During a sizable part of the 20th century, trade restrictions left Colombia largely isolated from the rest of the world. This included its bike industry, which was forced to come up with creative solutions that say plenty about a nation's ingenuity and its love for the bike. Today, as markets have opened up, Colombia's bike industry is in flux once again, and Colombian companies are having to change with the times. (This article was first published in Bicycle Times Magazine.)
It’s 8am, the Tuesday before Christmas. Despite the early hour, Avenida Carabobo, a narrow street in Medellín, Colombia, is already teeming with shoppers. Over just two blocks, about dozen bike shops are about to open, and the moment they do, parents file in, looking for the quintessential Christmas gift for their children. A bike. But just as many shoppers are there to buy parts, to get repairs done, or inquire about a new bike for themselves. The sheer number of customers that suddenly fill the cramped sales floors, not to mention the time of day, leave little doubt about two matters. First, Colombians take Christmas very seriously. Second, their passion for the bike is unquestionable.
Introduced into the South American country in the early 20th Century, Colombians took to the bike as a logical method of transportation, in part due to the economic realities that they faced at the time. Soon, bikes became toys for the upwardly mobile middle class, but also tools for messengers, farmers and roving repairmen. Today, the bike remains an integral part of Colombian life, even as the country has evolved into a modern and stable nation, something that seemed unthinkable as recently as twenty years ago.
Corey Shouse Tourino, PhD is an associate professor of Hispanic Studies, and the director of the Latino/Latin American Studies program at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. As he sees it, bikes are a part of Colombian life, in a way that is far more natural and significant than they are in most other parts of the world. He explains, “…cycling is a deeply organic part of Colombian culture. We Americans, however, ride bikes the same way they drink wine: these are prosthetic acts that require special gear and a ‘rarified air’ of intention and pretention. Cycling for many in the U.S. is indeed enjoyable but artificial, not organic, like making a big fuss over that ‘special bottle of fermented grape juice’ that Italians put on their tables every single afternoon without thinking about it.”
That organic love for the bike was only made stronger in 1984, when an amateur cycling team from Colombia was invited to compete in the Tour de France. Made up of young riders from Colombia’s countryside, who often came from farming families, the team shocked the world when it’s leader, Luis Herrera won the toughest stage in that year’s race. Back home, in the small town of Fusagasuga, Herrea cultivated and sold flowers and houseplants. But through that victory, “the little gardener” (as Herrera was known in the local press), helped launch a country that already loved bikes into what many still refer to as “the golden age of Colombian cycling”. The term referred to the great success that men like Herrera would go on to have in competitive cycling, but also to the spike in ridership among Colombians, and thus the production of bikes and associated goods by local companies.
An isolated industry
As Colombia’s interest in bikes grew, so did a problem that many industries in the South American nation faced at the time. In the aftermath of World War II, the Colombian government had put import substitution measures into effect, in an effort to encourage domestic industry. Import substitution policies greatly limit which goods can be imported into a country, thus forcing local companies to produce those goods, and customers to buy them since no foreign options exist in the market. In the case of bicycles, this meant that Colombian companies had to start from scratch, and design, build and manage production of every component that a bicycle requires. And they did so in almost complete isolation from their European and North American counterparts, who had been perfecting those processes over decades. So as more and more Colombians wanted to ride bikes, local companies jumped at the chance to make the bike frames, components, shoes and the clothing that cyclists wanted.
It was in this environment that large bike companies like Arbar, Cilcobi and Laramo, started to mass-produce utilitarian bikes for children and adults alike. Likewise, small factories all over the country produced the parts necessary to build those bikes, supplying shifters, brakes, wheels, tires, ball-bearings and the like. Through much of the 80s, all components could be sourced locally, creating a huge demand for labor in cities and small towns throughout the country. Colombia’s bike industry was, in many ways, completely self-reliant due to its government’s economic policies.
While relatively large companies like Arbar produced bikes that fulfilled the needs of everyday riders who needed a bike as a means of transportation or for work, things got a bit more complicated for more discerning cyclists. Unable to buy bikes from famed European companies like Colnago, Pinarello, or Gios due to import restrictions, those who wanted high-end bikes in Colombia had few options, other that traveling abroad to buy a bike.
It was in that environment that self-taught builders like Jose Duarte, in Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá, began to build high-quality steel frames. An accomplished competitive cyclist during his youth, Duarte had worked as a team mechanic for some of the best cycling teams in country. Asked to re-size a lugged frame by one of his customers, Duarte took on the challenge and never looked back. Over the years, he perfected his craft, and during the early to mid 1980s, his five-man shop produced around 350 frames a year, with a wait time of about three months. Each frame was custom made according to the customer’s measurements, and taste.
Other aspiring builders all over Colombia took note, and soon they too were producing high-end frames which they sold as complete bikes. Moreno, Torres and Niño became household names for those looking for alternatives to high-end imports that were nearly impossible to find. How builders like these learned the trade and started their business reveals a great deal about their passion for cycling.
Agustin Hincapie had what he calls “an insatiable passion for bikes” from a young age. He made highly detailed drawings of bikes all over his school notebooks, sometimes spending entire classes designing the lugs and dropouts he’d use if he ever had the chance to build his own bike. His obsession with cycling was such that as neighborhood kids became to call him “Tino” (a shortened version of his first name), he decided to add a second “n” to his nickname for a pseudo-Italian flair. He raced at the time, wanted to be just like the cyclists who soared over mountain passes in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, men with names like Motta, Gotti, Saronni, and Coppi.
Unable to find a way to learn how to make bike frames, Hincapie found a small book in English detailing the steps necessary to produce one. Problem was, he spoke no English. So he spent three months translating the text with a dictionary, and eventually taught himself how to make a bike frame. The year was 1977, and he was determined to go into business as a frame builder. When he built his first bike, he put his nickname on the downtube: Tinno.
“It took time to learn, and time to get the business off the ground. By the mid-80s, things in Colombia were amazing for a frame builder. I had 7 or 8 workers. We made around 300 frames a year, al of them custom. You came in, got measured, and we built you a bike.”
As tastes in bikes changed, so too did the output of Colombian bike companies and custom frame builders. BMX and then mountain bikes became part of their repertoire. Likewise, as frame production in Europe and the United States began to shift to aluminum, builders in Colombia adapted without much issue. But soon enough, other changes took place, which proved too substantial to take on. Namely the shift to production in Asia. So while the rest of the bike industry had slowly learned to adapt to globalization and the rising quality (and falling costs) of Asian manufacturing, Colombia’s bike industry was unprepared as the government began to loosen previously strict import restrictions. Suddenly, the changes that had happened over more than a decade in other parts of the world, happened almost overnight for Colombia’s frame builders.
“I could tell that the writing was on the wall. It felt like it was all over for us.” Remembers Agustin Hincapie. “We were suddenly invaded by these mass produced frames from Asia. They sold for much less than we could ever sell one of ours for. Colombians got a taste of imported goods, since they were finally available to them, and there was no going back. It was sort of a perfect storm, and we were right in the middle of it.”
All Colombian frame builders felt this drastic change. As a result, Jose Duarte’s shop is very different these days [read a full article about Duarte here]. Claudia Duarte, who now manages the shop, explains. “We fared very badly when all this happened. Our made-to-measure frames cost nearly five times as much as those that started to flood the market from Asia. Here, where most people don’t have a lot of disposable income, price is paramount, so how could we compete? We wanted to make quality custom bikes. That was the norm in Colombia, and suddenly you had mass-produced bikes that came in just four sizes, as opposed to how we did things. Fully custom, made to order in half-centimeter increments.” They still make the odd frame here and there, but things have clearly changed.
As a result of this, along with Jose Duarte’s age (he recently turned 80), the shop has stopped operating as a custom frame building operation. Instead, they function as a more traditional bike shop, though they do plenty of repairs and welding work. They sell parts, clothing, perform repairs (including carbon fiber), and also sell complete bikes by several manufacturers. Nearly of them made Asia. The shop is still busy however, though its customer base has changed over the years. Jose Duarte's son has his own shop, and he now builds frames, along with monocycles and doing repairs and high quality welding work after years of learning from his father. Moreno's legacy continues through his son, who still builds frames, but Torres and Niño have sadly gone out of business.
Other signs of Colombia’s changing landscape are clearly visible. Some of the largest bike brands in the world have finally broken into the Colombian market, setting up concept-stores to cater to an growing upper-middle class clientele. Similarly, Colombian brand GW is importing Asian-made frames and parts and successfully taking on some of the biggest American brands through a large network of independent dealers. Scan a local road or mountain bike race, along with any number of families going out for a leisurely ride on weekends, and you’ll surely notice the brand’s presence throughout Colombia. Their success relies heavily on production in the Far East, and takes advantage of the changing times. This may seem like old news in other parts of the world, but in Colombia, it’s only happening now.
But despite all these changes, there’s are still aspects of Colombia’s bike-making industry that remain unchanged. Many of the customers waiting to start shopping at 8am in Medellín’s Avenida Carabobo will end up inside bike shops that only sell bikes that are largely Colombian, industry trends and trade policies be damned. While some parts, namely shifting components and brakes are imported, frames are built and painted in the outskirts of the city, with wheel building and assembly being done in the large backrooms and second floors of the city’s busy shops.
Perhaps the most impressive among the shops near Medellín’s downtown, is one that is often busiest, be it Christmas time or not. Bicicletas Ramon Hoyos was founded more than fifty years ago by the beloved road cyclist by the same name. Hoyos rose to prominence in the early 1950s after he defeated Fausto Coppi (the then-leading professional cyclist in Europe) in a grueling road race through the Colombian countryside. That Hoyos was an amateur who worked at a local textile mill only made his victory that much more impressive in the eyes of local fans and the media alike. Hailed as a national hero, Hoyos’ biography would go on to be written by a young Gabriel Garcia Marquez, future recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature. His portrait was then painted by the celebrated artist Fernando Botero, known the world over for his sometimes humorously stout depictions of the human body.
Hoyos, who passed away in 2014, started the bike shop at the height of his fame, and quickly realized the issue that so many Colombian merchants faced at the time. Importing goods was extremely difficult and costly, while local production was limited. With those difficulties in mind, Hoyos decided to start his own frame building operation in Itagüí, in the northern outskirts of Medellín. Today, they focus on low to mid-level bikes of all kinds.
Jorge Hoyos, one of Ramon’s two sons who now run the shop explains. “Our factory makes fifty thousand steel frames a year. Our shop takes up ten thousand of those frames on a yearly basis, which we build up and sell as full bikes. The rest of the frames go to other shops all over the country. The factory has thirty-five employees, but that number doubles seasonally. Likewise, our shop has fifteen employees, but can go up to forty around Christmas.”
Even without taking into account the relatively small sales floor of Bicicletas Ramon Hoyos, those numbers are beyond impressive. Ten thousand bikes a year, for a single shop, is a number that any North American bike shop would dream of. Particularly if they were the ones making the frames, painting them, building the wheels, and assembling them. The shop’s line of bikes spans the full spectrum. Road bikes, touring bikes, mountain bikes, BMX, children’s bikes. These sales figures begin to explain the early hours at which these shops open, and the countless customers shopping for new bikes in Avenida Carabobo. It also begins to put Colombia’s love for the bike into perspective.
Asked about the threat of Asian imports, and the possibility of ever switching to foreign-made frames, Hoyos is quick to answer. “No. I’m not going to bring those sub-par products here. We’re proud of the frames we make.”
On the topic of how Colombia’s changing import policies have changed the bike business, Hoyos has an interesting, and pragmatic point of view. “Imported goods have changed things for us. But at the level that we operate, I have to admit imports have helped us in some ways. For example, there was a time when groupsets were hard to come by here. They were tough to import, and that meant that the only groupsets available were usually high-end ones. Campagnolo, for example, is mostly meant for people with money. Since the Colombian government started opening the doors to imported goods, we now have a plethora of products to choose from. We can use those products build up bikes at any number of price points. That, to me, has been a positive change. It’s helped democratize the bike even further, and allowed even more people to start riding…be it for work, fitness or simple transportation. So we are still here, still making and selling bikes.”
Still At It
Some thirty kilometers outside of Medellín in the town of El Retiro, Agustin Hincapie lowers his welding mask and gets to work welding a steel bike frame, just as he’s been doing for decades. Things have changed in the bike industry around him, but at the same time, much remains the same. These days, he employs two full-time assistants, and has a full paint booth in his shop, which remains busy at all times. Rather than catering to clients who are unable to get their hands on imported bikes (as he did in the past), he now serves those who are interested in one-of-a-kind bikes that aren’t mass-produced in a factory.
Hincapie, who interestingly perfected his trade as a result of Colombian consumers not having access to imported goods, is now exporting his bike frames to clients all over the world, while also selling to some to local clients. It’s an interesting, and slightly unusual turn of events that has allowed the Colombian frame builder to flourish after years of declining frame orders. Unable and unwilling to compete with the flood of mass-produced Asian bike frames, Hincapie decided to focus on what he first set out to do. To make hand-built, custom bike frames with the best materials available. The market has responded.
Above Category, a California-based shop and online retailer, renowned for distributing the most exclusive and desirable custom bike brands in the world recently struck a deal with Hincapie to be his US distributor. This marks an interesting, albeit small, reversal in the kind of market trends that once threatened his business.
Asked about the reasoning behind wanting to carry Tinno Cycles’ frames, Above Category’s brand manager Nate King sited Hincapie’s “deep tradition in cycling” and “his history building frames for some of the greats in the sport”, a reference to the professional road and cyclists who rode his frames (sometimes rebranded under a different name) to great success. Precisely the kind of historical detail that makes frames made by men like Hincapie unique.
Past victories aside, it’s also interesting to note how even recent difficulties have come to shape Hincapie’s business. Recently, even with import restrictions having been lifted, he was unable to get his hands on steel tubing to make frames. US-based retailers didn’t want to process sales involving Colombian credit cards, much less ship to South America. But much in the same way that he had to translate instructions for how to build a frame word by word, Hincapie has found ways around every problem that the changing bike industry has thrown his way. So too has the Hoyos family along with other key players in Colombia’s bike industry. They prove that through sheer will, a healthy dose of stubbornness and Colombian ingenuity, it’s possible to keep certain aspects of an unusually independent local industry alive. And that drive says as much about the Colombian spirit, as it does about a country’s love affair with the bike. ▇