Speaker: There’s no rest for the wicked. Oh, my day. Riding my bike in Colombia has been
a dream for a long, long time and recently, I was lucky enough to finally make that trip
for two weeks of filming for GCN. Seeing as I was in the neighborhood with a day to spare,
I could not resist the chance to try and ride up one of the world’s longest and most mythical
climbs, the 81-kilometer Alto de Letras. Yes, 81 kilometers. It starts right here in
the beautiful town of Mariquita, which sits at 468 meters of elevation. The summit meanwhile,
is 3,663 meters. To ride it all in one go means starting in this subtropical paradise
with 30-degree temperatures and high humidity and ending up in all likelihood in extremely
cold and potentially very rainy conditions on the summit.
What that means is my jersey pockets are as full of clothing as they are of food and there’s
an awful lot of that in there as well because it’s going to be a long day out. To put it
in perspective, of course, to ride up and down this hill, it’s going to be a century,
so it’s going to be pretty epic. I better finish off my coffee which professional cycling
aficionado should note, comes in a Café de Columbia cup.
Incidentally, actually the coffee inside it could have come from these very hillsides
because Mariquita actually sits at the southern point in Colombia’s famous coffee production
Speaker: This area is blessed with many, many mountains. Columbia sits at the northern end
of the mighty Andes. Although here, they’re actually split into three distinct branches;
the westernmost Cordillera Occidental, the eastern Cordillera Oriental, and the Cordillera
Central in the center, which is where we are now. While not boasting the honor of having
the highest peak in the country, the Cordillera Central does have more high mountains than
its neighbors. In fact, the lowest pass over it is still
3,299 meters. It is a paradise for cycling, and no wonder so many of the world’s best
call Columbia their home. The list of big-name riders is seemingly endless, topped, of course,
by none other than Tour de France winner, Egan Bernal now, but Mariquita has its own
world tour pro now as well. Yes, Andre Avila, who started this year for UAE team Emirates
in his first year as a pro, having won the baby Giro last year so he’s one to watch as
well. Now, the success you think perhaps down to
the immense popularity of soccer a sport here in Colombia, it could perhaps be down to the
altitude that many of the riders live and train and indeed grew up at. Although not
[inaudible 00:03:42] , because we’re just at 500 meters remember. For him, and many
others, perhaps, is the access to these near-endless climbs.
There’s no getting away from it. The gradient starts as soon as you leave Mariquita [inaudible
00:04:04] my Wahoo, it came in at 10%. [inaudible 00:04:08] back just to shave now, but clearly,
Alto de Letras mean business. In the back of my head, I just can’t help but think, “How
do you pace an 80-kilometer long climb?” Clearly, steadily, will be the sensible answer, but
then, not exactly what I’m best at. I do want to emulate some of the Colombian
climbing greats albeit the 10 pedal revolutions. Now, before we get too far up this climb,
let’s talk about climbing speed, shall we? The fastest recorded time on Strava is by
a guy called Didier Chaparro who’s a Colombian pro weighing in at just 54 kilos. He rocketed
up here in three hours and four minutes, which is an average speed of 26 km/h. Phil Gaimon
meanwhile could only manage three hours, 20. I’m hoping to be somewhere between the two.
No, who am I kidding? I haven’t had that much acclimatization time.
Also, I’m running Vision Metron 55s as opposed to the shallower, slightly lighter 40s, so
that’s probably going to make a difference, but only those two things. It’s all academic
anyway because everyone looks slow compared to Santiago Botero who has the unofficial
record up here. He did two hours, 50 in the Vuelta a Colombia back in 2007, which he then
went on to win. Chaparro, Santiago. [music]
Speaker: It turns out I didn’t need quite so much ride food as I thought. Roadside fruit
stand. This, a mini-banana, you might think, is a bocadillo and it is insanely good. Well,
we got a bit of less bites from the climbing as we go through the little town of Fresno.
It’s got to be said, it’s quite a busy road, this one. Unsurprising, given that it’s one
of only two paved passes over the Cordillera Central. There’s two more, but they’re dirt,
so you can’t imagine much of this traffic going over those ones, but cool, little place.
No rest for the wicked. Now, have you noticed I’m keeping in the big ring for this bit just
to try and impress everyone. Make them think that I’m actually Egan Bernal since I’m riding
his bike, or at least one like it. One of the incredible things about riding up a climb
this long is seeing the vegetation change. You might be used to one or two, but we’ve
already left sub-tropical behind. We’re amongst the coffee plantations and pasture land up
here. I think it’s going to be the first of a few
judging by the fact that we’ve still got 2,000 meters left to climb. The air is cooler, much,
much cooler. Nice trade-off for the fact that Oxygen is becoming scarcer, [inaudible 00:08:36]
good. I think I’m making good progress. Not exactly an escarabajo, but doing alright.
I’m going to take advantage of free-wheel. Oh, my days. I’ve been paying close attention
to the altitude on my Wahoo. It’s not been particularly inspiring so far
and there are so many meters still to climb, but we have just ticked past quite an important
milestone in that, we’ve just gone through the equivalent height of Alpe d’Huez. Probably
the most famous climb in the Tour de France and one that was once claimed as being far
too short by Lucho Herrera, who is the first Colombian to ever win a grand tour.
He took the Vuelta España in 1987 and he was part of that first generation of Colombian
pros to really make their mark in the cycling heartland of Europe. They were nicknamed,
los escarabajos or beetles because of their climbing style that you think was honed on
roads just like this one. Unfortunately, the generation that succeeded Herrera’s didn’t
make quite such an impact in Europe. That was partly because there were no big Colombian
pro teams. The Café de Colombia team that we noded to earlier on, closed its doors as
all pro cycling teams inevitably end up doing, and none, unfortunately, filled its shoes.
Plus, a lot of people say that the rise of EPO in pro cycling effectively wiped out that
natural advantage that Colombians have from living and training at altitude.
I just had that last little bit of downhill. There’s three points at which the climb does
actually stop and you get a little bit of respite and it’s very, very welcome. Whether
or not it’s cheating to classify it as [inaudible 00:11:02] climb if you got three descent in
it, I don’t know. [inaudible 00:11:06] if that helps you make your mind up. Just [inaudible
00:11:11] parts of high the Stelvio, which is nice, but I still got 20 kilometers to
go and 1,000 meters of elevation gain. This is a fantastic stretch of road. It’s
like 4%, so it makes me feel like I’m going really fast, even though it’s not actually
very uphill, but good for morale. Last lap I think. This point, you start really hoping
you can trust the numbers. I’ve got just under 80k on the clock. I’m absolutely hanging.
I’ve been spending a few days at altitude has made a big difference. I feel a heck of
a lot better than I did at the Taiwan KOM Challenge two and a half years ago. I’m definitely
not as fit as I was. You can see the vegetation changing again.
It feels quite high up here, doesn’t it? The scenery is just epic. Santiago Botero’s time
has just gone. Two hours, 50 minutes in laps. Just a couple of K shy of the summit. Yes,
I know. unfortunately, that’s not quite true. I feel Gaimon’s time might have gone as well.
I shouldn’t have stopped for bananas or miniature bananas. Bocadillo, which I’m sure means sandwiches.
Speaker: I think I can see something resembling the top now. It’s absolutely freezing up here.
The top can’t come soon enough. I can feel that tingling, that telltale sign that I’m
about to blow my [inaudible 00:13:45]. Hey, is this it? Come on, wherever it is. I think
this might it. My lungs are burning. They’re working overtime. Nothing’s coming in, the
air is just so thin. I’m not quite. [music]
Speaker: That truly is an epic climb. One of the absolutely greatest, I’m sure of it.
I need an empanada and a [inaudible 00:14:31] . That truly is a bucket-list climb. There’s
no other way of describing it. If however, you are fortunate enough to come out here
and do Alto De Letras, just bear in mind that it is a really busy road, so take care out
there. Maybe stick some lights on your bike and stuff like that because it’s busy. There’s
a lot of lorries out there, but anyway, you will undoubtedly love it.
It’s worth pointing out as well that I think Columbia has climbs that are far superior
to this one even. Maybe not quite so long, but equally as beautiful, if not more so,
and much, much quieter as well. Definitely Columbia is a bucket list destination for
any cyclist. Absolutely fantastic. Keep your eyes peeled for all the Columbia content that’s
going to be coming up on GCN in the next few months.
There’s some big stuff in the pipeline and I’m very excited for you all to see it. Please,
give this video a big thumbs up and we’ll see you soon.
[00:15:30] [END OF AUDIO]