It’s amazing how quickly 900km of trouble free riding vanishes from the radar when you blow the side wall on a brand new tyre, re-start the spoke breaking game and lose all braking power.
We wrote the blast blog from Cajamarca while experiencing a temporarily painless phase of our trip. Sadly, the rehabilitated Falkor phase didn’t last long and the honeymoon is officially over. But lets not start this blog with a list of more troubles.
The trickiness with writing the blog every 3-4 weeks is that so much happens in that time its hard to decide which bits make the blog. We have spent most of these 3 weeks in the mountains so I want to start by painting you a picture of life on the road in the Andes of Peru (sin bike problems(sin means ‘without’ in Spanish and this sentence of ‘sin bike problems’ is not one we ever get to use. Sigh)).
Imagine riding in air so crisp that your eyes water as you inhale. Daily activity starts early for Peruanos and it’s common to see groups of woman standing around on the side of the road, huge bundles of freshly cut herbs at their feet, waiting for a ride to the nearest market. They wear traditionally bright shirts and skirts then rug up in colorful blankets, crazy tall hats sitting on top of their long black braids, perhaps a child slung across their backs. Never are they still as their hands blur while spinning wool cut fresh from their flock or creating some incredibly intricate piece of crochet. It’s amazing to see woman of all ages walking while engaged in this process. Their faces reveal the toils of their hard labour with deep lines creasing sun worn skin. They are beautiful.
We are regularly caught up in traffic jams of donkeys, sheep, goats, llamas, cows and pigs all being ushered across the road to graze in other fields. Children as young as 10 lead such processions with faces already roughened from a life of steady labour.
Peru is hard-core; the people, the way of life, the terrain and the climate. And we love it.
Leaving Cajamarca, we decided on taking the road less ridden and headed deep into the mountains. We knew it was mostly unpaved and had a collaborative patchwork in our heads of all the roads that appeared on the different maps we had studied. We could not find one single map that included all of the same roads. At first it was disconcerting, then it was exciting. Who knew if any of this information was truly accurate? Only one way to find out. Fresh on the high of riding a reliable bike again, our confidence led us into some of the most picturesque spots of the journey so far. Sometimes when you abandon all sense of self-preservation, you are able to redefine paradise. Ok sure, so this new paradise might unexpectedly involve some uncomfortable moments, but sometimes balance presents itself like that.
As we turned off the sealed road onto the hard dirt, we commented that if the road surface were to continue in this state through the mountains, we would be back onto tarmac the next day. Of course within a few hours it transformed into huge boulders and we were pushing Falkor across rivers of freezing mountain water. Still, it was excellent fun and our sense of adventure was fuelled by our gullible faith in Falkor’s abilities.
Deeper into the valleys we went as a magnificent storm began to gather around us. Climbing up steep switchbacks we watched it swirl around the mountains, thunder echoing through the range and bouncing between the peaks. Lightning flashed and hit the road some 100meteres from us and we were the characters in a movie scene with a limitless special effects budget. It was terrifying and exhilarating and as we began to get soaked by a sudden drenching of rain, we arrived at a view of some incredible mountain lagoons. The wind began to whip up and we knew it would be necessary to find a flat place to set up the tent and get out of our wet clothes. It was 2pm and it was only going to get colder.
Getting the tent up in record time, we shed our wet gear and put on every piece of clothing we had. When your body temperature drops quickly, it takes a long time to warm up again and we bunkered down in our sleeping bags, shivering off the effects of hyperthermia.
But it was worth it. Waking at 5am to a clear blue sky, the lagoons surrounding us began to steam as sun rays pushed up over the peaks illuminating the crystalline frost. We laid our wet gear out to dry and ate breakfast in the beautiful serenity.
15km later of course, we broke 3 spokes. But now deep in the mountains with at least one more night and 2 days before we were back in ‘civilization’, there was nothing left to do but repair them and ride on. It was a day of constant climbing around an incredible gorge with views of ranges upon ranges upon ranges. It is a very overwhelming feeling to find yourself so completely remote on a bike with no sight of the road-out, only more peaks to climb. We could only laugh at ourselves for where we were and what we had done to get there.
The sun evaporated quickly and it was another cold day complete with hail. We wanted to summit the 4400m pass and find a warmer place to camp at lower altitude, but as daylight threatened to escape us, we were left with no choice but to camp and dive early into our sleeping bags in order to prevent another visit from the hypothermic shivers.
With a late night visit from a scary looking man with a mouth full of teeth that were either rotting or gold, I slept with the knife beside me and Bren with the go-pro pole. He warned us it was a dangerous place to camp due to the bad people roaming around. We believed that even the bad people would be crazy to be out in these temperatures but still, it was a restless night and we were glad when the sun rose and we could be on our way.
There are a few things I really don’t like about being at altitude, it takes ages to boil water and it makes your chewy muesli bars crunchy. The unexpected resistance while anticipating sinking your teeth into a soft honey treat is very disconcerting.
The final push to reach the summit was as hard as expected with rocky mud making it impossible to ride the steeps, we could only push the bike. The effects of altitude caught in our muscles and we were forced to rest and catch our breath every 20metres. Making progress was slow and we covered 2km in an hour like this. But knowing for sure the peak was within our reach, we carried on to the summit.
The downhill was also painfully slow going with the ’road’ conditions continuing to get worse. Believing there was a mining road we could take, we squinted at every goat track wondering which ‘road’ could possibly lead us out of the mountains.
In the last blog, I used inverted commas to prevent a misunderstanding of words like ‘hotels’ and ‘restaurants’. I wish now to include ‘roads’ in this same collection as I would hate to use the word and give you the wrong impression. By standard definition, what we were riding were not really roads at all. You could barley even call them paths. More like, well, a landslide that sort of creates the illusion of a direction someone may have previously taken. It was hard-core off-road Falkor at her best and we were stunned at her performance.
Bren had made notes as to which roads should appear to us at recorded distances and altitudes and there were times when even Goober suddenly displayed these ‘roads’. The major problem being that at these points there was no noticeable change to the landscape and no physical sign of any particular ‘road’. The madness began to take hold of us as we walked Falkor down over what can best be described as avalanche fall out, and I laughed with the thrill of someone overwhelmed by their powerlessness. Continuing on like this for several hours, the thrill was overtaken by a terror that this pace could easily continue for days as I did a mental stock take of the supplies we were carrying. Definitely not enough chocolate.
Bike touring puts you in a crazy emotional state. One moment you can be high on feelings of ecstasy and triumph where anything is possible, and precisely one minute later you can be overcome by the task of simply keeping your shit together. Sometimes you want to shout with joy and scream in frustration all in the same breath. It’s a real sea-saw. Especially with our dear Falkor.
Having somehow managed to navigate safely out of the avalanche ravine, we found ourselves snaking along the edge of another mountain ‘road’ with houses in view in the valley below. Having been so remote for 3 days, there was something very comforting to know that were other people within reach. Perhaps sensing that we were out of the catastrophe zone, the back tyre suddenly deflated with a great ‘pffffffft’. Our beautiful new tyre had a large rip in the sidewall after only 200km. And as we had experienced a similar problem only days before that we were unable to patch, we had no spare.
Now there were a great many things that went into making this tyre change one of the more difficult to date, but its just really very boring to read about. All you need to know is that we sat on the side of the dirt road battling with that thing for 2 hours, with goats and sheep madly chewing all around us. I swear one even bleated out “Brendon!”. I am sure he was trying to be encouraging.
When I mentioned the small town we could see within our reach, it was still a good 3 hours ride away. And when I say ride, I mean walking with the bike as the ‘road’ continued to offer us crazy changing surfaces. Sometimes we were led to dead-ends where we had accidently followed the tracks of mining vehicles, but eventually, Goober and reality reached an agreement and we appeared back on a mappable route again. With an improved surface to ride on, we began to pedal away, patting ourselves on the back for surviving the most extreme riding ever. A little bit of down hill started to lift the spirits higher before they were swiftly dashed with Brendon shouting “Shit, the brakes are gone”.
It’s like when someone tells you there is a huge spider above your head and you don’t react because your body freezes as your mind too quickly tries to compute the information. I think it was the sound of Bren’s feet dragging on the gravel that shocked me into action as we gained speed at a perilous rate. We have talked about our ‘emergency braking’ system before, which is simply me unclipping my shoes from the pedals and dragging them on the front tyre. It resulted in a lot of lost surface area of both shoes and tyre , but we did managed to stop. It was pretty scary being on a 100kg-loaded bike careening downhill with no braking power. I felt a bit like Sandra Bulloch for sure.
Having just spent 3 days riding up to 4400m, we were really looking forward to our well-earned down hill. Bugger. The front brakes were totally dead.
Realising we could access minimal rear braking power if we walked her, we pedaled the up-hill sections and walked her down anything that involved gravity. Needless to say, we were pretty miserable as we arrived in the town of Mollepata.
A small village of around 150 inhabitants, they all came out to greet us and our ‘incredible bike’ as we limped into the main square. But as with every crisis that presents itself, so potential solutions begin to surface and within 20 minutes, we had made new friends who understood our problem, contacted the local motor bike mechanic about our brakes and promptly supplied us with freshly fried corn. Being that Falkor has fancy hydraulic disc brakes, there is a tiny fancy screw that needs to be removed to bleed the system. This prompted an entire town-wide search through toolboxes to find the right one. Alas, though cousins and uncles in neighboring towns were also called in, the right screwdriver could not be found. So what to do? We couldn’t bleed the brakes to insert new fluid and we were at 3000m with a 1000m downhill ahead of us. With no brakes. And no trucks or busses available until 4 days time. And from our experience, waiting for 4 days can turn into 2 weeks, so that was not an option (that and a combined desire to leave this tiny town as the room in the ‘hotel’ we were staying was on the 2nd floor with dirt floors).
So we had no option. We tied a rope around the seat post and set off down the hill, hoping for the best. It was 18km of 1000m decent with at least 30 switchbacks. At one point we could see 6 layers of twisting road below us. It took us 3 hours and I got blisters on my toes from wrangling Falkor. Had we of been able to ride, it would have taken less an an hour. And to make matters worse, all the way down we could see the 24 switchbacks across the valley that we would spend the afternoon climbing back up. It was depressing as we actually started to look forward to the climb, figuring that at least we would be able to ride it. Amazing how a brake failure will warp your mind.
We spent the rest of the day climbing back up to 3200m but enjoyed being on the bike and the fantastic valley we were riding above. Sometimes the places we find ourselves are so completely beautiful that no amount of bike problems can obscure the view.
Pushing the final 100m climb into the town of Pallasca, we collapsed on the steps of the church with 2 cold beers from the shop conveniently located next door.
The next day was spent much like many others, combing the town for the right parts. People can be so incredibly kind and the people of Pallasca were no exception. They were in fact almost desperate to assist us which added another dimension of problem solving as they advanced on Falkor with the wrong sized screwdrivers. By that afternoon, we had nearly everything we needed to bleed the brakes. There was just one small screw-in-hose attachment that we needed to restore pressure to the brake line. But without it, we were stuck. I left Bren attaching an ‘emergency v-brake’ to the front wheel as I ventured back into the square to find a truck driver. It was clear we were not gonna be able to ride out of this one. It was on this venture that I literally walked into our Aussie cycling mates Ben & Tina. We met them first in Nicaragua, then Panama and have known for the past few weeks that we were either a few days ahead or behind them (its not always easy to get straight answers from locals when it comes to the exact ‘when’ of happenings’).
After a swift catch up on the hectic switchbacks, I began to explain our braking plight. Ben flew into action and produced 2 small screw-in hose attachments that they had for their Roloff hub. Its not the exact right size, but jeepers it was the closest thing we had come across. So while still sweaty and dressed in their lycras, there was an immediate brake bleeding session in the street. With 3 sets of hands and some rapid screw tightening, we managed to get the new fluid into the system and some restored brake pressure. There was a huge triumphant dance and a round of beers.
We took off the next day, slightly trepidatious about the brakes as we set off on the immediate downhill. With a few practice scenarios, we had ascertained that the new $1.50 V-brake system would absolutely not stop the loaded bike down any incline and within 1.69km, the disc brakes were smoking and all brake pressure gone again. Looks like we didn’t have the right hydraulic fluid.
With no internet in Pallasca and very limited resources, we were left to sit in the square and pounce on any trucks that arrived in town. By 2pm we had consumed a picnic with Ben & Tina and had Falkor loaded into the back of a cattle truck, which took off as we attempted to tie her down. The twisty windy roads threatened to launch the 7 giant gas bottles (also not tied down) as we swung around every corner. It was like being inside a giant pinball machine; one where you had to continuously grab the bike to stop it from falling, aim your spew into the plastic bag in your other hand and fight off attacking gas bottles. It was a long 80km.
This whole brake failure had changed a lot about our route. From Pallasca we had planned to continue through the mountains and maintain most of our altitude heading to Curaz and Huaraz. But instead, we were now heading to the coast in search of new brake fluid and perhaps a proper bleed kit. We weren’t happy about it, but we had no choice.
We spent 3 nights in the town of Chimbote and made a bus trip to Trujillo searching fruitlessly for spare parts. Bike parts aside, neither of these places rate on a scale of places to visit and we were shell shocked to be back in bustling towns on the coast. Possible the worst Pacific coast in the world! We did however make a new cycling friend ‘Mario’ and enjoyed his company as we tried to stay upbeat.
Researching the different types of hydraulic fluids and the fluctuating temperatures they can tolerate, we managed to find one that hit the mark and we spent hours again trying to bleed the brakes, this time with only 2 sets of hands. But without the exact right pieces it was not an ideal textbook type of situation. It’s surprising how long you can get stuck when you have lost the power to stop.
So. What do you do? Well, you ride up hill again of course. So we did, riding a terrifying 30 km down the PanAmerican in some mental traffic, we were thankful to turn off into the mountains again and climb for the next 3 days to the Cordilera Negra mountains at 4300m.
So many, in fact too many things have happened since (an additional 4 spokes for example) but we have had the chance to test the brakes on a 30km downhill and are pleased to report they held up. We can only hope this continues as we have had no luck meeting parcels with new parts from the states and the next ‘postable’ location is Cusco, 1000km/1 month away. Gulp. Our optimistic tendencies are being fiercely challenged
I guess it’s all bitter sweet at the moment. Some fantastic times mixed in with some Falkor flavoured angst.
We caught a bus to Lima on 16th Nov and met up with Kevin the Irish Cyclist, “to party it up in the big city”. It’s always a treat to reunite with friends and hear about their adventures and it was marvelous to see him again since our encounter one year ago in Mexico. You should check out his final 2000km of his epic trip here http://www.influenceanaudience.com
And we are currently staying in the very lovely town of Huaraz with some very cool people and a boxful of kittens, so we are stoked about that too. HUGE thanks to our couch surfing hosts Jennifer, George, Lola & Alehandro for their excellent hospitality. We have even managed to complete an awesome hike to a glacial lagoon at 4550m which was pretty special.
You can check out the video here https://vimeo.com/112389383
We feel a strange need to rush and ‘beat the rainy season’ but are reluctant to push too hard or expect too much. There are some more huge passes to ride coming up over the next month and all 3 of us need to be in great shape to conquer them all. We go from soaring high on optimism to the voluminous weight of reality. And since leaving Cajamarca we have only ridden 13 out of 26 days.
So we are desperate to get riding again but are riddled with anxiety about the reliability of the bike. Again.
So who knows? We hope to be in Cusco for Christmas and plan to ride the back way through to Machu Pichu. We can only hope we have the pedal power to make it and don’t end up in the back of another pinball truck.
Hey – did you ever get to see our video from Ecuador? You can cheek it out here https://vimeo.com/110937783
Oooh and did you know this happened?
And for your viewing pleasure, more pics from the TotallyTandem road;
Thanks for making it all the way down here! You rock!