Cycling Alto de Letras, Colombia - allegedly “the longest climb in the world”


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South America » Colombia » Caldas
March 9th 2017
Published: January 8th 2020
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The second day of the Bogota – Cartagena bike tour ended at a divine rural retreat just a couple of kilometres from the big climb. After a lazy late afternoon swimming in the pool and lounging in a hammock we had supper serenaded by a cacophony of crickets and frogs (by heck they are loud). I had been told that my start time would be somewhat later than the others in the group so while they all retired to bed (at only 8.30pm!!!!) I retired to the bar with our guide, David, for post dinner drinks which in my case involved polishing off the remainder of a bottle of rum. Uh oh. Probably not the pre-big ride dietary strategy of champions….

Unfortunately the knock out effects of the rum only worked its magic until about 2.30am when I was woken by the blasted frogs and a pack of fighting dogs competing to make the most noise - a competition that lasted until dawn. Then from 6am the nervous cyclists started organising themselves so there was going to be no chance of getting any extra spare winks as a result of my later start. Blearily I headed down to Mariquita, the town at the start of the climb, for breakfast with the others in the hope that some of Colombia’s finest brew of coffee might help blow the cobwebs away.

I dawdled around as the others headed off, slightly perturbed that the temperature was creeping up the whole time so I would miss the best part of the day to get the bottom section out the way. The only other cyclists in the cafe were three local young whippets who looked like they would fly up the mountain. They gave cheery waves before heading off, before me thankfully. About 45 minutes after the first of our guys departed David gave me the nod - departure time. I checked my watch (my only gadget!) on leaving the restaurant, and we pottered down the main street before turning for the first part of the climb which I think must be the official starting point as suddenly David put the hammer down, much harder than I would have done without a warm up, so I just focused on staying on his wheel.

The first section was a set of rolling rises through leafy countryside with a few sections averaging about 6-7%!w(MISSING)ith some easier sections in between. There were quite a few large trucks which somewhat interrupted the flow. One was particularly annoying as it kept on slowing at the bottom of the dips which prevented us from carrying the momentum into the next incline. However, a slightly dangerous overtaking manoeuvre on a blind bend dispatched him thankfully to clear the road ahead. As the minutes ticked into hours we clicked through the kilometre markers at a steady rate, and then started passing the other members of our group, all six of them in reasonably quick succession, looking in very different states of repair.

At 25kms we turned left through a town and picked up a new friend – a chunky bloke wearing baggy football kit on an old LeMond bike. For the next 15mins or so I battled it out with him to sit on David’s wheel. He swooped in from each side, nearly knocking me off at one point. He refused to engage at all so I started to get really annoyed – surely he knew it was my wheel! David was also getting irritated by him so he ratcheted up the pace and I went into the red trying to hang on. But the manoeuvre had the desired effect as chunkster just shrugged and pulled onto the verge.

Around the 40kms point was the lunch stop. David was going to have to pull off there to look after the other clients but I just pulled over briefly to take on some food and water, and adjust my clothing, before heading on for a solo slog up the 2nd half of the climb. Back on the road again I was straight into 6kms at about 6%! (MISSING)I wound the pace down a notch or two in order to regroup a bit before the killer section of 13.7%!a(MISSING)t 7%!,(MISSING) which arrived at the 80km point. By this stage the altitude effect was starting to be apparent as I was up at 2500m – 3500m, so the ride turned into a gruelling slog up along a road carved into the side of a cliff. I tried to remember to take in the sensational views once in a while, as a break from chewing my handlebars and staring at the unrelenting ribbon of tarmac in front of me.

Just as I crested the false summit, a mere 5kms from the top, the support vehicle with one of the group inside drew aside to cheer me on, which gave a very welcome boost to my flagging morale. I had been told by David that at this point I would be only 20mins from the top, and some of it would be downhill. How bad can that be? I decided to pick up the pace in the big push for the finishing line – a couple more kms at about 4.5%!s(MISSING)o I blasted past the support vehicle that had pulled in at the summit restaurant in order to reach the actual 3677m summit (not marked) another 500m further on, in rolling time of 5hrs from the breakfast place (a couple of minutes further than the Strava segment), and an elapsed time of a few minutes more - enough to give me a respectable 2nd place versus the Strava QOM leader board. Another of the world’s killer climbs conquered!

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Tot: 0.85s; Tpl: 0.1s; cc: 7; qc: 50; dbt: 0.0427s; 1; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 1; ; mem: 1.3mb