It took an age to get of the city and into the countryside proper, so it was gone 1am when we rolled into our lodgings for the night. It was at least 10 degrees warmer than Bogota, and humid too, a reminder that Colombia is in the tropics but next morning dawned damp, overcast and pleasingly cool.
There was no breakfast to be had so I made do with a banana and a cup of hot, sugary water. Not really what was required for the day ahead. I managed to grab a coffee and some cake at the nearby town and then right away it started. We were taking on the climb of Alto De Letras, an 80km (yes, 80km) uphill monster that rises from 547m up to the altiplano at 3670m. It’s a climb of 8 distinct stages, or steps, with some small descents punctuating each stage – welcome at the time but dispiriting to give up any elevation gain only to have to repeat your climbing effort to recover the loss.
I will never, ever forget this climb and the challenge it offered up. It started off in a lovely wooded vale, it’s hot here in the morning but there is plenty of shade and the trickling streams reminded me of climbs in the French Pyrennes. The group stayed together for the first 10km uphill but then I start to get alerts that my heart rate is unsustainable and it was time to let those mountain goats go. I wouldn’t see them for the rest of the day. 20km, then 30km pass by, all seems ok but I started to get concerned i’d had no real food so far. I picked up one of the group who had a puncture and we ride into the town of Fresno together but get split up soon after, then the van came up and I grabbed a banana and an energy bar. Onwards, then and upwards, past the 2000m mark. A road-block delayed me for 15 minutes, and then a steep climb through another small town. It stared raining. The km’s were ticking by slowly now, the views down the valley were stunning but I started thinking for the first time about quitting, and what would be an acceptable distance to pull the plug. At around 55km there had been a landslide and mud covered the road, I ride on through but I got covered in thick, grey gloop followed by more rain by which time I looked like Cadel Evans in that famous edition of Strade Bianchi.
Ok, 60km of uphill is enough I figured, but just before my self-imposed cut-off the road plunged downwards and we descended for the next 2km, encouraging me to continue. The road started to get busy with traffic, logging trucks and oil tankers making the trip over to the next valley. At 63km I got off the bike feeling faint. I sat down and immediately fall asleep, waking momentarily later. I took a gel and continued. I was riding at 6-7km/h, barely keeping the bike upright and worried about veering into the traffic. If the support van arrived then I would have jumped inside in a heartbeat. But it didn’t so I carried on. Another gel helped, for about 2km and then I was off the bike again, struggling to catch my breath and find the energy to continue. This was the section everyone warned me about, the ‘7th’ ramp, one relentless grind at an average of 7% for over 10km. I’m not sure if I was fully conscious when I limped over the top of the pass but by the time we started climbing again I only had around 6km to go. The van arrived and Patrocino shouted encouragement, ‘seis kilometro solo, sigue adalante!’ (6km only, keep going). I winched myself up, metre by agonising metre. It’s bleak and desolate up here at this altitude, more like Saddleworth Moor but in the gloom I could make out a few roadside shacks high above me that mark the top of the pass. With 2km to go I met Santiago coming down to meet me and drag me over the line – a lovely gesture of solidarity from a true gentleman. I could barely acknowledge him as he urged me on, time seemed to stand still.
I though it would never end but end it did. I felt no sense of accomplishment, the climb got the better of me and it was only stubborness got me over the line, gasping and wheezing. A quick photo, a bowl of hot Aguapanela (raw sugar cane juice, fantastic) in a roadside shack that was straight out of Andean central casting; mud walls, straw floor and gnarly old farmers in woollen ponchos looking on. It was cold at the top and the road down the other side was considered too unsafe so we piled into the van to warm up and headed to our overnight stop at a nearby coffee hacienda.
It was dark when we arrived but you could still appreciate the beauty of the location, nestled in a fold in the land with various guesthouses, lodges and working farms dotted high in the hills above. It was a magical place and spirits were high in the group, all had taken on Letras for the first time and everyone made it. I started to feel normal again after a shower, some pasta and beer but we were all tucked in before 10pm following the exertions of the day. The next morning I’d make sure not to repeat the mistakes of the previous day, starting with some of the lovely estate-grown coffee. Colombian coffees generally much milder, fruiter and sweeter than we are used to in the UK with a lower caffeine count but perfect for all-day drinking. After a breakfast of eggs, toast and bananas, and more coffee we were ready to go but just as we were leaving some heavy rain set in, we sat it out for a while, took photos and let it pass.
Once we got on the road it felt good to be moving again with little effects of the day before, we took on a series of small climbs on wide, but generally traffic free roads before tumbling down into the city of Pereira. The sun came out and we rolled through town in good spirits riding as a group. We were heading towards the hill-top of Salerno at the edge of a national park but to get there involved some more serious climbing. Out of Periera the rode rises gently at first through a succession of false flats, the heavens opened and we were forced undercover until it passed. When it rains here you know about it – no matter how good your kit is (looking at you, Milltag) your going to get a soaking. Back on the road and we carried on climbing, the road getting a little steeper. We get strung out as a group but get back together again for the final push over the top – suddenly, its a race! I sneak up along the inside and hit the front, maybe I can diesel away to take the win but the a flurry of activity to my left and they leave me for dust in the last 50m – oh, to be young again.
It started raining again as we descend off the main highway and down a quite road into a wooded valley – another sketchy descent on a narrow wet road bounced straight back up as we climb for 6km up to Salerno. We’ve completed 70km and around 1500m of climbing, it’s 2pm so time for lunch. Alas no, we had another 10km to our rendezvous point but it’s lovely here so another 20 minutes riding will be just perfect. A short descent out of Salerno and all of a sudden we are in the Lake District with green pastureland on either side surrounded by rolling hills. It was a picture-perfect scene as the road rises ever so gently at 2-3%. I’m hungry now and mindful of yesterday’s extertions keen to get refuelled. It gets darker all of a sudden and started raining – no matter, it was still mild. We started climbing and I see a sign for the mirador where we are heading, in 5km. The group split, some were now behind and some had ridden on ahead. At 4km to go the road pitched up steeply, 12, 14, 15% gradients showed on the Garmin and the rain became heavier. Up, and up we went, past 2000m with no let-up in the gradient. I could see two riders ahead of me, maybe 70m but I couldn’t catch them on this terrain. The van came past, the other riders have bailed out on the day but I still had something in the legs and wanted to banish the memory of the day before. So, out of the saddle for the final km with no let-up in the double digit-gradient but I’m still hanging in there and, for one brief moment I too am a true ‘Escarbarajo’. Finally I see the restaurant ahead with the van parked outside, I give it one last dig and its done. Only 80km but with over 2300km of climbing and the last section at a 10% average it felt like a long, hard day. It’s cold and raining heavily as we set about lunch, starting with hot passion fruit juice laced with brandy, my kind of recovery drink, followed by trout, ceviche served on a giant corn tostada. A truly fine meal to finish a weekend cycling to remember. The journey back is best forgotten, a long, arduous slog back over the mountains in terrible traffic, a small price to pay for such an epic adventure.
My memories of riding in Colombia will be firstly the warmth and generosity of the people, their passion for cycling and love of life. The sport has a long and distinguished history and they are rightly proud of the current generation of cyclists putting the country back on the cycling map. I hope that in the coming years many more keen cyclists from the UK and beyond will seek out the challenging terrain the country has to offer, but also to experience the unique hospitality in this most welcoming and beautiful part of the world.