With the sun barely starting to illuminate the city on a quiet Saturday morning, I join a small group of cyclists led by Alejandro Diaz, the 56-year-old owner of Giro Central, a bicycle shop and café just off of Reforma Avenue in downtown Mexico City. We pedal over a bridge on the cycling path that runs by his shop and can see the far side of the city and a faint outline of the mountains that jut up around the valley. On most sunny afternoons residents in Mexico City can catch glimpses of the summit of Ajusco, a 12,894-foot-tall mountain that sits within the territorial limit of the capital. A few times a year, when rain and wind clear away low-hanging haze, the icy summits of Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, two of the largest mountains in North America, are visible from downtown Mexico City. Local cyclists know that Mexico’s capital city is a mountainous metropolis, but around the world the capital is better known for its tacos and traffic, than for its geography. At 7,832 feet above sea-level, Mexico City sits at a higher altitude than Denver. The tallest mountain in its immediate vicinity, Popocatepetl, tops out at 17,802 feet above sea level, and is taller than all of the peaks in Colorado. For Alejandro and his friends, these mountains aren’t just sights on the horizon, they are playgrounds for weekend trips that involve higher altitudes than any segment of the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia. On weekends, groups of riders pedal up from the wide avenues in the city center into the winding mountain roads in the steep peaks on the periphery, visiting the remote stretches of land near the summits of expansive nature preserves such as Desierto de Los Leones, Ajusco, and Dinamos.
In a recent essay for The New York Times I explained, “Cyclists who navigate Mexico City know it is a monster. The largest city in North America, it is famous for its sprawl, smog and the snarled skeins of slow-moving cars that clog its main arteries during extended rush hours.” But, early on weekend mornings the city is also a haven for cyclists. While the surrounding mountains offer world-class cycling experiences, the city is also starting to become more bike-friendly. Mexico City has been hit hard during the global Covid-19 pandemic and one measure the city government has taken is building additional bike lanes to help encourage bicycle commuting. A new purpose-built cycling path in the middle of the tree-lined median of Reforma Avenue has been supplemented by a temporary lane along Insurgentes Avenue, the other main throughway that crosses the city.
On weekends cyclists can pedal down the path on Reforma, connect with a bike path that cuts through the upscale Condesa neighborhood, and merge onto the new bike lane on Insurgentes. A few miles later, after a short and somewhat scary section of busy roads with fast-moving cars, there’s an opportunity to connect with another cycling path that leads up to the entrances to Dinamos and Ajusco. The irony is the path that leads into Ajusco is the same lane on which Alejandro and I started our ride in front of his store. But, because of concerns about security issues in the neighborhoods the path crosses through on its way out of the city, most cyclists avoid the bike path and navigate the city streets. “The bike path is very narrow and the neighborhoods you’d ride through aren’t the friendliest,” Alejandro tells me. He doesn’t recommend riding the bike path as a direct route into the urban periphery.
Mexico City’s roads can be intimidating for aspiring cyclists. Although I have ridden a single-speed road bike for years to commute and run errands both in New York City and Mexico City, just over two years ago I started doing longer rides on a modern road bike with powerful hydraulic disc brakes and an expansive set of gears, and tried to make the jump from cycling as transportation to cycling as sport. Like any aspiring cyclist in Mexico City, I found out very quickly that the learning curve is just as steep as many of the city’s most intimidating roads. On my first ride up the mountain access lane to the Desierto de Los Leones park above the corporate Santa Fe neighborhood I “bonked,” a term endurance athletes use to describe the utter exhaustion they feel after over-exertion burns through all the carbohydrates they’ve eaten. I stopped to rest for 15 minutes and sought sustenance in the form of fruit juice at a roadside food stall.
Cyclists riding up into the mountains around Mexico City might burn 3,000 to 5,000 calories in a single ride. Learning about what to eat and drink while riding to help fuel an intense, multi-hour endurance effort is one of the most important steps to tackling harder rides. But, while universal knowledge on nutrition, training strategies, skills and techniques, and equipment is relatively easy to acquire by inquiring at bike shops, asking friends, and searching out articles and educational videos, tackling longer and more challenging routes requires learning a tremendous amount about Mexico City’s geography and transit culture. Google maps and other cycling-specific navigation apps can provide suggestions on bike-friendly routes, but often suggest trajectories that pass over dangerously unwelcoming roads with little space to ride safely, or cross through high-crime residential neighborhoods where riding alone is not recommended. Finding the safest routes to ride to particular destinations is not easy or intuitive.
The total area cyclists can explore in Mexico’s capital is massive and almost overwhelming. Mexico City is home to 8.9 million people and covers an area of 573 square miles. Compared to New York City, Mexico City is 18% larger in terms of landmass and 7% bigger in terms of total population. But, what makes Mexico City even more imposing is that it is abutted by sprawling urban districts in the surrounding state of Mexico.
The hills in the urban periphery are packed with cement block homes. The urban terrain cyclists need to traverse to ride into the surrounding mountains extends well beyond the official city limit. Naucalpan, Tlanlepantla, Ecatepec, Nezahualcoyotl, and Chalco, the five largest contiguous metro-area municipalities add another 274 square miles and 4.9 million residents. In total, the Mexico City Metropolitan Zone, a somewhat arbitrary agglomeration that includes both contiguous urban neighborhoods and as well as several dozen nearby rural towns, is the largest urban hub in all of North America. With over 21 million residents it is more populous than the entire New York metro area, which is home to just over 20 million people.
Because of widespread concerns about risks relating about road safety and worries about security problems in Mexico City, cycling has developed as social sport, organized by teams and clubs. Locals in Mexico refer to crime as “insecurity” and it’s an apt word for describing the feeling of uneasiness caused by concerns about safety. Mexico City recorded 1397 murders in 2019. The violence is mostly concentrated in outer-lying neighborhoods such as Iztapalapa and Gustavo A Madera as well as in adjacent municipalities of Chalco, Ecatepec, Naucalpan, Nezahualcoyotl, and Tlanlepantla, which recorded an additional 842 homicides. Every year local media outlets in Mexico City report a few cases of armed robbers assaulting cyclists. One rider was shot during a robbery near Ajusco in 2019. Police also find dead bodies in the woods on the edge of the city, apparent victims of organized crime.
Unlike in New York where the city is girded by upper middle class and middle-class suburbs, Mexico City is ringed by marginalized low-income neighborhoods. The current minimum wage in Mexico City is $5.40 per day, a salary that corresponds with a yearly income of $1944. The overwhelming majority of the city’s residents are working class or poor. Only 76,005 people earn more than $23,328 a year while 2.2 million earn less than $3,888 a year. Poverty is even more prevalent in the sprawling expanse of cement block houses in the neighborhoods surrounding the city. But, Mexico City is also home to clusters of extreme wealth. Carlos Slim and Ricardo Salinas, two Mexican billionaires who joined Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for dinner at the White House in Washington D.C. on July 7, have homes and corporate headquarters in Mexico City. The city’s affluent professional class, the executives who work in the corporate office towers, lawyers, investment bankers, architects and real estate developers isolate themselves into neighborhoods such as Santa Fe, Polanco, Bosque Las Lomas, and Pedregal. The working poor are concentrated in neighborhoods such as Bellavista and Cuajimalpa and in the periphery of the city in adjacent municipalities including Naucalpan and Nezahualcoyotl. Pedaling out from downtown Mexico City into the mountains, riders cross through grey cement neighborhoods on the edge of the city, into the dense green forests further up the valley’s walls.
Novice riders need special help to learn to navigate around Mexico City. Because of concerns related to traffic and crime, cycling clubs such as DFCC, People For Bikes, CCC Pro, Resistencia, and Los Guadalupanos organize group rides on weekday mornings and longer rides on the weekends.
Manuel Peña-Morros, one of the cyclists who joined me for the ride, explains, “visitors who want to try cycling in Mexico City need to know that there are numerous options available.”
Mexico City also hosts a number of organized “gran fondo” races that bring hundreds of cyclists together for large competitions on long stretches of closed roads. The big races provide a safe opportunity to ride on highways or visit areas that might be unsafe for a cyclist to ride alone.
“It’s not always direct. Here you have to know the route and where to go. Group rides also have security. There are routes that are do-able but you are better off going with a big group. Just last week in Deseirto de los Leones men with guns stopped a small group of riders and stole their bikes. We are better off as a bigger group,” says Alan Huber, the CEO of the People For Bikes chain, which has several stores in Mexico City.
ASDeporte, a group that organizes gran fondo amateur cycling races in Mexico City has seen participation in its races rise steadily over the past decade. More than 8,000 cyclists participated in the group’s events in 2019.
Shaun Gad, the co-founder and CEO of the GFNY Mexico, the Mexican branch of a New York-based company that organizes amateur cycling races all over the world, has a positive view of the cycling culture in Mexico City after working to organize two large-scale races here. “The cycling culture in Mexico City is growing very quickly. You see more and more riders participating and becoming competitive,” he says.
While group rides and gran fondos help, mastering the best routes for riding around Mexico’s capital is a long-term process for many cyclists. I rode over 3,000 miles on Mexico City’s mountain roads in 2019. While I struggled to just arrive at the finish line in the first few alpine road races I entered in 2018, I finished in the top 15% out of 1465 cyclists in last year’s Izzi Kardias Medio Fondo, a hilly 80k race which is held on a closed section of top quality highway on the fringe of the Metropolitan Zone. I’m now more confident about my ability to navigate these peaks. But, my ride with Alejandro brings us to the end of a bike path and into the Dinamos park, up one of the most challenging roads in Mexico, a twisting lane that winds up steep slopes towards a 10,000-foot-tall summit. It’s a serious challenge.
As I explain in my New York Times essay, “There is a jagged cliff on the left and a nearly vertical drop, hundreds of yards, on the right. Leafy deciduous trees cling for life to the cliff, arching over the road, providing some shade. The passage is precipitous, but goes in only one direction: up. It is barely four and a half miles, but it has an average grade of 7 percent as well as brutal sections that top 22 percent.”
At the mid-point of my ride up the access road in Dinamos, I know the summit is only half an hour’s worth of riding away. I concentrate on the details, the trees, the sounds, my breathing, and work my way past each curve the road. I keep pushing the pedals.
“You can do it!” an exuberant middle-aged man standing next to a beat-up Volkswagen bus, calls out.
I settle into the fact that when riding up to the top of the Dinamos, you just have to embrace the process. It’s about the same level of effort as an hour-long CrossFit class, long circuits of bodyweight lunges interspersed with short breaks of more moderate effort. A successful ascent requires a balanced effort to avoid burning out before reaching the summit. On the steepest section of the ascent I lean forward, bracing myself over the handlebar and use my glutes and hamstrings to push the pedals down. I fill my lungs with deep breaths of chilly air. I know the last stretch of the climb is around the next corner.
At the top, I meet back up with Alejandro and his friends and take a seat to enjoy the view from the summit. Light fog hangs between the tall trees. Everybody agrees that the new cycling lanes make it much easier to cross the city to arrive at the park’s entrance. Riding amid the cars on Mexico City’s busy roads requires strong legs, adroit bike handling skills, and immense and exhausting focus on swerving taxis and merging buses. Pedaling in a protected bike lane, cyclists can tune out the steady hum of the city’s big red buses and the impatient chortle of the smaller informally run buses and vans. The new bike lanes Mexico City’s government has built during 2020 make the city slightly more bike-friendly.
The new bike lanes make Dinamos more accessible but don’t make it any easier to get to the top. “It’s not the longest route or the highest altitude, but it’s one of the most difficult,” Jose Alfaro, the co-owner of the DFCC cycling club, explains.
This article contains excerpts from an essay I published in the Sunday edition of The New York Times on July 19, 2020.