Cycling El Limonar
9.5 kilometers, 1028m gained to 2,450m at 10.9%
This is the biggest climb near Medellin, Colombia and is in the Andes Mountains. We stayed in Medellin (population 2,500,000 - second largest city in Colombia) and really enjoyed our stay there.
This write up picks off where I left off with Picacho, so if you want to understand the timeline of the trip, you can find that write up here. If not, feel free to continue on to read about one of the steepest climbs I’ve ever done
After climbing Picacho on the morning of March 4th, 2019, we headed back to the hotel in Bucaramanga to shower and eat, and then packed our gear into the car and started the long drive to Medellin for the next day’s climb. The drive from Bucaramanga took us about 7 hours, but was so beautiful and scenic that the time just flew by - well, for the most part. A short way into the drive, we stopped at a bridge that was overlooking a man-made lake and took some awesome photos and drone videos.
What a view! 7 hour drives are substantially shortened by this manner of scenery.
We rolled into Medellin about 12:45 a.m. (ouch!) so we got checked into the hotel and hit the hay as quickly as possible. After climbing Picacho and 7 hours in the back of the car, I needed a good night’s sleep to recover before taking on the brutal 6 mile 3,500’ Medellin Monster - El Limonar.
The start of El Limonar, which is the main road up into one of the nicest neighborhoods in the area
After a surprisingly restful night of sleep in Medellin, we woke up on the morning of Tuesday, March 5th, ate breakfast at the hotel, and drove to the start of the climb. Our hotel was smack dab in the center of downtown Medellin, and it was about a 20 minute drive to the town of Copacabana which is technically where Limonar starts. We parked on the side of the road, got my bike all set up, took some pictures, and then I started up the steeeeeeeppppppppp road.
The starting elevation at the base of El Limonar, 4,712ft
I’d like to start this write up off by saying that this climb was one of the hardest rides I have ever done. I am not sure if it was because I had done Picacho the day before and then immediately driven roughly 7 hours, or just because it is just a straight up brutally steep climb, but El Limonar had me suffering more than I have in a long, long time.
Just after rounding Limonar’s first curve, I already knew that I was in for a rough one.
From my research on the climb prior to arriving in Colombia, I knew that Limonar was steep, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was actually in store for. Less than half a mile into the climb, I was already in my easiest gear, and wishing for easier ones. Being undergeared is a significant concern for this climb! I like to think that I am a strong, fit cyclist, and I was struggling with my compact chainring (34t) in the front, and an extremely large 34t sprocket on my cassette. For even the strongest of riders I would not recommend anything less than a 32t cassette - this climb is just that brutal.
I probably spent over half of my 1:15 attempt at Limonar grinding out of the saddle!
The tale of the tape - serious gradient!
I mentioned earlier that the beginning of the climb is the entrance to one of the nicest neighborhoods I saw in Colombia, so I was a little bit worried about there being lots of cars to share the road with. However, not to worry - there is very little traffic on this road - this is a quite and peaceful (other than extreme pain throughout . . .) climb.
Switchbacks like these were incredibly brutal, reaching grades of over 25% in the apex.
Next time I think I’ll stay to the outside of the curve . . .
. . . at 20 I’m not a wily climbing veteran - still learning!
After the first part of the climb which has more gentle curves, we started getting to the switchbacks (shudder). There is nothing that I can say about these switchbacks other than that they had me the closest I have ever been to just plain getting off of my bike and walking. I remember looking down at the gradient number on my bike computer halfway through one of the switchbacks and seeing it say 25.8% grade (I was now in the PJAMM Zone!), and the max gradient shown on my ride file was a murderous 27.5%! What was so brutal about these switchbacks compared to other super steep hairpins I have ridden is that on other climbs the switchbacks can get very steep, but then the road levels out a bit afterwards. This wasn’t the case on Limonar, as I would grind my way through one of the gnarly switchbacks, there was no recovery to be at as the road to follow was often 11-12%.
The face of someone wanting (needing) easier gears!
At this point in the climb we started hitting these really weird short sections of gravel, where it was as if 50’ of the road just completely disappeared and left loose dirt and rocks in its place. The gravel sections on the road were really tough to manage, as the road was still so steep that I wanted/needed to stand up and climb, but the gravel was so loose that when I would try to stand up I would lose traction in my tires would slip. There were also many sharp looking rocks in these sections which I tried hard to avoid because I knew if I got a flat, I would not be able to start riding again. In my pain and suffering induced mental state, weaving through the sharp rocks while grinding up the steep road was a serious struggle.
Once again, look at my facial expression - either I am a whimp or this is a TOUGH climb . . .
. . . I’m going with the tough option . . . .
The further I got up the road, the more I started to suffer, and the harder I had to work to keep myself from getting off the bike and giving up. I vividly remember looking down at my bike computer and seeing that I had over 2 miles left to go and thinking “there is absolutely no way that I can finish this climb”. It started to warm up towards the top, and I was sweating so much I was completely drenched and my water was gone, but I knew that if I were to stop to fill up my bottle my day would be over. I decided that the only way I was stopping was if I made it to the top, or . . . collapsed.
Grinding my way up one of the many ridiculous ramps
I am afraid that I don’t have too many details to share about the last mile or so of the climb. By this point I was absolutely suffering more than I had in a long time, and remember focusing on nothing other than pedaling my bike - the scenery was thus the pavement in below my front tire, nothing more. On the drive down from the top of the climb, I remarked that I wished I had enjoyed the view on the way up, but my survival mode did not include viewing the scenery around me as I struggled up the beast. My average cadence for the last mile of the climb was under 50 rpm, and I remember just staring down at my top tube and watching my pedal strokes, only looking up to make sure I was still headed in the right direction.
Very beautiful scenery, but I had no idea while riding through it!
After finally making it to the top of the climb, I immediately unclipped collapsed over the top of my bike. I was completely and utterly spent! My legs were shaking, and I sat in a daze for what seemed like an hour but was probably just minutes.
Pretty much every photo from the last mile or so of the climb features me unwillingly making the most pained expressions I have ever seen on my own face . . . not pretty . . . .
For any readers who are familiar with power meters and cycling, I feel like it is worthwhile to note that I finished the climb with an average power of about 260 Watts for the hour and 15 min it took me to finish the climb. For some, that wouldn’t be a serious effort, but for me it was quite tough. What made this power even harder to sustain was the fact that I had an average cadence of below 65rpm. This meant that the ride was quite slow with weightlifting-esqu efforts on my legs, which was definitely not something I train for or was used to.
Almost 3,700ft later, I was finally done.
Overall, although El Limonar was the hardest I had gone in a long time, and would prove to be (in my opinion) the hardest ride I would do in Colombia by far, I am still so glad I did it, and would do it again in a heartbeat. There is something so fulfilling about accomplishing a task that you never would have thought yourself capable of doing. Overcoming something that your mind and body are telling you is impossible is one of the single best things about cycling, and one of the reasons it is such a great sport. There is nothing better than beating yourself.
An incredible ride. Serene, yet merciless at the same time
A very gracious thank you to Colombia Bike Tours for making our Colombia trip possible and assisting us in documenting one of the greatest climbs in the world. This is a professional, trustworthy and friendly group that we highly recommend. and for helping us document the hardest climbs that their country has to offer.
Our photographer for the trip was Javier Chacon Mendoza, and we were very happy with his talents as both a camera man and a drone pilot. If you are ever in South America and are looking for some amazing photography and film from either the ground or from the skies, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org