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Digging For Gold

Marcelo Gutiérrez is known in Colombia as South America’s greatest DH racer. Now, in his new role as a Giant ambassador, he’s helping locals build new trails—and a sense of community.

Marcelo first visited and rode in the town of Neira 10 years ago. Located in central Colombia in the department of Caldas, Neira is about a half-hour’s drive from Marcelo’s hometown of Manizales. On that first visit, Marcelo, the most successful pro downhill racer from South America, says he didn’t think much of the trails in Neira.

“I went there and rode on some really poor trails,” Marcelo says. “I don’t mean to be harsh, but that’s just the truth.”

Trail in Neira

Over the last decade, however, things have changed in Neira. Marcelo kept hearing about riders there who were pushing their limits on scrappy trails. There were tales of enthusiastic locals digging and building new lines through the densely forested, high-altitude terrain. There was a man called The Doctor, and he was doing good things.

It just so happens that this year the timing was right for Marcelo to return to Neira. After a decade on the pro downhill circuit, a span that saw him collect 11 national championships, three Pan-American titles and four World Cup podiums, the 30-year-old decided to take a break from racing, transitioning from his pro athlete job with the Giant Factory Off-Road Team to an ambassador role with Giant. His calendar opened up.

“When I first went back, the conditions weren’t great after some heavy rain,” Marcelo says. “But we hooked up with two locals, and I ended up loving it. They were riding hardtails, really basic bikes with bald tires, and I just could not believe how they were riding down those trails. It was pretty sketchy, tons of jumps built on slippery pallets. I had a modern superbike, my Trance X Advanced Pro 29, with fresh tires—and I was struggling! But these guys were pinned and loving it. I told them they were nuts!”

The potential was there. The groundwork had been laid.

One of the first people to reach out to Marcelo about the trails in Neira is known as The Doctor. In fact, the trail Marcelo and his crew ended up working on is named in his honor.

“It’s not just a nickname, he is actually a real doctor,” Marcelo said. “He’s a well-educated guy with an interesting story, and his goal has been to help the community. It’s a pretty young community in general, so he tries to support them and make them earn it by studying, being good citizens, helping at home, and of course digging and maintaining the trails.”

After sampling the trails in Neira, Marcelo and his crew went to work trying to sculpt and shape things for a safer, more enjoyable ride experience for everyone.

“It was a pretty natural track with a bunch of wooden jumps and weird looking lips,” Marcelo said. “It’s about 2.3km long. It starts in a pine forest and then goes through some coffee fields. At the end it goes through a sugar cane field.”

With the help of his digging crew, led by two brothers who live near Bogota and go by the name Tacky Brothers, Marcelo imparted his wisdom and trail philosophy on the locals. The goal was to preserve the challenge and thrill of the terrain but dial down the hazards and add some flow.

“Sometimes people believe that the gnarlier and more unrideable it is, the better it is,” Marcelo said. “I mean, at World Cups we ride trails that are almost impossible, but it’s a different sort of impossible. You don’t want it to be sketchy and scary—where it’s not a matter of skill but risking your life. I just wanted to show the potential of a trail and the difference between riding a path that’s 40cm wide compared to opening it up to about 1.5 to 2 meters wide. We want to use banks and walls, find natural jumps, and remove stumps or other things that make it unsafe.”

This is what motivates Marcelo these days. After all those years of the intense inward focus that’s required of a professional athlete, he’s branching out.

“It’s about giving back and sharing and wanting the best for a country that has given me so much,” he says. “I have been privileged in what I’ve experienced and learned traveling the world as a pro racer. Now I enjoy teaching and sharing with these local communities. Seeing their faces, their smiles and their gratitude is everything to me.”

Marcelo knows that not everyone in Colombia has the luxury of riding a bike like his Trance X Advanced Pro 29, but progression in the sport can happen in different ways. As the trails evolve, so does the riding. “Everyone wants to ride faster, and riders here are really competitive, even on their hardtails,” he says. “Rider progression only makes the trails better.”

Cycling in Colombia is undoubtedly on the rise. With its mountainous terrain and its history of producing top road racing pros, it’s a nation that loves the sport in general. Mountain biking is on the map here as well, with major events like the Enduro World Series visiting in recent years. And another Colombian racer who also rides for Giant, Leonardo Páez, is the 2019 MTB Marathon World Champion.

There’s a movement, Marcelo says: “The amount of people riding bikes here now is unprecedented. But the mountain bike communities are still not that well connected. That’s my goal, to do more projects like this one and bring people together. Most of the trails we use were originally built for coffee pickers to walk down to the coffee farms. I would say about 90 percent of the trails we ride around here have been adapted, and only 10 percent have been purpose-built for mountain biking.”

As for his local trail riding friends, Marcelo says it’s impossible to know how far and how fast the scene may progress. But for them it’s not about achieving big goals or elevating their status. “All I want right now is for them to have the best trails possible,” he says. “And to be happy while riding their bikes.”

Marcelo Gutierrez jumping

Rider: Marcelo Gutiérrez

Videography: Miburraonline

Photography: Santiago Cardenas