'Cycling capital of death': Bogotá bikers battle violence on city's streets

Cycling is thriving in Colombia amid the pandemic but riders are taking self-defence courses to deal with aggressive drivers

Andy Villalba, a tattooed and scrawny bicycle mechanic in Colombia’s capital, has long been wise to the dangers of cycling in such a chaotic city. Now, amid a boom in both cycling and bike theft, he is giving workshops in road safety and self-defence.

“Welcome to Bogotá,” said Villalba, who has lost count of the number of times he has been threatened for his bicycle. “The cycling capital of death.”

Cycling in Colombia is thriving. As in other cities around the world, the pandemic has prompted many commuters to forgo taxis or buses, and bike use is up 40% since last year. More than 100km of bike paths were laid in Bogotá during the lockdown.

Meanwhile, professional cycling has proven to be the country’s most successful sport: elite riders have won medals at tours across Europe and last year Egan Bernal became the first Colombian to win the Tour de France.

But as more people step into the saddle, bicycle thieves and homicidal drivers are forcing them to fight back with self-defence classes and weapons.

Andy Villalba.
Andy Villalba. Photograph: Joe Parkin Daniels

“The most effective use of violence is to avoid a physical confrontation, but if it comes to it, the D-lock is your best friend,” said Villalba, 33, at a recent workshop. “Hold that in one hand and with the other use the frame of the bike as a shield.”

Villalba also advises cyclists to build a network of fellow cyclists, avoid slow bike paths at night, and to cover any expensive branding on their bikes with stickers.

Though Bogotá has significantly reduced violent crime over the past two decades, robberies are still a daily reality. From January to September this year, 8,023 cases of bicycle theft have been reported, up 36% on the same period the previous year.

Some riders have taken to carrying baseball bats and extendable batons to protect themselves. “Carrying bats and weapons is necessary in some of the rougher neighbourhoods on the edge of the city,” said Jaime Mercho, an enthusiast. “But D-locks and chains are just as good.”

Cyclists across the country united in outrage this month after José Antonio Duarte, a 56-year-old security guard, was killed by a van driver while cycling over a bridge north of Bogotá. Footage of the incident went viral, showing the van running straight into Duarte, flipping him over the railing to fall 4.5 metres, landing on his head.

“Do me a fucking favour,” tweeted Bernal, when he posted the video. “How easy it is to end someone’s life … I hope there’s justice.”

Abdon Bermúdez.
Abdon Bermúdez. Photograph: Joe Parkin Daniels

The local governor promised a thorough investigation, though many cyclists said they were unsurprised by the incident.

Abdon Bermúdez came to Colombia four years ago from Venezuela, and works as a bicycle messenger. “My bike is my means of transport and work,” he said. “And I see all the time that drivers don’t respect cyclists – they don’t care that we have as much of a right to be on the road as they do.”

A common complaint of cyclists is the lack of consideration from other road users. In Bogotá, drivers routinely neglect to use indicators, and all road users run red lights. A law passed in 2016 gave cyclists more rights on the road, though motorists often honk at riders in their lane.

Sandy Millares runs a small bike messaging company in Bogotá, covering dozens of miles a day across the city.

Sandy Millares.
Sandy Millares. Photograph: Joe Parkin Daniels

During her five years as a courier, Millares has seen it all. “People have used their cars to drive into me, motorcyclists have run their hands over me as they pass, and I’ve had bikes stolen,” the 30-year-old said, taking a break after a delivery.

“I love my job but I know it’s dangerous,” she said. “And I love my city, but I know there’s certain neighbourhoods and routes that I can’t go to – as a cyclist and as a woman.”


Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

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