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In Search of the Summit

Colombian downhill racer Marcelo Gutierrez spent the last decade traveling the world and racing down mountains. In his new role as a Giant ambassador, Marcelo tackled a completely different type of challenge closer to home.

Marcelo Gutierrez Alto de Letras

For some, nothing beats the feeling of conquering a notoriously difficult road climb. There’s a process to this type of challenge that is part of the appeal: Discover it, fear it, prepare for it, ride it.
 
Those who dream of such things often have a list of climbs they hope to someday ride. Some of these are familiar from professional racing. France has L’Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux, Italy the Stelvio and Gavia. In Spain, there is the Alto de l’Angrilu. Other climbs make the list based on the numbers: they are the longest, steepest and hardest. The Alto de Letras, a mountain pass in the Andes range of Colombia, is all of these things.

Connecting the small town of Mariquita with the city of Manizales, the road climbs 3650 meters (close to 12,000 feet) over 80km. It’s undoubtedly one of the world’s toughest climbs—and it also happens to be close to home for Giant global ambassador Marcelo Gutierrez.
 
Most know Marcelo as the greatest South American downhill racer of all time. An 11-time Colombian national champion and a longtime pro for the Giant Factory Off-Road Team, Marcelo has earned a living doing the opposite of climbing mountain roads. Downhill racing demands power, skill and the audacity to hurl yourself down extreme mountain terrain that most would never dream of riding.

Marcelo Gutierrez climbing Alto de Letras

Recently, however, Marcelo decided to transition out of pro downhill racing. This change of pace has opened up new opportunities for him to explore other two-wheeled adventures. Freed from the strict discipline of training for downhill, as well as the near year-round travel required of a World Cup pro, Marcelo has been focusing on different challenges closer to home. He has been spending more time on his road bike, riding with friends, and connecting with new communities.
 
“I have always loved road riding, but during my racing career I couldn’t do it that much,” Marcelo said. “The fact is, road riding doesn’t help much for downhill racing. In downhill, you need to build short, fast-twitch muscle fibers. Riding long distances with continual efforts makes you fit, but it develops a different type of strength—longer and slower muscle fibers.”
 
As he spent more time riding his road bike, Marcelo began eyeing the massive mountain peaks east of his home in Manizales. “From Manizales, it’s a 28km climb to the top of the Alto de Letras,” Marcelo said. “But to do the full climb you want to go to the other side and start from Mariquitia—so that’s what I did. It’s about a 110km drive over there to the start.”

Marcelo Gutierrez climbing Alto de Letras

While Marcelo stands alone as Colombia’s most successful downhill racer, his country has a rich tradition of producing top road racing talent. In recent years, stars like Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán and Egan Bernal have risen to the top levels of the sport. Last year there were 18 Colombian riders on WorldTour teams and in 2019 Bernal became the first from his nation to win the Tour de France—signaling a resurgence of the sport in this nation of 50 million.
 
A thriving community of cycling clubs and local events has blossomed in Colombia. “The Alto de Letras has been an important part of many big road races here,” Marcelo said. It has often been a decisive stage in the Vuelta a Colombia, the country’s largest professional stage race that goes back more than 60 years.  “The current KOM [on Strava] was set in a race,” Marcelo added. “I’d love to someday follow that race from the inside and experience the adrenaline of it.”

And while Marcelo enjoys setting goals and finding new challenges, he stresses that his main motivation to ride now is more about freedom and fun. He rides his Defy Advanced road bike a few days a week and still gets out on the trails—mostly on his Trance X Advanced Pro 29. “I’ve stopped saying that I’m training these days,” he says with a laugh. “Instead, I say ‘I ride my bike.’ I’m living life, enjoying it, and getting some exercise.”
 
That said, Marcelo did have a goal for his second ascent of the Alto de Letras. Earlier in the year he finished the climb in just over 6 hours. Slowed by some leg cramps, he wanted another shot at it. He took a look at some of the times on Strava and decided to shoot for 4:30. “I am not racing right now, but the competitive spirit is not gone,” he says. “I didn’t really do any specific training, just a lot of road riding.”

Marcelo Gutierrez enjoys dinner in Colombia after climbing Alto de Letras

With a little help from his friend Juan Jose Toro, nickname Cuenticas, providing support and hydration along the way, Marcelo took a measured approach, paying attention to pacing and trying to avoid the cramps that slowed his first attempt. He went through more than 10 bottles of water and Titanium electrolyte mix. “I did not really count calories or think about nutrition too much, but I did eat a decent breakfast,” he said. “Then on the ride I ate some energy gels, bars and a banana. Also, some caffeine and salt sticks.”
 
In the end, the second attempt proved successful. Marcelo beat his goal of 4:30, finishing with a time of 4:19. “I didn’t overthink it too much, but it was important for me to try and get to the top with that time,” he said. “The interesting and beautiful part of this challenge is that anyone can try it.”

Maybe that means you. Marcelo loves seeing people from all around the world coming to his home country to experience not only the climb, but the full scope of Colombian cycling culture. “It’s a paradise for bikes,” he said. “Be it road bikes, mountain bikes, downhill or gravel. Whatever you want. So here is the invitation. I hope all of you are encouraged to climb the Alto de Letras.”