Tour de France gradients and hot cycling on the road from Cali to Bogota
Katy Perry sings a song about Colombia. You know the one that goes ‘you’re up then you’re down… you’re hot then you’re cold’. It sums up our cycle ride across the country perfectly and the stretch from Cali to Bogota was no exception, with some blissfully flat cycling and a Tour de France gradient climb which put us to the test.
We’d had a fantastic break in the modern city of Cali staying with Paddy’s distant cousin and his family. It had been a much needed rest after weeks of climbing and we made the most of the well-stocked supermarkets to refuel and had our bikes serviced in a local shop, as well-equipped as anywhere back home with cycling being Colombia’s national sport.
It was interesting learning about the recent history of the town. The Cauca Valley that Cali sits in is as flat as a pancake but is surrounded by steep hills which still see guerrilla activity, and each day we watched military helicopters flying back from operations to hunt out political activists. We learnt how twelve years ago a local church was raided and the entire congregation taken up into the hills. It was hard to believe events like these happened not long ago in an area now so affluent and peaceful thanks hugely to the security measures in place which have helped bring stability.
In the end, we had to tear ourselves away from the home comforts we’d been enjoying and set off towards Colombia’s capital, Bogota. Our first day back in the saddle was a lovely, flat ride accompanied at times by road cyclists who slowed down to chat to us, before whizzing off into the distance. Slower we may have been, but we still covered 100km to the small town of Andalucia. Hot and sweaty after the ride we treated ourselves to huge ice creams, with mine strangely sprinkled with cheese.
Our first 30km in the morning was flat, but the valley ran out for us too soon and after a delicious fresh grape juice from a roadside stall we made our way back into the hills. Our ride towards Calarca was hot and we stopped regularly for cold drinks and ice creams. In total we climbed about 600m up from the valley floor at 1000m.
We were tired as we approached the town and with our minds not in full gear, we both swung around in our saddles when a truck passed with a speaker blaring out on the back. Thinking it was Paddy shouting I slowed down unaware that he was right on my tail. All I remember is Paddy shouting, swerving around me, our panniers colliding and him wobbling ahead of me, failing to keep the bike straight and flying off sideways onto the verge. Two locals quickly ran to help, but fortunately Paddy was ok and suffered only a few small bruises. The terrifying thing was realising that if we had done the same thing ten minutes earlier Paddy would have been sliding down the mountainside. It was a reminder that we need to be alert all the time.
After a good night’s sleep we were recovered and set to take on our biggest challenge for a while, La Linea. This Tour de France grade climb is about 22km long and keeps to a 10-12% gradient for the entire route. Plus, as it’s the Panamerican and the main route from Bogota to the costal port of Buenaventura, it is busy with traffic.
The climb started relatively easy but we watched local cyclists whizz past clinging onto the back of lorries. Thinking that looked like a nice idea we attempted it ourselves. Paddy had several successes, but I couldn’t get up the speed to catch up. Arriving at a road stop for works, I did hold on to a stationary truck, but girly fear of being swept under the wheels meant I let go and set off under my own steam.
About halfway up the climb we saw the blissful sight of a tunnel heading through the mountain. Unfortunately, it is still under construction and won’t open until 2014-15, so we were forced to head up to the top. We thought perhaps we were lucky though, as coming down the other side we saw the bridges being constructed out of the tunnel. These mega structures tower above the ground dwarfing the villages below. I don’t think I’d want to have cycle along them.
As it was we had no choice but to continue pedalling upwards. Just past the tunnel entrance the gradient got steeper and we were moving at super-slow speed up the hill. Our progress was hindered by the fact that in places the road was under repair after heavy landslides, which had closed the road temporarily over previous months. So as well as heavy gradients, we were cycling (and it my case, at time pushing) around debris and roadworks. At times the road was down to one lane, so we would have the road to ourselves for a while and then constant traffic chugging past.
It was a relief to finally reach the top, a climb from 1600m to 3300m. Ravenous, the only food available at the top was the local dish of sugar water with cheese and maize bread. Locals melt the cheese in the water, which tastes of treacle toffee. It was an unusual meal, but provided us with the energy to reach the town of Calamarca about 20km down the other side of the mountain.
Having anticipated a well-earned free-wheel into town, we were disappointed to find ourselves creeping downhill as we got stuck behind articulated lorries winding around the hairpins. Finally though we reached Calamarca where we checked into a hotel and flopped down exhausted. Rest wasn’t easy though, as the half-hourly chiming of the nearby church’s electric bells was as grating as fingernails screeching on a blackboard.
They started up at 5.30 the next morning. Apparently the townsfolk aren’t allowed a Sunday morning lie-in, and as we weren’t getting any sleep we set off towards the town of Girardot 100km away.
Heading down the day before we had contemplated continuing another 35km on to Ibague, but seeing the route we were relieved we hadn’t. There was as much climbing as there was downhill, including a 200m climb just before Ibague. It was hard work, especially as it was a hot morning and we were relieved when we finally passed the town and the road became more favourable.
We found ourselves cycling along another flat valley with a wide road and a dedicated cycle path which was popular with Colombians out for a Sunday cycle. The scenery was lovely and we enjoyed the ride, although the heat was intense and by afternoon it felt like we were cycling inside an oven.
The 12,000km digits appeared on our cycle computers during the afternoon and we took a break along the side of the road to celebrate reaching the point, the last 1000km of which has been spent going up and down hills in Ecuador and Colombia.
We finally pulled off the Panamerican Highway and headed towards the riverside town of Girardot. Just two hours’ drive away from central Bogota it is a holiday spot for Colombians living in the mountains and looking to get some sun. Being weekend, the town was packed and we sat in the square with ice-creams watching the world pass by.
I was in holiday mode as we had decided that this was as far as we would cycle into Bogota. The climb from 400m to the capital at 2600m wasn’t overly appealing after the tough days we had just done, but our main reason for taking a bus into the city was to avoid the traffic along the Panamerican.
As the road started to climb towards the city it became a dual carriageway full of trucks and buses. The traffic had already been getting heavier and heavier and we weren’t enjoying dodging lorries all day. One day I was covered from head to toe in thick, black oil that a truck had let out of its exhaust as it passed me. Every time I wiped my face instead of taking the dirt off it just moved from one side to the other, which was a disgusting feeling.
So we took a bus from Girardot to the bus terminal in Bogota, where we had an interesting 10km ride into the city. We managed to get a map of the city from the tourist information, complete with details of Bogota’s cycle lanes. The city has more bike paths than any other in South America and has been the inspiration for other cities’ schemes, such as Quito.
We expected an easy-ish ride towards the historical centre of town where we would be staying, but instead we found the bike paths difficult to navigate and widely ignored by locals. Local cyclists principally kept to the roads, whilst the bike paths were additional pavements for pedestrians who were oblivious to our bells and shouts. As the city is built on a grid system we were constantly crossing over streets and each time we had to get on and off the cycle lane, dodging cars and people. It made us long for London’s bike lanes, and that is saying something.
Finally though, we made it to our hotel and dumped our belongings, ready for a few days of rest and exploring the fourth largest city in South America.
Relaxing now in Bogota we look back on our route from Cali back up into the mountains as tough but fascinating. Up it’s cold and down it’s hot. Colombia continues to amaze us and provide stories and memories that will stay with us forever. Next we head towards the border with Venezuela, before which we face another few challenging climbs. What else would we expect!