May 24th, 2012
We sat at the side of the road, bikes thrown down in disgust, and glared at each other. Silently we blamed one another for our situation – but the real cause was another brutal, seemingly vertical stretch of Guatemalan climb which lay between us. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, and after three days of slog, I knew that there was no way we would be climbing any more. In silence we turned round and rolled back down the valley to the town of Todos Santos and a waiting bus, covering in five minutes a distance that had just taken us two hours to climb.
To any non-cyclist, I can imagine this sounds incredibly melodramatic. If a hill is too steep to cycle up, then of course you just get a bus. What’s the big problem? Who cares? No-one of course. Except that we did care – because for the first time in 10 months and 10,000km, we’d had to admit that we couldn’t actually cycle this road.
Of course, we’d “cheated” before – like skipping most of Canada on a long ferry ride, or taking a boat out from Laguna Miramar just a few weeks earlier in Mexico. But on those occasions we had deliberately chosen not to ride in exchange for another experience. This was different. In the ongoing battle of touring cyclist versus road, for the first time the road had won. And to a pair of stubborn cyclists who thought they could ride up anything, that was a hard thing to swallow.
I guess I knew that eventually we would find our limit – but I had thought it might be in the mighty Peruvian or Bolivian Andes, rather than here in the little-known Cuchumatanes of northern Guatemala. At least then, there would have been some element of honour and glory in defeat – I mean, who would try to cycle through the Andes anyway? But I had underestimated just how steep this wall of mountains that welcomed us to Guatemala were.
Of course, as usual we hadn’t helped ourselves. In our constant (and to everyone else, probably rather tedious) quest to ride the road less travelled, we had avoided the main route from Mexico into Guatemala with its smooth tarmac and well graded hills. Instead we chose a circuitous back door route which our map classified as “seasonal track” and in reality meant three days of sweating, swearing and a lot of back-breaking pushing.
We sat in disconsolate silence as the bus crawled its way back up the hill past the point where we had turned back, our bikes expertly lashed to the roof alongside sacks of maize and half a dozen chickens. There was no pleasure in the cheat; no satisfaction in avoiding the sweat and toil of crawling our way up the hill. Both of us would have given anything to have been out there riding. For once, I concluded, the plan had backfired. We weren’t really the globe-trotting, off-road “adventure” cyclists we had hoped we might be.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it really hadn’t backfired. Firstly because no-one really did care if we had taken a bus or not. On that front, we just needed to swallow our pride and take ourselves a little less seriously. But mainly because if we hadn’t attempted the route we had just ridden in the first place, then we would have missed three days of incredible experiences amongst the sweat and tears : a river crossing without a bridge, a night camped in a municipal hall with an audience of schoolchildren, and a village football match with locals in their traditional dress.
It sounds like a terrible cliché from a motivational speech – but I realised that the real failure would be to take this experience to heart, and to stifle our curiosity for the roads less travelled. It would be easy to start choosing the obvious path, the nicely tarmaced but traffic-choked and monotonous roads we try to avoid. But we would have many more regrets.
Instead we should stick with our approach of seeking out more interesting and challenging routes – but just with a touch more pragmatism thrown in. Like choosing tracks that we can at least occasionally ride on, rather than footpaths that leave us pushing for hours. And if we have to take a few more buses, then who cares? At least we will always know that our experience will have been be so much richer for trying.