For the entire week during Argentina’s Tour of San Juan, it seemed like everyone was talking about Alto del Colorado. There was an aura and awe about this much-anticipated climb. It possessed a certain mystique all its own. Although the race celebrated its first truly international edition in 2017, it has actually been around for 35 years and is a benchmark for bike racing in South America. And the Alto del Colorado is a central part of that history, because the race has a stage finish here almost every year, often producing the overall winner. Little is known about the name of the climb. Perhaps it’s a namesake reference to the San Juan Mountains that make up a stretch of the Rockies in Colorado. Regardless, in South American cycling circles, the Alto del Colorado is nothing short of a monument.
Words/images: James Startt
The climb is located in the western reaches of Argentina’s San Juan Province, an arid yet rich region once frequented by the Spanish conquistadors. They came here looking for gold, and brought with them wine. And today, nearly 500 years later, in this otherwise inauspicious region, gold mining remains an economic force, while its wealth of wineries boasts the second-largest wine production in the country—second only to the neighboring province of Mendoza.
On paper, the Alto del Colorado appears relatively tame. There are virtually no pitches steeper than 6 percent. And there is little hope of a snowcapped summit, because it’s given just a Category 1 rating. But to underestimate this climb would be a huge mistake. And as the stage in this year’s race proved, it was truly epic.
What makes Alto del Colorado so overwhelming is a combination of factors. Isolated in a vast desert region in the foothills of the Andes, it is closer to Chile than most of Argentina. In fact, when traveling down route 149, it is virtually the last stop before hitting the mythic South American mountains head on. And there are very few starting points for cyclists. There is only one town—Talacasto, a sort of modern-day outpost—separating it from San Juan. As a result, the Tour of San Juan stage, like most club rides, leave from San Juan, some 150 kilometers distant from the climb’s summit.
“It is the longest false flat in the world. It is a really atypical climb, because it just goes on and on,” says Argentinian rider Eduardo Sepulveda, who spends most of his season riding in Europe with the Fortuneo-Vital Concept squad, but was riding in San Juan with the Argentinian national team. “And then there are other factors like the heat and wind. Much of the climb goes through what can only be described as desert. There is nothing out there! The heat just bears down on you. And then there is the wind, which often comes down off of the Andes, which can really make it hard in the final.”
Much of the ride rolls through endlessly meandering plains, where the only relief comes from rock formations sculpted by centuries of desert winds And the never-ending false flat that Sepulveda describes can be deceiving. Essentially, riders are climbing for the entire time. And when they finally hit the increased pitches in the last kilometers, the results can be devastating.
“It’s not a pure climber’s climb because there isn’t the steepness of a lot of climbs in the high mountains,” says Sepulveda. “It is a climb that can produce surprises all its own. It is really atypical. Good climbers can suddenly just explode and sometimes guys that are not pure climbers finish stronger.”
Thinking further, Sepulveda points out the way that the altitude instills itself over the course of the ride. “For me, I think the altitude is the hardest part. We are not in the Andes yet, but by the summit we are still over 2,500 meters (more than 8,000 feet). You are climbing all day and then suddenly you are at over 2,000 meters (some 6,500 feet) and your body just doesn’t recover the same way.”
Sepulveda says that it is hard to compare the Alto del Colorado with climbs in the Alps or Pyrénées. He says that its steady, gradual nature is a bit like the Pas de la Casa climb that the Tour de France often crosses when it ventures into Andorra. But, he insists, the Alto Colorado is much longer.
“The Alto del Colorado is all about attrition. It’s a combination of the distance, the desert, the wind and the altitude,” he says. “It’s a climb like no other.”
WORLD STARS PUT SPOTLIGHT ON SAN JUAN AND THE ALTO DEL COLORADO
The Alto de Colorado existed well before bike racing, and although it has been a mainstay of the Tour of San Juan for years, the race’s international cachet this year brought with it increased global interest. And as the only mountain stage in this year’s race, it was clear that the Colorado would play a pivotal role. And it did!
Prior to the stage, Ramunas Navardauskas had grabbed the blue leader’s jersey in the stage 3 time trial. His TT victory was the first for the newly formed Bahrain-Merida team led by Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali. But the powerful Lithuanian understood that keeping the jersey would not be easy.
In typical fashion, attacks began soon after the start of stage 5 in Chimbas, a popular neighborhood of San Juan. It was of little concern to the riders that temperatures would inch above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (almost 40 degrees Celsius), because the Tour of San Juan is one of the premier races in South America. And for most of the South Americans, this is their Tour de France.
And while no attacks managed to stay away, they kept the speeds high. “You know there are much harder climbs in the world. However, the Tour of San Juan prepared a very special climb for us,” said Navardauskas. “Because it was not super steep, the peloton just rode faster and riders were riding next to each other for a longer time.”
While the pack rolled down one desert road after another it became clear that the heat and wind were taking their toll. At one point the peloton splintered into echelons as it accelerated to reel in yet another breakaway. The accumulating fatigue was readily visible on every rider’s face. But while the pack climbed gently for much of the day, there came a distinct moment in the final 15 kilometers where it was obvious that the race had suddenly hit high elevations. Perhaps it was the thin mountain air or perhaps it was the quickly dwindling peloton, little matter; soon it was game on. Attacks continued, many from South American riders, but still no effort could be sustained for long.
With each attack, more riders splintered off the back. Navardauskas rode strongly for most of the day. Consistently well positioned, at one point it appeared he might even be able to defend his lead. But suddenly, with barely 2 kilometers remaining, he too folded.
“It is a pure power ride, so the weight of your body only plays a role at very end of the climb and big guys like myself, we could stay for a long time with real climbers,” Navardauskas explains.
“All day we had a side wind, not a lot, but combined with the climbing, it took your energy because all day you had to stay in good position to hide from the wind. My team did a great job protecting me, but because they had to control the race all day long, they spent a lot of energy early on. I had good legs for the final. But the last 6 kilometers got steeper and that’s when I started to feel that it wasn’t my day. The racing got more and more aggressive and finally I just could not hang on!”
With Navardauskas gone, along with teammate Nibali, Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema, second overall going into the day, was in prime position. But first he had to fend off the continued attacks from Colombian and Argentinian riders. Focused on the GC, the Dutchman controlled the race from the front long enough to assure overall victory. Finally, Portugal’s Rui Costa slipped away for the stage victory in front of Colombia’s Rodolfo Torres and San Juan’s local hero Ricardo Escuela, none of whom posed a threat to Mollema.
Costa was of course ecstatic. Few had picked him for the stage win earlier in the day. After all, the former world road champion is not a true climber. But then the Alto del Colorado, it seems, is not a “pure” climb—and it has a way of producing surprises.
Follow James on Instagram: @jstartt