I couldn’t feel my hands. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the freezing cold or because of the tandem death grip; one hand on Falkor’s frame to stop her being thrown around the back of the truck, the other on the tail gate to stop me from smacking into it. I always imagined that if I were ever in the dreadful position of hanging off a cliff with only the grip of my feeble claws to keep me from falling, I would only last a few seconds. Having spent 40km on a very bumpy voyage in the back of a gravel truck, I reckon I could hang onto to that cliff for a good while longer. I imagine some crazy stuff sometimes. I have time.
Speaking of time, lately we have spent more of it off the bike doing reparations than on the road riding it. Oh Falkor. What are we to do?
It’s been tough going for TotallyTandem. The roads, the routes, weather conditions, the constant failing of the bike & the emotional turmoil of it all. As if bike touring wasn’t hard enough without having to worry about what is going to break next and whether we can fix it. I say “we” but you all know Bren is the MacGuiver here.
Bike touring is actually really fun, and believe it or not, most tourers enjoy 10’s of 1000’s of km with very little problems to their bikes. It seems that we have the VW of touring bikes. We love her but man alive is she a beast of burden! Constantly needing tinkering and the attention of new parts. It’s very hard to keep up.
Where do I even start and which breakdowns are interesting enough to include here? Here is a route map of the 488km this blog is about and then I’ll go for bullet points.
The last blog was written in Riobamba and we left there on 17 September. This is the tally of roadside adventures with the tool kit since then;
17/9 – broken chain ring + 1 broken rear spoke
19/9 – blown side wall rear tire, 1 broken rear spoke, brake pads
22/9 – lost nut in climbing ring (again), rear hub failed, 1 broken rear spoke
23/9 – rim cracked & with 3 holes in the inner wall of the rim
24/9 – rebuild wheel with new rim & old spokes (can’t get new ones in correct length)
25/9 – replace gear cable
26/9 – 4 spokes and …….
How did we end up in the back of that gravel truck? Well, I’ll go back a few days so you can understand the decline in our sense of humor.
We took 3 days off in Riobamba to recover from the mountains and the altitude and pretty much spent the entire time tucked up inside our hotel room eating pizza and chocolate.
When we left on 17th September, we felt renewed and inspired again heading south 488km to Loja. We had debriefed, re-grouped and studied the elevation charts for the roads ahead. We were well stocked with chocolate and prepared to tackle the road again. Until the climbing chain ring snapped into 2 pieces and we broke a spoke.
Such occurrences never happen at the same moment and it feels as though we just get into the rhythm of riding when we have to stop and fix the next thing. There is a real lack of momentum and it consumes valuable thinking space.
Still, the road offers plenty of distractions and we found ourselves again enjoying the ride through the mountains. Ecuador is beautiful. Mountains and valleys for days with views that elicit an involuntary ‘wow’. Waterfalls and rivers explode around every bend and even though those volcanoes are infamously reticent, a peek through the clouds is like discovering a beautiful secret.
Riding from the cold temperatures of altitude to the hot weather in the Amazon basin has been a real trip. We literally rode through a tunnel of 700m and came out the other side into the wet & humid tropics. It was incredibly strange. We are constantly putting on and taking off our rain proofs.
The people are much shyer than Colombians but they are equally kind and interesting to talk to. And wow they have some good hats! And ponchos! I feel like one of the uncool kids in my riding gear. If only I could find a poncho that would fold-up small enough to fit in the panniers.
Riding anywhere around midday is what we call ‘kid-o-clock’. School is finished and the road is suddenly studded with kids making their way home from school. And kids love Falkor. More than once, we have been chased down the road by eager students who have run home to grab their bikes and pursue us. It’s just awesome to see them furiously pedaling away to try to keep up, and generally overtake the snail’s pace we set in these hills. You can’t help but forget your worries and get involved with the laughter. Encounters like this is what bike touring is all about.
So it’s been an on-off love affair with the road recently. Encounters on back roads with locals making our hearts sing and ‘quirks’ with Falkor furrowing our brows. Almost every 2nd day, something breaks.
Brendon is a ‘never say die’ kind of bloke. Hence we carry an arsenal of spare parts to mend most conceivable situations.
On the 19th while replacing yet another broken spoke on the side of the road, we realized the rear tyre side-wall was precariously close to blowing out (after only 2000km) and the brake pads dangerously thin. While certainly annoying occurrences, these are all problems we are supplied to deal with so we accepted the pace of the day and got to work.
It was during this road-side workshop that we met ‘Aussie Paul’ and ‘German Eric’, 2 blokes living in Ecuador that stopped on their way past to check up on us and have a yarn. It was an excellent episode, and it just so happened that Paul lived in the town we were aiming for, Belle Union. He invited us to stay with him and shouted us a lovely hotel room and a huge pizza dinner. While fate deals us difficult blows with the bike, she also hands us gems like this. The balance is tricky to comprehend.
Now running without a spare rear tyre and having only 1 spare set of brake pads left (we have burned through those at a rate quicker than anticipated) we were deciding whether to catch a bus back through the mountains to a town called ‘Banyo’ where apparently the best bike shops are. It’s hard to make decisions based on what someone else ‘thinks’ and we knew we were only a few days from other towns also with good reputations for mountain biking. So we headed off for Loja, some 275kms away.
On 21st we made it about 60km to San Juan Bosco. We had planned to make it further, but spent an hour on the side of the road replacing a mysteriously missing nut from the new climbing chain ring. And it’s not easy to find the right nut when one goes mysteriously missing. We then got caught in the mountains in a heavy deluge and had to fight off an extremely aggressive pack of dogs. It doesn’t sound like much but trust me, it was a bad day. Bren became feverish so we checked into a hotel and slept the afternoon away.
It was a very low point for us. We were just so sad. Trying to make any real distance was becoming impossible with hours everyday spent in the gutter fixing one thing or another. And you can’t help but worry what will be next, but you silently hope ‘this must be the last thing’.
Turns out, when you think you are at your lowest, its shocking to see how much further down you can go, and you should never ever think ‘this must be the last problem’.
After a good nights rest, we set off on 22nd for Gualaquiza. We were too scared to even mention any bike issues and we just loaded her up and pedaled off. Climbing all morning up through the winding mountains, it was around midday that the proverbial poo hit the fan again.
We started to cruise into some lovely downhill when clunk, crack, grind – Bren’s pedals stopped freewheeling. This means that his cranks were continuously turning and he couldn’t cruise down hill anymore but had to continuously pedal. It meant something had gone wrong with the rear hub….. again, It also meant having to rebuild the rear wheel….. again. Oh no.
In his ‘never say die’ mentality, he decides he can rebuild it on the side of the road. Sure its gonna take a few hours, but we can’t do much until its fixed. Pulling off the wheel and removing the tyre, we then discover the rim not only has a crack right around the circumference of the wheel, but it also has 3 large holes in it. This is the perfect time for the sky to open up and pour down upon us.
Misery, total and utter misery.
And there we sat, side by side with ours heads in hands on the side of the road in the Amazon basin for several hours in the torrential rain. Unable to do or say anything. Unable to even think. Perhaps this was the feeling of our hearts breaking a little bit.
The rain didn’t ease up at all.
“We can’t just sit here” I manage to say after 2hours.
“Well we can’t go anywhere like this” Bren huffs.
“I’m gonna stop a truck”
“Have you seen any traffic pass us in the last hour?”
“Hmm, nah. But I have to try something.”
“I am just gonna put that wheel back on and somehow we are gonna ride it.”
And that was that. Never say die. I really dunno how he did it, but he got that bike ride-able enough for us to make the final 26km into Gulaquiza. We arrived around 7pm, cold and wet, and would you believe that just as we limped into town, another spoke broke. !
I went into the nearest hotel, confirmed they had hot water and grabbed 2 large bottles of beer as I checked us in.
A bike tour is like a treasure hunt. And for us, the hunt is usually about bike parts. It starts when you ask where a bike shop is, and then it’s off to follow a trail of clues.
It was pretty miraculous that we found a new 26” sturdy mountain-bike rim in Gualaquiza. And we were pretty stoked about it. Unfortunately, despite the clues we followed across the entire town, we could not get spokes the right length and no one could cut them for us. So without any other options, Bren had to re-build the wheel with the old spokes. Thankfully, we have a spare hub onboard and so could remedy the ever revolving pedal issue.
For the record, I should mention here this is the 4th rear wheel re-build of the journey.
1st in SanDiego by ‘Matt the Legend’ at Black Mountain Bicycles (we didn’t break a spoke at all with this build), 2nd time when the hub died in Costa Rica, 3rd time in Colombia with the current dreadful spokes.
These things take time though and with the bike shop only opening at 3pm, we spent 3 days in Gualaquiza while Bren rebuilt that rear wheel.
Sporting our shiny new rim with the spare hub on our newly laced wheel, we packed the bike on the 25th, headed 76km south for Yantzaza. Just before we mounted the stead, Bren experienced a difficulty with the gears. The inspection of the gear cable was accompanied by some stern muttering and it was acknowledged that it too needed replacing. Not a big job and better to tackle now rather than later.
Thirty minutes later we took off, full of hope that the new wheel was the new-coming but heavy with trepidation waiting for the next thing to go awry.
It’s amazing what a different the weather can make. The sun melted away our concerns as we pushed out 76km without another glitch. That day we rode our 15,000th km and it was the best day we’d had in over a month. We only stopped twice, and that was just to eat. Perhaps we were too scared to stop more often than needed incase we noticed another issue.
We felt carefree and with our renewed love for touring, we celebrated with a cold beer and set off to find the Bomberos for the night.
It’s about 96km from Yantzaza to Loja with a steep mountainous climb for the last 50km from 800m to 2800m. We planned it as a 2 day ride and expected the climb would take us around 7-8 hours.
We left Yantzaza feeling positively optimistic until the 1st spoke broke.
Within 30km the 2nd one went and a further 8km saw number 3 & 4 break for the day. And here comes that sinking feeling. We knew those old spokes weren’t ideal but we thought we could at least make it 200km before the wheel needed to be rebuilt again. Nope.
Breaking spokes is something that we can apparently do in our sleep and with all this practice, Bren can practically replace them with his eyes closed. It’s just horrible to have to rely on equipment that you know is unreliable. But what were we to do? Loja is the next town where we could buy a new set of spokes. So like an angry zombie, he replaced the spokes and we left the town of Zamora holding our collective breath, aiming to get the first 10km of the climb done.
It is a gorgeous ride from Zamora to Loja with cascading waterfalls and killer views. We were warned about the narrow roads, the impatient drivers and the ‘hundimiento’ -landslides. But no one could warn us about the secret demise of the aluminium in the handlebars, and as we climbed slowly up the smooth paved road, it sounded like a dull sigh as it snapped clean off. Yep, the handlebars broke off. Well one did, but one aint much good without the other. Cue rain.
At this point, I really start laughing. The cackle of a woman pushed so far past what she believes possible that her sanity has liquefied. Bren is of course desperately trying to think of ways he can do a road-side repair, but its pretty clear we are up the creek with no paddle on this one (an obvious change can be made to this metaphor).
We don our rain proofs and with a reluctance that can best be described as stubborn, Bren agrees to allow me to flag down a truck.
Having pulled over a gravel truck, we have to throw all of the panniers into the back and then lift Falkor up and over the tail-gate, which is about 2m high. It’s always nerve-racking passing over the full weight of your bike to someone who clearly has no idea how heavy it is going to be as they attempt to take it by the front cranks. With much pulling and loud commands being shouted, we manage to get her in the back. We have a conversation with the driver ‘Jose’, and we think he is getting some rope so we can tie her down. His wife invites me into the cabin but I think I will jump in the back to aid with the rope tying. I didn’t spend 2 days in the Panama Canal without learning one good knot! I barely get my foot into the tray when the truck takes off. Rightio then, so it turns out that the conversation we thought was about securing the bike with rope was actually about taking off in 3,2, 1 seconds.
Grappling with the bike & the sides of the truck we are thrown about the back and get intimate with the gravel. Much yelling ensues but it does nothing to alter the driving style of Jose and we all (me, Bren & Falkor) get airborne several times up the steep and bumpy road. It’s still raining and I can’t risk letting go of anything to snap pictures. Then ‘screeeeech’ and we come to a grinding halt. Ah yes, the hundimiento. There is a landslide covering the road up ahead and now we are stuck in a huge traffic jam. Normally we would ride past all of the cars in a jam like this and wind past the obstruction to enjoy a vehicle free road on the other side. But not this time. I manage to snap a few pics before we take off again and the washing machine that is Bremma re-starts in the back of the truck. It was a long, cold & wet 40km. I think we should have worn our helmets. People always counsel us on the dangers of the road for cyclists but I have to say, seeing how close vehicles come to each other at high-speed on these mountains roads was utterly terrifying. Put me on a bike any day.
So after a long string of bicycle mishaps, we made it to Loja, albeit in the back of a truck. We calculated about 200km of our journey has been vehicular assisted, and each time only because we could not repair it on the road. And NONE of those kms count on our odometer and EVERY SINGLE 15,000th km has been pedaled.
Very fortunately for us, we have been taken in by loving hosts Alexander, Camila and their daughter Alieda. They are bike activists and as luck would have it, their friends own a bike shop and can manufacture new steel handlebars. This afternoon we collect them and all going well, Wednesday 1st October will see us enroute to Peru. It’s a 3 day ride from here and we have all of our fingers crossed that the only time we need to stop is for more chocolate. Or celebratory beer.
We don’t know why HASE decided to build the Pino with aluminium handlebars on a steel mount. The combination of the two metals exposed to a heavily saturated salt environment (ie sweat) has created an accelerated conductive medium for this corrosive reaction. Major Bummer. Just glad we weren’t at top speed going down hill at the time it broke.
Hey and while all these shenanigans were going on, Brendo still found the inspiration to make a video of our time in Colombia. You can see it here;
Alexander, Camilla in Loja; for opening their home to us and making us feel a part of their family. And for knowing exactly the right people to help us with our handlebars. Awesome!
Their daughter Aleida; for having the best giggle in the world and for her awesome artistic skills. We love the flag and the snake!
All of our TotallyTandem supporters; thanks for all of your messages of support. We feel the love!
Everyone involved with World Bicycle Relief; the contributions we receive are unbelievable. Thank you all for your continued generosity!
The Bomberos; in Macas, Limon & Yantzaza for taking us in and keeping us safe & dry.
Dallas; for the incredible treat of a much needed 3 nights in hotel in Gualaquiza
Brother Michael; for his crazy pledge to donate $100 to World Bicycle Relief for every 1000km we ride. At this point, your money is safe bro
Michelle Bary; for sharing her TV files with us
TOVO; for his great movie suggestions
Bec Johnson; for her inspirational poetry and for ensuring we did not call the bike Artax! Swamp of sadness be dammned!
Matt Falon at Black Mountain Bicycles in San Diego; for being a legend and offering to help
The crazy lady in the mountains who let us camp in her field.
Ecuadorian Chocolate for being wrapped in gold foil and making me fell like a winner in the Willy Wonka factory.
Buzzie Bee; for hilarious emails and for making the world better by making 2 kids to put in it.
Sue & Al; for connecting us in Cajamarca. Sending much love!
Davy College in Cajamarca; for inviting us to their school in Peru. Cant wait to meet you all!
Some more pics from the road;