Ascending to the Alto de Letras

Jose Pacheco

THE LONGEST CLIMB IN THE WORLD…

In November 2017, with the Biela Tour, we ascended the legendary Alto de Letras. We started fourteen amateur recreational cyclists and we returned being a grupetto of fourteen friends.

The Alto de Letras is a mountain pass located in the central mountain range of Los Andes at an altitude of 3,600 meters above sea level and separating the Magdalena River valley from the coffee growing areas of Caldas and Antioquia. The ascent on its eastern slope implies overcoming an hors catégorie climb, unique in the world of cycling due to its topographical characteristics. 80 kilometers of pavement, that accumulate 4,100 meters of elevation gain, traveling through four thermal floors. It is assumed that the first time it was climbed was around 1950, when Efraín El Zipa Forero pedaled through the then dusty road that connected Mariquita with Manizales to show that it was possible to dream of a Vuelta a Colombia by bike.

The ascent begins in the town of San Sebastián de Mariquita at just 490 meters above mean sea level, between a bubble of humidity and heat, in a place that seems that the wind forgot to blow. The first 5 kilometers are without truce and between banana trees and the sound of cicadas. In this part, the slope does not fall below 7%, and natural selection begins doing its work. Then the ascent becomes regular, at an average slope of 4%, alternating false flats with one or two ramps of two digits. At the 30th kilometer, we arrive to the municipality of Fresno, where the houses on the edge of the road seem to cheer us up with strident decibels of cumbia from some local radio station.

Later, in the middle of the ascent, we find San Antonio de Padua. And there we are over 2,000 mamsl, the atmosphere is cooler and we can enjoy with pleasure the endless depth of the Colombian landscape that shows in our right: imposing pyramidal mountains that seem to be placed by hand, one after the other. There, the lush coffee plantations grow on the hillside, and among them, we can see some farmhouses that are far away from us.

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When we get to 60 kilometers of pedal, and after a descent of just over a kilometer, we find a narrow corridor on the edge of the mountain. This point is known as Delgaditas, and is popular in the local cycling culture because from there, and for the next 14 kilometers, the ramp’s gradient will not fall below 6% . They come with a good dose of hairpin bends that twist our muscles, which are already cooked in a lactic acid broth. We are already close to crowning the climb. The smell of the plantations below, the innocent buds of enthusiasm and the jokes of camaraderie of the first hours of the day start fading from our memories. Now the air is cold, oxygen is scarce, the thick clouds that guard the summit, accompanied this time by the rain of the páramo, are responsible for tearing off the few calories that remain in our bodies and giving us a lesson in patience and commitment. 5 kilometers to go, we come across a slight descent where it is impossible not to start celebrating victory, recovering the smile in our face and start feeling anxious. But the last 4,000 meters of asphalt, adorned by volcanic cliffs and vigilant frailejones are set at 6% of agonizing gradient…

An average climb to the Alto de Letras can take between five and six hours, but it lasts in our lives forever. Now the dimensions have gained another magnitude, the scale of what’s possible has to be reevaluated. We will no longer be the same cyclists of the night before, we have climbed perhaps the hardest mountain pass in the world and one of the cathedrals of cycling. We feel, more by heart than anything else, escarabajos from our land, the land of magical realism.

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The record is supposed to be in the hands of the former TT world champion, Santiago Botero, who climbed Alto de Letras in 2 hours and 45 minutes during Vuelta a Colombia in 2007. Since then, Letras was avoided by professional races, until last year, when Vuelta a Colombia returned. In that occasion, Miguel Ángel Reyes, the stage winner, climbed Letras in 3 hours and 1 minute. The pen behind this post spent 5 hours and 45 minutes of joyful climbing, and blames the weight of his speaker and camera for the bad performance he had.

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