Thursday, 12 April 2012

Cycle ride to remember

Following 4 days of getting up at 5am and setting off for long rides between 6 and 7 I find I am still waking at the crack of dawn – in Spanish there are verbs to cover it, 'madrugar' or maybe more loosely 'amanecer' to break dawn and one is asked “como amenecido?” how did you break dawn? which I think sounds rather nice.

On the Wednesday before Semana Santa (Easter) I was collected from my apartment by 'Medico' – this is his nickname due to him being a doctor – dah!. He guided me to the rendezvous which was at the side of the road of one of the main arteries that run the length of the valley in which Medellin is situated. We quickly loaded rucksacks onto our support car and set off for the first leg of a 4 day ride of 372 miles and probably more importantly 2 major climbs, Las Letras and Alto de Minas.

We left Medellin heading roughly South east on the road towards Bogota aiming for Doradal, a distance of 109 miles. This is a 2 lane each way autopista and our first challenge was was the 10 mile climb out of Medellin via a tunnel and up onto a high plateau after which the ride was flat and then down for a long way until we had 2 further 5 mile climbs. After a while the road narrowed to just 2 lanes and one was occasionally faced with oncoming overtaking lorries and buses completely on the wrong side of the road forcing you into the margin and requiring more than a little nerve to stay in the saddle. I don't recall too much of the ride – there were some punctures and some of us carried on to get ahead of the main group and we maintained a slower but steady pace. In total we climbed 8,630 feet. Along the way the support car would pass offering water and encouragement – it was a tough ride and by its end I was depleted and questioning my sanity for undertaking this trip. 

Doradal isn't much more than a road stop but our hotel had a nice pool and at this lower hotter altitude people were enjoying the water accompanied by regaton beats up to midnight One guy offered me my first shot of aguardiente - tasting of aniseed but quite pleasant I thought it might be quite a reviving beverage. My cyclist friends cavorted in the pool and as you can see posed more than willingly for my camera.

We couldn't leave Doradal without paying our respects to Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug cartel chief at his Hacienda Napoles. Now owned by the government he built here an enormous complex including roads, a zoo, a bull ring and other amenities which now comprise a theme park!
Hacienda Napoles
The next days's ride was to Mariquita - this was a shorter flatter route heading South but very hot. After Juan Carlos punctured our small group carried on made good time rotating to the front every 500m in order to conserve energy. We crossed the Rio Magdelena, probably the width of 3 football fields and Colombia's greatest river. Eventually the faster group caught up and because it was flat we were able to hang in but my discomfort grew with the heat which was hitting 38C and my feet were red hot and very painful – but we arrived together and I cooled down with a couple of batidos.
Rio Magdelena
From Maraquita we headed back in a Westerly direction faced with the prospect of Las Letras an iconic 80km in length. The starting elevation is 490 meters and it finishes at 3,677 meters (12,063 ft)! This is the climb profile:

Clearly the most demanding climb of my life, I was hopeful but not certain to stay the course. Leaving Marquita the climb begins almost immediately and we were welcomed by views of snow capped mountains in the distance. A group of 5 of us set off half an hour before the rest. I felt OK – keeping a steady pace and the time went quickly as we headed up through the clouds curve after curve – you could never see your ultimate objective due to the vegetation but there were some great views.

I just settled back to suffer a little – well a lot and watched my heart rate which was only around 70% maximum. The rest of the team came through us small groups over the course of the morning and 3 of our 5 abandoned leaving Jose and quiet tall and reserved man of 69 years and and myself fighting for the lantern rouge – about two thirds of the way up I felt very strong and raised my game a little pulling away from Jose but I fast faded and he eventually passed me with a few miles to go. ! Not withstanding this at the top I was greeted with much cheer – cries of 'berraco', 'guapo' and 'tiene cojones' made me feel that I had earned the respect of my Paisa cyclist friends.
Letras 12,067 feet
Taking a couple of photos I left somewhat after the rest and it had started to rain. At this height the rain was very cold and I soon began to shiver. The descent was treacherous because in many places the road had been washed away or parts were under reconstruction and in order to reduce wind chill and not fall off on the bends I had to stay on the brakes at no more than 18mph. reassuringly the support car stayed with me but by this time it was full with abandoned riders so I had no option but to continue my solo descent. About half way down I had to stop to recover a little under the cover of a small army post where the sergeant told me rather unkindly that my feeling of cold was probably psychological! I retorted that it was most certainly very real and told him he had no idea and his young colleagues laughed at my rightful indignation. Eventually we reached Manizales and and the group reformed cold and wet but in high sprits, several like me having accomplished for the first time the most demanding climb of their cycling history.

You might have thought that the next day's ride would be an easy affair – some hopes. We needed to return the Medellin around 125 miles including a climb to Alto de Minas of 25 miles and coming near the end of the ride. 5 of us set off half an hour early and 2 were to abandon before the end – leaving myself, Jose and an amusing guy nicknamed Chavela who was riding a heavy mountain bike but with narrow smooth wheels. 

Much of the first part of the ride was descent and I was warned to take it easy and conserve energy for the end, but after around 25 miles, mainly descending the profile became longish undulations and we rode well following the Rio Cauca to La Pintada a busy town at the base of the climb. Here I had a fish soup with avocados and we stocked up on drinks. I think Alto de Minas  was my toughest climb, mainly due to my general fatigue but I was pleased that we arrived before all the followers had passed – I felt completely depleted and downed 3 coffees, a coca cola and 2 carton of liquid oatmeal and admired the view.
view from Alto de Minas
Revived we headed at speed down the hill and were met at the base by one of the non-participating club members kindly offering us cold drinks and cakes. After some hanging around waiting for our luggage we made it home as it was getting dark.


John G said...

Mate, cracking work on that ride! I can't wait to get involved myself when I head over to Colombia later in the year! :) ... I know what you mean about the car/bus/truck situation, do you find that motorists respect cyclists though?

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your account, I rode up Alto de las Minas from Medellin and descended to la Pintada, where I too had a fish soup at a roadside cafe near thebrd. It was a fantastic descent to La Pintada, and I had a 'Hollywood' moment having gone round a right hand hairpin to be confronted by a lorry overtaking another! I was fortunate to get a lift back to Medellin, god only knows how long it would have taken to ride back up. Weird thing was feeling effects of altitude half way up and having to stop, ten seconds later feeling fine, gear easy but then being hit by it again. Strange because it's similar altitude to Las almas which I rode up without problem. Later that day I was extremely ill - I think from the fish soup! Cheers Ian

malarkey said...

Thanks Ian, sorry not to have responded sooner - yes I had a few of those moments with lorries passing others but there is a metre margin so usually it looks more dramatic than it is. I have now done the climb from La Pintada twice and last year we started aroun 12 pm having already ridden from Manizales. It was 35 degrees and I was truly cooked at the end - A reall accomplishment though - looking forward to 2014 now, cheers and enjoy the ride!