Ciclovia: the weekly sporting event shutting roads across Colombia

Photo: Wikipedia via Creative Commons

Almost every Sunday morning for the past ten years, Carlos Andres Velez has taken his dog Annaid (Dianna spelled backwards) for a run in the middle of a busy highway in Medellin, Colombia’s second city.

He and Annaid join the throngs of joggers, cyclists, roller-skaters, strollers and lycra-clad posers, young and old, taking part in Ciclovia, a Spanish term meaning “cycleway”, which sees the city’s streets closed to cars for a few hours to let foot and pedal power take over the road.

“It helps me break my routine and I like the family atmosphere” says Velez, a consultant in his thirties, drinking from a plastic cup of freshly pressed orange juice at a roadside stall. “I spend my whole week at a desk and so it helps me relax too. During the week after I’ve done Ciclovia, I always feel better”.

First introduced to Medellin in 1984, Ciclovia (officially named Vías Activas y Saludables – “Healthy and Active Streets”)  was initially managed by the city’s transport body before being taken over by a newly created sports authority in the Nineties. But the event’s roots go further back: originating in Colombia’s capital, Bogota, in the 1970’s. Today, Ciclovia has spread to cities across Latin America – and even further afield.  

From what was, in its early days in Medellin, little more than a couple of kilometres set aside for cyclists and runners, Ciclovia now covers over 65km of streets across many city neighbourhoods. And as well as the popular Sunday runs, there are various night time closures allowing late night cycling up and down the Andean city’s steep valley walls, and special Ciclovia’s aimed at helping kids gain confidence in cycling on the road.

It’s not just city officials that make , but also community leaders and an army of green-clad volunteers that make Ciclovia possible, explains Claudia Ossa Velasquez, who runs a mayoral program promoting physical activity in the city. She lists various benefits of the scheme, such as improved health and fitness for participants, and providing a safe (and free) place for sport that encourages intermingling among citizens.


There’s also a veritable micro-economy that springs up along the roadsides during Sunday morning Ciclovias. Lining the streets are countless stands and vans selling fresh juices, fruit, coffees and snacks – around which a fair amount of nattering seems to take place. Bicycle mechanics also set up shop to provide fixes and sell chain oil, inner tubes, brake pads and other cycling paraphernalia.

Because it’s free of charge, there’s something very egalitarian about Ciclovia, and it doesn’t feel at all intimidating. There are of course plenty of lean runners and lycra-clad cyclists, but there are as many older caballeros out taking a stroll, kids whizzing around on BMX’s, and mums in Crocs and leggings pushing prams along the streets.

So, is this something we could see happening on British streets any time soon? Chris Scott is head of communications at London Sport, an organisation created to promote exercise in the capital which works closely with the Mayor’s office and other partners. “It [Ciclovia] is not a concept we’re directly familiar with,” he says, “but in principal it’s got some implications that organisations like ours would have an interest in seeing taking root in London”.

Scott notes the success of Prudential RideLondon, a spin-off from the 2012 Olympics, which, once a year, sees various roads across the capital closed to create a safe space for the public to cycle. However he admits “it would be ambitious” to expect something like Ciclovia to be organised at a city-wide level in London on a weekly basis.

While central London has seen significant improvement in cycling facilities in the last few years, Scott highlights that there’s a much bigger challenge in helping people to get active in the city’s outer boroughs, where car travel is more common. “In some ways, the bigger opportunity for initiatives like [Ciclovia] is in the outer boroughs, where it would encourage people to take to the streets who don’t yet have the confidence to do so”.

The scheme may not be about to take off in UK any time soon, but back in Medellin Carlos has finished his orange juice, and he and Annaid are heading off up the road and out of sight on their weekly run. 

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.