Published On: Wed, Apr 23rd, 2014

The Rise of Cycling in Mexico: Toluca to Mexico City by Bike

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Gnarly piles of thick dirty snow line the highway just below the high point in the mountains between the State of Mexico and the Federal District. It looks like a spring day in Canada, or the Western U.S., except for heavy traffic in the opposite lane and, on the shoulder, families pulled over and posing for pictures with the snow.

Yes, it snowed the night before on the mountain passes, a rare occurrence that caused the authorities to close the highway from afternoon until sometime after midnight.

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Once again, I think, it’s nice to be on a bicycle. I fly past the traffic, following friends in bright spandex, spraying melted snow from big mountain bike tires, hurdling down the mountain toward the insane labyrinthine metropolis of Mexico City.

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Every year on Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday), my friends from the Escarabajos Toluca cycling club ride 79 km from Toluca in the State of Mexico to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, where the religious enter to pray before the most famous Virgin in Mexico, and we pose for photos outside.

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This year, rather than get on the subway near the Basilica to begin our return trip to Toluca, we sampled Mexico City’s impressive network of bike trails that follow train tracks, ramble through green parks, and become elevated pathways next to elevated highways.

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We rode all the way back to the Observatorio bus station in the western part of the city, adding 18 km to the already long ride – 10 hours in total, including an hour to eat seafood and drink beer at a food stand along the way.

But this isn’t nearly the longest or most challenging ride done by the Escarabajos each year. On April 27 is La Diabla, from Naucalpan (just outside Mexico City) to La Marquesa in the mountain range that separates Mexico City and Toluca.

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La Diabla is a tougher ride for two reasons. One, Naucaulpan is at a much lower altitude than Toluca, so there will be more climbing; and two, 25 km of the route will be on mountain bike trails, including most of the climb and a long stretch of winding paths through tall fir trees high in La Marquesa.

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At the moment 100 cyclists are signed up. If you live in Toluca or Mexico City and want to participate (in this or any ride), look for Escarabajos Toluca on Facebook.

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The biggest ride of the year done by the Escarabajos and organized by leader Luis “El Gallo” Hernandez is ACA Bike, a one-day, 390-km ride from Toluca all the way to Acapulco. Last year, on November 29, we did it in 20 hours. Besides the long distance and hot sun, mountainous terrain makes ACA Bike extra tough, especially on the road to Taxco, Guerrero during the first third of the ride.

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These rides – La Diabla, ACA Bike, and many more – grow bigger every year, attracting more cyclists and more publicity.

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The growth of these rides is only a taste of the growing popularity of recreational cycling in Mexico. Toluca alone has numerous cycling groups. With names like Los Berrakos, Los Luneros, Los Bicionarios, Los Bici-osos, and more, they ride through the city at night in the protection of large groups, attach numbers to their bikes for huge highway races, or take advantage of Toluca’s big volcano for serious mountain biking.

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What these groups all have in common is love for a low-impact sport that can be practiced by nearly anyone, at many different levels, beginner to advanced, young to old, on- or off-road, obsessed or simply curious.

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And this is only recreational cycling. Commuting to work by bicycle in Mexico is quickly becoming a more attractive option for so many people who are tired of traffic or don’t otherwise have the time to exercise. Mexico City has hundreds of kilometers of new bike lanes, and smaller cities like Puebla, Guadalajara, and even Toluca are catching up.

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Toluca got its first bike lane last fall, and thanks to the efforts of the local Tlaloc Foundation, every Sunday a big loop of left lanes downtown is closed for the enjoyment of cyclists, skateboarders, and anyone else using a human-powered vehicle. And if you don’t have a bike, they will even lend you one.

 

There are many benefits to urban cycling. For the individual, riding a bike to work gives you an escape from traffic, control over your commute, and a chance to get in shape.

 

For society, increased urban cycling lessens traffic, promotes a healthier population, and reduces harm to the environment from car and bus exhaust. Plus, more bike lanes in Mexican cities can only help tourism, as one of the best ways to experience a new city while traveling is on a bicycle.

I commute by bicycle to work every day, mixing with the smoke, dust, and danger of impatient cars and buses. People think I’m crazy.

Yes, I ride in the city because I enjoy it, but more than that, for me the commute adds a sense of freedom and adventure to my routine. My commute takes the same time, every day, regardless of traffic. I don’t have to drive around searching for a parking spot. I don’t have to rely on a bus or a taxi. And if it rains, I carry waterproof everything.

If you want to ride, then ride. Don’t be scared. But you should be 100% comfortable on the bike – riding with one hand, looking over your shoulder, changing gears and braking. If you aren’t there yet, then practice on bike lanes or in a park. And, ideally, once you start riding on roads, you should know how to inspect your brake pads, lubricate the chain, and change a flat tire.

If you are interested in cycling but are a little unsure about how to ride in traffic, then find a group. Every Mexican city has a few. You’ll meet like-minded people to ride with and learn from.

If you are already part of a cycling group in Mexico, please leave tell us about it in the comments below.

By Ted Campbell

Ted Campbell is university professor, translator, and freelance writer in Mexico. For stories of adventure, culture, music, food, and mountain biking, check out his blog No Hay Bronca.

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