Climbing Alto de Letras

Story and pictures by Aaron Prasad

This is an account of climbing the longest road climb in the world, Alro de Letras by Montu ambassador Aaron Prasad

The Preamble

Where to start…Letras was an incredible day.

I sit here nearly two weeks after returning from my month-long trip in Colombia—two and a half weeks after summitting the colossal Alto de Letras road climb (spoiler alert)—and even now when I close my eyes I can vividly see the landscape passing by, feel the air becoming cooler as I got closer to the top, and I still laugh when I think of my adventure partner screaming, “vamanos!” as she pulled away in the support vehicle and raced ahead to our next meetup spot.

The Profile

Let’s talk about the mountain itself. Generally regarded as the world’s longest road cycling climb, Alto de Letras winds up the Andes Mountains from a little town called Mariquita, in the Tolima department (province/state) of Colombia. From the start of the climb to the official summit sign at the end, as per my Garmin, is just shy of 81km in total distance.

Most reports I found conflicted a bit, but according to Strava the climb starts at 465m above sea level and gains over 3600m in total elevation before the summit, finishing at an elevation of almost 3500m above sea level. Many reports and accounts on the internet will say that the average grade is roughly 4%, however that average also includes the descent portions, which bring the average down. The descents provided welcome, although brief, respite from the constant upward effort. I found them to be great opportunities for active recovery, although they don’t appear as often as you’ll find yourself hoping for…just five or six times by my count.

In terms of oxygen availability, we lose roughly 3% for every 300m above sea level we go. So in a climb that gains roughly 3600m, I would have access to 36% less oxygen at the top of the climb compared to the bottom. I was hoping my acclimation period would help me cover the spread.

My approach on the day was to just keep my legs turning in circles (squares when needed) and mostly just using whatever gear allowed me to stay in my 90-100 RPM cadence. I figured even if I had to rely on the easiest possible gear the whole time, making it to the summit sign was all that really mattered. All of the videos and articles on riding Letras (and I did watch and read ALL of them) echoed the same thing: if you’re an amateur (which I definitely am) don’t go too hard out of the gates, and fuel more than you think you need to. I am so glad I followed both pieces of advice.

The Bike

After ordering the Montu Osiris all-road bike late in the fall and having the build completed mid-winter, I hadn’t had the chance to really ride it much before packing it into my travel case and assembling it in Colombia. That didn’t end up being problematic (although it easily could have been) as I had the better part of a month to get used to it before my Letras attempt at the end of February.

My Osiris (which has been named “Pumpkin”) features the Montu one-piece carbon handlebar that originally came with My Montu Kopis build (called “Kale”). The groupset is the new Sensah 12-speed mechanical disc 1x with a 42T chainring and 46T max cassette in back. This provided an ample climbing ratio and generated plenty of puzzled looks while buzzing around the streets and hills of Colombia. The Montu team also came up clutch in a pinch for me, as a part I had sourced didn’t fit properly, and they overnighted a replacement that worked perfectly. The wheels are my own, a carbon 35mm deep profile with 28mm Vittoria Rubino Pro tubeless tires. I never felt as though my equipment came up short, I wish I could say the same for my fitness, though.

The Fuel

The night before the ride, after a lovely seven-hour road trip from Medellin with my co-pilot and adventure partner, we dined on Spaghetti Bolognese from my favourite café called Las Veganas Restaurante. I was also drinking lots of water with some electrolyte powder through the evening.

The next day started at 4:30am with my standard breakfast for the last several days: water with some electrolytes, bananas, and a protein shake with a bunch of greens powder in it. My nutrition plan was simple enough: to ingest a bit of food every half hour or so in the form of Lara bars and bocadillo cubes (a Colombian cycling food comprised entirely of fruit sugars) along with some other carbohydrate-heavy bars and whatever real food we found along the way. I’m so glad I had my support vehicle to store all the extra water, electrolyte canister, and food. I don’t know how I would’ve managed without her there.

Throughout the ride, I stuck to my plan of eating early, eating often, and drinking an equal balance of electrolyte and water combination. I don’t usually do gels and so I stayed away from them on this occasion as well. This strategy worked well for me, I think. If I could’ve changed anything, it would have been to have more fresh fruit, including lots of bananas, because the bars and sugar cubes got a bit unpleasant after a while. They did the job though.

Oh and in case you’re wondering, we absolutely managed to find French fries along the way. If you don’t know me, all you need to know is that I always find French fries. I didn’t eat too many of those until I reached the top, though, just in case. I also gave some of them to the dog who welcomed us at the sign (I’m pretty sure his name was Letras).

The Ride

My adventure partner and I left the condo in Mariquita at 5:30am, her driving the support vehicle and me hitching a ride until we were safely out of our neighborhood and on the main road which would lead to the base of the climb. There was nothing unsafe about the neighborhood itself, however the streets were not rideable and I didn’t want to start my Letras ride attempt with a punctured tire.

With a few words of encouragement from my partner, off I went. A little nervous but excited.

Every account of the Letras ride that I poured through or watched also echoed this: you know you’re climbing right away, as one of the 10% sections is just a few hundred metres in to the climb. It was a rude awakening, no matter how many times I’d watched other riders tackle it.

By 5:43am I was struck by the following realization…”I can’t believe I’m on Alto de Letras right now.”

Stay open, stay inline, stay engaged.

This was my strategic phrase for the day. Whenever I found my head or body getting carried away, or if I was forgetting to control my breathing, I would bring myself back to this phrase. Keep my shoulders back, elbows bent, chest open; keep my body in control and in a straight line to prevent wasted energy and imbalanced effort; keep my glutes and core engaged so I didn’t burn through the other muscles too quickly. I repeated this phrase along with my personal mantra (which I will not share here) for seven hours, in and out of the saddle. I said other things out loud too, but they don’t belong here, either.

The forecast on that Saturday, February 25th, was rain, off and on, all day. But between that and the following day—thunderstorms all day—it seemed to make the most sense to just go for it. The sun was just peeking through some early morning cloud cover which made for a comfortable temperature at the beginning of the ride. Comfortable for that area of Colombia before 6am of course meant 30 degrees Celsius. I started and maintained my ride strategy of slow and steady, and was relieved when I saw my support vehicle stopped at the first 5km mark for our scheduled meetup. The first 5km out of the way…wow. Only 76km more to go. But still, we celebrated briefly before she sent me away yelling, “vamanos!”

I had made it through the first checkpoint, the little town of Fresno, where a massive 10%+ grade welcomed me, and continued through to send me on my way. This was the first 30kms done.

At kilometer 31 my right hamstring seized in a big way, and I couldn’t bend my leg or put any power out at all. I got off the bike and started massaging the area as best I could. I stretched and relaxed while waiting for the support vehicle to find me. I genuinely thought my day was over. I used everything I had ever learned to help ease the muscle spasm and managed to get it to release enough that it went from a screaming pain to a dull grumble.

I want it on the record here that my partner was a warrior every step of the way, running back and forth to the car to get me anything I asked for and providing constant moral and physical support. As an actual endurance athlete herself, I couldn’t have asked for a more incredible team member, and I genuinely don’t think I could’ve gotten to the top without her. We had already had the discussion in our pre-ride debrief that my body would inevitably fail me in one aspect or another at some point, I had just hoped it wasn’t with 50km left to climb. She sent me off yet again, with a “you got this! Vamanos!”

I wasn’t turning back now, and so with all the effort I could muster I got back on Pumpkin and began ascending again. The next few kilometers were somewhat uncomfortable as I tried to figure out what position allowed my hamstring to settle in for the rest of the day. Stay open, stay inline, stay engaged. I was fighting back tears for the next half hour or so.

My mental strategy from the start was to focus on the total distance of the climb as opposed to focusing on the total elevation gained. For my brain, it seemed to make more sense knowing that the total distance would continue moving forward. I found myself focusing on a few hundred meters at a time to get through the hamstring injury. Letras was no joke.

We encountered a rain storm for about 30 minutes in that first third of the ride, but the day actually turned out to be perfect, without rain for the rest and completely clear and sunny. I managed to take in the scenery around me during this section of the ride, and get some bike glamour shots as well, obviously.

Stay open, stay inline, stay engaged. I kept pushing along, through the 50km mark, where I saw another of these encouraging signs.

At this point, the contour of the route shifted from long steady sections to shorter chunks with switchbacks, providing plenty of opportunity to slow my speed and take in the breathtaking views and the magnificent road condition. I had become aware, however, that I was now in the hardest section of the whole climb, with the highest average grade…and it was about 15kms long. Knowing this, my support partner was ready at every meetup asking how I was feeling and what I needed, before sending me off with another, “vamanos!”

Around the 60km mark was when I first became aware of how much thinner the air felt. I was really worried about that, but after spending the month at 1500m in Medellin, I think my body had acclimated fairly well, and I really didn’t struggle to breathe until the last few kilometers. Many of the videos and articles I poured through also mentioned traffic being a problem, but I didn’t find it to be that challenging. There was plenty of shoulder room for my comfort level, and the traffic is extremely respectful to cyclists in Colombia. Besides, after riding the roads in Medellin (which were chaos) this route was peaceful.

Stay open, stay inline, stay engaged. I was getting closer. I passed the 8km sign. I could feel the energy returning to my body that had come and gone through the ride, and for the first time, I embraced the fact that I would be summiting Alto de Letras today.

Two cars with road bikes attached to each whizzed by me headed down the mountain and gave an encouraging honk. My partner had mentioned earlier in the day that there was a group ahead of me. I finally made it to the top of that grueling section of the climb, greeted by a refreshing descent and this awesome sign:

And not long after, this equally awesome sign:

Again recalling my research, I looked to my left as the descent ended and I began climbing again—this time a slow and steady but comfortable grade to the finish line—knowing that I’d be able to see the summit. I had read repeatedly that it was both encouraging and discouraging at the same time because you can see it, but it’s still a long way off. This was accurate. As mentioned before I was also really feeling the diminished oxygen in the air, as well as the much cooler air temperature.

But I was undeterred. I was summitting Alto de Letras today. I gathered every bit of energy I had left in me and pedaled all the way up into the mountain-top town. My partner and I coordinated the best camera angles to capture the moment, and I attempted a sprint finish for the last 900m. My legs did not agree, so I just cruised up to the official sign at the top of the mythical mountain. With my partner’s crucial support, I had conquered the world’s longest road climb.

Alto de Letras will hold a very dear place in my heart for the foreseeable future, for so many reasons. I consider myself extremely lucky to have gotten the chance to ride it in my cycling lifetime, luckier to have done it with the support of the Montu team and in their gear, on their bike, and luckier still to have shared it with someone who understood exactly what we were in the middle of together the entire day.


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