Colombia. A piece of me is still a hemisphere away.
I miss your people. I miss your food. I miss your mountains. I miss your air.Dearest Grancolombia, you have captured mi corazon, more than I’d like to admit. The zenith of my love for pedaling, for crushing myself – it was on your breathtaking escarpments, it was wolfing down arepas and pandebono, it was laughing at my monito compatriot in his attempts to seduce the local populace. The grass is always greener, and it will always be, but you were where this lifetime grazer found somereally goddamned green grass.
Letras. The tail end of our Colombian escape. Fittingly, the largest, longest climb in the world of road cycling. Period. The Alps pale. The Rockies – they succumb to the sheer magnitude of this extension of the Andes. Nowhere else on earth can you ascend from a humble elevation of 1,900ft to a towering 14,000ft in a mileage in the double-digits. Few other pais are so ingrained into their literal height than the Andean South Americans. Their massive population centers, bustling with activity, cultural richness, culinary depth – they’re built at climes, at levels incomprehensible to the rest of the world. Who builds their capital city higher than anywhere else? The nations and people of Sud America do.
We started the climb, like so many others, with a descent. The trip from Manizales to the tropical burg of Mariquita would take two hours. By the hour of debarkation from the oversized Peugot, the cyclists in question nauseous at best, pushing choleric at worst – at a stinking panaderia, guzzling sticky carbohydrates into twisted guts. Frantic Coke downing, in an attempt to calm the frothing cauldron of enraged GI tracts would prove to be as effective as pissing on the surface of the sun.
With remnants of forced-down corn cake and pandebono fresh on the lips, we shimmied sweaty limbs into skin-tight cycling kit and began the long march upwards. The atmosphere was thick and staid, legs responding to cursory impetus like a pair of stubborn toddlers refusing the beck and call of a parent. The blare of the Citroen’s horn behind announced the the return of the photographers, and suddenly, motivation. Bend after bend flew by, lungs adapted to life in the high mountains wallowing in the thick buttercream-like oxygen at 2,000ft. Dancing Salsa on the pedals became easy, effortless. Locals in the pueblitas stared, pointed. Monitos on bicycles – an oddity. Monitos on bicycles riding Letras – insanity.
The duo fractured, left in splendid isolation up the massifs and grades of the Andes. Riding is best when shared, but riding Letras – like so many other quasi-spiritual experiences – might be finest alone. Feeling the rhythm of the road as she pitched, seeing the visceral grandiosity of the world’s greatest climb, it’s simply ethereal. One could certainly rip themselves apart on the ascent, but the sensations would be lost.
A hatchback, overbooked with six occupants riding standing-room-only, crept by on a grade with its three-cylinder engine mustering the best of its 38 brake horsepower to lug itself up the mountain. Its denizens gazed upon the author with intense curiosity. Kilometers rolled by, as the cyclist knifed through thermal layers of the atmosphere and sprinted from wayward campesino mutts. Around a bend, and there waited the hatchback in its multi-colored glory on a restroom break, occupants once again mesmerized by the gringo. In a few short minutes the tiny motor sputtered by, barely overtaking the rider. The woman in the front seat smiled – not just a grin, but a genuine smile, accompanied by a sheepish thumbs up.
The drop at kilometer 60. On most climb elevation profiles, small downhill bumps are usually ignored, brief in length and a respite from the pace of the uphill. On Letras, the downhill bumps are a descent unto themselves, with this one looking out across a vast gorge that could easily swallow the whole of my home city in the United States. Speeds approached 80kph, skirting across a ridgeline to the continued climb, and the remaining length of the monster. As the descent was left behind, trademark signs of Colombian road construction reared its head. A line of cars. Street vendors ambling from car to car, peddling Postobon and bocadillos.
The hatchback. Latin positivity for eons, contrasting with the suffering of four hours of incessant climbing. Now smiles joined by cameras. And…cheering. My favorite shout in the thin air of Colombia: “VENGA, LUCHO!” Herrera, but not, slipping through the construction, darting between 10-ton excavators and warnings of “Cuidado!” from the underage flagger staff.
The essential gas for life – oxygen – rapidly became scarce. Legs struggled to turn with the same zest as in the putridly hot climes below. Gasping became the norm, even at a moderate pace. Power ticked down as the road ascended, and the temperature began to tilt towards chilly.
The summit. Hot chocolate with cheese – a sultry delicacy unique to the high altitude regions, steaming chocolate acting as a simple delivery vehicle for a slab of the finest farmer’s cheese in the country. The waiting for the lost Peugeot, for the compatriot hours behind. Sipping my chocolate, chewing my morcilla. Home felt distant, yet all around. The smiles. The warmth.