‘We live for gravity biking’: deadly sport is way of life in Medelln

The risky hillside pastime which sees people hurtle down steep inclines on weighted bikes at up to 77 mph is providing kids in downtrodden areas of Colombias second city with an escape from their troubles

As the cable cars that connect downtown Medelln Colombias second city to the hillside slums pass overhead, a band of teenage cyclists have gathered at the side of the road. Vallejuelos is a downtrodden neighbourhood, rife with crime and unemployment, but gravity biking is helping some kids escape their troubles.


  • Estiven Hurtado and his modified bike

As the name suggests, gravity biking involves steep descents. Enthusiasts strip a typical bike to its frame and build it back up from scratch. To improve descending speed (which can reportedly reach up to 77 mph), riders weld weights to their contraptions. Pedals are superfluous: to climb the hills riders hang on to passing trucks, sometimes using homemade hooks on a line.

Estiven Hurtado is an avid gravity cyclist and has lived in Vallejuelos his whole life. We live for gravity biking here, he says, lugging his modified bike behind him, emblazoned with the visage of the drug lord Pablo Escobar, Medellns most infamous son. Its a way of life for anyone who lives up in the communes.



  • Right: Estiven Hurtado and his friend Andres Callejas

Gravity biking can be found across Colombia, but it is most popular in Medelln and surrounding towns owing to the steep Andean mountains. But the nascent sport is as dangerous as it sounds, and last year one nearby town, La Ceja, banned it outright.

Given the grave danger, the decision was made to prohibit the circulation of bicycles modified by hand for this sport throughout the territory, said La Cejas council at the time.

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Hours after meeting the Guardian, Hurtado is left injured at the side of the road after colliding with a motorcyclist on a tight bend down the hillside. Almost everyone who practices gravity biking at some point ends up in a similar situation.

Its the risk we run around here, but we get used to it, says Marlon Mueton, who at only 16 is seen as a leader among the gravity biking community. Shortly after the BBC published a video of his exploits last month, he had an accident, narrowly escaping serious injury and doing irreparable damage to his bike. He had twice before been gravely injured after crashing, nearly dying both times. His shaved head carries several scars.




  • Top: Marlon Mueton. Bottom left and right: Riders ascend hills by hooking on to passing lorries

His mother, Jessica, speaks for much of the community. They are fools the way they hurtle down the highways, she says in her ramshackle single-room home overlooking the city. Just look how many scars they all have.

The pastime has exposed fault lines in the neighbourhood where crime and unemployment are rampant. Criminal gangs and drug traffickers control much of Medellns slums, and Estiven Hurtados bike was confiscated by one of their members after his crash.


  • The gravity bike competition at the 29th car festival in Medelln, November 2018

These kids often come from broken homes, and often fall into drug abuse, says Natalia Montoya, a psychologist at the local school. Its a self-destructive way of escaping the reality of their lives.

Three cyclists from Vallejuelos have died this year, with accidents a regular occurrence. Montoyas school, where most of the children in the neighbourhood study, engages in campaigns to encourage rider safety, donating helmets. One particular issue is the practice of pillion riders, who are at more risk due to not being in control. Lights are almost never used.

If done safely, it is a good outlet for all of the stress that they have, Montoya says. But there is still a lot more to do.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/oct/02/we-live-for-gravity-biking-deadly-sport-is-way-of-life-in-medellin

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