Part 2: Scaling the 12,017-foot Alto de Letras…on a Brompton

Editor’s note: Here’s Part 2 of Richard’s amazing adventure: riding a 16-inch-wheeled Brompton up Colombia’s Alto de Letras and having the energy to tell us about it. Part 1 is here for reference. Here’s a recent First Impression report on our Brompton S6L test bike.

By Richard Spencer

From there on, Kath would pass or wait for me every 5-6 miles which meant I only need carry one water bottle and I also ditched the heavy battery pack that was keeping my iPhone charged. The next two meet ups and 11 miles ticked by quite quickly, and after the first one the rain eased and the cloud lifted revealing extraordinary views across the valleys below. I was grateful for a few rays of sunshine which began to make their way through, warming me up and drying me out; I was feeling good and confident that I could complete the climb, but I was definitely tiring.

Brompton2The fourth meet, at around 40 miles, felt a long-time coming and I knew the dreaded ‘bonk’ was fast approaching. I found myself getting increasingly worked up that Kath hadn’t used any of the perfectly good pull-over places I passed, even though she was just driving six miles on the odometer as agreed, before stopping. My pace had really started to slow and the power in my legs was non- existent; the final 10 miles or so were incredibly tough; above 9,800 feet I was struggling with the thin air, compounded by the five hours of climbing already in my legs and I had to stop completely in order to eat anything.

There’s not a huge amount to say about these final 10 miles; in excess of about five hours on a bike will have me willing the end, even on a flat ride with a group of mates. I was barely aware of the incredible scenery and only the odd car or truck blowing its horn and waving me on gave me cause to smile. It takes a bit of getting used to after cycling in London; in Colombia you are always getting beeped, but when you turn with the ‘what’s your problem?’ attitude that London ingrains in you it’s humbling to see the driver, or the passengers of a packed ‘collectivo’ beaming from ear to ear, cheering you on with raised thumbs, leaning on the horn!

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I reached the sign and summit of Alto de Letras after just over seven hours, six and a half on-the-move, all up hill, all on 16-inch wheels and nearly all in the first of just six gears.

The emotion was all relief rather than elation, but this is a monumental and staggeringly good ride. The transition of scenery as you climb from humidity, through rain and cloud, sunshine and showers, to a height where you can see your own breath is an unmatchable experience. After all this, especially under a gray sky, the top is rather underwhelming. But the journey to it is up there with my very greatest on-bike memories, and Colombia has a special place in my heart.

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If I was to do it all again, a few riding buddies would be good, and I’d kit the Brompton out with Schwalbe Kojak tires, a smaller chainring and relieve it of fenders, reflectors and any other non essential grams! But I think this is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ rides, and best left that way. If I could pass just one thing on from my experience cycling in Colombia, it would be this: it’s not the bike that’s stopping you!

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Post-script

After the ride I got in touch with Alejandro via Instagram and discovered we shared a love for traveling with folding bikes. We had occasional contact over the following months and in October we both happened to be in New York on business. We met early on a Sunday morning along the Hudson River cycle path, Alejandro on his Tern Verge X10 and me on my Brompton S6E; we crossed the George Washington Bridge chatting away and clocked up well over 100 miles before a late lunch at the Rapha cafe.

On his road bike Alejandro is pretty formidable and has one of the fastest times up both Letras and Las Palmas, so I was relieved to keep a good pace with him. Both in Colombia and New York having a folding bike has allowed me to do all the riding I could want to, but also to travel by plane, train, bus and taxi without the inconvenience or cost of having a regular bike in tow.

 

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