Among Mexico City’s bicycling enthusiasts, the mountain road that twists up through the canyon in Los Dinamos National Park on the outer edge of the city, is a rite of passage.
Anyone who makes it to the top can shed the term “novice” and emerge hardened, a cyclist. Visitors pedal up the steady incline from the flat city center in the valley floor to the outlying neighborhood of Magdalena Contreras.
The start of the access road to Dinamos is where the expanse of gray-and-white cement of the urban periphery stops and the green tangle of more than 1,000 acres of trees and mountain terrain begins.
The transition is stark and the contrast is stunning. Dinamos is a remarkably rugged urban park. And like other nearby nature preserves, it is now becoming increasingly accessible thanks to a network of new, protected bike paths and a temporary cycling lane on Insurgentes Avenue, one of Mexico City’s busiest thoroughfares crossing several neighborhoods.
But, Jose Alfaro, 36, one of the owners of the Distrito Fijo Cycling Club in the city and one of three local cyclists who joined me on a Saturday morning ride from downtown Mexico City to the top of Dinamos, warns aspiring visitors that “it’s not the longest route or the highest altitude, but it’s one of the most difficult.”
Only a few minutes into the ride I lost sight of Jose and the other two riders in our group.
I wrapped my hands around the top of the handlebar, leaned forward and pushed down on the pedals. Sweat and moisture from the air condensed on my sunglasses but I could see how the narrow road is carved out of the side of the mountain.
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 long but has an average grade of 7 percent as well as brutal sections that top 22 percent (For comparison, Harlem Hill in Central Park has an average grade of about 4.4 percent, according to the New York Cycle Club.)
As the road snakes upward, brief breaks in the trees provide glimpses of the spectacular views. The canyon’s walls, which jut more than 10,000 feet above sea level, muffle out the sounds of traffic on the streets below.
It’s unique to have such wild terrain fewer than 20 miles from the city center but I could not help but worry about my own safety. I knew that a year ago a man on a mountain bike was shot and robbed on the bike path just below the park. A few months ago, the police found a body in the woods below, a killing possibly connected to organized crime.
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 visitors and locals alike may still be surprised to learn that the city is being recognized in the global community of amateur cyclists as a destination for world-class riding.
Mexico City’s average elevation is 7,382 feet above sea level, and the highest summit in the range that rings the valley floor tops out at 17,802 feet. Not only does Mexico City sit at a higher altitude than Denver, but the tallest mountains in its periphery tower over the tallest peaks in Colorado.
For bicycle commuters, however, Mexico City is mostly flat. The biggest challenge is the traffic. As new bike lanes have been installed in busy areas, it has become easier over the past few years for residents to get around. There is a popular bike-share program, and every Sunday streets are shut down for hours for cycling.
Still, tackling longer and more challenging routes requires learning a tremendous amount about Mexico City’s geography — it is 18 percent larger than New York City in area — and what neighborhoods to avoid.
Most devoted cyclists stick to well-known routes through national parks and along wide highways.
On our ride out into the mountains from the modern corporate towers in the central commercial district along Reforma Avenue, we saw the extreme contrast that defines the region’s income gap. On the cycling path that leads toward Dinamos there is a bridge from which visitors can see the red-tiled roofs of upper-middle class housing on one side and improvised shelters made from scraps of wood and plastic on the other.
In part because of concerns about safety, cycling in Mexico City is a highly social sport, organized by clubs and teams.
Out in the mountains, cyclists offer each other quick salutations or make small talk about the weather or upcoming races. Few people ever exchange names or share personal details about what neighborhood they live in or what they do for work. High levels of crime and weak rule of law have led to low levels of trust in society.
Manuel Peña-Morros, another one of the cyclists who joined me for the ride to Dinamos, is an accomplished amateur racer and local ambassador for the annual Haute Route multiday race in Valle de Bravo, a vacation destination west of Mexico City. He said, “Cycling clubs here help teach new riders safe routes.”
Several bike shops organize early-morning group rides during the week and longer excursions during the weekend.
These stores combine bicycle retail and repair with refreshments, offering food, hot and cold beverages and, in the case of Giro Central, even lockers and showers.
Larger teams of cyclists, like CCC Pro, Resistencia, Los Guadalupanos and Grupo Guepardos, gather for rigorous training rides on challenging mountain roads inside the city and in the mountains that surround it.
Other groups organize smaller, fast-paced races on the smooth surface of the city’s Formula One racetrack and informal hill-climb competitions to the top of Ajusco, Paso de Cortes, La Loma and other peaks.
Throughout the year, the city hosts dozens of large-scale amateur cycling races that attract thousands of cyclists. At the 2018 Gran Fondo Ciudad de Mexico, 2,372 cyclists finished routes ranging from 35 kilometers to 120 kilometers along a continuous circuit of traffic-free roads that was temporarily closed to cars.
In 2019, the organizers of the Tour de France conducted an amateur road race in Mexico City and another in the mountains in the metro area. They say participation in such races is growing.
This year, however, the cycling community has been disrupted as Mexico struggles with the spread of the novel coronavirus. The city’s cyclists have adapted to riding on indoor trainers at home or venturing out to ride alone or in small groups with close friends. Large races and most organized group rides have been canceled.
The mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, has responded to the crisis by expanding on existing plans to build new cycling lanes. The aim is to make the city more bike-friendly for more people at a time when many residents are wary of using public transportation.
Andres Lajous, the city’s transportation minister, said that the city is working to double bike lane capacity in order to have a total of 373 miles of cycling paths in place by 2024. “Our goal is to build bike lanes not just in the center but also in the periphery,” he said.
Alejandro Diaz, the manager of the Giro Central cafe and another cyclist who joined me on the ride to Dinamos, said, “They’ve added a lot off cycling lanes. It’s great.” But, he added, there is still a need for more.
After rolling to a stop at an elevation of 9,999 feet above sea level at the summit in Dinamos, I chatted with Jose, Manuel and Alejandro. We looked out over the cliff’s edge down through a light mist that hung between tall trees. The valley floor was nearly 3,000 feet below us.
They agreed the new cycling lanes have vastly improved the experience of traversing the city. In addition to strong legs and adroit bike handling skills, riding among the cars on Mexico City’s busy roads requires immense and exhausting focus. The protected bike lanes allow cyclists to disregard the impatient whirs and chortles emitted by the motors of passing vehicles. Pedaling safely down Insurgentes Avenue is now a profoundly enjoyable urban ride. The distance is the same, but the new bike lanes make the journey less taxing mentally.
I asked Alejandro if the new cycling lanes had made it any easier to get to the top of the mountain.
“I think the bike lanes will help more people get here,’’ he said, “but they don’t make the climb any easier.”