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Cycling Mombacho Volcano - One of the steepest climbs in the world!
This is one of those times where the story nearly beats the climb. First, the climb - UNBELIEVABLE! More on that later.
Stick with me, this one takes a bit of time to develop. Les, Mike and I started a law firm in 1997. Tessa, Les’s daughter, went to Harvard. While at Harvard, Tessa met Oscar, a citizen of Nicaragua studying at Harvard (o.k., there’s your first clue to where this one is going). Tessa and Oscar married, but Oscar was required to return to Nicaragua for two years as part of his arrangement with his government for the Harvard education. In late 2016 Les visited Oscar in Managua and traveled to Granada as part of that visit. While in Granada, Les visited Mombacho Volcano Nature Preserve which is at the top of a very steep road, I was to learn.
Les knows I am searching for the hardest bike climbs in the world, so when he returned from his trip to Nicaragua he exclaimed “I think I found one for you.” It turns out - he did, and then some! I tried to chart the climb on RideWithGPS, but it did not recognize the road past the gate at the bottom third of the climb - among a few of the red flags I did not appreciate soon enough!
I turned to Strava and found that Stu Ainsworth was the only cyclist who had climbed to the top of the road - 9 others had turned back at the bottom of the climb at what I later learned was the guarded entrance gate to Mombacho. Ignoring 2 more red flags (1) Stu was the only one of 10 to make it to the top - I just assumed he was the only one physically able to make it to the top, and (2) that 9 of 10 turned back at exactly the same spot (not appreciating that one puts me dead center in the stupid category - well, lessons learned).
I downloaded Stu’s segment for the full Mombacho climb and it ranked very high (and deservedly so, I would later after much assistance find out). I wasn’t totally foolhardy - I did check with Stu and he told me the road was very good to the top, but did not mention anything about a gate or guard at the bottom. Well, sometimes it’s better to be dumb and lucky (dumb luck) than thorough and smart - the former got me up Mombacho, the latter would have left me home in Santa Rosa, California assuming Mombacho was off-limits.
So, I fly in to Managua in May (the rainy season, it turns out - another lesson learned! Well, I actually knew that, but it fit into my schedule!) was picked up at the airport by Oscar who drives me to my base camp, the Hotel Dario in downtown Granada - so far so good.
Hotel Dario, Granada, Nicaragua
Oscar and jj in front of Hotel Dario
I spent that day riding my bike around Granada and Laguna Nicaragua and very much enjoy the area and am so, so excited about climbing Mombacho the next day (Sunday)! From several locations during my trip around Granada I could see Mombacho in the distance.
During the day, Jose, a very nice young man who worked at the hotel, expressed an interest in my cycling and goal of climbing Mombacho on a bike (something that I later learned was considered impossible . . . or, maybe, the translation was more along the lines of “foolish.”). Anyway, I offered to contribute a ball and jerseys to Jose’s soccer team if he would accompany me on the climb and he readily and excitedly accepted.
So, the next morning at 6 a.m. I’m at the front of the hotel and raring to go, but . . . no Jose . . . - no matter, I figured I could navigate my way out of Granada and to the start of the climb on my own - so, off I went - the beginning of my great Nicaraguan Top 100 Climb adventure!!! I was so stoked!
I made it through Granada and onto Nic 18, the road to Mombacho without too much trouble.
Granada is bustling early Sunday a.m. - Mombacho in background
Leaving Granada on the way to Mombacho - Nic 18
The trip on Nicaragua Highway 18 (Nic 18) is smooth and easy. The roadway is great and there are many cyclist who commute on what appear to be older model fixed gear bikes, so the motorists are very familiar with, and appear to be alert to, the cyclists on the roadway. Often I heard the short double beep horn acknowledgement by friendly motorists as they passed both me and other cyclists.
After riding about 8 miles on Nic 18, we turn onto what the map designates as “A Mombacho”, but there was no street sign that I could see. The Mombacho road appeared to be well maintained cobblestones which was a pleasant surprise as I just wasn’t sure what I was in store for in that regard.
Turn left (east) off Hwy 4 at the Volcan Mombacho sign.
Cobbles much of the remainder of the climb.
I was very excited to be on my way up what I expected to be an extremely steep and challenging Top 100 World Climb - YES!!! And then . . . . 9/10ths of a mile up the road I was at the spot where those 9 Strava cyclists had stopped (I guess I just assumed all 9 of them lost their nerve at exactly the same spot - sheeesh - in retrospect am I not the biggest dummy around! I sure was on this day).
Shoot - and the sign actually says “Welcome to . . .”
They mean it!
Well, the guard didn’t speak english, but my spanish was good enough to understand “No bicecleta en Mombacho.” He was pretty firm about it - no room for doubt, anyway. I was very disappointed, but figured that at the least this experience is why the PJAMMCyclingWorld website will be of value to many adventurous cyclists - we do provide the cleats in the pedals “been there, done that” reports . . . or . . . in this instance . . . “been there and did not do that.”
When I arrived back at the hotel a sheepish Jose insisted that we try again tomorrow and leave at 5 a.m. from the hotel before the gate is guarded (well, that would have been another Stupid John adventure because it turns out an armed guard is at the gate 24/7!!).
As a general rule, “No biceleta” means “No biceleta”
Fortunately for me, and probably Jose, Oscar (remember him from long ago in this story . . . ) saved the day. I emailed Oscar, informed him of my misfortune and that we were going to try and bootleg up Mombacho early Monday morning. Fortunately for me, Oscar is a Harvard graduate (and presumably not stupido like yours truly!) and he located the Mombacho Facebook Page and contaced them. They put him in touch with MY SAVIOR, Guellermo Arguello (manager of Mombacho Nature Preserve, Board of Director for the Fundacion Cocibolca which operates the preserve) who, it turns out is an avid cyclist and is a very good friend with Roberto Pasos (proridernic), the owner of the Specialized bike shop in Nicaragua (guess what brand of bikes I ride?!).
Guellermo graciously offered to meet Oscar and I at the gate at 6:30 am the following morning and, true to his word, he arrives with Roberto to guide me up the Mighty Mombacho.
Guellermo, JJ and Roberto
JJ and Oscar
Ignore the white socks with black shoes please . . . (geek!)
O.k. - NOW all that was left to do was climb this might beast!!!! It turns out, the logistics leading up to the climb was the easy part!
Guellermo gave me a heads up - the first 5 km are fairly easy, but the road pitches up dramatically over much of the last 2.5 kilometers. Off I went, ready for a nice 2.5 km warm up before encountering what turned out to be unbelievable, and unparalleled, steepness. The “warm up” phase was a bit misrepresented by Guellermo, who, I guess, after riding up (in special trucks with super low gearing) the volcano for years, did not appreciate that a 25% grade is considered very difficult to most (all?) cyclists - at least to me it is. So, I was a little surprised that my warm up turned out to be a struggle in itself up very steep grades to get to the “hard” part!
I hit the first 35-40% grade and it was truly nearly impossible (even with my special Mombacho gearing - 28t in front and 42t in back - hey, don’t judge until you’ve tried Mombacho . . .) but I was kinda proud to have made at least one of the many extraordinary pitches over the last 2.5 km (of course, I was only on my first 100m with 2.5 km!).
And then . . . it started raining (no, make that pouring). Have you ever tried to ride a bike up a 40% grade in the rain? My recommendation is, don’t. I stood up for the first effort in the rain at 40% and the back tire expectedly spun out and I unclipped and walked up that stretch. By the way, on the lesser grades (which are 20%) it is very difficult clipping back in (I could not use my patented Scanuppia technique of holding onto a tree, clipping in, then pushing off from the tree to get rolling back up steep grades because there were no trees along the roadway, but I did succeed - sometimes after several attempts).
Yes - they are slippery!
That sign needs no introduction . . .
O.k., so I had to unclip 3 more times (4 total) coming up Mombacho. I think I could have made it if it was dry and, hey, maybe I will find out someday.
The average grade for the full 3.8 miles from Nic 18 to the top is 14.21%, but the 2.5 miles beginning at mile 1.2 averages 18.1% which is the steepest paved portion of road in the world for that distance that we thus far located.
At the top of Mombacho is an incredibly beautiful Nature Preserve that is well worth the trip to visit if you are in Nicaragua. If you are interested in cycling Mombacho and are willing to make a well-deserved donation to this wonderful organization, contact Guellermo to discuss that proposition (firstname.lastname@example.org, or the “contact us” link on the preserves Facebook page - http://www.mombacho.org/en/ )
PJAMM Final thoughts – Words don’t describe this one – it was truly a unique and epic experience – how often can you climb the steepest 2.5 miles in the world? Well, probably never, absent a very worthy contribution to an exceptional organization and help from a true cycling saint – Guellermo Arguello.
Thank you Guellermo Arguello!!!!
Come and appreciate the beauty of Mombacho Volcano
On a clear day, which we did not have, there are views of Granada and Lake Nicaragua from the top.
Grades of Mombacho
Other terribly steep 6 km+ world bike climbs are:
The granddaddy of steep - Scanuppia, Italy
7.3 km at 17.7%
Ride a mere 7.4 km to elevation 1,885 m gaining 1,075 m at 14.7% average grade
Passo della Forcella, Italy
9.4 km at 14.4%
Alpe Fuori, Italy
11.8 km at 13.7%
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