Imagine hundreds of cyclists riding through the streets as an Olympic gold medalist leads the pack. Years ago, this scene would not be possible in certain regions of Colombia. Now, five large-scale cycling events have taken place throughout marginalized regions of Colombia thanks to the support of the USAID-funded Program of Alliances for Reconciliation, implemented by ACDI/VOCA, and its partner Score Sports.

This November, Olympian and BMX champion Mariana Pajón took fellow cyclists on a grueling path through the mountainous terrain of Urabá, a region in northwest Colombia that experienced years of violence during the armed conflict. This was the last of five races, called Clásicas por la Reconciliación, that Pajón led over two years.

BMX biking event Colombia

During each of the two-day races, Pajón held inspiring talks highlighting the positive nature of activities like these that bring people together and promote an open dialogue. In Urabá, Pajón told the crowd that nothing unites a country like sports. She encouraged young people, who will carry on the reconciliation process, to believe that they can be agents of change in their communities. She and her crew also donated bicycles and sports kits to marginalized youth.

“To be able to come here is a huge change — to be able to enjoy the beauty of our country. To be able to walk the trails where guerillas used to walk, where there was so much violence. Now, instead of guns there are bicycles, and it’s beautiful.” — Mariana Pajón, Olympic BMX champion speaking at a cycling event in Cañon las Hermosas

Pajón’s star power as a two-time Olympic gold medalist generated public interest and widespread media attention to regions that were often left out of positive news coverage. The positive attention cast a new light on regions that are shifting the narratives about their people and cultures. 

In Cañon de las Hermosas, participants raced through the countryside of rural Chaparral as part of the first race, spreading a new image of the former FARC stronghold as a tourism destination. Subsequent races brought cyclists to the Caribbean fishing town of Ciénega, the lush terrain of Florencia nestled near the Amazon, and Cúcuta, a town near the Venezuelan border where the event helped raise awareness around migration issues and encouraged inclusion of migrants in Colombian society. Each location offered a rare opportunity to experience a different side of Colombia. “Living in a reconciled country means that we can discover its treasures,” Pajón said.