Sunday, April 05, 2009

The World's Most Dangerous Road

Once again reminded of the things I make myself do for fun whilst travelling that I'd never do normally, I was out of the hostel by 6:30am on a Sunday, headed for the rendez-vous of my cycling group at a little cafe called Snack Cordillera. Having been ultra-organised, turns out I was slightly early and had in fact arrived at the same time as the owner, who was just opening up. I got sat down at a table whilst he carried on setting up, and thus experienced a slight sigh of resignation when three loud, very obviously Israeli (this will make sense if you have ever encountered them whilst backpacking) lads came in and sat down at my table. Oh dear. Nothing against individual Israelis, but put them in packs and they can be utter horrors: rude, pushy, obviously insensitive to locals and quite happy to jabber loudly at each other in Hebrew the entire time, freezing out anyone else in the vicinity. And then, salvation - turns out they are with the other company that the proprietor does breakfast for, Radical Rides. This becomes even more of a relief when another 4 of them turn up. Meanwhile, I am joined at the Vertigo table by a Brasilian couple, Paolo and Mariana, and two Germans, Johanna and Alex. I also somehow manage, despite being the first there, to be the last to get my food, but such is life.
By around 8am, our guide, Cello, had turned up (his name is actually Marcelo, but since that is also our other guide for the day's name, his name is, as he puts it, "like the big violin") and we loaded into the company's minibus and headed back, ironically, to the Wild Rover, to pick up the remaining 3 cyclists - 3 more Brits, Mark, Dan and Meghan. Meghan almost wasn't going to go because of stomach upsets she'd been having, but as it was their last day in La Paz so she wouldn't have another chance, decided to give it a go. We trundled up through the upper suburbs of La Paz and out towards the pass at La Cumbre, where, at 4,700m altitude under a slate-grey sky, we got kitted out, being equipped with elbow- and knee-pads, full helmets, balaclavas, semi-water-proof over-trousers and flourescent orange safety jackets. Beautiful. Combined effect of this over the top of my own gear was somewhat akin to crossing the Michelin Man with Darth Vader and painting part of the result orange, but such is life - it still wasn't as unflattering as rafting gear usually is. After a relatively short safety briefing, we were off onto the tarmac of the main road that forms the upper part of the ride. The grey overhead soon turned into drizzle, and this, after we had passed the narcotics checkpoint, into something between a light rain and hail which stung anything exposed - I ended up pulling my goggles up from around my neck, reasoning that even though they tended to fog up, this was better than squinting so hard that my eyes were almost closed! Right from the off, I had been within a couple of riders of Marcelo, who was leading the group, a position I was to stay in for the rest of the ride, surprising myself as much as anyone else with the pace I was keeping. It was also lucky, as it meant I was safely ahead of Mark when his bike took a slide out from under him around one bend in the wet - he was fine, got up and kept going, but that was a wake-up call to stay alert and not take anything for granted given the conditions!
Once we reached the Unduluavi tunnel and the place where we had to get our tickets for the road (the local government assesses this fee to help cover repairs to the road and future provision of toilets and the like given that it is now used almost exclusively by cyclists), we loaded the bikes back up onto the roof of the minibus and piled on in for another 10 minutes or so as we negotiated the only slight uphill section of the road. By the time we were ready to offload and suit up again, we were off the pavement and onto the gravel, and we were given a few more safety pointers before heading out again. And this, to be honest, is the more spectacular part of the trip, as the road, sometimes easily two lanes wide, sometimes scarcely one, always rough gravel, and at times with 400-500m vertical drops off to the side, snakes and twists down the side of the mountain. It is generally acknowledged that there are only two ways to go down: pretty slow, or pretty fast. The former has the obvious advantage of more reaction time, the latter means that you are close behind the guide and hence can see which line he is taking, and also catch any of the hand-signals he gives out for information and warning. I went firmly for the latter approach and loved every minute of it, despite one or two moments when I hit loose rocks with my rear wheel or slid slightly on the gravel - the sensation of speed was amazing, and it also meant that I got a chance to admire the scenery somewhat whenever we occasionally stopped to allow the group to bunch back together after getting strung out. We had snacks at one point, and sandwiches for a kind of light brunch just across from some of the waterfalls that fall across the road, one of the more interesting hazards to navigate! I also had one of my periodic nosebleeds then, which slightly alarmed the guides, but I explained somehow in broken Spanish that I get them a lot and they clear up quickly, and when it did, that was all alright.
After that break, we had a few sections on the flat, where I discovered that downhill bikes aren't really that well set up for such exertions, being designed principally to cushion the bumps as you let gravity do its work. Still, we made it through those, and the sun, which had been teasing us for much of the morning, had now finally broken through properly, so I was glad to have divested myself of most of the less-necessary outer layers of clothing that had served their purpose of stopping me freezing on the upper road. The dust was also picking up as we got to drier parts of the road, and we had the added joy of crossing a couple of streams. I was slightly put out when, on the last one of these and only five minutes from the end, my chain broke but they popped me onto Marcelo's bike (it wasn't really worth bringing the spare down off the roof at this point) so I could finish the ride, down at the depths of 1,100m. At the end, we handed back our bikes and all of our kit, and then took advantage of the little local stand selling cold beer, a most welcome offering. Once all the kit was stowed, we were driven to a little local hotel where we could have showers and make use of the (slightly green-looking) pool to refresh ourselves, and also take advantage of the late buffet lunch on offer. Unfortunately, I found out later that I had also served as lunch, for the local sandfly population, but such is life. Somewhat bushed after a long day, I actually managed to doze for some of the trip back up to La Paz (taking the new, paved road, not the one we had come down), before waking and catching some of Cello's tales of events and accidents on the road over the years (he's been guiding there for 7 years now, working for 3 of the companies). I continued my over-consumption of food for the day by having the barbecue back at the Rover, and then ended up discussing the Troubles in Northern Ireland with an American lass from Boston called Hayley, which was interesting, but reinforced my policy from back at Uni that one should never discuss politics, religion, football or Northern Ireland with strangers....