I’ve been meaning to get this out for quite some time and it’s taken me a while, because, well, there’s been a lot going on and it’s pretty tough to tie it all together; and I don´t have to use computers if I don´t wanna! I’m not inclined to thinking I’ve got much figured out, or know too much at all really, especially here, but I wanted to have something to say, and to keep it relative to pedals. And yet, whilst taking it all in, new countries, languages, and the ride itself, I’m left with few conclusions. In any case, here is my report thus far on matters maybe relative to conducting probably just about any bike tour and the basic experiences that have facilitated this one.
Since the circumstances of this post are probably a little confusing, I’ll back track a bit first. In October I set off with my two well traveled friends to cycle from Peru to the southernmost region of the Americas, Tierra del Fuego. With my language skills at a perilous low and their biking experience on equal ground, we seemed a balanced trio. If I were to write a story on the most outstanding aspect of this trip, it would be one of friendship. Though, that shall have to be reserved at the moment.
On the outset our plan was to head southeast from Lima and enter into Bolivia, then turning south to ride the main distance of the journey through Argentina, and on into Patagonia. Later, crossing into Chile and onto the island of Chiloe, back east across the inlet by ferry, and then continuing south down Chile´s Carretera Astral, the heart of Chilean Patagonia. Next, zigzagging the Argentine and Chilean border to see the famous peaks and glaciers so often thought of in that southern region, and finally, southeast to the island of Tierra del Fuego, where I was to chase penguins.
The first thing this trip forced me, sometimes tryingly, to comprehend, is that when one travels, one must embrace change. If not, your wits shall quit you before you’ve had any opportunity to learn, about where you are or of what you didn’t yet know of yourself. And so, in light of the dramatic events that seem so irrelevant to the plight of alternative transportation, I will have to skip detailing many of the experiences which have been the cause of the trips many alterations.
Sadly, as it was an area of great interest to me, we first chose not to include Bolivia. Instead, heading down the western coast of the continent and crossing into Argentina much farther south. The majority of the middle of the route has remained very similar to our original plan, though, sadly, we are no longer a trio. The crazy things one does for love.
After losing a member of our group, the most traveled and linguistically talented of our party, we were forced to reevaluate what it was that we, now just the two of us, wanted to do with our little edu-vacation. So, in similar and corollary fashion to our dear departed friend, our hearts seem to be leading us in new directions. We are now to continue mostly as far south as we had originally planned, yet, omitting the windy southern most island of Tierra del Fuego and parting ways after a relatively short trip back north to Buenos Aires and the Beaches of Uruguay. My friend shall meet up with his partner and travel to the politically and culturally fascinating country of Paraguay, and I shall hop via bus to the far northern end of the continent into Columbia and Ecuador. Our cycling, not shortened, is a little more contained, and will allow us each a new nation to explore, in addition to ending my torment at missing any chance of some alpine climbing.
Much of this story has yet to be written, and lieu of deciphering the details and extrapolating on possibility, I shall go no further, for all that matters is how we have, and will, approach each day; and dang have my days been spectacular!
Practical matters topic number one: the use of the bicycle in, thus far, Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
Bikes are all over, and they mostly look like the ones we became so accustom to at the previous shop location on east Sprague: old clunky greasy mountain bikes. Many fitted with the most incredible contraptions for carrying just about everything. Second to this, and not by a large margin, are the plethora of cargo bikes. There are two designs that thus far are the most common, sort if tough to describe and I lack a picture, but you see them everywhere, mostly caring ice-cream, or similar types of vendos goods. A sort of distant third is the bmx. Dust horse of children across the continent.
Bikes are used widely, but I would hesitate to consider what I have seen as much of a commuter culture, and more of a this-is-faster-than-walking-if you-can-afford-one, culture. Middle quality gear is almost exclusively mountain bike related, and beyond that, held in the hands of foreigners, often touring. Riding the streets of major cities, I saw plenty of bike lanes, most of which are frequented by those carrying goods or by roaming youth and students. Though, bike lanes are almost irrelevent here, and possibly too, is traffic law. Cycling does not seem to be considered transportation, but rather pedestrian travel. Those who cycle in the street are not considered to be trespassing, but are like everything else, including other motorists, just in the way, and drivers negotiate your presence with a proximity that is at first scary, and soon becomes almost friendly.
Practical matters topic number two: mechanics.
So far, all fingers and toes knotted hard, we’ve had no problems. Of the six wheels I’m responsible for, across thus far over 3000km and with almost 1000km of it unpaved, there has been only one flat. And it came at the end of the day as my buddy came into camp over a wire, a tiny silly staple thin wire. We’ve rolled on roads of fist sized sharp rocks, over thorn laden trails, and across puddles of glass. Just great. Other than that, there was a single mystery deflation, which occurred with no tubular disturbance. So as far as tires go, I am thoroughly satisfied with our schwable marathon supremes and dureames. We’re all rolling on 26” rims, and that is certainly the best option for South America, where old mtbs are everywhere. Many of the other touring cyclists we’ve encountered running 700c or 29” rims have had serious trouble locating even cheap replacements in the event of what seems to be frequent sidewall blow outs and tread loss. Reports of tire replacement trouble include the areas around some of the larger cities.
My Buddies are riding the now almost classic surly long haul, (we’ve ran into six others so far ourselves), with no problems to report after reconciling the issues left me by the bike shop from which they were purchased. They’ve my old crappy aluminum racks on the rear, which are a little shaky but work fine, and we all have tobus tara fronts, heavenly simple and quite satisfactory. My own kogswell frame, dented and deranged in the months preceding the trip, has fared great. Since my front derailleur has never gone into the little ring I toe shift when needed, but honestly, with this 11-34 tooth rear cassette, I’ve found that necessary on only a handful of days. I even brought a spare to replace it and have thus been too lazy to flip it out. Since arriving on continent I’ve cleaned each bike thoroughly three times, regressing the brake posts twice. On pavement, we’ve lubricated our chains about once a week, though in the dirt and desert, drive train maintenance occurred each night as dinner got hot.
As the trip has given us little to complain of, it’s tough to report on the opportunities to seek assistance for drastic repairs. I have however sought out options as frequently as possible. In most small towns you will at the very least find a mechanic, typically wrenching on cars, but often with bikes lying around. When in a town lacking a bike shop, many automotive garages have a couple of bike tires, and everywhere do people have basic tools if you are in sore need. The dedicated shops I’ve stopped in have ranged from places more crowed with junk and smaller than P2P, to a fancy outfit in down town Lima. Most often repair services are run out of a back yard, with bikes hung from ropes in the ceiling (your laundry line is great for creating a makeshift bike stand between two trees), and though shops are not well stocked, they are considerate, interested in your journey, and often willing to share services and space if needed.
Practical matters topic number three: gear.
First major flop is in this department. I´ve owned a tent made by mountain hardware for about seven years now. It has exceeded all expectations. So when it came time to get a decent three person shelter, and one of us had some credit with the same company, we went back to them thinking we were set. First night of rain, in a spanking new tent, and the fly soaks through completely! Not many gear related problems exceed that of lacking a proper rain shelter in Patagonia. Post problem the company has been extremely helpful, my friend basically got a free tent out of it all, and considering their record with all of their other gear I´ve used, I´m going to chalk this one up as a fluke, but the story here is that we now carry a tarp as double protection for the really wet days, of which there are now many.
On the topic of rain: In my experience, amongst crazy rain and on long rides, I prefer to wear only sparse clothing made of fast drying fabrics and just let myself get wet rather than to try to cover up. As long as it’s not too cold for this, I still recommend it, especially as we´ve entered the lakes region and northern Patagonia. Once the rain halts, if it does, I´m dry again within twenty minutes of cycling. It rains a lot in southwestern Patagonia, and six hours of constant rain on a bike is not so miserable when you embrace your inner wetness. My companion prefers the plastic pants and jacket most of the time, so do your own thing, but be sure to consider your shorts as swim trunks at some point. We only have two sets of clothes, so our drying routine has had to get creative when camp is made while still under a downpour. In any event we´re set with waterproof everything for the cold and wet days to come.
On the opposite end of this, and far more dangerous, is an over abundance of sunshine and heat. The entire first month of our trip was spent lathered in sunscreen, dripping with sweat, and praying under the blazing sun at often over forty degrees centigrade that the next river on the map was not dry like the last nine had been. Taking lunches in culverts, sometimes hardly big enough to fit into, often next to something dead, or fecal, is the only shade you will find. In short, unless you really have to say you went the distance, northern Chile and Argentina I could have not cycled through. But, that never really mattered in comparison to the enjoyment I´ve received over the course of this adventure.
On the topic of bike shorts: we don´t use pads. They feel funny, don´t really help if you have a saddle that you like, and are really funny looking. As for saddles, as always, ride one a bunch and make sure you dig it first. My friends didn´t do a good enough job at this and it took them a while to break theirs in. Enough said.
On the topic of cycling shoes: we don´t use them. If you find a pair that function as diversely as you need, great, use it. Otherwise there´s not much room for extra shoes on this sort of thing. I found a mostly water resistant, narrow toed, high-top hiker that is my everything footwear and have loved it. I´ve also brought a pair of keen sandals as my camp/water shoe, and have ended up cycling in them perhaps forty percent of the time.
We´ve got some sweet sleeping bags, mine´s rated to sub nine Celsius, satisfactory for the range of temperatures we may encounter in the southern mountain passes even if you’re a cold sleeper. They are stuffed with goose down, so we take caution to keep them dry and in return they pack pretty dang small. So far we have been overly warm in them. Especially when crammed like three sardines head to toe in the tent. Always bring a pad; closed cell doesn’t pop, but air pads are easily patched. If you’re a super cold sleeper use both, closed cell on the bottom, air on top, they wrap up small enough and function as a chair, nap pad, and are a light weight unequaled source of sleeping warmth and comfort.
I don´t feel like doing a complete gear list at the moment, but I feel like those are the majors pieces of equipment. Oh, we´re using a multi-fuel stove from msr, and though that means more frequent maintenance, it has saved us perhaps $200 already since we can use nafta (auto fuel), which is fairly efficient, drastically cheaper, and, like 26” tires, is in great abundance compared to its alternatives.
Practical matters topic number four: going on long rides with other people.
This is why we did this: to spend time together, to learn about ourselves, for me to get out of the states for the first time and realize what that entails, and so much more. The bikes are in the mix almost solely as a token symbolizing the acknowledgement of a drastic amount of jet fuel used in getting to Peru. You don´t have to cycle, and should do what ever trip you like, and in any fashion. That said, once a trip is chosen to be a bike tour, you can not help but fall in love with it. It takes some time.
With our different backgrounds, different circumstances, and different dependencies upon each other, even three good friends have to work to keep up a constant sociability. Yet even these words are just an acknowledgement of an obvious reality. You soon find yourselves amongst scenery, geographic and interpersonal, of a new order, one previously unknown. As the experiences shape you, you find moments only days in the past that are now of the fondest memory. And their trials upon arrival, fountains of laughter. The biking gets easier, and though I spent perhaps a very persistent thirty days as the lead of a pace line, the joy of watching my friends discover cycling (a completely new form of travel being introduced to those who have already circled the globe), has been a treat of delectable mental fashion. Listening to them talk differently, look differently, ride differently, come up with great ideas for other trips, and to feel the excitement growing between us all, what a time.
I´ve been reading a lot on this trip, swapping books between us, and it recently came turn for me to flip the pages of Nicolas Bouvier´s “Way of the World,” the travel novel of two young Swiss ex-students set off to drive an old Fiat across eastern Europe, through Afghanistan, and into India in the year 1953. Aside from being extremely well written, and having observations of western culture fascinatingly parallel with a contemporary perspective, he excellently brings forth the question of what it means to travel, whatever the relativity, adventurously. In one such moment of pondering epiphany he elucidates quite beautifully the very hope that all travelers and explorers of the heart yearn for, and yet are so often unable to cognize, speculate upon, or describe, and hold within their eyes as their reason for taking to the hills.
Most of us come back, we´re nomads of a moody persuasion, and have crazy unpredictable and interwoven interdependencies, beyond just those within society. But, if you like riding your bike even just a little, I´ll encourage you to get somewhere really far away by using one.
“that day, I really believed I´d grasped something, and that hence forth my life would be changed. But insights cannot be held forever. Like water, the world ripples across you, and for a while you take in its colors. Then it recedes, and leaves you face to face with the void you carry inside yourself, confronting that central inadequacy of the soul which you must learn to rub shoulders with, and to combat, and which, paradoxically, maybe our surest impetus”