I found Chris in a motel in Yuma. It was two days after his mad race project and he was in surprisingly good shape. I guess the big TV showing English football matches and the pizzas he had made in the microwave had something to do with it. I myself was quite tired after having done my own kind of race from Prescott to Yuma in four days instead of 24 hours. Knowing about the motel room in Yuma had had me get up at 5am that morning ready to hit the road by the first daylight to get to a bed, shower, Chris and a half day of resting and I finished the 90 kilometres ride by 1pm. Chris told me I’d done well and added that it wasn’t meant to be patronizing and I asked him what patronizing meant anyway. It was great to be together again and to share our different stories and I was once again immensely impressed with what that man is capable of due to what you could either call stubbornness or determination. I can’t chose, but I love it nevertheless.
The hotel had a pool. It looked nice and more than that, it finally gave us an opportunity to play Pool Football, a game that we had engaged in often throughout our time living in Australia (where a blue pool was a part of our apartment complex) and even though the water was actually rather dirty and really cold, we got our inflatable tubes inflated. Yes that’s right, since Montana we have carried with us two inflatable tubes in bright colors to be used next time we found a suitable lake or pool. Which we now finally did. I scored a goal early on and Chris tried all he could to equalize (in his defense he had a strong headwind against him) but after two halves it was still 1-0. But it was not the victory that had me laughing and smiling like a happy fool. It was merely the fun of playing games with Chris and the sweet memories of our time in Australia it brought. Carrying those tubes for three months was all worth it.
The next morning we woke up to the 90th and last day of our stay in the US. I was so excited to get to a new country. I usually always am, but this time even more. After six months in North America I was again hungry for some more adventurous adventures, hungry for cultures and countries more different from the my own and hungry for the cheap tacos I’d heard so much about. Just beyond that border it was all waiting for us. Mexico, Central and South America. A new chapter in our journey. More than a year of cycling south into the yet unknown of Hispanic culture, language, food, music, mad traffic and exotic nature. My travel heart was beating passionately for every next pedal stroke towards the border.
We were leaving the US on Veteran’s Day and got to see bits of the big parade as we cycled through Yuma on the way to the border. Quite a salute! Bye bye USA
And it was indeed something else that I had never seen before that appeared as if out of nowhere after the border guard smoothly let us through to Mexico (only requesting a fee of 30 dollars each for the service…). From the nothingness on the American side we suddenly stood in a bustling street full of dentists – and shops selling souvenirs, bracelets, colourful blankets and sombreros to the white Americans who daily crossed this border for a cheap teeth deal. Dentists touts shouted their deals to us, smiling men watched us and greeted “Welcome to Mexico” knowing that we hadn’t come here to have our teeth done, and rhythmic and warm music escaped the shops and car windows and danced around in the chaos. It was wonderfully crazy.
And then a few hundreds metres later it was all gone again and we suddenly cycled on sandy roads through a quiet village of simple, decaying concrete houses. A little shop out of a window selling drinks, old commercials painted on wall in bright colours, cars slowly bumping over the occasional patches of tarmac, dogs running around doing their own business and again the same soulful music from a car workshop in the street. It was such a change, such a contrast to the US, that it was hard to believe it was real.
That it was real quickly became all too obvious however when we left the little town on a main road. It was an old road only just wide enough for two cars to pass each other and with a good number of cars driving at speeds that certainly didn’t feel safe on such a road. Not knowing the mentality of drivers here (were they patient or inconsiderate, would they wait, give space or squeeze through where there was no space?), I constantly bumped off the road onto the sandy slopes to just get out of their way. Suddenly the memory, the feeling of the terrors of the traffic in China, the claustrophobia and distress, was back in my mind and the idea of all that was ahead of me, Mexico, Central and South America seemed daunting.
Luckily Chris had found us an alternative route on gravel roads, and despite being a bit sandy here and there it was a great way to enter Mexico. So much better than the narrow road. Once again it was hard to understand that we had only just left the motel in Yuma that morning when we passed through dusty villages with homes of wooden huts without running water. People lived here under such poor conditions. And their dogs protected their homes from anything moving past, chasing us menacingly and wildly barking through village after village. This had not happened since Central Asia and I had lost my indifference to them, their teeth and growls filled me with terror like they were supposed to. Chris showed his care for me by fearlessly facing them while I got away and received my admiring thanks for him being a real man. No, really I am so lucky to always have him trying to keep me out of the most discomfort and danger.
It was getting late in the day, or actually it was only 3pm, but because of the new timezone it would get dark already at 4.30 and we still had to cycle 20 kilometres to get to the motel we were aiming for for the night. I had felt absolutely safe all day, but being so close to a border that is notorious for smuggling and crime, we felt it was not the place to take the chance of wild camping in a field. Also all the fields were full of crops and people harvesting either vegetables by hand or cotton with machines, so it was impossible to hide away in the tent. Therefore we sprinted as well as we could through sand pitches and past barking dogs along the irrigation canals that were like mirrors of calm, clean water and by sunset we reached the little town and the motel. Relieved and happy we went to the only restaurant in town having the only thing on the menu: tacos and that was just we wanted anyway. Our first tacos experience and of course we overloaded the little tacos with beans and guacamole and fresh greens only to have it all flow out of the back end when we took a bite at the front. But they came with a spoon and napkins, and we saw we were not the only ones using them, so we felt confident we were on the right track with those tacos.
We ended up staying in the motel for three nights. The first one we had planned, a rest day after our races to get out of the States and to aclimatise a little to the new place we had come to, meaning eat more tacos and learn how to ask if we could play Eureka Ball on the lawn in Spanish. And then play Eureka Ball (for more details on the results see Chris’s daily blog here). The next day we left the motel to cycle west towards the main road, Route 5, that we could follow south down the peninsular. But first we had to find a supermarket and the only one in the area happened to be in a town 10 kilometres east of the motel. In the end it took us most of the (short) day to get there, do our first shopping in this new country and speak with a nice Mexican man in the shop who also helped us get purified water for our bottles, and then of course eat lunch in the town’s pizzeria to variate our tacos diet a little.
So on our fourth day in Mexico we were still only 50 kilometres into the country, but with no tight schedule on our hands it didn’t really matter, only I was by now getting very eager to see more of it because I had really liked the feel of Mexico so far. Chris led us through another 40 kilometres of farmland and little, sleepy villages and I was all eyes and ears – which was also useful in The Spotting Things Game that we played that day, but despite my best efforts Chris still won by the end of the day. But I had still seen the colourful bushes and lemon trees, the old car tires made into decorative fence sand gardens, the kids playing at the school, the grimy food stalls, the brightly painted shops, the empty base ball arena, more mad dogs, dusty roads, wooden shacks, young people in love, women gossiping in their gardens, hammocks, cotton balls on brown bushes, big groups of people harvesting and packing onions in the fields, a little shrine for the Virgin Mary and the water in the canals so surprisingly clear that it was refreshing just to look at it.
By evening we had reached the Route 5 which to my great relief had a wide shoulder where we could cycle safely and it now led us away from the farmland and into the desert. The next day we passed both a patch of real, wavy sand dunes and white salt flats that looked like snow. I’m always amazed how much variation you can actually see in a desert. All day we were passed by fast going 4x4s on their way to watch the Baja 1000 off-road race and we ended our 100 kilometre day camping opposite dust clouds and motor roars from the race.
But peace had returned when we woke up to a clear blue sky the next morning amongst the first of many cool desert plants we would see on our way down through the Baja. We had already eyed a blue strip of ocean the previous evening. It was the Sea of Cortez on the east side of the peninsular, the first glimpse of ocean we had seen since we had left Vancouver six months earlier. I was excited to finally be by the ocean again. The coast line was lined with various holiday resorts and there didn’t seem to be any public acces to the beach, so we tried our luck at a fancy looking gate to a big resort. To my great surprise the guard had no objections to us going to use the private resort beach. Two rough-looking vagabonds rolled down the palm tree lined avenue past colorful holiday palaces and the tennis courts busy with a tournament to an almost empty, perfectly white beach. Oh it was bliss to feel the salt water slowly dry off the skin in the warm sunshine and have nothing else to do. Until Chris challenged me for a beach volley match of course, which he won tightly even though he got highly distracted by the flying ATV that kept circling over our heads. A toy for the retired expat.
We had rented an apartment via Airbnb in San Felipe, a little town on the coast another 15 kilometres down the road. Here we were received by Luis, the host, in the afternoon, and after moving in to our residence we went out to explore the town. By the sea we found the lively promenade, the Malecon, which of course reminded me of the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, but also of the beach promenades in Surfers Paradise in Australia, Den Haag in Holland and Batumi in Georgia. Despite the immense differences between these countries the presence of the sea carried the same vibe onto shore. It was a place to stroll, a place to eat pricey with seaview or snack from a food stall, it was a place to sell tacky souvenirs, it was a place to watch the kids play in the sand and the seagulls in the air, it was a place for stray dogs to find scraps, at place to get drunk, a place to gossip, to kiss, to sing serenades like generations before. It was a place to watch the changing light by the end of the day and everyone seemed to be drawn here. It was a place to live.
Yuma – Ejido Monterrey – San Felipe 302 kilometres..
I was up at 11 p.m. in the morning (not
a typo) to make my final preparations for the day ahead. I’d gone
to bed at 6 p.m. but had found it impossible to sleep, such is often
the way when you know how important it is to get a good night’s
sleep… and go to bed at 6 p.m. But ahead of me was an almighty
challenge, a challenge that I had set for myself, a challenge to try
and cycle as far as I possibly could in one day.
As a consequence I didn’t feel tired
or sleepy, only excited. I’d been planning this ride for a month,
pretty much ever since I’d heard about the Transcontinental bike
race and decided it was something I wanted to try and compete in when
we got back to Europe. It’s a non-stop, unsupported bicycle race
across Europe, generally starting in Belgium and ending in Greece but
with checkpoints along the way that change each year. Riders have to
plan their own route, source their own food and sleeping arrangements
along the way, and pedal all of the way themselves. The route varies
in length but is typically around 4,000 kilometres long, and the
winners have never taken more than ten days to get over the line. All
of this appealed to me somehow. I remembered my long rides across
Siberia, China, Australia, when I had to be efficient with everything
I did, with a fond nostalgia, time having taken the hardship and
reshaped my memories into something I look back on positively. I’ve
done enough kilometres, I know how to ride all day, I know how to do
all the things I’d need to do efficiently, and with so many years
riding on a heavily loaded touring bike, the racing bike I’d have
for the Transcontinental would surely feel ridiculously light and
easy to ride. I was basically pretty sure I was going to win.
The Transcontinental grew rapidly in my
mind into something I knew I had to do, but the idea that I had to
wait until 2020 or 2021 to take part frustrated me. I wanted to do it
immediately. And from this impatience came an idea. I could take one
day and try to ride as far as I possibly could. It would have to be
on my heavily loaded touring bike, but I would try to offset that by
riding in favourable conditions, mostly downhill or at least flat,
mostly with the wind at my back, mostly on high quality roads. It
meant I needed to do it before we left the United States, and the
last section of Arizona was perfect, it met all of the criteria. And
that was why I was now packing up my bike in the dark, with midnight
approaching, 25 kilometres south of Prescott, Arizona. Dea and I had
gone our separate ways the previous morning, she to ride south to
Yuma on the Mexican border over the course of four days, me to stop
after just 25 kilometres to rest and prepare, then do it all in one
day. The starting location had been carefully chosen, at the top of a
pass, giving me some free early kilometres. The date had been picked
with similar care, when I should have the most favourable winds. My
bike was set up so that I should have very few reasons to ever pause
from cycling, with my basket loaded up with food that I could eat on
the go, and with a whole host of new parts having been recently
fitted to it to ensure it should run smoothly. It was just a shame I
hadn’t managed to get any sleep before the start. But there was
nothing more to do about that. The time on my cycle computer rolled
around to 0:00 and I took my first pedal strokes. I was about to find
out what was possible.
I whizzed downhill for the first
fifteen kilometres, taking the tight corners as fast as I dared in
the glow of my headlight. I was down before I knew it and the road
climbed again for three kilometres and I pushed hard to set a good
pace. The night was warmer than I had anticipated and I quickly grew
hot. I shredded my jacket without pausing pedalling, strapping it
under a bungee at the back of my bike. There was no moon and the sky
was filled with stars. Frequently I saw shooting stars dart across
the sky in front of me. Each time I made a wish, and each time it was
for the same thing. 400 kilometres. That was my goal for the day. It
seemed ambitious, but I’d estimated I could spend 23 of the 24
hours actually on the bike, and if I could average 17.4 kilometres
per hour, well, then I would succeed in hitting 400, the sort of
daily distance I’d need to do to finish at the front of the
Transcontinental field. My goal was simply to ride as far as I could,
but I knew if I fell short of 400 I would be disappointed.
As the road levelled out and I reached Arizona’s flat desert I continued to move at over 20 kilometres per hour. Orion’s Belt loomed over me and I could just make out the shapes of occasional cactuses around me, but otherwise I was all alone. I had thought that this would be a time when my thoughts would wander back over all that had happened during our time in the United States. To think back to our time with Vivian in Helena, how we had continued our ride on the Great Divide, how we had met and made great friends along the way with a couple named Paul and Kelli, like-minded travellers who moved at our speed who we had ridden with for a couple of weeks all of the way to Yellowstone National Park. To think back on the great natural wonders, the geysers and the bison we’d seen there. To think back on all the good stuff but also, more importantly, all of the the doubts and the difficulties and the bad stuff that we’d faced. To think back on the time that Dea and I had spent cycling separately and all of the issues we’d struggled with, and to think back on the way we had come through it all and been so much stronger for it, events which I’m sure will make for some interesting chapters in a book someday but that we won’t be covering more on this blog. To think about Dea and how much I love her and about going to Mexico together and riding the rest of the Americas together, to think about our future together. And to think about my writing and my exciting new blog project (online now here). To think back also on the wonderful people we’d met along the way, like Sean in Grand Canyon, who had helped us out by letting us have numerous bike parts delivered to his address, then by letting us stay three nights with him and his dogs, and by being such an all-round good guy. And like Richard and Cecelia who had just hosted us in Prescott. And also I would think back on the extraordinary development and success of Eureka Ball, which had gone from strength to strength, most notably when we’d been playing a game in a park in a small town in Utah and some kids had spotted us and asked what we were doing, and soon there were multiple games going on with the kids promising to ask their teacher if they could play it in school sports. I thought I would think back on all of those things and all of the incredible landscapes we’d seen throughout the United States.
But I didn’t think about any of that.
I didn’t think about anything.
I was in a zone, in a trance. I somehow
knew that if I let my mind wander like it usually did then my speed
would drop, I would lose the high level that I was cycling at. I was
riding at more than 20 kilometres per hour, even on the flat, and I
was well ahead of schedule. I can’t remember the exact details of
when I got where, but at the time it was the only real focus of my
attention, and it wasn’t long before I started thinking that maybe
I was going to be able to ride 500 kilometres.
The night stretched on for a long time, as I suppose it will do when all you do is ride your bike in a straight line and don’t let yourself think about anything else, but dawn eventually broke, and I remember that at the moment when I first saw the sun I had already cycled 140 kilometres. I reflected on how that would usually count as a very long day, but I quickly dismissed such thoughts and pressed on. I knew if I thought too much about how what I was trying to do compared with a normal day then the enormity of the challenge might overwhelm me. Instead I repeated to myself that I was only going to do this once. This wasn’t something I was going to be able to repeat in Mexico or anywhere else, even if I wanted to. It was a one-off, it was my only chance, and all I had to do was give it my all on this one day and it would be done. With this motivating thought I kept up my unusually high pace.
I still felt surprisingly good as I
took a road south-east from a town called Salome. It went in this
direction for 50 kilometres through the first hours of daylight and
during this ride I remained confident about making it to the 500
kilometre mark. I was working out what I was on course for, and I
know that at some point I was on schedule for 514 kilometres with the
pace I was keeping. At this stage I had spent only one minute off the
bike in over eight hours (because I hadn’t learnt how to pee
without stopping) and I still felt really good. But there was a
problem, because the route I had planned would turn west at the end
of this road on the interstate, and when I saw how busy the
interstate was I became worried that I would get a puncture from all
of the debris on the shoulder. I was also in need of finding some
more road, because my original route plan was for 400 kilometres, and
if I just kept on going with that I was going to run out of country
before midnight. So I came up with a new plan, which was to retreat
back the way that I had come, cycling again the 50 kilometre road
back to Salome.
Unfortunately, I realised that doing
this would take me into the face of a headwind, which rather hampered
my hopes of getting to 500 kilometres. Then, as I slowed and made the
U-turn, my front tyre went soft. This double whammy quickly put paid
to my 500 kilometre-day hopes, which were rather fanciful in truth,
and I felt suddenly deflated. But I kept moving, getting the wheel
off and a new tube in as quickly as possible, while also taking the
chance to get my trousers off and into my shorts and switch a fresh
water bottle over. All-in-all I lost about 14 minutes.
More devastating for morale was the 50
kilometre slog back into the wind. I kept pushing myself hard, harder
than I’d done so far actually, but my speed had dropped to between
13 and 17 kilometres per hour, compared with the 21-24 I’d been
doing before. Still, there was that drive inside me, that focus, and
getting to midday was a big boost. It was the halfway stage, and I’d
cycled 242 kilometres. All I had to do was repeat that and I’d
finish with 484 kilometres, a smidge over 300 miles. A respectable
total, I thought.
Photos taken by Dea, I had no time for that!
At 12:30 I got back to Salome and
decided to cycle back north for ten kilometres before making another
U-turn and riding back south. I still needed to add a little extra
distance to the day, and I also thought I might see Dea. I figured
I’d passed her campsite around three or four in the morning, but
with my 100 kilometre out-and-back there was a chance she’d been
nearing Salome by now. After ten kilometres there was no sign of her,
however, and I wouldn’t have been able to stop for a chat anyway,
and I turned back south. I would later find out she reached this
point about half an hour later.
I was still feeling strong, but the day
was taking a long, long time. Time really did drag, but I maintained
around 20 kilometres per hour. Then there was a descent, and I picked
up time. It coincided with two in the afternoon, and I had now ridden
exactly 280 kilometres. This raised my hopes again of hitting 500,
and I began to believe it was possible. All I had to do was ride 22
kilometres per hour for ten hours and I would have the 220 kilometres
that I needed. It sounds absurd now, but at the time it really did
seem very feasible. Unfortunately at about this moment there was a
fork in the road and I didn’t know which of the two options to
take. My first instinct was to go straight on the road I was on,
missing the right turn, and I went across the junction, but then I
thought about it and decided I was probably wrong, I probably wanted
to make that right turn, so I bumped across some gravel as fast as I
could to get on it. I was now riding into a strong headwind again,
and as I checked my phone I saw that I’d made an error. Still, I
could easily get back on course by taking another connecting road.
But the headwind wasn’t so helpful for my new quest of 500
I fought hard to get back onto the
right road without losing too much time. Sadly the road didn’t
share my passion for making this 500 kilometre thing happen, and it
began on a long climb into the mountains. The wind was also against
me here, and it was utterly demoralising. Over the course of the next
hour my hopes of getting to 500 kilometres evaporated again in the
face of this climb, my speed stuck around 14 kilometres per hour all
of the way to the summit. This was still much faster than I would
usually cycle up such a climb and my body was beginning to protest at
the exertion. My left hamstring felt a little tight and my back was
getting sore, but overall I was still okay. I had a lot of good food
in my basket, including bananas, grapes, sandwiches and energy bars,
and I’d been grazing on it all day, keeping my energy levels up.
The psychological effect of getting to the top of the climb and not
seeing a big descent where I could make up the time was more
energy-sapping, however. I reached the town of Quartzsite, where I
navigated a couple of red lights by making right turns (legal in the
US) and then U-turns, until I was at the exit I wanted. At this stage
I had still only stopped three times, for a total of about 16
minutes, in 18 hours, covering just shy of 350 kilometres in the
From Quartzsite to Yuma there was just one road, a very long, very straight, 100-kilometre-long road. Unfortunately as I pedalled out onto it I discovered that it was not a good road. There was only a very narrow shoulder and it was rendered unusable by a rumble strip having been ploughed down the middle of it. The road was busy with rush hour traffic and, while it was just about safe enough to ride on in daylight, the sun disappearing over the horizon to my right had me greatly concerned. This was about the time when I would usually be calling it a night and there was plenty of good camping around in the desert. It was silly to continue on under such conditions, but I couldn’t quit. I’d put too much into this day to quit. I wasn’t even at 400 kilometres yet! I pressed on as fast as I could, hoping to get to a wider shoulder. Thankfully the traffic thinned out and the rumble strip buggered off, but even so as it grew dark there were times when I felt I had to pull off the road and let cars pass when there was something coming the other way, blinding them with their headlights. I lost another eight minutes this way.
My new goal had been adjusted down to 450 kilometres and I made a plan to aim for 17 kilometre hours for the six hours of darkness that remained to cover the final 100 kilometres. In a way it felt like weakness to lower expectations, it felt like weakness that I could no longer cycle at 20 kilometres per hour, but in reality 100 kilometres on my heavily loaded touring bike was under normal circumstances a very good day, never mind with 350 kilometres already in my legs. The longest I’d ever cycled in a day before was 250 kilometres, I knew I’d already done something special, I’d already put in numbers that seemed absurd to me. All I had to do was get to the line in one piece and having cycled as far as I possibly could without breaking myself. And I was beginning to break down. Turning my head led to severe pain in the middle of my upper back, so to look behind me to check for the headlamps of cars in the darkness involved half standing and turning my whole upper body as one. My arse was sore like never before, and I could manage only a short time on each cheek before having to shift my weight onto the other, almost always with a corresponding cry of “Ouch!”
There was no doubt that I was
suffering. I was suffering like I never suffered on a bike before. I
really just wanted it to be over and each hour passed incredibly
slowly. It had been an eye-opening experience, for sure, if only to
teach me how long 24 hours actually is (it’s really, really a long
time, it really is). I was riding under the stars again, but this
time the road was still fairly busy. A wide shoulder had thankfully
appeared, but it was not in great shape and it was much better for me
to ride out in the road. Hence a strange sort of video game scenario
developed where I would ride in the road until a car’s headlights
appeared behind me in my mirror. I would then turn my body to check
on its position, how close it was, and move over once it got near,
briefly bumping along on the shoulder before returning to the road.
And so this weird night-time game went on, and on, and my mind began
to deteriorate slightly. I was still essentially in control of my
mind, but there were weird moments when things seemed to have
personalities, things like my different gear combinations, or the
cars. Mostly though, I just wanted it to be over. At nine o’clock I
got to 400 kilometres but I felt no sense of elation. I still had
three more hours to suffer through.
I arrived into Yuma in the final half an hour before midnight, quite convinced of one thing. I had absolutely no intention of competing in the Transcontinental race anymore. Sure, I’d proved I could do this type of thing. I’d ridden a really long way, on my loaded touring bike, I’d spent no more than 24 minutes off the bike in 24 hours, the vast majority of which had been for reasons beyond my control, and I’d ridden hard all day long. But by the end I was crawling along. I could barely turn the pedals. I was in agony. The idea of sleeping for three hours in a bus shelter and then getting up and doing it all again, for TEN DAYS IN A ROW, was utterly beyond my comprehension at this stage. There was no way I was going to be getting up and cycling any distance in the morning, I would count myself lucky if I would be getting up at all in the morning. This, I decided, surely was a one-off event, and not one that I was finishing strongly. In fact, I finished it circling pathetically around a patch of desert at an intersection just out of town that I’d earmarked for my tent. As the clock struck 0:00 again I skidded to a stop in the sand. I would say that putting up my tent was difficult, but the truth was that to be doing something, anything, that was not riding a bicycle felt simply joyous. I crawled inside and fell into one of the greatest sleeps of my life with just one thought on my mind.
Distance cycled: 452.67 kilometres (281
Time spent on bike: 23 hours, 36
minutes, 35 seconds.
Hey there, sorry I haven’t written anything for a long time. Into the Sunrise got a couple bad reviews and to be honest I’ve briefly been wondering whether or not I want to keep on writing at all. But I decided I can’t let such things get me down, so here comes another blogpost. But before I start, if you’ve read Into the Sunrise and enjoyed it, please go to Amazon and write me a positive review to try and offset the unfortunate damage done to the sales by the negative ones. Book sales provide our only income and if you want to help us to keep travelling then a positive Amazon review is the easiest way to help. And if you’ve read Into the Sunrise and didn’t enjoy it for whatever reason, please try and avoid the Amazon reviews page if you possibly can! If you write to me using the contact page I’ll be happy to refund your money and listen to your grievances personally. Alrighty then, here comes that blogpost:
CANADA, 7th-15th August
It felt so good
to be out of Canmore, to feel my bike beneath me again, riding
smoothly on the cycle path north to Banff. Into the Sunrise was
finished and I didn’t need to worry myself about doing any more
writing for a really long time, until I just started writing this,
actually. Dea and I were free again, and we were excited, because
ahead of us was the exciting new challenge of cycling on the Great
Divide Mountain Bike Route, a collection of gravel roads and trails
that connect up all of the way from Banff to Mexico. We weren’t
sure how we were going to get on, what with our bikes not being
mountain bikes, and being ridiculously loaded with stuff, but we’d
thrown a couple of things away, and we thought we’d give it a go.
In Banff we reunited with an old friend, Alex from Guernsey. We first met Alex back in Georgia a year ago, and after cycling with him there we reunited again in Baku, before cycling across half of Uzbekistan together. Since then he’d gone off to Southeast Asia and the Far East for a while, before riding south from Alaska with a Basque man he’d met on the way, Gorka. The pair of them had been waiting in Banff for us for the best part of a week so that we could cycle together. But before we did that I suggested that we really must make time for a game of volleyball doubles. On the ride to the courts Alex told me that he was still keeping up with his vegan diet, established on the basis of a conversation we’d had in the Uzbek desert. “Do you feel better? Like you have more energy?” I enquired. “Well…” Alex said, tilting his head, “…I can eat a lot more!”
really tremendous fun and a resounding success in every single sense
apart from the fact that Alex and Gorka ended up winning. After
volleyball we sat and ate dinner on a bench, along with a Catalan
couple they’d met somewhere, and we got our first glimpse into the
wonderful world of Alex’s vegan diet, as he put away a tin of cold
beans and then a sandwich of carrot topped with stolen sachets of
mustard and ketchup. The Catalan couple, perhaps feeling sorry for
Alex, donated a few kettle chips, and these made their way into the
unusual sandwich too.
After all that it
was eight o’clock in the evening and we decided to get cracking on
the Great Divide. It led us instantly out of the tourist town and
into the forest on a trail that was gravel but not too difficult. I
found a few of the climbs strenuous, my fitness levels having dropped
after a month at a desk, but it sure did feel great to be out
cycling. No longer was I stuck staring at a screen, I was back out in
the real world, in the company of good people, laughing and chatting
and pedalling away beneath the forest. Once again cycle touring had
taken me back to a happy place, I was back doing the thing I love
doing the most.
After a night in
the forest the next morning we reached the end of the trail and found
ourselves looking back down on Canmore having spent the previous
twenty-four hours going north and then south. Dea had said that she
wanted to make time for some hiking, and it occurred to us that this
was a good place to do it, for we knew from Hal of some hikes in
these mountains over Canmore. So we locked our bikes to some trees
and off we all marched up into the mountains, a band of happy hikers.
Somebody, probably me, decided that we needed trail names, and trail
names we all soon had. Gorka, a forty-year-old man with a trustworthy
beard, was at the front leading us confidently along the way, and was
given the trail name of Pimba. He was given this name by Alex, and I
have no idea why. Alex himself was called Rhino, because he was still
wearing the same outfit he always did of a grey shirt and little grey
shorts, just like rhinos wear, and because of his plant-based diet.
Dea was Pink Panther, because she was wearing pink, and I was Puffing
Dragon, because I was at the back of the group puffing away. My
fitness levels weren’t at their highest, and it was really hard
work, especially when Pimba veered off the trail and got us all lost.
Pretty soon we were scrambling over some steep rock faces that were
genuinely very dangerous and I think we all regretted the whole sorry
expedition and only hoped to get out of it alive. Eventually with the
aid of three GPS phones we worked out how to get back on the trail by
scrambling over the cliffside. Once safely back there we all looked
at how far there still was to the top and voted unanimously on just
going back down again. “I think I’ve done enough hiking now,”
Dea said, once we were safely back at our bikes.
This must have been quite early on in the hike because we are still smiling.
Off course by now.
“I think this is high enough!”
We were now
cycling on Spray Lakes Road, which was gravelly and washboardy but
not too bad really. We met a female cyclist heading in the other
direction who had cycled the whole Great Divide who said that this
was the worst road on the whole thing, and Dea and I got a lot more
confident that we could handle things. We camped by a nice lake, and
Alex made himself another unusual sandwich, before eating all of our
cast-off broccoli stalk. “Food’s expensive,” he said, “don’t
waste it.” The next day he ran out of food almost completely, and
for dinner he had bread with salt.
After a while Alex took to foraging huckleberries and wild raspberries to stay alive.
We began to meet
other Great Divide cyclists as we continued to follow gravel forest
roads south. There were four older guys, and a young group of eleven
from Connecticut that we nicknamed The Hipsters due to their matching
bikes and beards and hipstery ways. The roads came to resemble
cycling superhighways, and at one point there were no fewer than
nineteen of us cyclists all stopped together at a river, the hipsters
thankfully failing to notice that Alex was washing his feet just
upstream of where they were refilling their water bottles.
Gorka was a funny
fellow, a Basque-country Casanova with no fewer than four girlfriends
at home. His English wasn’t the best, and when I tried to ask him
if these ladies knew of one another, his response was “No, not all
every day. One on Monday, one on Tuesday…” He sometimes seemed a
little distant, like his mind was elsewhere, and it wasn’t too much
of a surprise when we awoke one morning to find he was gone. “He’s
gone to look for girls,” Alex explained. “He was getting anxious
about how long he’d gone without sex.”
Team Spirit minus Pimba
It was back to
the old Team Spirit after that, just the three of us. Just like in
Uzbekistan we played games as we cycled, and in the evenings we
played whist at our campsites. And in this merry fashion we made our
way south for several days, enjoying the nature and the forest. We
saw a moose and a humming bird hovered in front of my face, and we
found a tennis ball and played catch, and other such lovely things
happened. And then we hit THE WALL. THE WALL is an infamous section
of single track on the route which I think is called THE WALL because
it climbs up almost vertically, but I believe in most descriptions it
is not usually capitalised. In any case, we made it up THE WALL by
working as a team, relaying our bags up in a chain up the steep sandy
track. It gave us a sense of enormous satisfaction.
From there we had
a long descent down into a valley where we could cross into the
United States of America. There were two funny things about this long
descent. The first is that there was an incredible amount of bear poo
literally everywhere along the road here. The second is that Alex and
Dea, usually faster than me, for the first time allowed me to go
first. I didn’t mind, I had my bear spray and my horn, which I
tooted frequently to warn the bears that I was not to be messed with,
and we had no trouble.
And then suddenly
we were at the border. Canada was at an end. It had been a blast,
sure, a great country, but ahead of us lay something really truly
very exciting, the great Trumponian mystery of the United States of
America. What adventures awaited us there?