An Irish rider’s dream cycling holiday turns into hell on earth…

Posted on: January 11th, 2019

It was meant to be a dream cycling holiday; the ultimate fight against a monstrous mountain which would end in triumph for our hero. But the terrain, people and even the food in Colombia conspired against Sinead Kennedy…


Having booked a trip to conquer the 80km Alto de Letras in Colombia by bike (and told everybody about it) things took a turn for the worse even before a pedal was turned in anger.

This is Sinéad Kennedy’s witty and unvarnished account of wrestling with the world’s longest climb.


By Sinéad Kennedy

Me and my big mouth! I had told everyone about this stupid climb in Colombia and now I was so sorry. There was no going back or quitting. Only forward.

The longest climb on earth seemed like a great idea when I booked it. In reality it would prove to be the worst day of my life; 80 kilometres of sheer stupidity. What was I thinking?

After months of planning and training, the Alto de Letras day was here and I was suffering badly. In fact that’s an understatement.

I was in so much pain and in the horrors to such an extent I can’t put it into words.

My back was screaming, the balls of my feet were burning,  I had saddle sores and chaffing. I couldn’t get any sort of rhythm going and my motivation had gone on a day trip.

I had suffered the worst food poisoning imaginable from a dodgy prawn five days earlier. It had drained me.  How is it every time I decide on an epic cycling adventure that my body lets me down?

I really felt awful. I was so weak. I hadn’t managed to eat much or keep anything down for the last five days.

I hadn’t slept much either due to having to run to the bathroom periodically.  I was floored and afraid of every gurgle I heard or felt in my tummy.

The night before my epic spin I managed to eat a meal and my tummy was OK with it.  However an 80km climb with 3,675 metres elevation needs a little more fuel than that.

I knew it was going to be a tough spin even if I was in the best of health and this really wasn’t what I needed.


Never ending road

I had looked at the profile of the climb and my guide had discussed the important bits with me. There would be a town at 20, 40 and 60km. After sixty there would be a tough 14km stretch at 7 per cent gradient.

It would also take me above 3,000m altitude. Then I could look forward to a flat 2 kilometres followed by the last drag to the finish, which would be really easy.

I was mentally prepared and knew I could do it if I broke it down into four sections.

The trouble was, I was so slow. Unbelievably slow. So the kilometres were not passing. Every time I looked at my bike computer it hadn’t moved.



I was stuck on this God forsaken climb and I hated it every minute of it. Each of my four sections was never ending. I was desperately trying to stay upbeat.

The first 60km was by far the worst! Motivation was waning. I was so tempted to get off and walk, or just give up.

I thought it would never end, I was going nowhere. On the plus side the temperature was pleasant. We had started early enough to get up high before the midday sun.



I was talking to myself, singing and chatting to my travel Snoopy teddy in my pocket. It was a bit like Castaway and Wilson. It’s all I could do to stay sane.

The scenery was stunning in places and trying to take photos of the vistas passed a few minutes.

I was too tired though and the camera was just too much to operate while cycling. I tried to just enjoy the view and forget about the road for a bit instead.

At 59km there was a downhill section. I couldn’t believe it. Hallelujah. However there was also  two mad black dogs who decided I looked tasty and gave chase.

I was seriously afraid and peddled as hard as I possibly could. Thank God it was on a descending stretch or I think I may have been their dinner.

They were right at my ankle and I could see their teeth. A driver in a car came by me; thankfully beeping and swerving towards the dogs to scare them for me.

I was absolutely terrified, my concentration wasn’t great at this time due to exhaustion.

Wouldn’t you know it, that stressful episode brought me straight into the 14km climbing section. On the plus side, I had the back of the climb broken now and I could actually think about finishing.

I had done Alpe d’Huez at the end of the Marmotte and it was murder – that’s also 14km.

However, that was some years ago. I’m a much better cyclist now so I knew I could do it provided I went very slowly; singing and chatting to myself.

The support vehicle that drove behind our group was all mine now. The others who were cycling that day had finished long ago. I felt bad that I was taking so long. But what could I do?

They hadn’t got food poisoning, they are young men too in comparison to my middle aged lady status. One was 26, I’m 45!


Awol guide…

While I had the support vehicle and she was great for looking after me, my cycle guide was nowhere to be seen. He had decided to race one of his friends that day and aim for a personal best.

I know he did it in 4 hours 30 minutes, I know I took 8 hours. I’m not entirely sure where he was for those three hours but I know he was not helping the driver of the support vehicle, or helping me.

He dollied up to me at 70 kilometres and decided I needed advice on how to cycle.

Now, I’ll admit to being very tired at this time. In fact I was shattered. I was at 3,300 metres altitude. I had 8km left to ride.

Telling me I should “cycle in a straight line” was not what I needed to hear. Contrary to what he thought, I was doing my best to cycle in a straight line. But I was somewhat busy just trying to stay up right.

Then we had the “I like to get up out of my saddle and give my back a stretch, look at me” line. So I lost it. I had gotten myself this far and really did not appreciate his inane comments.

I politely asked him to go away and leave me alone. I had gotten myself this far, I was having “fun” and was grand. I told him to go on and I would see him at the top.

Lucky for him he had the street smarts to leave me alone.


The end is near

At 75km my support vehicle was waiting for me with my jacket. There would be a 2km downhill and then 3km to the finish which was allegedly an “easy uphill”.

My jacket was too warm but at the same time I was glad of it. The downhill was so welcome and I really tried to put the boot down.

Then it started to go up again and my little legs slowed right down once more.

Where was the end of this road at all? I couldn’t wait to finish; my back was in tatters at this stage and I just didn’t have enough fuel in me for this.

When finally I get there, the summit is the most uninteresting place on the earth. There is no sign post, no fanfare, no stunning photo opportunity.



It’s just a flat bit before the decent starts. It’s bleak and has no noticeable landmarks or redeeming features.

I was delighted to finish though and was so glad to see the support vehicle waiting for me. I flopped off the bike and tried to smile for the photos.

I got presented with a lovely souvenir toy cat (they do things a little differently in Colombia) with an Alto de Letras medal to confirm I had conquered the mountain.

I guzzled a protein shake and changed my jersey for the photos.



My stomach decided to revisit the food poisoning and it started to act up again. Badly.

I couldn’t keep anything down. It continued for another five days after the ride. I think my body was in shock.

I did my best with Pepto Bismol, stopped eating before my flights and tired every Irish mammies favourite remedy, including flat 7Up.

In the end I had to take a trip to the doctors and get an antibiotic for a bacterial infection. On the plus side I lost 3.5 kilos and I don’t have to worry about January blubber!

Would I do the Alto de Letras again? Hell no!  Would I recommend the longest climb on earth? Not a chance!

What I will say is; my holidays are going to be holidays from now on. Lesson learnt.

My cycling trips are my cycling trips but my actual vacation, the one I work all year for, is now a challenge-free zone.

No more stupid stuff! Just go and enjoy the country and relax. Sure, I’ll cycle the Dolomites in June 2019. But that’s a designated cycle holiday.


  • Sinead Kennedy is a physical therapist who also specialises in pilates and yoga. She will be holding two designated cycling holidays this year in March and October, which you can read about here.