I was dearly hoping that upon leaving Villa O’Higgins, the trip would change. That it would morph into my idealised version I had dreamt about.
I no longer wanted to experience the dread of waking up to the sound of the wind howling past the tent. In hindsight, what I had hoped for South America was my ride across France but with mountainous scenery. In fact my ride across Europe in the summer of 2014 was a holiday compared to what I am doing now.
Every day in South America has been a challenge. There hasn’t been in my memory, an easy day. As I’ve talked about before, prior to Villa O’Higgins, the challenge was predominately mental. To keep going despite everything screaming at me that it was nuts. Always the wind. That experience alone has given birth to confidence I never knew I had.
Would I go back and do it again? Not a chance. Unless it was in the other direction!
Am I glad I did it? Yes, it’s something I can always look back on when I doubt myself in the future.
Now the challenge has become physical. The wind has made a couple of appearances but nothing like on the scale of before, it’s just an inconvenience now. The weather has generally been sunshine and blue skies bringing with it flies and mosquitos. It’s rained a good few times as well but I’ve noticed I don’t run from the rain as I used to. I used to hate cycling in the rain, now it means the flies disappear….
I’m only about halfway along the Carretera Austral and so far some of the scenery has been absolutely amazing sandwiched between awesome and epic. It doesn’t come for free. The road is a gravel road, they call it Ripio in Spanish. Saying it varies in quality would be a slight understatement. On occasion it has been like cycling on tarmac (asphalt) but mostly it is often corrugated, like cycling over a washboard. Causing enumerable changes in direction, searching for a smoother line, for some reason, often on the wrong side of the road. When it comes out of nowhere on a downhill, it is the most problematic, suddenly you are shaken everywhere, the bike flexing and bouncing, myself cringing with the damage that it might be causing. Never mind my wheels, how the laptop I am writing this on still works I don’t know!
It is however the (up) hills that occupy most of my worries.
As long as I can spin my pedals at a decent cadence going uphill I don’t worry about my knees. When that ceases to be possible because of the gradient and loose bumpy surface I have to concentrate intently. There have been times when I’ve barely been able to turn the pedals, all the force transmitting through my knees. Is something going to give? If you saw my legs, you would say yes.
Popeye is not my middle name.
There is more than one way to pedal a bike and so I concentrate on my form, getting my back as straight as possible, keeping my upper body still, power from the hips and pushing the bike away from me. Have to keep the knees in line with the ankles, letting the right joints do the right job. Meanwhile my heart rate has skyrocketed, my breathing is fast and barely controlled, I’m soaked in sweat, at times feeling like I’m in a shower. Realising my body’s functions are approaching limits. Reminding myself I’m 38, not 28, I need to manage the situation.
Normally the serious gradients come in waves, giving a respite before the next ramp. When it’s tough, I use the technique of huge deep breathes in and out to purge the carbon dioxide and flood as much oxygen in to my body, giving it a chance to recover slightly.
I ponder what is all this doing to me as I shovel more calories inside me, desperately seeking more fuel. Running out and bonking is not a nice feeling. It’s happened a couple of times, when the destination was further than I thought. The desire to reach the day’s end overtaking any logical analysis of food consumption.
Like an exponential gradient, the busyness of the road has gone up and up the further north I travel. Both with vehicles and cyclists. This is a popular route for cyclists, little wonder why with the scenery. Many people come to Chile to cycle the Carretera Austral and then return home. These people are easy to spot, they always have a front suspension mountain bike with just rear panniers and a rack bag. They normally are wearing just lycra, travel fast and talk of how much distance they cover a day. Amazed, normally in equal proportion, about my quantity of luggage and my proclamation that I am riding to Alaska. We have little in common other than sitting aboard a bicycle.
I haven’t been doing any sight seeing or ‘touristy’ visits to attractions (much to the consternation of the holiday bikers). I’ve just been riding my bike and when reaching a town for a break, my focus is on eating and resting.
The judgement on a town is reserved for how much choice the supermercardo has. Coyhaique has knocked it out of the park, the best choice I’ve had in South America, let alone the last few weeks. Bizarrely they even have imported products from Waitrose, a novelty if nothing else. The first peanut butter without hydrogenated vegetable oil, I was worryingly over excited by this. Welcome back banana and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch! Don’t judge me.
The fruit and vegetables aren’t mainly rotten and look fresh, they have more than onion and carrot. The bread lasts longer than a day. The beer is in a fridge that is turned on. They have fresh meat, including chicken. Still, alas, just cheese in slices. I now understand why a Chilean guy I met raved about the choice of cheese in Argentina. This is highly unusual; for Argentina to have a better choice of something compared to Chile.
I seem to develop a temporary eating disorder on these rest breaks and become incredibly gluttonous, denying the nutritional knowledge I have and over riding it with a wanton lust for calories. No doubt it is a form of comfort eating. It fills the days, generally which revolve around checking email, catching up on sport, editing photos, reading and then maybe a glass or two of something red or amber coloured.
I’m yet to find a balance of cycling, resting and enjoying the surroundings enough to do something different. There is a desire to make progress north, to put a dent in the huge undertaking, to make it seem achievable balanced against just resting from the turmoil my body is undergoing.
That is not to say I don’t enjoy it. I love riding my bike for my ‘working’ week, I’m very lucky to be able to chase the dream and this last week, it has been that dream I had.
I need to remember that like anything worth having in life, it comes at a cost. Constantly requiring adjustment to my perspective so as not to lose the point of doing this trip in the first place.