By Richard Spencer
While scouring the internet for cycling routes and riding advice in the Medellin area I came across Alejandro Jiminez’ article on theclimbingcyclist.com. It’s a great read, and details his attempt with 20 others on Colombia’s Alto de Letras. At 12,017 feet, Alto de Letras is the high point on the road that connects Mariquita, at 1,500 feet, with Manizales. It gains these 10,500 feet in one massive 50 mile effort, with only the smallest amount of descending and regaining of height along the way.
It is widely accepted as the longest paved climb in the world, and appears on Strava’s Classic Segments alongside many famous cols and peaks, which it dwarfs! Alejandro’s article really captured my imagination, but I hadn’t ridden in a couple of months, and for that matter, had only done a five week block of cycling in the last six. So I bookmarked the blog, and begrudgingly pushed it to the back of my mind.
Medellin is a charming, vibrant and varied city with a sense of pride and friendliness in its people almost unmatched in the world. I think in part this is just Colombia and Colombians, but particularly with Medellin the transition from a not-so-distant troubled and violent past is so successful and complete that it is no doubt a major factor in this warmth and pride.
The city has a rich tradition of cycling and is home to many top flight pros, among them Rigoberto Urán, along with scores of club racers who would demolish the field on any vaguely ‘hilly’ course in the U.K. But one of the greatest qualities of the cycle scene in Medellin is its openness, lack of pretension and scope and depth of participation.
The city’s Ciclovias—on Sundays, public holidays, Tuesday and Thursday evening—see miles and miles of highways closed to traffic, coned-off with marshalled junctions and taken over by cyclists, runners, walkers and rollerbladers. It’s social, fun, well supported and an institution for the city which I don’t ever imagine will be taken away.
While all this takes place in and around the center, which stretches out down a steep-sided valley, dozens of more ‘serious’ cyclists head up Via Las Palmas; a dual carriageway of sorts, which in 10 miles climbs over 1,000 meters up and out of the city. Here you will absolutely see well-shaved legs, full team kits and $10,000 road bikes, but you will also see enthusiastic teenagers in board shorts on mountain bikes that cost $100 ten years ago, and everything in between.
You WILL be overtaken by super lean athletes riding the most modest of road bikes, a glorious reminder to just get on with it, to get out and ride whatever bike you can! As much as I’m intrigued by the latest tech, having matching bar tape, saddle and sidewalls, shaved legs, smart Lycra and a slammed stem count for nothing as the retirement-age Colombian, with a bum bag, on a retirement-age bike, pushing a ‘vintage’ screw-on cassette gear that has at most 23 teeth, comes cruising past you up a climb. Or a gringo on a 6-speed folding bike for that matter.
At 3,663 meters/12,017 feet, Alto de Letras is widely accepted as the longest paved climb in the world.
Two-to-three weeks into my Medellin ‘training camp’ and I’d climbed Las Palmas a few times, lapped the local park cycling track several hundred times, and whilst analysing Strava for any evidence of improving fitness, I’d clicked that damn ‘Alto de Letras’ bookmark more times than I care to remember. I found myself starting to feel that to be here and not take a crack at it would be a huge mistake. I might not be back in Colombia for years, and if I am, to have the time, and to have had the time to train at altitude create a rare opportunity. I tell my co-worker Kath, we pencil in the final Saturday, and she gets back to learning Spanish as I get back on my bike.
And so it was, with four weeks’ riding in my legs, we sat the Brompton on the back seat of the tiny rental car and set off on the six hour drive to Mariquita. We decided to go the slightly quicker way around, leaving Medellin to the North, mainly because I didn’t think taking a look at the climb on the way in to Mariquita would be anything but demoralising. A few months ago we drove Arthur’s Pass East to West across New Zealand, before turning round and riding back. I’ve learnt my lesson—recon is for pros, I just need to get on with it—I’m not psychologically strong enough to know what’s in store, and then to do it anyway!
The decision to go was made barely 24 hours before we set off, so the hotel was the cheaper of two available via booking.com. Brisas del Oasis was clean, secure, with friendly staff and an air conditioned room with fridge, ticking all the necessary boxes. There are around a dozen hotels in the town, it’s just not so easy to book them online.
I rose the following morning just after 5 a.m. and had a banana sandwich, I snuck out of our room and was on the road by ten to six.
My bike for the previous four weeks had been a Brompton P6L kindly lent to me by Brompton’s distributor in Colombia, El Toma Corriente. The only modifications are two jubilee clips around the suspension block (an improvised but effective lockout), SPD pedals and a handlebar mounted bottle cage.
To my surprise the morning of Saturday, June 28, was cooler than I’d expected, but by no means cool, and the air was close and wet. The first light of the day exposed wispy high cloud, and more cloud shrouding the mountains to the west where I was headed. The initial 10km or so out of town are steep and I had to keep reminding myself not to attack them, trying to keep the Brompton’s first (33-inch) gear turning over smoothly and efficiently.
I’ve grown to quite like the P Type Brompton, but I find the bar a bit high and too flexible for climbing hard out of the saddle. The S Type (with a flat bar) is far superior for aggressive riding, but as I said, aggression wasn’t going to help with more than 40 miles of climbing still ahead! Thankful for having set off early enough to beat the heat for the opening miles I managed to settle into a good rhythm. The biggest challenge for the next hour or so was to remember to keep eating and take the opportunity whenever the gradient eased to sit up, spin and consume some calories.
At around 15 miles I had closed the distance on the cloud and a few thick drops of rain began to slap against my helmet. This soon developed into a full blown thunderstorm and at 22 miles, soaked, I took shelter on a small petrol station forecourt and ate my last gel, watched by a bemused forecourt attendant. I crossed my fingers that Kath had got up and left by 7.30 a.m. as we’d planned, and set off again into the rain as it was too cold to wait around.
As I pedaled I crunched numbers; speeds, times and distance, trying to convince myself that my support car was soon to catch me! Just as I was contemplating imposing myself on a household of locals I heard the pips of a horn and was relieved to turn and see Kath approaching. Despite being a bit cold and very wet I was in good spirits; I was 25 miles in, practically half way, and was averaging just over 8 mph. In the back of the car I put on a lightweight jacket and some waterproof socks while Kath filled my bottles and dug out my glasses, I’d optimistically set off in sunnies.
Editor’s note: Check in soon for Part 2, where Richard reports on how he overcame the dreaded bonk and conquered Alto de Letras.