few blocks from my house, we caught up with a group of male bikers who repeatedly asked us if we were sure we wanted to do this. “It’s dangerous where we’re headed,” one of them said. “You should never be alone on the road.” We heard mutterings about 60 kilometers and rateros, a slang name given to people that live in shacks on the side of the main highway heading north towards Barranquilla, likened to rats because of the gutter-like location of their abodes. Fiona and I shared a look, shrugged our shoulders, and decided to go for it. We could always turn back, right?

When the light turned green, though, these guys were off like bullets, leaving Fiona and I to scramble once again to keep up with their disappearing tail lights. I watched as they wove in and out traffic without an ounce of fear about sharing the road with this city’s crazy drivers. Meanwhile, I was quaking in my shoes. We passed in front of my hotel/home, and I considered ducking out of the ride before it even really started. But something pushed me to soldier on…

Well, my friends, what we thought was going to be a “bike tour around the city” turned out to be an intense, adrenaline-inducing obstacle course through the dark outskirts of Cartagena.

One by one, more and more bikers zoomed past me without a glance in my direction. The first maneuver we made was to cross 5 lanes of traffic to enter a tunnel. Thankfully, it was very well-lit. But still, a TUNNEL for god’s sake! From there, we hit one construction site after another, meaning unpaved road, mud puddles, closed lanes, traffic jams, and general mayhem. Once that was over, there was a huge bridge, which I huffed and puffed over, flying down with a smile. I breathed a sigh of relief to be on a paved road with little car circulation, but quickly realized that this was the dangerous stretch they had warned us about. I’d lost Fiona by then and was flying solo, as they had specifically warned us not to do. Mind you, it’s nighttime and I have no front light, so deciphering where the road ends and the gutter begins was quite difficult. (Good thing Norbert had bought me a helmet a few hours before the ride started!) There was supposed to be a truck following the bikers with water and first aid, but I think I was too slow for them, too. I considered turning around and heading back towards Cartagena, but I figured I’d be even more alone going in the opposite direction as all the bikers, so I pedaled on. Before long, a man rode up alongside me and, instead of zooming past me, he slowed down.

“You’re doing this ride on that bike?” he asked with a laugh.

I kept huffing and puffing down the road, trying my hardest to focus on pedaling as fast as possible, although there was zero chance of catching up with the rest of the bikers. At this point, I couldn’t even see their tail lights in the distance.

“I’m actually surprised you made it this far without any gears!”

Now it was my turn to laugh.

“Seriously,” he went on, “you deserve a big kudos. You’re doing great.”

And so, we continued onward together. He was a regular on the bike ride, so he knew exactly how far we had left to go. When he told me we’d only gone halfway to the first stopping point, I nearly fell off my bike! But I’m extremely lucky that Jaime stuck around with me down this dark road, keeping me company and riding in front of me to “break the wind,” which was a sweet gesture but it did little to ease the pain all over my body.

Finally, we made it to Barcelona, a town 18km outside of Cartagena. From here, most of the bikers continued east for a long time before making another right turn to return to Cartagena.

“Who do I have to pay to get me home?” I joked with Jaime. I was willing to pay whatever price to get my bike and my sore butt on a bus or taxi, but luckily, there was a group of riders cutting the ride short and heading back to Cartagena the way we came. I thanked Jaime for his kindness and rode across the street to join the other slackers like me. Although, once again, I was congratulated for having made it this far on my beach cruiser.

“I thought this was a city tour!” I told them, making them all crack up. "This certainly is no simple paseo!" I’d even brought my nice, big camera to take nighttime shots of the city. I told my new friends about my bike gang back in Miami, and how we were nowhere near as hardcore as this crew. This was off-roading and mountain-biking combined, with an obstacle course thrown in for fun. I told them about Critical Mass, a monthly ride in Miami where people decorate their bikes with lights and are in it for the fun of the ride, not for putting 60km on their odometer! (But obviously, this sort of torture is fun for some people?!)

They told me stories about motorcyclists and rateros that I won’t repeat here because I know my mom’s reading this. The important thing is, I survived! Although it did get dicey there for a while, I ended up having a great time. And I did end up seeing a whole other side of Cartagena.

As we rode back towards the city, I got excited as we neared the airport, knowing I was nearly home. When we passed my hotel/home, I broke away from the group and waved goodnight.

“See you Thursday!” they called out; I had to laugh. These Cartageneros are crazy!