January 15th, 2014
When I handed in my notice and announced plans to make this trip with James, I distinctly remember amongst the mix of enthusiasm and bemused faces, one of my colleagues raising his eyebrows and with heavy sarcasm wishing us “good luck”. When I asked him to explain, he replied “…all that time together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’re going to need some luck; it’ll make or break your relationship”. He was wise and knew well before we did that although the weather, the budget, the physical strain of riding the Americas would all be challenging, perhaps the greatest challenge of all would be spending so much time in the company of one other person.
James and I both worked two jobs for well over a year before we left and saw relatively little of each other in the effort to save as much as possible to make the trip happen. Then, in a pure reversal, we boarded the plane to Alaska to begin a journey which would see us spend practically every waking minute together. In the course of two and a half years, there haven’t been many hours where we have been apart. So undoubtedly our relationship has evolved.
At times it’s felt like a pressure cooker – tough physical moments, sickness, confusion, deliberation and unparalleled highs – just waiting to explode. By nature, thankfully we’re both pretty placid and not inclined to argue but we’re also both opinionated, used to getting our own way and always think we are right; as a result the air has occasionally turned blue during some spectacular foot stamping barneys. As time has passed, the unusual situation of only having each other to depend on has, thankfully, made our relationship stronger, particularly during the frequent low periods when we were ill.
Whilst the relationship might have lost some of its sparkle through the repeated daily routine of riding our bikes and setting up camp, living in our little world of just two cyclists has seen us become each other’s agony aunt, financial advisor, entertainment system (impromptu pedalling concerts being a speciality), chef, life coach, nurse and friend.
I had assumed that we would be the only friends each other had during this journey. Making new friends on the road was never something that I had considered, perhaps because it seemed so improbable. The very nature of our lifestyle, with us always moving, choosing different routes, riding in different rythyms had the odds stacked against any meaningful relationships forming. And besides, just because we are all cyclists doesn’t mean we should instantly get along does it? I have happily been proven wrong however and there are brilliant people we have spent time with – both on and off the bikes – that I truly hope to meet again when we have finished. People who have inspired us, people who have clicked with our sense of humour, people whose riding styles mirror ours, those we have taken under our wing and those who have taken us under theirs.
Spending time with others and travelling with others has eased some of that pressure of 24-7 with one another too. As a couple, you bicker less in the company of someone else, discussing opinions with an ‘outsider’ helps galvanise the opinions you share with your partner and if you all have mutual appreciation for bicycles, coffee, food and language, the myriad of variety within those topics can fuel conversations for hours on end.
Our cycling buddy Lee ticked all of these boxes for us and cycling together with him at the beginning of our trip was ten weeks of taco fuelled silliness that saw us through Baja California, mainland Mexico and into Guatemala.
We went our separate ways in Guatemala after attending Spanish school in Xela. James and I got back on our bikes and Lee stayed behind to continue his studies and fulfil a long held desire to learn salsa. In doing so, he met Heidi and nine months passed before he dusted off his bike and carried on with his tour. Like in all good fairy tales, the heroine wasn’t left behind and Heidi decided to get herself a bike too and came to join him in Colombia. From Bogotá they rode together and had been chasing us throughout Peru and Bolivia. We were finally reunited during our new year stop in Mendoza and made plans to ride on together from there.
December 24th, 2013
- 3 mature touring cyclists (choose cuts with 2+ years on the road for a lower fat version)
- 5kg of mixed food per cyclist (opt for quantity over quality, use pasta and porridge as a base)
- As much Argentine red wine as you can carry
- Copious quantities of coffee (if desperate, even the terrible Argentine stuff will suffice)
- One national park with a view and free camping (Parque Leoncito recommended)
- Two observatories for star gazing
- To decorate, a sprinkling of Christmas cheer
In preparation, pre-heat your grill to “Northern Argentine desert” setting. Once at 40 degrees, take your cyclists and grill slowly but continuously for two months, rotating occasionally to ensure even sunburn. Keep them mildly dehydrated, and marinate in sweat and factor 60 sun cream at least twice a day. Maintain a safe distance from showers or other washing facilities at all times.
A couple of days before Christmas, fill cyclists’ panniers with food and drink until expletives begin to flow continuously. Pedal mixture vigorously to your chosen camp spot, ideally into a vicious headwind. Pour mixed food into cyclists and allow them to rest in the shade until stomachs begin to rise slightly, and ribs become less pronounced. At this point, feed again, and continue this routine for the following 3 days. It may seem obscene, but for best results at least every 30 minutes is recommended.
When necessary, loosen mixture from time to time with a little coffee (especially early mornings) and red wine (afternoon and evenings). On at least one occasion, try to douse your cyclists thoroughly in water with a little added soap. They will complain, but can often be lured into water with leftover scraps. Throughout, keep your cyclists covered under a blanket of cloud. Then, on the evening before serving, remove clouds and bathe your cyclists in perfect starlight.
Finally, your stuffed cyclists are ready to be served – top with a healthy sprinkling of Christmas cheer. However, by this point, I guarantee you will be so repulsed by their smell and habits that the prospect of actually presenting them to your guests will be appalling. It’s probably best just to let them and their strange ways be. Release your cyclists back into the wild for another year – and next Christmas, I’d recommend you just stick to the turkey.
December 20th, 2013
As I slumped down into the sand in our chosen patch of desert scrub for the night, flies simultaneously tried to swarm into my eyes, up my nose and into my mouth. I peeled my shirt off my back, un-sticking a three day paste of dust, sweat and sun cream as it went. I cast my mind back over the last 8 hours: 100km of dead flat, scrubby desert into a headwind, with the highlight being a bend at 30km. How exactly did we end up on this road, I asked myself?
I thought back to what other cyclists had told us about northern Argentina: the asados, the red wine, the ice cream, the warmth of the Argentines. Not once, I now noticed, had anyone mentioned the roads as a highlight – in fact the opposite. “Don’t bother with Ruta 40 after Cafayate” they said. “Take the bus – there’s nothing to see”. And it’s true, after the dirt road adventures of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, riding the northern deserts of Argentina along Ruta 40 was – to put it lightly – something of an anti-climax.
However – as we’ve learnt many times over the past two and a half years – on a long bike trip, context is everything. And, for us, that context was sitting in an internet cafe in Uyuni, Bolivia a month earlier, hovering over “Buy now” on a direct flight back to London. After a year and a half of on-off sickness and a further two months lost off the bikes in Peru and Bolivia, we had reached a tipping point. This trip was always meant to be fun, and right now the fun was seriously lacking.
In the end, we didn’t click. We decided to give it one last roll of the dice, in the hope that the lower altitude, better hygiene and warmer weather of Argentina would weave a miraculous cure. That was why I was sat in this desert, riding this road. And, given that context, Ruta 40 was probably one of the best roads we have ridden for a long time. It was flat, fast and paved – everything we would usually go out of our way to avoid. But now, it gave us the perfect chance to regain some of our fitness and confidence, with a healthy dose of direct southerly progress thrown in. If we wanted to reach Ushuaia before winter did, then southerly progress was exactly what we needed right now.
And so was this leg of Ruta 40 really the tedium-filled sweatfest that everyone had made it out to be? Well, not really. For sure, it had its moments. Yes, it was searingly hot. But try a few weeks of pulling on sodden clothes every morning in rainy Patagonia and you’ll soon realise what a pleasure it is to camp in the warm and dry every night. And yes, there was some ugly, uninspiring desert. But we also saw plenty of beautiful desert, and with it experienced the unique peace and solitude of a desert camp miles from the nearest human being.
As always on routes which don’t run past “must see” places, I was reminded that it is the small things that are at the heart of what I really love about bike touring. A moment of exquisite dawn light. A hat tipped in greeting. The shade of a tree at midday. To anyone else they are incidental, un-noticed even. But on a bike, on these routes with “nothing to see”, these the are the things which come to the fore; the memories that you will dream about for years.
And when it felt like we had come so close to losing those moments before we were ready, it was just bloody good to be back on the bike again; doing what we love and immersing ourselves back into the hypnotic daily rhythm of this simple life on two wheels.