Saturday, April 18, 2020

Niue gets an A-grade, but I don't

The 2019 calendar year was one packed with adventure, for Sarah and I at least.  An Air NZ "Islands on Sale" promotion provided an opportunity to start 2020 with a more inclusive holiday, and one on which our blended family of four could have a chance to relax together.  Scanning down the list, Niue grabbed - and held - our attention, and got the nod.

I knew next to nothing about "the Rock", and as the trip drew nearer, researching the holiday side of things netted various reports with a theme:  "the most incredible place you've probably never heard of."  We booked a couple of rooms at the Turtle Lodge in Makefu, and a car with Tropicana.

While my cobbers were prepping for snorkelling a-plenty, I had my eye on a couple of riding challenges.  I downloaded a topo map of the island, and spent a bit of time identifying which marked (and unmarked) tracks might be rideable, using Strava's global heatmap, and the "Highlight unridden roads" feature on wandrer.earth.  I was readying myself for two big rides:  I wanted to ride every road and track on the island in a day, and, I wanted to try to complete an Everest challenge on the island.

I regarded the two ideas as somewhat quirky, and anticipated both would be difficult, if not beyond me.  The island is just over 260 square-kilometres, almost four times the size of Rarotonga, and about one-seventieth the size of New Caledonia.  The topo map has a couple of 60-metre contours on it, but the vast majority of the island sits between 25 and 45 metres above sea-level.



The road around the island is about 60km long, and I saw various reports about the total road distance which suggested doing the lot in a day would be a stretch.  On the other hand, at least the riding would be virtually flat, which had implications for the second challenge.  The topo map suggested that at best, I'd be repeating an ascent of not much more than 40 metres.  I figured the doing the Everest second would have me fully informed about which bit of road to try - the first challenge would be a comprehensive recce ride if ever there was one...

As the date grew nearer, a bike project progressively met all necessary deadlines, though each by a whisker.  After several years of not quite having the right bike for the task, some post-Whaka100 shopping for Sarah from the fine folks at Yeti NZ, put a stunning Open U.P. into my own hands.  That in turn necessitated my first Oli Brooke-White wheel build in ages, a pair of Stan's Flow Mk3 on Hope RS4 hubs, which will no doubt be bombproof, as with every other pair of wheels he's ever built me.

No sooner had Sarah and I arrived back from our quick scoot across the Andes (a perfect ride for the not-quite-ready Open if ever there was one), than we were packing up again for our week in Niue. Sarah's Cannondale would be coming with, and didn't leave the bike bag between times.  I picked up the Open from Oli, and managed to squeeze in one shakedown ride and a bike-fit with Paul at Capital Cycles.

The international flight between Auckland and Niue is relatively short, but you end up crossing the date line, so we got to do the 6th of January all over again.  As it turns out, Air New Zealand is the only airline that goes there, and runs two return trips out of Auckland per week.  Owner of one of Niue's cafes, Ex-Wellington mayor Mark Blumsky, told us that the limiting factor is the number of tourist beds on the island - if more people were brought in, there'd be nowhere for them to sleep.

I assembled bikes at the airport upon arrival, and while Sarah drove Kaitlyn and our bags to Makefu, Khulan and I rode.  Despite being only 10km from the airport, we got to experience a few of the island's road hazards, namely potholes and dogs, but on the other hand, were treated with utmost respect and care by the few motorised vehicles we saw on the road.

The next morning, Sarah and I set out relatively early to do a lap of the island.  The road quality was mixed, but definitely worse on the eastern side of the island, and necessitated a fair bit of pothole slalom, and occasional refuge on the unsealed road shoulder.  We stopped for a coffee in Alofi which was well worth the cost of getting hit by a rain shower on the final kilometres home.

The rest of the day's family activities had me questioning the merits of a full-day ride, but in the end, I decided to eat a big dinner and go for broke on day three.

The opportunity cost

Colouring in the map isn't as clever as it seems, and is much more brute force than anything.  Nonetheless, a bit of strategising helps reduce the risk of unnecessary duplication, and the planning process also provides additional entertainment.  I'd settled on initially pushing east across the island from Makefu, before circling back around the northern perimeter for a big lunch back at base.  After lunch, I would do the same for the southern half of the island.

I rolled out just before 6:30am, and after a few seconds on familiar road, I hung a left onto Makefu Bush Road, one of a few marked cycle routes on the island. 

The aptly named Makefu Bush Road

I'd printed an A3 copy of the topo map, and had marked it up with what was showing on the Strava heatmap.  My handlebar mounted GPS unit also had the Niue basemap installed, and with the combination, I felt pretty comfortable ducking and diving around in the bush.  While I didn't expect expansive views at any point, there were nonetheless surprising treats to be seen.


The riding was very pleasant, for the most part, though the format wasn't without its irritations.  Many tracks were overgrown, and overnight rain meant the encroaching vegetation was typically loaded with water.  It was also at times unclear whether I was welcome, with a few "roads" abruptly ending in someone's backyard.

When I wasn't in the forest, I was typically riding past crops, none of which I could identify, but I assumed taro, yams and cassava - the locally grown root vegetables.  We'd already discovered that there's no fresh dairy on the island, with all the milk in the supermarket being of the UHT variety. So, no cows, but occasional chickens and once or twice, the sound of something bigger crashing through the undergrowth. 


I stopped regularly to check the paper map, which I was colouring in in my head.  The brief pauses were a good opportunity to reorient myself, and to make sure that I wasn't about to miss something out.  One stop was both abrupt and unintended...


Fortunately, I didn't fall on anything sharp, and only my pride was bruised.  Up until that point, and beyond it, the 47mm WTB Byway tyres I was running front and rear had hooked up nicely, but something had clearly gone amiss.  Operator error, no doubt.

I pushed out to the sealed ring road a number of times, figuring it would be potentially more difficult to find the bush tracks from the main road.  That said, I was always on the lookout for an opportunity to form a loop, preferring duplication on the road rather than the rough dirt tracks.   Eventually, I'd knocked all the northern interior off, and thought things would be a bit easier on the sealed route back to lunch.

Oh, how wrong I was.

The paper map had been pretty good, with just about every track shown, and the GPS had been a fantastic backup.  Nonetheless, I missed a coastal track, and by the time I realised I'd overshot it, I decided to ride a walking track shown on the map which would take me back to the dirt road I'd missed.  First, an uneventful plummet down to the ocean on a steep driveway north of Mutalao.


The singletrack was hard riding, but a little over a kilometre long before it ended abruptly.  Faced with doubling back, not only on the track, but then again on the tarseal to find the road I'd missed, I made the foolish choice to leave the singletrack and strike out on foot.  Based on the GPS and paper map combo, I only had to bush bash for 100m or so, before I would surely find a 4WD track crossing in front of me.  I was approaching perpendicular to it, so all I had to do was plow forward, and I couldn't miss it.

Um yeah, about that.

It took about 15 minutes before I knew I'd made a bad mistake.  For some of that quarter hour I'd been able to move quickly, but my route had been sufficiently complex, that it was far from certain that I'd be able to locate the original track.  My GPS unit was struggling in the jungle, and so too was I.  My pedals and handlebars were constantly hooking up on vines, and while I considered hanging the bike in a tree and striking out on foot, the thought of losing my bike (as well as myself) in the bush was worse than my current predicament.

I could hear what I thought might be feral pigs, and while I didn't fear getting attacked, for good measure, I got stung on the chest by an angry wasp.  I sincerely hoped there were no locals within earshot to hear my complaint! 

Through trial and error, perserverance and a bit of brute force, I eventually found what may have been the remnants of the "road" I was looking for - or, it may well have been 20 metres south, across that impenetrable wall of plant matter.  Fark...

This is NOT fun.   And, it is YOUR fault!
Finally, after about an hour's huffing and puffing and sweating and swearing, I popped back out on the main road.  I was so disgusted, I didn't even bother going back for the track I'd missed earlier, assuming it was as non existent as the one parallel with it that I'd just been on.

I'd haemorrhaged both time and energy, but once I got back on my bike, I felt OK, and I anticipated easy riding all the way back to Makefu.

Um yeah, about that!

I popped to the end of a sea track just before Toi, and on my retreat, felt an incredibly sharp pain in my right ankle.  My best expletives rang out once more, both at the three wasps that had simultaneously nailed me, and at the world more generally.

At Toi, I filled my now-empty bottles from a tap on the side of one of the buildings, and sculled a whole bottle down.  I hoped the water wasn't bad, but I hadn't budgeted on being lost in the bush for an hour, and was feeling parched.

For the time being, I stuck with the plan, and looped through Hikutavake, only to stumble upon an open bar!!!  A can of coke and an ice-cream-on-a-stick were welcome, and while the kindly bartender didn't have change for my $50 note, he was more happy for me to owe him, than for him to owe me, and I left with the money in my pocket, promising to return the next day if not before.

Despite those pick-me-ups, when I reached Makefu, I was done.  I'd been riding just over 8 hours, covering a mere 122km.  The bush bashing had robbed me of precious time, energy, and inclination to continue, and the wasp stings had further eroded my enthusiasm.   The nail in the coffin was the easy out.  At 2:30 in the afternoon, I pulled the pin, without even trying to estimate whether or not completing my challenge was going to be possible in what was left of the day.

A shower, and the company of my wife and daughters were as wonderful as they were tempting, and I had no regrets at stopping.  While the thrill of the chase generates its own fun, I ride a bike inherently because I enjoy doing so, and while from time to time I'll willingly flog myself, this was not to be one of them.

That night, we went for dinner at the Matavai Resort with a lovely young couple who were at Turtle Lodge with us.  They'd been to Togo Chasm, and had raved about it, so the next morning after breakfast, we out to see it.  A rough fifteen minute bush walk ended with a ladder down into a wee spot of paradise.

Togo Chasm's sandy beach - a rare sight on Niue

The ocean was accessed via an impressive cave, and when we were out admiring the swell coming in, Kaitlyn dropped her sunglasses at an inopportune moment.  They looked tantalisingly retrievable for a few seconds, but the next wave pounded in, and with that, they were gone.

That was a bummer, but what really took the shine off the walk for me was growing discomfort in my ankle.   By the time we got back to base, it was swollen and sore, and having previously had a bad experience experience with cellulitis following a bee sting through my sock, Sarah and I decided a trip to A&E was in order.


Angry ankle
The staff at the hospital were amazing, and it was very cute how apologetic they were about our 20 minute wait to be seen.  The total cost included a non-local consultation fee and the prescribed antihistamines and antibiotics, and was trivial despite apologies for that too.  It was a great relief to have been seen at all, and I spent the next 48 hours or so on the couch in the lounge, since elevation seemed to have the most positive effect on the swelling.



After a couple of days' rest, things seemed to have settled down quite a bit, so I chanced a gentle ride with Sarah.  While there was no obvious swelling, the pedalling motion generated a strange sensation - almost like I had a bag of fluid under my skin that was wobbling about as my foot spun.  Other than that, things felt OK, and we managed to get across the island and back.

It was a good thing that we didn't spend too much time on the ring road, since the island was celebrating the takai drive-day, whereby every village decorates vehicles old and new, and drives slowly en masse around the whole island, tooting horns and throwing lollies the entire way!  Apparently it is the only day of the year where inebriated drivers are tolerated, perhaps because at least everyone is headed in the same direction (and at a snail's pace).

One of a whole fleet of "cars" which appear to be kept running just for this annual event!


As well as being a test ride, it was also an opportunity to do some more colouring in.  We passed the island's power station, which consisted of a large shed with a bunch of generators lying idle.  We imagined there was currently very low electricity demand on account of the parade, and presumed that the large solar panel array we'd seen by the hospital was providing sufficient oomph.

Interior of the Tuila Power Station

After a short off road loop behind the power station, we headed back to Makefu, but not before doing a quick lap of the wharf, where the monthly cargo ship unloads by barge (the next one was due soon, which had the locals looking forward to replenishment of the potato supply).  It was only out of sympathy for my drive-train that I didn't celebrate the successful 70km ride with a bomb into the ocean.



Before knocking off, we popped by the Hio Cafe, and in conversation, was told that I should have pissed on my ankle to prevent it from getting angry.  What fascinated me about that advice was that it was exactly what Sarah had told me when I got home a few days earlier.  It struck me as remarkable that two cultures that really couldn't have been more different and distinct, Mongolian and Niuean, nonetheless had the same traditional strategy for dealing with wasp stings.

With three days left on the island, and still a chance of the ankle flaring up, I decided there was no chance of mounting a half-successful Everest challenge, let alone a full one!  Nor was I able to go back in time, but I was still keen to colour in as much of the island as I could.

From what I could tell, I'd done everything I could in the top two-thirds of the island, bar a couple of sea tracks that I'd missed at least twice, and guessed were probably overgrown.  Sarah was keen to join me for the leftovers, so we headed for the south eastern corner of the island.

Stumbling upon another large solar array

While it was nice to have Sarah's company, it did change my experience considerably.  Because we'd done the ring road together, much of what was left was unsealed, and I fretted that she wasn't enjoying riding off-road on the bike she had.  We were also both nervous about wasps, and sure enough, Sarah got nailed by one on her upper arm.

Luckily, the necessary natural remedy was available (and this time, well known), and I felt like a proud husband being able to produce some urine on demand.  Sarah did the splashing on the site of the sting (pissing straight onto it would have upped the weirdness level far too much), and as advertised, it didn't bother her for the rest of the ride.

I'm used to the ridiculous format of riding down every bloody dead-end bothering Sarah whenever she accompanies me, but was surprised to find I began to lose patience with it too.  The sea tracks were hard, since the routes were not well used, were rough and occasionally steep, and the perceived risk of getting stung again was high.  On the up side, the views at the end were spectacular...


... even if the retreat was hard won.



I didn't bother heading out to one track which was way out on its own, and Sarah sat out a couple of dead-ends.  After a connecting track didn't connect, Sarah had had enough of the silliness, and we split up for the final run home.  I bailed on another short (but surely wasp-laden) track, but otherwise enjoyed blasting down the Makefu Bush Track to arrive a couple of minutes before Sarah with a successful 80km logged.

We celebrated our last night on the island with a traditional banquet, courtesy of the Hio Cafe, joined again by our lovely housemates, Hannah and Jarrod.  We had some ceviche, and tried uga for the first time (coconut crab), but my favourite was the takihi - layered papaya and taro, baked in coconut cream.  Delicious, but probably not good for the waistline!



I set off on my own the next morning, just before 6:30am to do a lap of the airport, and more importantly, pick off the various deadends in the vicinity.  The island doesn't appear to have many strava segments, but there was one from Makefu into Alofi, and so I gave it as much of a nudge as I was willing to, given my porridge was still settling and my legs were cold.

At the northern end of the airfield was the island's quarry, and I dropped down a rough track as far as the ring road before riding and walking back up.


The weather was a bit dreary, with light rain on and off.  I'd marked on my map a few bits of track I'd missed, but found in all cases, I'd missed them for good reason - there was no sign of them on the ground.  Nonetheless, it was fun poking around the airfield


The ride was fun, and as usual, I found myself noticing stuff which had escaped my attention at the wheel of the car.


A loop in the bush later, the 54km ride was done, bringing my total riding on the island to almost precisely 400km.  It was time to quickly clean the bike and pack it up for our return to NZ.  Our landlord Dave offered to put the bike bags on the back of his ute, but it was pissing down by this stage, so we tried successfully to squeeze them into the back of the station wagon.

My pipe dream of seeing 100% on the wandrer.earth Nuie leaderboard was not realised, with the tracking website notifying that I'd ridden only 216.5 of the 247.8 unique kilometres in its database.  Of the 30km that eluded me, I'm certain that at least half of it is overgrown, and am equally certain that I could have scored at least 90% with a bit more care!  Maybe a good excuse to go back to Nuie.

Red = unridden

An Everest attempt on Niue would be bloody hard.  I thought there were three candidates:  a 44m ascent over 600m up to Hikutavake village in the north, the climb from the ring road south of the airport ascending 39m over 670m, or the first 670m on the Alofi-Liku Road, ascending 34m.  The first and steepest would be a tough 240km ride, while the other two would be 300km and 350km respectively.  The road surface in each case would be lousy, and I'm not convinced Strava has got the vital statistics correct (the gradients seem too low, to me).  Probably just as well I got stung...!!!!

Despite not pulling off either challenge, I had great time riding in Niue.  The full week gave ample time to explore, both on and off the bike.  There were swimming opportunities aplenty, and while I didn't sample as many spots as Sarah, Kaitlyn and Khulan did, the ones I saw were absolutely stunning.

What we saw of island life was inspiring.  Dave told us we could leave our bikes leaning up against the lodge ("they'll be safe there"), and I'm sure he was absolutely right.  We never locked anything, and every person we interacted with was lovely.

Prices were interesting:  petrol was about 50c per litre more expensive than in the big smoke, and there were some things you simply couldn't buy (e.g. fresh milk), but by and large, we weren't paying too much extra to cook at home.  We survived with the local WiFi setup, though chewed through an outlandish amount of data between the four of us (which didn't come cheap), despite only having connectivity at Turtle Lodge.  The Go! Niue app was fantastic, and didn't require you to be online.

Travelling with our beautiful adult children was a nice change, though interesting to observe the need to snap out of our traditional roles a bit more.  It is always such a delight watching Kaitlyn and Khulan together, and when they interact with others.  Family holidays will get tougher to fit in as their lives complexify, but hopefully we can keep finding opportunities.

I'm baffled that Niue doesn't have a better reputation as a holiday destination, especially for couples and families with older kids.  And while I wouldn't describe Niue as a riding destination (unlike the few other Pacific Islands Sarah and I have been to: New Caledonia, Maui or Taiwan), I'd encourage any cyclist travelling there on account of the laid back vibe and incredible interface between land and ocean, to take an off-road capable bike with you (something like an Open U.P. would be perfect!).

Photo by NASA!

Thanks for the memories, Niue!  I may yet see you again.


Saturday, April 11, 2020

Peaks Challenge Falls Creek

Despite my memories of the daily grind of the 2018 Tour de France fading, I've been fascinated that my desire to see my team-mates has not - on the contrary, I regularly find myself pining for their company.

Some six months ago, Bruce posted on Facebook that he'd be going back for a third crack at Peaks Challenge, Falls Creek.  I knew little to nothing about the event, but for one thing - Bruce was in.  A couple of days later, I had flights booked myself...!

I had grand ideas about a training rendezvous to have a second tilt at Raid Ruapehu, but in the end training, both grand and not-so-grand, fell by the wayside.  A week or so out, Bruce and I joked that at least we'd be grovelling together.

Training wasn't the only thing I'd neglected.  My logistics planning hadn't been great either, though at least I had an excellent accommodation option courtesy of the fine folks at Ride Holidays.  Due to work constraints, I wasn't on their full-blown tour, and would be getting myself to and from the venue (close to Melbourne, when you haven't got the map at a sensible scale).

To better feed my Air New Zealand status points addiction, I flew via Auckland, with the side benefit that I scored an upgrade to a business class seat for the leg into Melbourne.  That was nice, but the highlight of the flight was discovering that the loo had a window, not something I recall seeing before. 

Room with a view!
Being early March, the world was still in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The immigration process into Australia had been tweaked only slightly, and I had to declare that I hadn't been in China, Iran or Italy in the last 14 days.  I presumed that had I been, I would have been sent straight back to whence I came.

On the long drive to Falls Creek, I listened to local radio at various times, discovering that there was quite a run on toilet paper in Australia.  As a public health guy said with a bemused tone, half the world doesn't use toilet paper, so people will probably manage without if need be...

The solo drive afforded me a much needed opportunity to de-stress a bit, and while it took the best part of  five hours (including a couple of comfort breaks), it wasn't too arduous.  Once I'd arrived at Falls Creek, I soon found Bruce, and our room-mates for the next couple of nights, Todd and Ian.  After a suitably awesome hug, I got my bike sorted (brake rotors back on the wheels, tyres pumped up, and rear derailleur remounted), and then it was upstairs for dinner and to meet the other Ride Holidayers.  Dinner was freaking awesome, and it was nice to meet the other riders and the crew, ably led by Chris and Dean.

The next morning, we rode as a group over the final 45 kilometres of the race, between Falls Creek to Anglers Rest.  There was a major point of difference though - the next day we'd be doing them in the harder direction, i.e. uphill.

Almost ready to roll out

Falls Creek sits at about 1700m, and in the second half of the ride, we peeled off about 1000 of those.  Initially, the road was relatively flat, and wound around the Rocky Valley Storage lake, which was in particularly fine form with a neat morning mist hanging over the lake and road.

The Rocky Valley Dam sitting in front of the reservoir
It felt like the first time in ages I'd ridden in a bunch, and it was nice to chat with people throughout.  In true kiwi form, in many cases there were only a couple of degrees of separation.  It turned out Anna's son is in one of my classes at university, and James was the brother of Steve, who is a Calder Stewart team-mate of my dear friend (and team-mate from France), Stu.  I'd already made the connection with Ian, who I taught in a statistics course as far back as 1997!!! 

At Anglers Rest, we got changed and piled into the vans to retrace our steps.  Between the downhill ride and the uphill drive, it was hard to work out what the finale of the next day's event would be like.  Despite knowing I'd under-prepared, I was able to avoid becoming overly intimidated by it all.  The shake-down ride has also been useful - in particular, I'd discovered the cleats in my race shoes were completely flogged.  While that was terribly disorganised of me, at least I'd anticipated it, and had packed a second pair of shoes.

After washing up, Bruce, Todd, Ian and I strolled through the alpine village to a cafe, and after 10 minutes of indecision, settled on a proper sit-down lunch (and coffee, of course).  After that, we were able to register, and I stopped for a nice chat to Chris and Dean - it was really interesting to hear first hand about the Ride Holidays philosophy and style.  That done, it was off for a bit of quiet time back in the room, before venturing out again a bit later for the event briefing.

While the pandemic was front of mind elsewhere in the world, the briefing was sobering for another reason.  Falls Creek and the surrounding communities were still reeling from a terrible bush-fire season, which had been prominent in the media throughout the summer.  We'd seen some evidence of it on the way to and from Anglers Rest, and were warned there'd be more on the full route.


Afterwards, I hooked up with my cousin Rion, who I'd met only a few times before, most recently when I was a teenager!  He's been living in Sydney for years now, and had only been cycling in the last few years.  The air was a touch chilly, but we talked for as long as we dared, before wishing each other well for the next day.

That evening, I spent a lot of time stressing about gear.  The event provided a valet service whereby you could send food out to three aid stations.  In addition, you could send clothing to the second of these, and whatever you took off there would be brought back to the finish for you.  In the end, I chose not to send anything, partly because my Monday flight necessitated me to jump in the car not long after the race had finished - I didn't want to have to hang around for my gear, and nor did I want to impose on Bruce to bring a festering pile of riding gear back to NZ with him!

It was an early alarm the next morning, by virtue of the pre-7am start time.  I'd grabbed some rolled oats and pineapple from the superette the previous evening, and was glad to slot into a somewhat regular morning routine (sans espresso...).

For an hour or so post breakfast, I continued fretting about what to wear, and what to take.  We'd been told to expect cold temperatures on the tops, and up to 20-degrees down in the valleys.  In the end, I settled on some warming oil on my legs in lieu of leg warmers, a regular lycra jersey, arm warmers, a gilet, and my invaluable Gore Shakedry jacket.  On my head I decided to go with my buff (exposing my ears seems to do the trick when the air warms up), as well as a Castelli cap (in Gabba fabric) for emergencies.  I chose the lightest of the three pairs of gloves I had.  The final indecision was reserved for my Ground Effect overtrou and larger saddlebag.  In the end, I decided to harden up and go without, largely because it was still dry when we rolled out.  Taking Bruce's lead, I did line my stomach and chest with one of my unused plastic valet bags, which seemed like a sensible precaution (and felt very pro). 

The start area was about a minute away, and the Ride Holidays crew were on hand to retrieve warm clothing from us.  It didn't feel overly cold, which was a relief, since we were standing around for 20 minutes or so, wondering if we'd made any terrible decisions!

0620 - waiting for the start
Eventually it was our turn to leave.  I almost immediately lost touch with Bruce, though at least knew he was ahead of me.   I was feeling pretty nervous about the descent - about the cold on the one hand, but also the crowd.  Bruce and the others had ridden this descent two days earlier, and upon hearing their descriptions, had talked myself into believing I had the skills of a novice.   I was pleased to realise a few minutes into the descent, that I'm actually quite a capable bike rider, only gently rebuking myself that I'd conveniently forgotten about the tens of thousands of relatively incident-free cycling under my belt.

The descent wasn't completely without incident, mind you.  Not a minute from the start line, I genuinely thought I was going to witness some carnage.  I found myself about 15 metres away from a guy whose front wheel was flapping about in a sickening way.  I slowed and kept my eye on him, lest he start pulling people down, and was astonished to see that no sooner had he successfully brought the thing to a near halt, then he was letting off the brakes as if it wouldn't immediately start again.   I shouted at him to stop before he killed himself, then was glad to slip away.

The road was closed to traffic, and it was a lot of fun bombing down towards Mount Beauty, a descent which lasted about 40 minutes!  I caught up with Bruce about half way through the descent, which was awesome.

At Mount Beauty, we'd been invited to "donate" unwanted clothing to a local charity.  Here, people were discarding old riding gear or even casual clothes they'd put on over the riding kit to keep a bit warmer on the descent.  I peeled off my shakedry jacket and stowed it in a pocket, but hadn't planned on discarding anything, so didn't.

It was cool to see many locals lining the road, and encouraging us as we passed.  The event had been going since 2010, and was obviously a welcome boost to the local area, despite the constraining nature of the road closures. 

After climbing gently out of the town, we soon turned left onto the road up to Tawonga Gap, a beautiful 500vm Cat 2 climb.

View from just below the Tawonga Gap summit

Bruce and I nattered away for much of it, nearer the top debating whether or not to stop to put coats on in response to the light rain.


Despite the road being wet, the descent was enjoyable, and during it we connected with another from our group, Shelley from Christchurch.  At the bottom, we turned left towards Harrietville.  For the first half of the 20-or-so-kilometres, I enjoyed sitting on or near the front of a growing bunch.  The pace was nice and smooth, and it was dry and relatively stress-free at the front (and the additional effort was a good warmer...).  Eventually though, the bunch became too big, and various hammer-heads went to the front and started pulling like crazy (despite having just been caught, WTF).

I drifted back to where Bruce and Shelley were, and seriously considered completely extricating myself from the group.  Thankfully, we arrived into Harrietville not long afterwards, and between the rest station (which Bruce and I ignored), and the start of the 30km climb  (with 1300vm) up Mount Hotham, the unpleasant bunch dynamics fell by the wayside.

I'd been quietly celebrating a "new bike day", loosely speaking.  Towards the end of 2019, I scored a lovely Open Cycle U.P. (Unbeaten Path), a brand that Cape Epic sponsor Kashi Leuchs had been bringing in, in addition to Yeti.  I was riding it for pretty much the first time in its "road race bike" guise.  I'd had at least one compliment on it by an eagle-eyed fellow competitor, and not long into the Mt Hotham climb was passed by another.  While I'm yet to experience it in "unstoppable on very tough terrain yet much faster on pavement than you'd expect thanks to the road position" mode (650b with MTB tyres), I can attest to its prowess as "a go-anywhere bike perfect for mixed surface rides and most gravel routes" and now, as "a very fast road bike".  Amazing what versatility a well designed frame and judicious wheel and tyre choice can achieve.  (Also amazing what people on bikes tend to notice...!)

On the left, another Open.  Why I noticed, I'm not sure.

As the Hotham climb went on, I really started to labour, to the point that I got the sense that Bruce had slowed down for me.  Aside from the first 20 minutes or so, the temperature had been in the 8-12 degrees range, but on the climb it dropped to below five.  That affected me, but so too had the frenzy down in the valley - I thought I'd been careful not to overdo it when I'd led the bunch, but it really seemed like I'd expended far too much energy.

We pulled in briefly at an aid station about half way up.  I filled my bottles with water, and Bruce jammed into my pocket some bars and jellies (which I hadn't noticed on a table at the station, despite searching for them).  Then it was back into the climb.



As we got nearer the top, the wind picked up and it all got a tad unpleasant.  While Bruce had donated his gloves down at Mount Beauty, I put mine back on at the summit, and didn't see Bruce again until the next aid station at Dinner Plain.


The descent was quite something, and I was stunned to see how underdressed some people were.  I was pretty bloody cold myself, though between my jacket and cap, was not overly worried about survival!  I couldn't say the same for some of the riders I passed though...  To add insult to injury, in addition to the temperature and wind-chill, we had to ride through a couple of sets of roadworks which resulted in a light coating of (cold) mud.  Luckily the bike didn't get too filthy, though I did later make use of the bottle of lube stowed in my top-tube bag.

At Dinner Plain, we did a loop through a wee roadside complex, and en route to the lunch table, I noted a cafe.  Bruce had arrived a good few minutes ahead of me, but had been helping Todd change into some dry clothes - Todd had been unable to undo his shoes to put some dry socks on, his hands were so cold!

Half in jest, I asked Bruce if he fancied a coffee stop, and to my surprise and delight, he said he'd meet me there!!!  We went in, and both ordered quad-shot coffees.  As we sat and waited for them to be delivered to our table, I made no attempt to control my shivering - my body knew what it was trying to achieve, and I figured I might as well give it a chance to do so...!!!

Hand and belly warmer!
Eventually we'd emptied our cups and pulled as much residual heat out of the empty vessels as we could - there was nothing else for it but to head back outside.  We later agreed that if we missed out on the special sub 10-hour finisher's jersey on account of this 30-odd-minute stop, it would have been completely worth it!!!  Snappier service probably could have halved the time, but neither of us were too fussed about that (one of the many reasons I love riding with Bruce is that we seem to have a similar outlook on such things).

The conditions that awaited us back on the road were initially not much better, but at least we had the coffees on board.  The road demanded a bit more effort too, so between that, the lower altitude, and a general improvement in the weather, things actually become nice for a wee while.  I suspected some would not have been able to enjoy it though, having cooled down way too much dropping off Mt Hotham, though perhaps their saviour would have been the motorcycle marshalls who were carrying long rolls of plastic which presumably would be used like a large garbage bag with armholes.

From time to time, Bruce and I would ride in company for a while, but our coffee break had dropped us back through the field quite a bit, and consequently we were riding faster than the riders around us.  One such rider was Mandy, well visible in her pink and blue Ride Holidays kit for a few minutes as we drew near her.

Mandy and Bruce riding through a bit of burnt out bush

We stopped for some refreshments at Omeo, beyond which was some really lovely riding.  I enjoyed not only the relative warmth, but my legs had recovered from their low on Mt Hotham, and the terrain and surrounding bush was perfect.


As we passed people, we would tend to offer a few words of encouragement and/or solidarity.  One recipient was a woman who not only appeared to be in her 80s, but was also climbing in her big chain-ring.  My cheery greeting didn't seem to be overly welcome, and once she was out of earshot, I joked that she was too disgusted to answer someone pedalling in such a soft gear.

There was a truly glorious bit of road that took us into Anglers Rest - reasonably flat and fast, but sinuous and a treat to ride.  We'd gathered up a bit of a posse, including Anna, aka Captain Quinn, and I enjoyed swapping turns on the front with another dude who appreciated the value of a smooth pull.

We had a momentary stop at Anglers Rest, and after safely negotiating the "Bike Eating Bridge", I found myself riding with just Bruce and Anna through to the base of the final climb.

Bike Eating Bridge at Angler's Rest

As we turned and started climbing, I could hear Bruce hollering at me from behind.  I turned and couldn't see him, but decided not to investigate further.  Much is made of "WTF Corner", which is about 200m into the climb, and is appropriately steep given its name.  The dude dressed as the Grim Reaper was silent as Anna and I passed by.

It wasn't Anna's time - heading for WTF corner

Safely around the corner, I wished Anna well, and then eased away from her, soon after passing another from our group, Jenny.   The climb is a genuine HC beast, ascending 1000vm over 22km, but with the first 8km averaging about 10%.  My Open is set up with a compact crankset, so I had a 1:1 gear handy when I needed it.  It was definitely the sort of road you're better off riding at whatever pace you can manage!

Birthday girl, Jenny - steaming away from WTF corner - with Anna and I down below

My legs seemed to have coped well enough with the 200km already covered, and every 5 to 10 minutes I'd pass another rider.  From the recce the day before, I knew the climb profile in a broad sense, and was looking forward to the aid station at Trapyard Gap which would signal the end of the sustained climbing.  There, I quickly chugged a can of coke, and pressed on, trying (but failing) to remember Mike O'Neill's words of wisdom about the pointy end of this event.

There was a little over 20km back to Falls Creek, and I knew I'd still be gaining altitude for about half of that.  Once I hit the lake, it would flatten, and I'd be done before I knew it.  My energy levels seemed OK, and my legs were still working, but the 10-hour time was really hanging in the balance.

The irony of a conversation I'd had with Shelley in the van back from Anglers Rest wasn't lost on me.  I'd described the time I'd missed - by a measly three minutes - finishing in my target time of 10-hours for the Taupo Enduro, and the arithmetic I'd been trying to do to gauge progress after my GPS had switched into miles.  Here I was, not a day later trying to work out the speed I needed to hold to meet this (also arbitrary) 10-hour target.

It was out of reach long before I acknowledged that fact, and while I never completely switched off, I made two stops which might have been forgone if I'd not mentally pulled the pin on the chase. Between Anglers Rest and the summit, the temperature had dropped from about 14 degrees to 3 degrees, and I wasn't prepared to endure it just for the hell of it.  I stopped to put my jacket on, and then again a minute later to add gloves and cap.  Even then, the damage was done, and I never quite got comfortable. 

I don't recall feeling a sense of elation at getting to the finish, but I was damn happy to stop nonetheless.  My finish time was agonisingly close to the 10-hour mark (10:06, to be precise), but as Bruce and I had agreed after Anglers Rest, the coffee stop was totally worth the delay.  Who knows, without it, the wheels may have fallen off anyway, and we might have haemorrhaged time elsewhere on the course.  In any case, I had absolutely no regrets!

Grinning at the grimness of it all

After receiving a commemorative jersey (of the sub-13 variety), I shot back to base, and made my second bowl of porridge for the day.  I felt a bit stink not staying outside to watch my dear friend finish, but my day wasn't over yet, and I needed to build my strength for a long drive.


Pro (and Hard) as nails, one of the many reasons I love him!

Bruce soon joined Todd and I in the room, and the debrief continued while I packed up (not well, overlooking a drawer full of spare riding gear).  Within an hour of finishing, I was repeating the first descent of the event, though this time in a car, and on the correct side of the road throughout...!

I got as far as Seymour that evening, and had a stress-free conclusion to the drive the next morning, reaching the airport in ample time for my noon flight back to NZ.  The day was one of transition, from escape-mode back to surreality.

As a cycling challenge, Peaks was a cracker.  The distance was solid, so too was the climbing, but the conditions really made it what it was.  I'm always irked when I hear someone refer to themselves "suffering" on a bike - even when it is tough, I try to be conscious that riding is a choice and a privilege, and don't like the implicit comparison the word elicits.  That all said, the conditions on Mt Hotham and into the finish had the word on the tip of my own tongue, to the extent that I still can't quite believe that photo of Bruce finishing without gloves, hat or jacket.  Thanks to Karl, Chris and Dean from Ride Holidays for helping me sneak on board, and I look forward to joining you again.

Of course, life has been bizarre ever since - the trip triggered a couple of days of self-isolation, enacted retrospectively on any overseas travellers.  A few days after that, the whole country was put into lock-down mode.  All of a sudden, reminiscing over a bike ride hasn't seemed that important.

As I sit and write, I can see suburbs out the window that are currently off limits to me.  At another extreme, Sarah and I have already been notified that the flights for our June trip to northern Italy have been cancelled, though we still have valid tickets to Japan for late August - it remains to be seen whether or not that trip will be possible, let alone wise.   I'm not finding it hard to keep things in perspective, and to be honest, am just glad to be in a country that seems to have managed its pandemic response well.   Our sacrifices to stay local are really no sacrifices at all, in the giant scheme of things.

Looking back on this trip, I realise the strengthening of an existing friendship was the highlight, but also the opportunity to make new connections.  And while that happens naturally through a shared experience (particularly when said experience is unusually arduous), riding side by side in a foreign land is not a necessary condition for that.  Nonetheless, I still find myself yearning for the combination, and am hoping that doesn't make me a bad person.


   

Friday, January 3, 2020

A Christmas trip across the Andes

I can be a slow learner, it seems, but it has finally got through my thick skull that short biking holidays do me the world of good.

Ever since Sarah flagged to me the Lacets de Montvernier entry on the site, dangerousroads.org has been a source of inspiration.  It has various lists, including the world's most famous hairpinned roads, the first entry of which is the Paso de los Libertadores.  While clearly written for drivers, the images on the site have had this cyclist mesmerised on many occasions.  So much so, that Sarah and I booked late-December return flights on Air New Zealand to Buenos Aires, Argentina, so to go check out the road ourselves.

The trip would be relatively short, given the distance we were travelling, and that neither of us had ever been to South America - only about 2 weeks away from New Zealand.  My goal as planner was to not let the riding completely dominate the trip.

We set sail from home the moment work shut up shop, arriving in Buenos Aires on the morning of the 18th (it was a very long day, with two cracks at it!).  We had overnight bus tickets booked for the 20th to Mendoza, Argentina (approx 1500-dead-straight-kilometres inland from Buenos Aires, and in the foothills of the Andes), a flight from Santiago, Chile back to Buenos Aires on the 29th, and the first few touring nights' accommodation booked.  The rest we were going to do on the fly.


South American preamble

We arrived in Buenos Aires in great shape, thanks in no small part to original Premium Economy bookings, and successful Air NZ Elite Airpoints Dollar upgrades to Business - a not insignificant perk of all the travel in the last year or so, and a bit of brand loyalty.

We had two nights booked in Buenos Aires, and in between, did a great guided bike tour of the city centre to loosen the legs, and to get a better sense of the place.

Passing through the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur

Our accommodation was deliberately booked within walking distance of the bus station.  Our own bikes were still in their cardboard boxes (those soon destined for a recycling bin in Mendoza), and while I was confident I could drag them to the bus, didn't really want to be doing more walking than necessary and so swung by the bus station after dinner to get the lay of the land.

That turned out to be a critical save, since once there, we were told that under no circumstances would we be able to take the boxed bikes on our bus - it was fully booked, and it was anticipated that the cargo hold would be full of christmas presents.  The language barrier added to the stress, and we were farewelled from an otherwise unhelpful cargo place with a hug each, and a suggestion that we try flying...

By another great stroke of luck, we managed to book two seats on a domestic flight to Mendoza the following day, and crucially, some space in the hold!  After disembarking, we headed to the baggage claim to find that our boxes had been put on the conveyor belt first, and were in the process of  failing to make the sharp left turn at the end.  I neglected my blog-writing duties, and instead of reaching for my camera, went to help the fellow who was desperately hauling bags off the belt before all of them ended up in a massive pile behind our boxes!

We headed outside, and found a rare shady spot to unpack the bikes.  I took my time reinstalling handlebars and front wheels, but by 3:30pm, a couple of hours before our scheduled bus departure, we were ready to roll out from Mendoza airport, wondering why we'd not planned this mode of transport all along...!


While it had been slightly stressful, the emergency tweak to our plans meant we had a full day to enjoy Mendoza.  After breakfast, we did a lap of the city outskirts.  It was a nice ride in its own right, but also useful to discover I hadn't tightened my left crank properly after replacing the chainrings, and also that while Sarah's GPS basemap had transferred nicely, mine was corrupted (despite being the exact same file) and so my GPS was only going to be useful as a recorder. 

Heading up to see the Cerro de la Gloria monument

Day 1 - Mendoza to Uspallata

Mendoza sits at about 750 metres above sea level.  Our first day on the road would take us through the "Pre Andes" and up to the town of Uspallata, at just over 2000m elevation.

The riding part of getting out of Mendoza was a breeze, thanks to an incredible network of cycle paths...  At times they were busy, and I even saw an oncoming cyclist wearing an NZ cap.  (Alas, too late to say gidday.)

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2
On the other hand, the cafe that supplied our "free breakfast" hadn't opened at the promised time, and further to that, Sarah's GPS had hung on an update.  After waiting about 15 minutes, we had no alternative but to force a reboot, and cross our fingers that we hadn't just bricked it.  Fortunately, it rebooted fine, and after choosing "Later" when offered the update, we were off.  The various delays saw us stopping for a second breakfast at 11am before even leaving the city limits, with a mere 9km on the clock!

When we finally did leave town on Route 82, it was a relief to feel like we were properly underway.  This was also a rare opportunity to ride on a back-road, with much of the route for the first three days having no alternative to the route all the trucks would be on.

A beach park, set up on the banks of the Rio Mendoza
The road was popular with cyclists, and we regularly passed riders travelling in either direction.  It was pleasing to note that food and drink opportunities were also in abundance - some formal by way of cafes or restaurants, but also plenty of informal road-side stalls.


After about 30km, the road entered a river gorge, and after a stop for some gassy water ("agua con gas"), and a quick tootle around Cacheuta, Sarah was in great need of a cool down.  A decent climb was on the immediate horizon, and the air temperature was in the high 30s.  While it was a far cry from the humid conditions of Taiwan or Malaysia, and much more pleasant as a result, Sarah nonetheless intensely dislikes the heat (unfortunately I seem to revel in it...!).

Old rail and swing-bridges at Cacheuta
Cacheuta had another touristy "beach" set up, but with bike security in mind (not to mention avoiding the need to communicate with anyone), we joined some of the locals at a layby just up-river.  The rest area was lined on one side with trees, and every available spot beneath them was taken up with one family picnic scene or other.  I watched while Sarah had a quick dip in the river, not inclined to go in myself.


That done, she set off in better spirits, while I was barely containing my excitement about the shape of the road above us.

Dique Potrerillos on the right

The road did not disappoint, and I clambered up onto the roadside barrier with a sense of childish glee at the sight below me.


A short tunnel obviated the need for further switchbacks, and at the far end we emerged into the bright sunlight to a view over the Embalse Potrerillos de Mendoza - an artificial lake on the Rio Mendoza.

It was a popular destination for the city folk, and also seemed to be the turn around point for the cyclists (or beyond it, at least).

Food stall, dam and tunnel portal

We grabbed some snacks and water at the gas station at Potrerillos, which was just as well.  Here, RP 82 merged with RN 7 (Ruta Nacional vs Ruta Provincial), and signalled a dramatic end to the food and drink provision.  From opportunities every few minutes, we didn't have a single chance to spend money until the outskirts of Uspallata, literally half the ride later.

Aside from that very obvious difference, the only other major change was the traffic composition.  Cars were swapped out for trucks, though the volumes didn't change appreciably.


The lake had broken up what was otherwise a fairly linear climb. During the day, we ascended about 1300m over 110km, and for the most part it was a barely perceptible false flat.  It didn't make for particularly fast travel, but it wasn't tough riding either.

While the colours of the land were fairly uniform, the scenery was increasingly spectacular, and unlike Sarah, I wasn't letting the heat distract me from the incredible landscape.  There was very little vegetation, so the colour variation was mostly coming from the earth, and the direction of the sun.


One strange blight on said landscape was a pile of hundreds if not thousands of water bottles.  Our American Buenos Aires cycle-tour companions had commented on this, and it turns out these roadside shrines are to La Difunta Correa, and are common in this part of the world.

Offerings "to calm her eternal thirst" - beautiful sentiment, but otherwise hideous
After about 100km of riding, we emerged from the relatively narrow river valley into a much wider valley, with the Andes proper on our left sides, and actual, green trees giving the impression of an oasis in the desert.  We stopped soon after at a gas station on the outskirts of Uspallata - the first in about 50km - and soon after rolled through town.  There, we found a growing queue of trucks, plenty of nervous looking police, and a large group of protesters on the roadside.  Everything seemed fairly calm, if not entirely jovial.


Our accommodation was a few kilometres out of town, and we decided to head there before returning to do some breakfast shopping and to have dinner.  There, we found a queue of about 20 trucks behind the protestors, who were now fully blocking the road.  Sarah's friend Rissa helped to translate some of the signs Sarah surreptitiously photographed, and from the other side of the world, told us that the blockade was to protest mining activity in the region.  If that is to blame for the river quality, its no wonder the locals are pissed!!

After dinner, I realised I'd likely left my EFT-POS card hanging out of an ATM.  It was amazingly easy to place a temporary hold, then a permanent one, and order a new card, all via the bank's app.  I'd have preferred to have found the card, but luckily Sarah had hers (and I had a backup from another account), so we remained liquid for the duration of the trip.

Stats:  112km ridden, 1670m climbed, max temp 42, average 34 degrees


Day 2 - Uspallata to Las Cuevas

We both slept solidly, and woke to a stunning day, with not a cloud in the sky.

Aside from the rough, unsealed driveway, this cabin made for a glorious stop
The cereal, yoghurt, and eggs we'd bought from the supermarket the night before slipped down well, and then we suited and packed up, and rode into town for some coffee.

The protesters were still there, and again had the road blocked off.  I felt a strange sense of urgency to get past them, when I should really have been loading my pockets with food.  We approached the cordon on foot, and made a gesture to a chap leaning on a 44 gallon drum which ended in a question mark.  He correctly interpreted our gesture, and smiled and waved us on.  We stayed on foot until after we'd passed the last of the assembled locals (some of whom were enjoying a game of football on the otherwise unused bit of highway).

Beyond them, for 15 minutes or so, we enjoyed being the only ones on the road, though we soon passed a truck depot after which commenced a slow trickle of vehicle traffic.  These were mostly trucks, and they just about always passed us entirely on the other side of the road, bless them.  In NZ, I expect they would have taken out any delay-induced frustrations on us...

We were soon back alongside the Rio Mendoza, whose far bank was impressively sheer.  In fact, our entire surroundings were impressive, from the blue sky all the way down to the road's edge.


Sarah had corresponded overnight with Esteban, a Mendoza native living in Wellington, who she'd randomly met MTBing in Polhill a few weeks ago.  He had recommended a few things we should check out during our ride, the first of which was Puente de Picheuta.  It wasn't clear whether it was the original bridge (built 1812) or a replica, but if it was original, in the intervening couple of centuries, the Rio Picheuta's course had altered so to make the bridge redundant.

Puente de Picheuta, entirely on the true left, these days

The next highlight (for me, at least) was an old bit of road consisting of a couple of tunnels and a bridge, which had since been bypassed.


Sarah didn't stop to check it out, but I was keen to take a look, and doubled back.  The far tunnel was the only time I used my front light on the trip, and came to an abrupt end at a pile of rocks that had no doubt been tipped in when the new road was built.

We saw at least a dozen of these Cristal trucks, often driving in convoy
By the time we reached Polvaredas, we were both looking forward to some refreshments.  Alas, the couple of stores we could make out were deserted, and after looking in vain for signs of life, we had no choice but to dip into our One Square Meal stash, and proceed onwards.

As we'd been riding, we were often able to see remnants of an old railway line.  A lot of it was covered by fallen rock, in various quantities, so, it came as a surprise to see a pristine rail bridge over the river just before Punta del Vacas.  It was in such good condition it was hard to believe that the Transandine Railway hadn't been in recent use (closed since 1984, apparently).

Old and new
There was a vehicle checkpoint at Punta del Vacas, but the police there had no interest in us.  Again, the few buildings there were deserted, so we didn't linger.

About to recross the Rio Mendoza, with a police barracks at Punta del Vacas sitting between the road sign and our right turn to follow the river home


A few minutes upstream was the intersection of two valleys, and the where the Rio Tupungato joined the Rio Mendoza.  Sadly, we followed the latter, and were immediately confronted with a headwind, that even Wellingtonians would describe as nasty.  Up until that moment, we'd had a favourable breeze (if any), so it was quite an unpleasant surprise, and really changed things.

I'd already taken Sarah's gear out of her saddlebag and was carrying it in an otherwise redundant backpack.  We soldiered on for a wee while, me trying to get my pace right so that Sarah could shelter on my wheel, but not succeeding.  Just before reaching Los Penitentes, saw the Refugio de Montaña Mundo Perdido, an aptly named opportunity for some food.

We turned into the gate, and an alarm started blaring - it took us by surprise, but at least it guaranteed the owner appearing.  He spoke great English, and his welcomed us into his wee hostel.  We asked if he had any food for sale, and leapt at his offer of some ravioli.  He showed us where we could fill our bottles, and we sat at a dining table until he reappeared 20 minutes or so later with a couple of bowls of pasta.  The rest was great, and so too was the meal he'd whipped up for us!


We resumed our battle into the wind, and soon reached Los Penitentes, not by virtue of our speed, but because it was very close to where we'd stopped.  It was visually gross, with a couple of ugly apartment blocks, sitting vacant until the ski season, no doubt.  There was a restaurant there adjacent to another hostel, which appeared to be a staging post for an imminent climbing trip, and across the road a wee minimart being run out of someone's shed.  There we found ice-creams, and hoed into them.

My legs were feeling fine, but weren't up to pushing Sarah into the wind - alongside, I got two headwinds for the price of one!   I foolishly grabbed an inner tube out of my frame-bag, and attached it to my saddle bag.  On our second attempt, we got going, and for a couple of minutes made good progress.  Then, Sarah started yelling, and luckily I came to a halt before my derailleur was torn off.  The tube was a write off though, having wound itself around the cassette a couple of times.

We barely had time to get going again, when we reached Puente del Inca, complete with shops set up  for visitors to the ancient natural arch over the Rio Mendoza.

Despite two recent stops, we cooled off in one of the open cafes.  I ordered a couple of empanadas and a coffee (singular, or so I thought).  There appeared to be a typical cafe coffee machine, though it wasn't all it seemed - the heating mechanism was a gas hob of some sort, judging by the lit match being fed into its bowels!  After 20 minutes or so, sufficient pressure had built up in the machine, and we eventually got not one, but two, coffees.  The language barrier was proving tricky.

Puente del Inca, and abandoned spa
Before hitting the road again, we took a look at the bridge - well worth the fuss - and a few of the local craft stalls.  Then it was back into the heinous headwind.

Looking up at Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas
The road steepened a wee bit, and I rode ahead of Sarah, occasionally stopping to photograph her.  She was about the only point of reference for scale of this magnificent valley.


After passing through a wee gorge (which appeared to have chocolate milk running down it, instead of water), we reached a short tunnel, and at the far end of that, we found our destination, Las Cuevas.


We were both relieved to arrive, not least Sarah!


We found our accommodation, and the first order of business was to overcome our lack of cash.  We made have set off from Uspallata with enough, but the ravioli, ice-creams, empanadas and coffee had chipped away at it, and we had been relying on paying by credit card.

Luckily, our host Pablo, a mountain guide cum hostel manager, was incredibly helpful.  Sarah's experience in the Mongolian bank sector was also useful, and within the hour, we'd managed to make a transfer using the owner's bank's SWIFT code. We were 3200m above sea level, in the middle of a mountain range, yet a combination of WiFi and cell reception (for the confirmation SMS code), and a lot of patience on behalf of Pablo who was getting the requisite details via WhatsApp from Mendoza, eventually solved the problem.    Oh, the marvels of modern technology.

We washed up, and were soon tucking into some spaghetti bolognese that Pablo had whipped up for us and the only other guest at the hostel.  The owner had a sideline in home brew beer (craft, these days, I suppose), and since one of the varieties had a cyclist on the label, we couldn't refuse.  After dinner, Sarah and I went for a short walk - the only time we used our puffer jackets!  Despite the altitude, we were both feeling fine, breathing-wise, but the air temperature and wind combination was a bit chilly!

Stats:   92km ridden (30 into a heinous headwind), 1700m ascended, max temp 42 degrees, average 31 degrees.


Day 3 - Las Cuevas to Los Andes

The third day's ride was the one I'd been looking forward to for months.  After a solid breakfast, we spent about 30 seconds riding on the sealed road, before turning onto the dirt for an 18km stretch that would allow us to bypass the main route through a 3km tunnel connecting Argentina and Chile.


We passed through a neat archway, and then zig-zagged our way slowly up the 600 vertical metre ascent.  I counted the switchbacks out loud, and took plenty of photos of my wife (and the road)!

Looking up the Rio Mendoza valley, Las Cuevas just out of shot on the right
Despite being over 3800m above sea level by the top, the only time I noticed the altitude was when Sarah put a bit of a dig in near the very top.  I chased after her, quickly caught her, and then had to ease back significantly to let my oxygen consumption catch up with the effort.  It was a remarkably different experience to the grovel at the top of Mauna Kea.  This road certainly wasn't as steep as Mauna Kea had been.  Perhaps hitting the highest reaches with fresh legs helped, or maybe it was slight acclimatisation after sleeping at 2000m and 3200m for the last two nights, respectively.  Whatever, it was welcome. 

Just before the top, we'd been passed by a couple from the Netherlands in a rental car.  We had a brief chat to them, in between checking out the fascinating border complex.  First and foremost, as someone from an island nation, I do find land borders incredibly exciting, and it was a real treat to be at one!  Then there was the monument - Cristo Redentor de los Andes was built back in 1904 and is equally impressive today.  There were a few also a few buildings, most of which seemed to have been there for some time, and with all but one deserted.  And, there were a couple of flags on the ground, made from coloured stones - Argentina beating Chile for the "best dressed" prize - though if the border genuinely followed the ridge, it was entirely possible that each flag was half in and half out.

Of the few borders I've crossed on land, this one takes the cake
After donning my overtrou, jacket and buff, it was time to start the descent.  While the switchbacks on the Argentina side had been relatively few (eleven, to be precise) and with stretches up to a kilometre in between, the Chilean side was jam-packed with them, and they made for quite a sight.

Switchbacks 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 in shot

If I'm not mistaken, corners 21 (just above Sarah), 24, 26, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34

Corners 46, 48,  and 50, and the Chilean portal of the tunnel

I stayed above Sarah for the most part, and enjoyed snapping pictures and counting the switchbacks outloud, all the way down to 51 just before we hit the sealed main road.  Not only was the road stunning, but it was pleasing that our tyre choice had been up to the task.  The road surface hadn't troubled either of us - both running 40mm Maxxis Refuse tyres (tubeless) up front, and Sarah with a 38mm Vittoria Terreno Dry and me a 35mm Continental Speed King CX in the rear (neither tubeless).  There'd been the odd sandy patch, and plenty of loose rock and ruts to keep an eye out for, but no harm, no foul.

I'd been expecting to check out of Argentina before actually leaving Argentina, and was similarly surprised to find no sign of border control at this end of the tunnel either.  A maintenance man told us we'd find it 6km down the road, and so off we rolled!

Got to Chile and all I found was this bloody sign!
For a long while we had a B-road to ourselves, with the main route inside an avalanche shelter tunnel, alongside.


As promised, we soon arrived at a huge border complex.  Trucks were ushered one way, and buses another.  We climbed up a steep ramp designated for cars, and once inside, pulled into one of half a dozen or so lanes. There, a single agent simultaneously stamped our passports out of Argentina and into Chile.  Ten metres or so later, a colleague of his felt up our saddlebags for the tell-tale squish of fruit, and without further checking, we were sent on our way.


We gave the ski resort at Portillo the swerve (it was a couple of minutes down the road), and were soon admiring the third and final set of switchbacks for the day!

The numbering's a tad unclear near the top, but I reckon these are #21,22,23 from the bottom

From the bottom: #1-15, all visible from #17

By the end of the 26-corner sequence, I was grinning like a Cheshire cat, and in all had counted 88 in total for the morning:  11 up to the border, 51 down to the seal, and a further 26 in the last section.   That's some seriously committed road building, and an absolute delight to ride.

Having eaten our dessert, it was now time to get stuck into the veges, consisting of a down valley push into a hot headwind.  It was time to shed my extra gear, which may not have been entirely necessary, but not unpleasant to have had on up until this point.

Los Andes, where we'd knock off for the day, followed by Valparaiso the next.  Santiago, our final destination

After 20 minutes or so, we pulled into Ventisquero Guardia Vieja for a spot of lunch.   We ordered five empanadas between us, only to discover that the Chilean versions were at least three times the size of the Argentinian ones we'd been eating to date!  We didn't bother seeing if they'd accept Argentinian pesos, and hadn't yet seen a Chilean ATM, so plonked them on the visa!

Out of the shade of the brolly, Sarah's GPS recorded 51-degrees!

We were well fuelled for the remaining slog to Los Andes.  The road was fairly unremarkable, with similar bland scenery to what we'd been riding through on the other side.

That said, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing that the scenery wasn't commanding attention, since there were fairly regular holes in the road surface to content with.  Many were where concrete pads met, and ran perpendicular to the direction travel.  The few we couldn't dodge or bunny hop seemed not to trouble our hefty tyres.

On the outskirts of Los Andes, with los Andes in the rearview mirror

We were staying across the river from the main centre of Los Andes, but did need some cash, motivating a detour into the centre of town.  A loop of the city square revealed plenty of banks, but with the exception of the one with every window smashed, they were "boarded up", mostly with sheets of heavy steel.  Despite the rest of the scene being your typical Christmas-eve downtown bustle, it made me felt quite nervous given the current social unrest in Chile, and so we high-tailed it out of there.

Just before crossing the river, we stopped at a large supermarket.  Fortunately, there was an ATM inside, and I withdrew the maximum amount offered, only to later discover it was about $450NZD worth.  I had to chuckle, since we'd had to withdraw a similar amount in about 3 withdrawals in Buenos Aires, and had struggled to find an ATM since then that would give us more than $60 worth!

Soon after, we were checked into our overnight accommodation, all washed up, and in our evening wear.  The inn-keep was pessimistic about our restaurant chances - a combination perhaps of being illiterate gringos, and that it was Christmas Eve.  We made do with a short trip back to the supermarket for some deli empanadas (deli, not being short for delicious in this case).  They were calorie-laden at least, and were nicely chased down with by ice-cream on sticks.

This was the last of our pre-booked accommodation.  I'd tentatively planned to spend one night at Valparaíso on the coast, before doubling back to Santiago, giving us a few days to explore the city and more importantly, source a couple of bike boxes for the trip home.  After reading a little more about Valparaíso (all I really new about it was that it has long been home to an awesome urban downhill race, and that my bro had visited even furthre back in 2004), we booked a couple of nights at a nice-looking hotel, though one at a time, with a little bit of mind-changing in between!

Following the previous days' pattern of minor logistical dramas, this evening's was our 4-port USB charger giving up the ghost.  Our host kindly gave us a single phone charger plug in the morning, and from then, we made do with that and judicious rotation of our GPS units and phones.

Stats90km ridden, 820m climbed, max temp 49 degrees, minimum 7.


Day 4 - Los Andes to Valparaíso

We had a bit of Christmas morning stress, when we read about a large fire on the outskirts of our destination, Valparaíso.  One headline was particularly alarming:  "Fire engulfs port city", and triggered a call to our hotel.  The guy who answered the phone clearly thought I was an idiot for asking if we'd be able to reach them, so it was game back on.

As anticipated, the roads were initially very quiet, and when we crossed over the motorway at San Filipe, it was absolutely deserted!


We were on Route 60 which had a main-road feel but had been superseded by a new motorway (which Strava's base map doesn't appear to have).  The riding was a mix of on-road and separated cycle path.  It was fantastic, until it seemed like we had no option but to join the motorway.  We doubled back and took a side road which had a promising "Warning, cyclists" sign on it, but soon turned into a very narrow gravel road.  At one point the road was down to a single narrow lane, and we had to squeeze past a stationary truck, but at least we were pointed in the right direction, and we were soon crossing both the motorway and the river at Chagres.

"Exploring"!
From there, we followed the route I'd mapped at home as far as Colmo.  While our immediate surroundings en route were the familiar browns of partially cooked vegetation, it was nice to have views into a fairly lush river valley.



"Did you see the flower?"  "Yep"  "Really?"  "Yep"  "That one?"  "OMG!!!!!"
A sentry plant, doing its once in a lifetime bloom

It seemed to be a day of flora and fauna, and when I stopped to show Sarah the snake lying on the road, we were lucky it was already dead, since she came to a halt directly on it, with her ankle only a few centimetres from its wee fangs!



At Colmo we deviated from the route I planned, by continuing down the river to Concon.  There, we stopped for a very late lunch.  While we were waiting for our empanadas, Sarah added some churros to our order.  A bit of communication breakdown saw them delivered a few minutes later, and after watching them cool for a few minutes, we decided we'd better eat them before they got completely cold.  Non-standard order of consumption, but a great meal nonetheless.

Empanada size lesson learnt, this order was more modest!

Once we'd broken out of the restaurant zone, we were treated to great views of the packed beach, and then noticed a couple of pelicans in the ocean. 


When riding around the point, one flew overhead, and I went a bit crazy with my camera, only to discover that these were not a rare sight at all.  We had fun watching some locals attempt to unsuccessfully feed a sea lion - it was no match for the pelicans and gulls who invariable snatched up the morsels before the main attraction even got close.


After Concon was Viña del Mar - a collection of large condos, and a single surviving sand dune which hopefully never gets developed.


As we neared Valparaíso, we were mostly able to ride off road, though competing with pedestrians really slowed us down.  So too did the occasional treats, like seeing a dozen sea lions basking in the sun on the lower deck of a concrete pile protruding from the sea, with pelicans taking the top deck.  We could see the site of the fire, by virtue of a wee bit of smoky haze hanging in the hill above it.  It was very localised, and not at all the image that "engulf" had conjured up.


Finding the hotel was slightly challenging, given the map we were consulting was flat, and the city is anything but.  After a few minutes scratching our heads, we found our hotel exactly where it was shown on google maps, though perched well above the street we were looking for it on.

On the short ride up to the hotel, we were treated to some of the wonderful street art the city is famed for, making us immediately glad that we'd booked two nights here.



After cleaning up, we had a short walk to a nearby restaurant, and treated ourselves to a lovely three-course Christmas dinner.  Not traditional fare, but fittingly special.

Stats156km ridden (much to Sarah's dismay), 630m climbed, max temp 34 degrees, average 26.


Day 5 - Valparaíso to Santiago

We were very glad to have booked the extra night in Valparaíso, and joined two "Tours 4 Tips" walking tours on our day off, both led by young Argentinians, and greatly enjoyable and informative. 

The next day, after a hearty buffet breakfast, we got ready to leave for Santiago.  I tried to get some advice from the guy at reception on how best to ride out of the city, but didn't find his advice particularly confidence inspiring.  Nonetheless, we made our way towards the route he'd suggested.

Once there, we found a sign saying "Alternative Route to Santiago", which seemed like the sort of offer cyclists should heed, and we began climbing.


We'd been unlucky, and our on-the-fly choices put us in an uncomfortable situation when, in time, we found ourselves riding through the burnt-out neighbourhood of San Roque.  The people we did see were in clean-up mode, and aside from throwing us the odd quizzical look ("what the hell are you doing here?!"), paid us no attention.  I was very glad to finally leave the city limits, feeling really disappointed that we'd inadvertently intruded on this grieving neighbourhood.

I stewed on that for a while, but was feeling a little better by the time stopped to talk briefly to Lisa, a cycle tourist from Germany.  She said she was doing the Ruta del Mar, which presumably is a route along the coast of the country, and lamented that her load wasn't more like ours!  It wasn't lost on any of us that all our gear probably would have fitted into one of her five large bags!  We wished her well, before zipping off (as you can, when you don't have an insanely loaded bike).


It was another hot, dry day, and I think playing tourists the previous day had made Sarah wish for less cycling.  The lay-day had the opposite effect on me, and I'd craved the relative simplicity of life on the road, where relatively speaking, there are very few decisions to be made.


We took back roads all the way into Casablanca, where we stopped at a cafe for a drink.  Then, we were treated to what seemed to be a brand new road, which was a delight to ride on - virtually traffic free, and a lovely smooth surface, part of which had been painted bright blue and appeared destined to become a cycle zone.

We passed through a number of small rural communities, and took most opportunities to stop for something cold.  Again, GPS units left out in the sun were hitting 50-degrees!


The cycling infrastructure in this area was really impressive, particularly as it wasn't obvious who it was for.  Perhaps we were on a school route, but in any case, it was appreciated.  When we pulled into a supermarket at Maria Pinto, two armed police headed off on their team-issue mountain bikes.


Sarah really wasn't enjoying herself, so when I saw a relatively clean creek, suggested she stop and cool herself down a bit, hoping that that would make a genuine difference.


Soon after, we were poised to start the last climb of the tour, another lovely looking set of switchbacks on which we would ascend about 800m.  Before that, iceblocks, and for Sarah, a dip in the wee paddling pool out the back of the front-yard-shop.


At the bottom of the climb, I took out the backpack, and again into it put all of Sarah's luggage.  On the lower slopes I helped her a lot by pushing her, but even those gestures didn't seem to put in her in a space where she could enjoy the climb. 

Why yes, I do believe she's flipping me the bird!

Her lack of enjoyment started to wear me down, and I struggled to enjoy the ride myself.  Near the top, a steep bit of road (up which I couldn't push her comfortably) gave me the opportunity to clear out, and I waited for her just beyond the summit.


Unfortunately, we didn't get a great view of Santiago, despite our proximity to it, and the elevation.  Neither the shape of the land, nor the air quality were conducive to the typical photo you see in the guidebooks!  So, I made do with watching Sarah on the descent, before plummeting after her.


The finale into our final hotel of the trip summed the day up nicely - it was pretty horrible, and consisted of many failed attempts to avoid riding on the motorway.  We were both very glad when we finally arrived to the hotel, for different reasons.

Stats:  153km ridden, 1850m climbed, max temp 50 degrees, average 32.


Conclusion

I'd been fretting for weeks (if not months) about finding boxes in Santiago to get the bikes home, due both to the time of year (28/29 December), and the civil unrest in Chile.  As it turned out, ALL the bike stores were open, and it was a simple matter of going in, one by one, until we eventually found one that had, and was keen to get rid of, a couple of large bike boxes.  I'd initially planned to book a hotel near the bike shops, but in the end opted to one very near the airport (about 15km from the city centre).  In the end, I took an uber to the hotel and back, with the boxes folded in the back seat, and with that, all our problems were sorted, and we had a day free to chill out.

Of course, I felt completely out of sorts on that final day, overwhelmed by the available choice, and feeling like I didn't have enough information with which to make good decisions.

Cycle touring really is my favourite bike riding format.  I enjoy the speed at which you see, hear and feel a place, and love the pure simplicity of it.  The decision to keep pedalling is no decision at all.  You choose what to photograph, when and where to stop to eat, or rest, or soak in the surroundings.  But not much else.

I realise I'm virtually never fearful (though I was while riding through San Roque), and have a deep confidence in my own ability to ride myself out of trouble, should I find myself in some.

I always bristle when I hear someone describing themself "suffering" on a bike.  For me, the stresses and strains of adult life cause this, but riding a bike, even in the most gruelling conditions (be it heat or lack thereof, gradient, wind, thin air, whatever), is a privilege and a treat.  I guess I'm lucky that my body has so much history on a bike, that the physical element tends to take care of itself.  And, also that I have found the perfect mindset, which enables me to enjoy myself despite the sometimes monotonous nature of riding long distances.

I love being able to share my passion with Sarah.  But, I realise she has a very different experience to my own.  Doubts and fear are omnipresent, and her body is more wired to cope with a minus-40-degree Mongolian winter, than hot weather.  I guess there's a tradeoff to be found - a parcours that minimises concerns she might have about conditions and length, but gives me sufficient saddle time to feel like I've had a break from life.

While the tour ended on a bit of a sour note, and to be fair, the scenic highlights were very much front-loaded, I think we both still had a wonderful time, and were glad to have gone.  We've gained great memories, and further useful insight on what to do in the future.

Roll on 2020.