Joe Parkin DanielsLast modified on Fri 4 Oct 2019 17.57 BST
As the cable cars that connect downtown Medellín – Colombia’s second city – to the hillside slums pass overhead, a band of teenage cyclists have gathered at the side of the road. Vallejuelos is a downtrodden neighbourhood, rife with crime and unemployment, but “gravity biking” is helping some kids escape their troubles.
As the name suggests, gravity biking involves steep descents. Enthusiasts strip a typical bike to its frame and build it back up from scratch. To improve descending speed (which can reportedly reach up to 77 mph), riders weld weights to their contraptions. Pedals are superfluous: to climb the hills riders hang on to passing trucks, sometimes using homemade hooks on a line.
Estiven Hurtado is an avid gravity cyclist and has lived in Vallejuelos his whole life. “We live for gravity biking here,” he says, lugging his modified bike behind him, emblazoned with the visage of the drug lord Pablo Escobar, Medellín’s most infamous son. “It’s a way of life for anyone who lives up in the communes.”
Gravity biking can be found across Colombia, but it is most popular in Medellín and surrounding towns owing to the steep Andean mountains. But the nascent sport is as dangerous as it sounds, and last year one nearby town, La Ceja, banned it outright.
“Given the grave danger, the decision was made to prohibit the circulation of bicycles modified by hand for this sport throughout the territory,” said La Ceja’s council at the time.
Hours after meeting the Guardian, Hurtado is left injured at the side of the road after colliding with a motorcyclist on a tight bend down the hillside. Almost everyone who practices gravity biking at some point ends up in a similar situation.
“It’s the risk we run around here, but we get used to it,” says Marlon Muñeton, who at only 16 is seen as a leader among the gravity biking community. Shortly after the BBC published a video of his exploits last month, he had an accident, narrowly escaping serious injury and doing irreparable damage to his bike. He had twice before been gravely injured after crashing, nearly dying both times. His shaved head carries several scars.