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The longest climb on Earth: Colombia Big Ride

In-depth
20 Nov 2019
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Colombia has produced some of the world’s greatest climbers. It’s also home to one of the world’s greatest climbs: the Alto de Letras

Words James Spender Photography Mike Massaro

Never ride for longer than you have slept. That’s how the adage goes, so when my alarm’s mocking tones chime at 4.50am, I calculate I have a solid four hours 40 minutes to ride from the small town of Mariquita in Colombia to the even smaller town of Letras, 80.7km away.

Easy. Except for one thing: Mariquita lies at 468m above sea level, and Letras is 3,650m above sea level. The journey from one to the other has an aggregate ascent of 3,791m.

Luckily I have a secret weapon with me: Ben Hitchins. Ben is a British ex-pat who bikepacked around Colombia some years ago and loved the country’s joie de cycling vivre so much he moved out here to start bike travel company PiCO.

As such, Ben is well versed in the best way to approach this climb, so too the best time to do it: ‘Christmas Day, when no one is around. Or failing that, early, to beat the heat.’

I hear my ride companion-cum-directeur sportif before I see him, the sound of cleats on tiles echoing down the Hotel El Nogal’s lobby, whose pastel shades and Old Masters replicas lend the place a Wes Anderson-directs-North Korea flavour, made all the more eerie by the deserted half-light.

The hotel’s insides don’t in any way match the Mariquita town that greets us, which although currently pre-dawn asleep is still loud with primary colours and the yellowy hue of sodium bulbs. Last night the streets were a hubbub, but this morning not even the strays are up to bark us farewell.

A speed bump in the road marks the start of the climb, not just by position but by pitch. My bike computer already registers a 2% incline as wheels bump over this lump, and we’ve barely covered 200m from the hotel.

Ben explains that Letras does have plateaus and even short descents every 15-20km, but otherwise the road just goes up. The steepest sections, averaging 6% and peaking in the teens, come nearer the bottom and towards the top, so the message is to start conservatively, find a rhythm in the middle but be mindful of keeping powders dry for a final stiff 15km push.

This won’t be a war of strength but one of attrition. Although the ascent has an average incline of just 4%, it’s Letras’s relentlessness and high altitude that will be our most fearsome opponents. Apparently most Colombian cyclists spend years building up to this climb, and will likely only ever do it once. I’ll be happy with once.

In good company

The bridge over the Rio Guali River marks the outskirts of town. The gridded mesh of streets funnels into a single road flanked by soft countryside that’s as much Kent as Colombia.

The only giveaway that we’re in foreign parts is the yellow parallel lines separating the lanes like runners on a Scalextric track. That and another couple of twos that have appeared on my computer screen: 22°C. At 6.30am.

Despite the temperature and accompanying humidity we’re spinning easily in middle gears – so easily that we soon encounter a bottleneck of traffic. Evidently a large group of cyclists has set off well before us, and have other ideas about the weather.

While Ben and I have donned summer kit with rain capes in our pockets, these men and women are mostly dressed in gear I’d save for my winter commute, right down to the rucksacks on their backs.

Being so close to the equator, Colombia has a relatively consistent temperature year round, with the seasonal splits along the lines of rainy – April to June and October and November – and dry.

But here we are in February, which the locals consider the back end of winter, and given the vertical metres of the climb the temperature is only going to drop as we progress, hence our new companions’ warmers and flappy jackets.

The traffic is backed up as far as we can see, a mix of lorries, pick-up trucks and ‘Willys’, ex-military Jeeps sold off by the US Army after the Second World War, which gained favour with Colombia’s coffee farmers for their robust disposition.

These vehicles are so ingrained in Colombian culture that most farming towns in this region hold annual Willy parades, Yipao (meaning a Jeep-load), in which farmers compete to see who can carry the most stuff. Wardrobes, television sets, grandfather clocks, bananas and coffee sacks are all piled up on these diminutive trucks, and the pictures need to be seen to be believed.

Ben explains that several of the cars and mopeds are here for the cyclists, the drivers having been booked to act as support crews at a cost of little more than a tenner. They also act as safety vehicles, making the riders they accompany more visible to the lorries that form the spine of Colombia’s transport network.

The government apparently tried building a nationwide railway many years ago, but the powerful truckers’ union did its best to block the project, including allegedly having some construction sites and train stations bombed.

To prove the efficacy of this idea, Ben ducks in the nick of time beneath a chrome flash of an oncoming wing-mirror. ‘My fault,’ he declares cheerily, but it’s a stark warning nonetheless.

However, these traffic-heavy kilometres are not unenjoyable or overtly dangerous. The motor vehicles seem happy to plod among us without any of the angry tooting and idle threats to existence I’d expect back home, and there are plenty of cyclists to nod to and bikes to look at as we cruise along.

It seems Colombian cyclists love a fake Pinarello. These Chinarellos are not hard to spot, mostly because the forks and stays have more kinks than an old hosepipe in a bid to emulate that ‘Dogma’ look, and the groupsets are a mishmash of low-level Shimano parts, the bars often incongruously painted up as Look. At any rate, our ramshackle caravan is a happy bunch, and I’m happy to be ticking along in it.

The Alto de Letras is promoted locally as ‘the Longest Climb on Earth’. At more than 80km it is certainly a monster, but there are longer climbs that can be tackled on a road bike, including the mighty Mauna Kea on Hawaii, which Cyclist took on in issue 64, and which is 92km from bottom to top.

There are also some huge climbs opening up in the Himalayas, however most of the rivals, including Mauna Kea, involve a certain amount of climbing on gravel or dirt roads. As such, it is perhaps more accurate to describe Letras as the longest entirely paved climb on Earth.

Either way, it’s a lot longer than any other climb I’ve attempted. As we roll up another stint at 6% and frog-hop out of the melee of traffic, Alto de Letras begins to take on a more exotic feel.

Yucca trees, lazily waving ferns and palms have replaced the more kempt hedges and rush-like grasses lower down. But it’s not until we close in on 1,000m altitude that the foliage peels away to offer glimpses of future horizons.

The sun has come out and the air is still thick, but noticeably less so than when we left Mariquita. There are still a good number of cyclists on various bikes, some astride high-end carbon, others looking like they’re expecting several days’ work on heavily laden mountain bikes.

But almost without fail each offers a cheery buenas! as we draw alongside, the ubiquitous informal greeting, a shortening of the Spanish buenos dias. The view is momentarily eclipsed by towering bamboo and banana palms, and when it returns it’s populated with a concentrated sprawl of buildings.

This is the town of Fresno. Here the placid greenery has been built over with brightly painted concrete and the air hangs heavy with the popcornish smell of frying arepas – a Colombian staple akin to unleavened English muffins made from maize.

The aromas are tantalising so I’m pleased to see Ben pull into a cafe and order a round of tintos – the standard Colombian coffee whose name roughly translates as ‘inky water’ – and Roscón de Arequipe, a condensed milk-stuffed donut every bit as heavy as it is heavenly.

At 25km in, Fresno is where many riders stop for a tinto and a snack before turning back for a blissfully fast descent to Mariquita. Or, in the case of a gentleman busily wringing the sweat from his bandana at an adjacent table, half a dozen beers and a potentially exciting ride home.

Meet the Beetles

It’s really quite hard to gauge height in this part of the world. Whereas the Alps and Pyrenees have pronounced peaks and views to valley floors that signal scale, here on the western side of the Andes the land appears to rise as one. We are nearing 2,000m but the view towards the horizon looks less mountain range and more sea of smoothly rounded hillocks.

Between 1,200m and 1,800m is the preserve of the coffee fincas, whose uniformly spaced crops swathe across the landscape like green Velcro. And in turn, these coffee fincas and similar farmsteads are the preserve of the traditional Colombian cyclist, whose climbing powers are said to derive from the high altitude and highly physical lifestyle on offer up here.

Nairo Quintana grew up in this kind of environment, hauling potatoes on his parents’ farm and riding up mountains just to get to school. So too did 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal, who grew up in Zipaquirá to the east, at an elevation of 2,650m.

These are the men who keep the Colombian cyclist nickname escarabajo alive, and it was on these slopes that the nickname, meaning ‘beetle’, was born.

As the story goes, 19-year-old Ramon Hoyos was competing in the Letras stage of the 1952 Vuelta a Colombia, but the unfortunate amateur crashed badly early on. Undeterred, Hoyos remounted and forged ahead, and to radio commentator Jose Enrique Buitrago’s surprise, appeared over the brow of the summit in second place, bruised, battered and pedalling like a madman.

Buitrago had meant to call out to his listeners that Hoyos was pedalling ‘like a cricket’, but in a fit of emotion, he misspoke and said Hoyos was pedalling like an escarabajo.

The idea stuck, however, and soon became the generic nickname for the irrepressible Colombian climbers, and the rest, much like the coffee farms that are now disappearing behind us, is history.

Close call

Our next stop for refuelling is Padua, a much smaller town than Fresno but with a main street rising sharply and arrow straight like a road in San Francisco. The top is home to a church, whose lightning-scorched spire is evidence of the storms that batter these heights.

Views still remain elusive, partially hidden by trees and, at this height, slowly being enveloped by cloud. The altitude is beginning to tell on my lungs and legs, which are heaving respectively harder and spinning slower in the thinning air. The road has become patchier too, bearing the scars of past heavy rains.

Hairpins come thicker as the road gets steeper. Save for the road through Padua I can’t recall many stretches registering double digits. Some respite comes in a long downhill stretch that sees speedos tick past 60kmh.

Initially my body welcomes this, but it nearly proves terminal. A truck coming the other way swings wide around a corner and into our lane, and for one heart-swallowing second its front wheel is close enough to make my skin freeze. I have no idea how Ben is still upright.

Despite the close call I feel remarkably calm, which might have more to with oxygen deprivation than any sort of cold rationality.

Rising in a dream

Hallucination is a strong word, but I certainly have a sense of floating, perhaps somewhere beyond my bike. I’m at once quite happy, yet devoid of emotion until I stop. Which is happening more and more frequently.

At first it’s for a nature break. Then it’s under the pretence of a nature break. Then to eat, as I seem to have lost the ability to reach into my jersey pocket and retrieve a bar while I pedal.

Moments after coming to a halt each time, senses flood back. I check my computer. We’re definitely close, over 3,000m elevation. I rub my legs, which are much colder than I thought but don’t feel particularly sore, just light.

I get back on and pedal, keeping one eye on my power data. It says 320 watts. Good, legs are back. Wait, 200 watts. No, 180 watts… 150 watts. I’m not sure I can hold 150 watts. We stop again at a something that is either a large shrine or a tiny church.

There is a man next to it who gives me a peace sign. Ben seems to be able to hold a conversation with him, whereas I am only able to mouth a dry ‘hello’.

Before, the road was strapped to the mountainside, but now the tarmac cuts deep into the Andes’ Jurassic chunks. We disappear through a high-sided crevice and emerge onto what might best be described as pasture.

It’s flat, and while I know this must indicate the top there’s no obvious summit to aim for, just an expanse of gnarled grassland that rolls away into the distance like a Scottish moor.

When the top finally comes, Alto de Letras is in a sense underwhelming, signalled only by Ben’s slowing up ahead and the appearance of Letras town, a one-building-deep enclave centred around a police station and a restaurant.

Several hundred metres beyond is the true finish, another sign declaring Alto de Letras’s highest point and listing the relevant statistics. We go there, because that’s what you do in these situations. Beyond that the road just vanishes off with little sentimentality or grandeur.

It’s cold up here with no windbreak, so we turn back for the town, park our bikes and shuffle into the restaurant. Well, I shuffle. Ben positively skips over to the counter and orders us each an aguapanela, a hot sweet drink made from unrefined cane sugar.

Apparently it is to Colombian cyclists what coffee is to Europeans. Into the brew are dunked cubes of salty cheese, and while at another point in time I might have reservations about cheese tea, right now this is about the best thing I could be consuming.

Other cyclists are stumbling into the restaurant, and I recognise the hollow faces they’re wearing. It doesn’t take long for the salty-sweet tea to begin rejuvenating body as well as spirits, and with it comes a creeping realisation. Quite apart from being underwhelmed, Alto de Letras has truly overwhelmed me, challenging the very limits of deriving satisfaction from suffering.

It might not be the longest climb in the world, but it’s certainly the most testing I’ve yet encountered.

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Letras entertain you

Tackle the self-acclaimed ‘Longest climb on Earth’

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/93colombia. This ride couldn’t be simpler – Alto de Letras is one (very long) road out of Mariquita, a small town almost equidistant between Bogotá and Medillín.

The ‘official’ start comes on Calle 7 in Mariquita, just before the junction with Calle 2, at a yellow speed bump with a faded pink ‘Manzana Postobon’ sign writ large on a wall to the right. From there the Ruta Nacional 50 heads 80km west to the tiny town of Letras.

The ‘finish’ is at the Alto de Letras signpost, a few hundred metres after the Letras police station. Stops come at Fresno, around 25km, Padua, around 50km, and Delgaditas, around 60km.At the top, some riders either continue down to the city of Manizales, 40km away, or turn tail and descend the 80km back to Mariquita.

The rider’s ride

Scarab Letras, approx £1,500 (frameset), scarabcycles.com

There aren’t many bike companies in Colombia, and there are even fewer framebuilders. But on the outskirts of Medellín, Scarab Cycles is waving the Colombian flag for custom steel. And when owners Santiago Toro and Alejandro Bustamante were kind enough to lend me a bike for this Big Ride, there could only ever be one choice: the Scarab Letras.

Imbued with the ideals of climbing long ascents, the Letras is made from Columbus Spirit tubing, chosen for its light weight and compliance, and has more than a nod to a classic steel racer in geometry.

The top tube is horizontal, the rear end tight and wheelbase short. Even the Pegoretti (as in the late Dario) carbon fork has a vintage soul, with a square-shouldered crown like the flat lugged crowns of yesteryear.

There are no exotic thrills on the spec sheet, but this beautifully made steel frame deserves to be built into something swanky. It certainly has the chops for it.

How we did it

Travel

The town of Mariquita, where Alto de Letras starts, is equidistant between Medellín and Bogotá. A good time to go for clement weather is February, when direct (11-hour) flights to Bogotá cost around £575. An indirect (14-hour) flight to Medellín costs slightly less.

Accommodation

The chances are you’ll find yourself staying in Bogotá or Medellín for a few days before heading to Alto de Letras. We based ourselves in Medellin’s hipster-trendy El Poblado district, home to a wealth of bars and restaurants frequented by locals and travellers alike. Hotels, hostels and Airbnbs abound, and expect to do a lot of the booking business over WhatsApp, not email.

There’s little accommodation to be found at the top of Letras, so the options are to either ride back down to Mariquita; head 40km to Manizales, which is the closest city, or if you go with a guide such as PiCO bike travel, drive back to Medellín.

Thanks

A huge debt of gratitude to Ben Hitchins, who runs PiCO bike travel (pico-cc.com) and who organised our trip and rode expertly with us. Ben is a British ex-pat but fluent in Spanish, and his local knowledge and linguistic skills helped us immeasurably.

Big thanks also to Andres ‘Pepito’ Phillipe, who drove the support vehicle for probably more hours than is legal, and to our photographer Mike Massaro, who battled through illness to make these pictures happen.

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