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.
The 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!
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.
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!
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.
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.