“Traccion a Sangre”—The Andes !
When I began to train for bike racing 25 years ago I started keeping a training diary, and although there's no longer any real reason to do it, I still keep a daily record of my physical activity. Here's the the entry for Oct. 22, 2003: "Mendoza centro > base Andes—3.1 med + ” It records a bicycle ride of 3 hours and 6 minutes from downtown Mendoza to the base of the Andes and back at a medium pace. The “+” means there were a few hard pulls on the hills. That pretty much tells the story: cruising along, enjoying the sights and smells of a completely new piece of real estate. Rolling south out of the busy center of town I pass a few locals on old bikes, who would probably think anyone that could afford a car must be crazy to be riding a bicycle. I also pass a few carts that are using traccion a sangre. “Traccion a sangre” means “blood traction”, or “blood power”, and it is Argentina’s great way of describing the old carts piled with junk or produce that are still pulled by horses. You sometimes even see them on the streets of BsAs, although they are supposed to be illegal there. Somehow they survive in the heavy traffic, and it’s nice to hear them outside your window clopping along the city streets early in the morning [see Manoblanca in chapter 4]. I guess you could say I am also traveling by traccion a sangre as I stand up out of the saddle and begin to climb into the foothills, feeling the first bite of lactic acid in my legs and the crisp thin air. The mountains ahead began to get bigger, and bigger, and… BIGGER. Holy schnikies- they are HUGE!
If Buenos Aires is the big league of tango, then the Andes are the big league of mountains! Once I am out of town, the highway rises through the arid foothills, following a valley on the left with a river running through it. The water has the milky look of glacial runoff, and it seems to come from a cut in the almost solid wall of the brown front range ahead. These foothills are formidable in their own right, rising steeply several thousand feet above the valley in a wall, broken only by the cut far ahead where the river pours out, and where the highway curves around to the right and disappears. But it is the towering mountains behind the foothills that are so ominous. A huge rock range, covered with snow and glaciers, and wisps of clouds streaming to the north off of the peaks. They are over 20,000 feet! It is beautiful and awe inspiring (and also a bit frightening, if you are going to try to ride over them into Chile in a few days). I wonder if one of them is Aconcagua, the highest mountain in all of North and South America . I suspect not, because on the very poor tourist map I got at the hotel it looks like it must be farther north, around the curve to the right where the river and the highway disappear. It is probably hiding behind the front range, which is now very close.
Alejandra and I have been down here in BsAs for a week, and we’ve just arrived in Mendoza . BsAs was great as usual. We continued with our clean lung strategy in the milongas by dancing early and often, and then leaving when the smoke began to build to intolerable levels. It worked great. The DJs often play the music we request for the first hour or so, and there is lots of room to play around. Lucia and Oscar, the organizers at Celia’s on Thursdays, say they are always glad to see us because we get things started. We are on the floor with a lot of energy early, and we get other people up to dance. You wouldn’t think these old milongueros would be too shy to get up early, but it seems to be the case. Everyone is usually sitting around, and as soon as we get up to dance, everyone joins us. They seem almost like a bunch of high school kids at school dance, waiting for the first couple to take the floor. Or maybe they just can’t stand to watch a gringo dancing tango, so their only remedy is to get up and dance themselves.
We arrived at one of the milongas very early in the afternoon a couple of days ago, and Alejandra went into the bathroom and found one of the well-known milongueras changing into her tango clothes. The woman complained: “They keep starting this stupid thing later and later. My husband thinks I’m at the market, and I only have an hour and a half to change, dance, and then get back into my shopping clothes and go home. They need to be on time.” Ahh, and you thought you were addicted to tango. I just hope her husband doesn’t subscribe to National Geographic (see the December 2003 issue), or she’s busted, because her picture is in the magazine. One of my favorite tangos is Mala Suerte (Canaro), where a man sings about his bad luck. He is completely in love with a woman, but he must lose her because he can’t give up his addiction to the milongas. He says it is because “I was born a skull, and a skull I will die”. The term “skull” is Argentine slang for a person addicted to the nightlife. Maybe a bit too graphic for Norte Americano ears, but nice.
Mendoza, Argentina. Entry for day 2: “Mendoza centro > base Andes. 3.1 hard”
Almost the same ride, with almost the same diary entry, except the “hard” means a faster ride. I covered more distance over the same time period, and on this ride I got into the steep walled river canyon, and all the way to the end of the pavement… but wait... the pavement shouldn’t end! Apparently I am on the wrong road. I had assumed I was on Ruta 7, which goes over the mountains into Chile, but this can’t be it because it turns to dirt and peters out in the canyon. I guess it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a real map, or maybe ask directions. Well, at least I got in a couple of good rides (although without any really serious climbing). And I got to see a few sights. In the western U.S and Mexico where I ride, I sometimes see cowboys herding cattle, but down here the people I see working on horseback dress like gauchos. They wear hats with the front brims bent back, white long sleeved shirts with scarves, and knee length boots, or sometimes even a sort of soft riding slipper. Occasionally they wear berets. The slippers and berets aren’t very macho by Western U.S. standards, but the people here are terrific horsemen. They play a game that's like basketball on horseback called Pato. It's supposed to be the Argentine national sport. There’s another contest where they ride at full speed and try to stick a sort of pencil through a small ring hanging down from a string. It doesn’t sound like much, but sometimes they do it in Mataderos on the city streets (Mataderos is a western suburb of BsAs where the cattle were brought into the city from la pampas, and one of the birthplaces of tango). They spread a narrow path of sand in the middle of the street for about four blocks, and then hold the competition. There are parked cars, children playing, and housewives sweeping sidewalks- while the horses explode down the middle of the urban street at full gallop. When they hit the end of the sand path after their run, the riders stand in the stirrups, and try to slow down. It is incredible to see. The horses are going all out on the sprinkling of sand, and then suddenly they are swerving and clattering on the bare pavement with sparks flying from their hooves. Sometimes the horses rear ends sort of drop, and they skid at forty miles an hour with the riders casually standing in the stirrups while taxis and cars turn onto the course just a short distance ahead. There are no police or barricades blocking the course. Just a relic of wild gaucho insanity, living out its last gasp on the now busy streets of BsAs. A young woman whose husband was riding told us to stay back. She said the week before a horse had gone out of control, come over some parked cars, up onto the sidewalk, and injured several people. Where are all the lawyers?
Alejandra is worried about me riding a bicycle around in the Argentine traffic. I’ve ridden before in Latin America, but each time I go out she acts like I am a lamb going to the slaughter. I’ve ridden around in Rome, and a lot in Mexico, which are both pretty bad, but I think the Argentines take fast urban driving to a new level. The roads are rough and narrow, the traffic is heavy, and the traffic signals are sometimes very hard to see: small, dim, and often hidden by trees. Miss one and ride through a red light on a bike and it could be all over. Even worse are the unmarked intersections where traffic seems to dart through according to a system I haven’t quite figured out… and no one ever wears a seatbelt! Even Alejandra’s son, who is physician who has worked in emergency rooms doesn’t wear one. No wonder these people don’t seem concerned about a little second hand smoke. In BsAs I sometimes close my eyes when my bus or taxi flies through these blind intersections without even slowing. At night they sometimes flash their lights or honk, but they often miss other cars by inches. Marked traffic lanes are almost universally ignored, but there seem to be unwritten rules of the road that make the system work. Just like navigation in the crowded milongas, it takes awhile to get up to speed. It’s funny, but once you get into the rhythm of it, darting and jostling among the cars, trucks and buses on a bicycle can be fun… in a life-threatening sort of way. You bank and swerve on the bike as the drivers cut across multiple lanes of traffic for left or right turns, squeeze in and out of gaps with only centimeters to spare, and constantly brake and accelerate to avoid crashing into each other. In the U.S. where everyone stands indignantly on their “rights” the result would be an atmosphere of constant road rage… but in Argentina no one seems to get very upset. I think the Argentines are a bit more worldly. They’ve seen more, and they understand that the world is an inherently unfair and uncertain place. So might as well take it easy and cut your brothers some slack … while still going like hell.
So after a week in BsAs we are now in Mendoza, which is a pretty city in the center of Argentina’s wine country. It has shady streets and wide sidewalks where they put out tables in front of the cafes so the residents can come to sit outside in the evenings after siesta (Afternoon naps are unknown in frantic Buenos Aires, but they are common in the provinces). There are parks everywhere with families strolling and playing late into the night. The surrounding countryside is hilly and arid, but snow melt from the nearby Andes provides plenty of water for the vineyards and the large trees that line the streets. Like some of the old parts of Salt Lake City, the streets have small water filled irrigation canals running next to them, even in the downtown areas. The canals bring the snow melt from the mountains to the trees and gardens of the city. The riding has been okay in Mendoza , but we are 0 for 3 on the milongas. Twice we’ve gone to parks where outdoor milongas were scheduled, and found them deserted. Alejandra called a lady, and she said they start very late, but we arrived at midnight both times and found no one. We also started to walk to an indoor milonga last night, but it was scheduled to begin at midnight, and after a late dinner Alejandra and I were so tired (she from running, me from riding) that we couldn’t find the energy to go.
On the west side of Mendoza is a huge park. Alejandra runs the 2.5k circuit around a lake there, and on Day 3 I took some time to explore it on the bike. I found a zoo (which we later went to, and it was great), a huge sports complex with a world cup sized soccer stadium, and, to my surprise, a world-class velodromo. Velodromes are the steep banked tracks used for track bike racing, and I love them. My talent on the bicycle, if any, is as a sprinter, but I rarely get a chance to ride on the tracks. I was excited, and wanted to get on it, but it was completely locked up. Much of the park has a somewhat run down abandoned look, like most Olympic and Pan American Games sites do after the money and attention go elsewhere. I went back to the sports complex, and wandered around the spooky deserted halls beneath the gigantic soccer stadium until I heard someone typing in a small office. I found a man who looked around through some notebooks until he found the name of a Señor Chival who was the head of the bicycle federation in Mendoza. We tried to call him for two days, but could never reach him. Alejandra did find run into some other people from a bike club, however, and they said no one is ever allowed on the velodromo in Mendoza unless they are national team level riders. Which of course raises an interesting question. You can’t become a national team level track rider unless you practice on the track every day—but you can’t practice on the track unless you are at national team level. I guess they need to form another federation to study the problem.
"La Gran Aventura"
Entry for day 6: “Mendoza centro > Uspallata. 6.4 Hard”
After a couple of more days of training rides in and around Mendoza, the Great Adventure has finally begun… although “Great Adventure” is probably an overstatement for an activity that consists mostly of slogging up hills on a bicycle hour after hour. My riding companions from BsAs arrived last night, and we met for dinner. They are an interesting and rowdy group. None speak a word of English, and they are Italian / Porteño to the core: Ruben Galante, Hernan Galante, Quique DeLucca, and Raul Escudero. All great names, and great guys. They are working class ex-bike racers of the Italian tradition who now compete mostly in triathlons and running marathons. Alejandra warned me to be careful, because they may not like Norte Americanos… but we hit it off immediately. They have the good-natured banter of athletes—the kind of people I am very comfortable with. You can be with a group of skiers, windsurfers, cyclists, or runners from anywhere in the world, and you will almost certainly click. No matter how different their cultures or backgrounds, athletes quickly become like brothers who harass and kid each other constantly. In sports, as well as in tango, Argentines like to use nicknames, and I instantly become “El Gringo” (you don’t get to choose, and I hear the word occasionally in the milongas as well). Quique is “El Tarambana”, which means, more or less, spaced out and irresponsible, Hernan is “El Nene” (the baby), and Raul is “El Negro”. They call Alejandra, who they know from running in marathon races, “Bisquit”. Argentine nicknames are colorful, descriptive, with no sense at all of political correctness. Depending on your nationality and physical characteristics, you may become “The Fat Jew”, “The Big Nosed Turk”, or the “Chinese Parrot”. Diego, our driver for the trip became “El Gordo” because of his weight problem. He said the name was hurting his morale, and might cause him to drive us off a cliff, but the name stuck.
I am a bit of a novelty for them. “Look at the Gringo taking mate! Stop moving the bombilla around!” (It plugs it up, they say). They are all addicted to mate, and spend a lot of time sharing it, and discussing the subtleties of preparing it. We even sit down by the side of the road to take it on the rides. It’s a very Argentine (and Uruguayan) ritual to share the bombilla (like a metal straw with a filter on the end) among friends as the gourd is passed and refilled. The mate itself tastes a bit like bitter lawn clippings, but it gives you a buzz—which helps on long bike rides.
So the six of us begin riding on Thursday morning, weaving through the early morning Mendoza traffic with a car in front with three policeman/soldiers inside, one of whom is the head of the Gendarmeria Nacional of the Province of Mendoza. We are followed by a truck with Diego driving, and Alejandra, the coach and masseuse of our small cycling team. (Ruben has brought us all jerseys from our “sponsors”, Privitera, an Argentine frame builder, and Campagnolo, the famous Italian maker of cycling components). How do we have so much suck? I didn’t mention our sixth rider, Alberto. He lives in BsAs, but he owns a steel plant just outside of Mendoza that is one of the largest of its type in the world, so the powers in Mendoza listen when he talks. He has provided the truck from his factory, the driver Diego (who is his employee), and the policemen who are there to take care of us. We ride out of town with our escorts, and stop at his plant for breakfast after about two hours in the saddle. It’s a strange and beautiful place. We are out in the country at the base of the mountains on a large lawn with a row of poplar trees on one side to break the wind. We are eating a catered breakfast off of white tablecloths while guards and plant managers stand around us and chat. On our leeward side, his large steel mill belches smoke into the clear morning air. After breakfast, the ride gets serious. We begin climbing into the foothills, up into the canyon I had trained in on previous rides. Our first stop is Potrerillos, about 40 miles down the road. Actually, it’s 40 miles up the road because it’s about 1,400 feet higher than Mendoza .
The truth is, I was afraid of the Andes. I’m not a very good climber, and what little success I had in cycling came from sprinting on flat, fast critierum courses. I thought I might explode, and have to suffer the ignominy of riding over the top in the truck. I had tried to prepare in the mountains of Southern Arizona before I came down, but it seemed like something always got in the way. On my last training ride before we left for Argentina, Alejandra and I were on our way to Mexico in the car and I had her drop me off at a place where I had trained for racing years before. I said, “Go on up to the observatory in the car, and I’ll see you in a couple of hours.” It was the Kitt Peak National Observatory, and at the top of the mountain she could take a tour of the telescopes and wait for me. I started riding hard, but I began to tire quickly. When I reached the base of the mountain, an hour had already gone by. I started the climb, and my speed began to drop. It’s a tough steep ride, and I had no food, and almost no water, and it was hot. I began to get dehydrated, I was bonking. and I began to weave around in the road. I was “delivering letters”, as the French say. It means a bike rider is dying and weaving from one side of the road to another as he climbs, like a mailman going from mailbox to mailbox. At one point I even did a quick check for snakes and scorpions, and lay down beside the road for a few minutes. I finally wobbled up to the summit three hours later, but my confidence was shaken.
However as we began to climb into the foothills of the Andes it seemed like these Porteños had trained even less than I had. In fact, I think it is probably impossible to train for riding in the Andes in flat, crowded BsAs. So as we rode toward Potrerillos, I found that their pace was actually too slow for me. I thought about it for a bit. I didn’t want to appear arrogant. My ride with these guys is a tour, not a race, and there’s nothing I hate more than a guy who tries to turn every ride into a race. But I really wanted to go, so I explained the situation, and rode off the front, leaving the police escort and the clattering diesel truck behind. I begin to get into a rhythm, and enjoy the solitude; riding up through the river canyon, with the high barren walls of the Andes foothills on either side. The air is crystal clear, and I can see for a hundred miles. This is Ruta 7, the only paved crossing over the Andes along the 3,500 mile border between Chile and Argentina … but there really isn’t much traffic. An occasional passenger car, or a smoking convoy of diesel trucks comes along about every half hour, but that’s about it. I arrive at Potrerillos about noon, and wait just past the small village at the checkpoint of the Gendarmeria Nacional, for the rest of the bunch to arrive.
The Gendarmeria Nacional is one of three basic types basic of police power in Argentina. The military and the local police are the other two. The military has been badly tarnished by their involvement in the “dirty war” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, in which an estimated 30,000 Argentine citizens (and a few foreign ones as well) were tortured, murdered, and “disappeared”. It was their poor showing in the war against England over the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) that finally brought an end to their control of the country. (Today if you buy a map of Argentina, the islands will still be labeled Islas Malvinas (Arg.)) The federal and local police were also tainted by involvement in the “dirty war”, and lately they have been suspected of involvement in the current wave of violent crime that has plagued Argentina since the economic downturn of the last few years. Police involvement is suspected, and sometimes proven, in the recent kidnappings and violent invasions of homes and restaurants around the country. The recent wave of kidnappings has even been tied to the military, and there is suspected involvement all the way up to the Casa Rosada, the executive branch of the Argentine government. Through all of this, the only group that has maintained some degree of trust among the people is the police force of the provinces, a sort of paramilitary state police. This is the Gendarmeria Nacional.
So I wait at the checkpoint, and after about 15 minutes Quique rolls in. We are standing by the small guardhouse at the mouth of the canyon just outside of town waiting for everyone else when there is a huge explosion. It actually shakes the ground, startling Quique and me. For a moment, I wonder if there is some sort of guerrilla attack beginning on the Gendarmes Nacional with whom we had been quietly chatting—but they aren’t running for their automatic weapons. And then a strange thing happens. Heavy objects begin falling out of the sky. Stuff is crackling through the tree branches, and whumping into the ground all around us. It seems to be coming straight down, directly from above like rain. A couple of things hiss down nearby, and land with a thud. Branches and leaves are falling from the trees overhead, dust is kicked up, and it seems to dawn on everyone at the same time that we are being bombarded by rocks… and some of them are big! But before anyone can react, it is over. I walk around to the side of the guardhouse, and find a rock the size of a grapefruit that has impacted the earth exactly in the middle of the three-foot gap between the old metal guardhouse and the police car parked next to it. We look around and find more rocks. Some are golf ball sized, and some are much larger. Everyone just looks at each other, and one of the gendarmes, joking around, puts on his helmet. Then before it really sinks in, there is another blast. This time a large cloud of dust and rocks is hurled into view beyond the row of poplar trees across the road. It comes from the steep slope of the mountain above, and this time it’s not funny. Everyone runs for cover. I hug the trunk of a large tree, and some of the soldiers run into the guardhouse. We wait, but no more rocks fall.
It turns out that they are blasting a new road into the mountain above, and somebody used a little too much explosive. I now have a healthier respect for blasting. Being hit by one of those rocks could easily have been fatal, but the biggest disappointment for me is that the one I found fell exactly between the police car and the guardhouse. Wouldn’t it have been great if it had smashed through the roof of the car or the shed?
We then climb another 25 miles and 1,500 feet to Uspallata. Again, I am really enjoying the solitude off the front of the group. The country here just knocks me out. There are no houses, or people. Just a clean sharp wilderness that is almost biblical. At one point I stop on an ancient bridge to check out a stream that is gushing from a narrow canyon. It is like a very narrow slot in a wall hundreds of feet high, and I wish I had the time and the shoes to go up and explore a little. As I stand contemplating this marvel, Ariel, the gendarme who has become our nursemaid since Potrerillos comes roaring around the corner on his cross-country motorbike, looking like the Road Warrior. He is quite a sight in his military armor and helmet on the bike, and the truckers and people along the road seem to have a tremendous respect for (or fear of?) him. He says hi, what’s up, and takes off back down the road. I’m not sure why he appeared. It is the only time I have seen him, but I find out later that he is worried to death that I will be squashed by a truck on the narrow roads, and has been roaring ahead on his motorbike to see if I am still alive and upright. It is the only time I ever know he is there, though, because the vistas are so long that he can go up the road, spot me a mile or so ahead, and then return to the group without my knowing it. I feel a little bad about making his life so tough. I feel like a little kid whose mom keeps sneaking looks out the kitchen window to see if he is okay.
We arrive in the village of Uspallata in the late afternoon. It’s not much, but I fall in love with the place immediately. (I find out later it was the location of a movie called Seven Years in Tibet. I’ve never been to the Himalayas, but I can see why they came to this isolated corner of Argentina to film after they couldn’t get permission from China to film in Tibet. The little green valley with the towering peaks looks like my imagination’s picture of Shangri-la. If you want to see some of the most unbelievable scenery in the world, rent the movie. But be forewarned that the simpering, pouty-faced performance of Brad Pitt is hard to take.) I want to stay forever, but the next morning we are back in the saddle at 630am, in long pants, ski gloves, and hats. The day warms quickly, so after a bit I put my warm clothes in the truck and ride ahead to enjoy mountains alone as the scenery just keeps getting more and more spectacular.
I climb to Polvaredas where the group eventually rejoins. We rest at a small mountain school where we go inside and all the kids look at us in our cycling gear. In Argentina the grade school kids all wear white lab coats. They look like little tiny doctors, and they are very cute. It’s really more like a small warehouse than a school, and we use the bathrooms at one end that say “Nenes” and “Nenas” beside the doors. There are no toilets, just holes in the floor, and two footprints to show where you place your feet. The teachers and the principal come out, and we take some pictures with the school and the mountains. Then more climbing, through Punta de Vacas, where I finally arrive at Puente del Inca.
I am hoping to have them change my nickname from “El Gringo” to something like “El Aguila de Los Andes”, because they are now saying, look at the gringo, he is Superman! Of course this isn’t true. None of us are even close to fit by bike racing standards. I've just had a chance to train more than they have. But I buy into it. So, when everyone is exhausted, I now try to act like I feel great, and can’t wait to get going again. What an idiot. We regroup again at Puente del Inca, and have lunch at a small restaurant beside the thermal springs in the canyon. Everyone is cooked, because there was a headwind the whole way. They straggle in, and I learn later that they have been riding behind the truck most of the way for shelter. (I try it myself the next day to see what it’s like, but the diesel exhaust is so bad, I can’t stand it. They must have been awfully tired). I really can’t image how they can do this ride without training in the mountains at all. They are operating on willpower alone, and it shows on their faces. I think they must be tough guys.
After Puente del Inca, the trip really does get hard. It’s only about 20 miles, but it is even steeper as it climbs to the top of the continent. The pavement is rough and broken, but the worst thing is that the persistent headwind increases. I take off alone, trying to find an easy climbing pace, and ignore the pain in my lower back, which is getting worse after five hours on the bike. After a few miles I hear a truck grinding up behind me. It turns out to be an army truck with Argentine mountain infantrymen riding in the back, and on impulse, I grab onto the side of it. This sets off the soldiers inside, who begin whooping and laughing. I let it tow me along for a while, as they laugh and try to chat with me, but I can’t understand them. I just keep making shushing noises by putting my finger to my lips and looking back over my shoulder. They’ve passed the other riders behind, and think that it is a race and that I am cheating in a big way…which they seem to find it hilarious. After a bit, the truck slows and turns off, so I am on my own again. I have no cyclometer to measure my speed, but at times it feels like the combination of rough pavement, steep grade, and the battering by the strong wind almost brings me to a stop. The only relief is the scenery. When it almost becomes unbearable, I look up and think, “Wow, the Andes!” I am familiar with the big mountains of North America and Europe, but these are something else. A whole other world. I am surrounded by 24,000 foot towers of rock. Sheer walls, covered with summer snow. The narrow valley is a moonscape, with only the road, and the old abandoned railroad with its tunnels, sagging bridges, and crumbling snow sheds that parallel the highway. And above it all, Aconcagua lurks like a monster, with clouds and blowing snow trailing off into the bright cold air. The highest spot in all of North and South America. I’ve heard that people climb it all the time, but from where I sit on my bike it looks absolutely suicidal.
Well, the plan was to go over the Andes and across Chile to the Pacific Ocean, but the best-laid plans often go astray. First there is a chilly meeting at the mouth of the tunnel at the summit. Our gendarme fights for us. He does his best to argue our case, but somewhere among customs, immigration, and the Chilean or Argentine military, a decision is made that absolutely no way will we be allowed to ride the last few kilometers through the abandoned railroad tunnel that burrows under the final vertical spine of the Cordillera de los Andes. The international border is in the middle of the tunnel. Instead, we have to put the bikes in the truck and ride through the car tunnel. Then, on the other side, the Chilean officials tell us that absolutely no way can we ride down “Los Caracoles” on bicycles. “Los Caracoles” are the almost unbelievably steep series of switchbacks (named after the spiral shelled sea creatures) that descend from the Chilean end of the tunnel. I had wondered why two major countries with a shared border longer than the one between the U.S. and Canada have only one paved road crossing between them. On the way up the Argentine side of the Andes I began to see why, but it is on the Chilean side and “Los Caracoles” that I really understood. Imagine building a highway up a rock wall that is about two miles high. That’s what you are facing in the Andes . There is nothing I would have loved more than to spiral down that incredible wall like a diving, banking F-14, blasting by the big tractor-trailers that are grinding slowly through the switchbacks. I wasn’t afraid at all of being squashed or flying off the edge. But I was tired, freezing cold, and unwilling to face the possibility of Chilean jail time. So down we went in the truck, giving back most of that hard won altitude in about half an hour.
It was on the ride down in the truck that the trip really began to fall apart. Alberto, who had been having a rough time with his bike, and spent a lot of time riding in the truck, was disappointed that his arrangements to ride through the tunnel and down the other side had been cancelled. He suddenly decided he’d had enough and that we needed to drive straight to Santiago so he could fly back to BsAs. So instead of getting back on the bikes after leaving the restricted zone of “Los Caracoles” and riding on to the Chilean town of Los Andes as planned, we drove three hours to the Santiago airport and he jumped on a flight. Then, without our leader, things really got bad. Everyone was exhausted, and all of the hotels in Santiago were full because of some sort of huge religious convention. No one could decide anything. I sort of favored completing the ride to the coast one way or another, but with no hotel space, and a general dislike of everything Chilean by my Porteño teammates, it was finally decided to drive back up the mountain to Argentina . So, after 8 brutal hours on the bike, we put in another 10 hours cramped in a van with six bicycles. Instead of a hot shower, dinner, and bed, we rode until 230 a.m. in sweaty bike clothes, wet chamois and all, back to Uspallata, where we checked into a cheap, uncomfortable hotel. Alejandra and I were awakened four hours later by the guy across the street who puts two large speakers on the sidewalk and plays salsa music at full volume to advertise his market. He does this at 7am, each and every morning—to advertise the only grocery store in town. I was not in a good mood.
The numbers are not all that impressive. I can say that I did ride all the way to the top of the Andes, although technically not “over” them because we were stopped at the top, and not allowed to descend down the other side. We put in about 15 hours on the bike over two days, and climbed probably about 15,000 feet, counting the ups and downs, and much of it was into a headwind. I had wanted to fly down the west face of the Andes and roll along through the Chilean wine country to the Pacific Ocean, but it was not to be. All we could manage on day three was a short ride back up toward Aconcagua from Uspallata, and then a couple of easy hours pedaling back down into Mendoza. My only memories of Chile are of the descent down the spectacular Los Caracoles in the truck, some steep walled canyons, and then a seemingly endless drive through the smoggy, graffiti covered streets of Santiago. I guess Alberto’s political pull didn’t quite reach to the top of the Andes and over into the Chilean bureaucracy. Alejandra says he is like me… an okay guy, but a little spoiled, and ready to walk away from something as soon as he doesn’t like it anymore. But all and all it was a great experience, and it certainly beats sitting home and watching television.