Articles tagged with "cycling"

Cerro San Cristóbal – the final descent

In November I’d set the 5th fastest time on Strava for the descent from Antilén to Pedro de Valdivia. I wanted the fastest time but in December I’d crashed heavily while on course to set it. After that, I had a few rides where I was way slower around the corners before recovering my confidence, and eventually I managed to set some times within a second or two of my best.

On January 20th, I was emigrating from Chile, and in the runup to that I was desperately trying to at least break my personal best. On January 18th things had been going well until a car pulled out in front of me and forced me to slow down. January 19th felt like a good one but at Mapulemu I’d collided with a bird which didn’t get out of my way in time. And I thought that was the last chance gone, as the removal company was supposed to come that day to take my stuff. Luckily, they screwed up and had the wrong date. They couldn’t come until 20th, which caused all sorts of chaos and stress, but at least it meant I had one final chance at the record. I was on a mission, determined to give it everything, and to have no possible regret about not trying hard enough.

I set off at 7.30am, wanting the roads to be quiet. I had a great warmup ride up Bicentenario to La Piramide, and I was feeling fantastic as I climbed up to Antilén. I pushed hard for the last bit of the climb and carried a lot of speed over the brow of the hill. It was a beautiful morning, perfect for riding. I kept my speed high down towards Mapulemu, not dropping below 30mph. I took Mapulemu better than ever before and avoiding crashing this time. At the lower hairpins, there was no traffic and no other cyclists so I took wide lines and carried tonnes of speed through. I was sure I was on for the record.

Right at the exit, they were watering the grass and there was a slick of water across the road. I was too into what I was doing to take much notice and powered across it. The tarmac stops at that point and there are cobbles for a few metres before the gate. I shot across the water and onto the cobbles at well over 30mph, and as I braked and turned for the exit, I lost it.

My first crash came as quite a surprise for me but this one didn’t. I was very calm as I flew towards the tarmac, although I was desperately wishing I could turn the clock back just a few seconds and avoid what I knew was coming. I hit my head quite hard and scraped horribly along the cobbles, coming to a stop about 10m from where I’d come off. My ears were ringing, I was covered in blood and it took me a few seconds to start getting up.

It was worse than my first crash but after a few minutes I was OK to ride home. I set off, blood dripping from my hand. I couldn’t bring myself to look at it until I got home but it turned out I’d sliced a chunk of skin off the top of my finger. I’d scraped myself all up my right arm, and my right ankle was also bleeding quite badly.

But the worst damage was to my phone. It had been in my pocket but it was deeply scratched all over, and to my horror it wouldn’t turn on. I tried and tried but it was dead. I’d killed it. My strava data was in it and would never come out. I will never know if I actually set a record.



On Christmas Day I’d tried to cycled to Farellones, but given up after starting to get cramp due to dehydration on a savagely hot day. On New Year’s Day I tried again.

Again I planned to leave extremely early, and again I failed, but I failed a little bit less badly and I was on the road at 8.15am. And whereas last week I’d had the feeling quite early on in the ride that I might not make it, this week I felt right from the start that it was going to go well. It was strange to cycle the same route again so soon and a lot of the way to Corral Quemado felt pretty boring, but much easier than it had last week. Then, I had expected there to be lots of cyclists and there were almost none; this week I thought there would not be many and there were quite a few.

I got to Corral Quemado a bit more quickly than I had done last week. The weather was perfect, sunny and clear but still cool by 10am when I got there. So now the hard work started, and it was awesome. I powered up the first 8 curves, as last week, then found the section to curve 9 far easier and powered up the next 6 as well. Then began the long slow drag up to curve 15, which was way easier than last week, with no dehydration or cramp to contend with. I got to Yerba Loca at curve 15 and stopped to fill up my water bottles. There were a couple of other cyclists there, and some people out for a new year drive. “Tired?”, one of them asked me. “Nope”, I said. “Arrogant jerk”, he probably thought. But it was true. I didn’t feel at all tired and I knew I was going to make it to the top.

I refilled my water bottles and headed on. Things got tougher, with fewer hairpins and more long harsh gradients. And here there were lots of huge and vicious flies, which kept on biting me. I kept on wondering why I had a sudden sharp pain in my knuckles, only to look down and see another fat fly biting me through my gloves. But they were easy to deal with, unable to disengage before I swatted them. I must have killed hundreds.

After a long slow ride up with few hairpins, I reached curve 26, two miles from Farellones. I was getting slow at this point, tired but really loving the climb. 40 minutes after curve 26, I got to Farellones.

I had some lunch and then headed down. It had taken me 4h45m to get from my house to Farellones, and it took me 1h45m to get back. 3200m of climbing was a great way to start 2016.

Strava log


Sadly the camera’s memory card filled up and the video stops at turn 28

Curva 15 en el camino a Farellones

Curva 15 en el camino a Farellones

On Christmas Day, I decided to cycle to Farellones, a ski resort outside Santiago. The road climbs slowly from around 600m above sea level in Santiago to 1350m above sea level at Corral Quemado, and then things get serious – 40 hairpins in 10 miles to go from 1350m to 2400m up.

My idea was to leave at 6am. El Niño had given us a way worse summer than usual and there had been lots of cool cloudy days where there is normally unbroken sunshine for months. But it was a proper summer day today, and if I left too late it would be much too hot for a serious uphill cycle. But… I got up at 6am, and thought I would sleep for just a few more minutes, and woke up at 9am. Then I needed to make some adjustments to the bike, and prepare some food and drink, and I didn’t manage to leave until 11am.

It was warm already. The streets were deserted, which made the ride out to the start of the road to Farellones pretty relaxing, but early on in the ride I knew I’d made a mistake by leaving so late. Even by the time I got to Mallsport, 7 miles from my house and about 200m up, I was feeling pretty thirsty and pretty tired.

The start of the road to Farellones is pretty easy, gently rising for a few miles. The first real test was just after Puente Ñilhue, where I’d set out to climb Provincia in July 2014 and October 2016. Here, the road climbed steeply for a few hundred metres, and I had to drop down quite a few gears. Generally the gradients were not savage but I just didn’t feel that great. After about an hour and three quarters, I stopped for a break and to check how far it was to the start of the hairpins. I found that I was only a mile away, and psyched myself up for the real work.

I reached the hairpins. By now it was really hot but at first I felt great. The hairpins were easy – just a short sharp climb, then an easy flat bit until the next one. I powered through 8 of them with no problem. But after that it got tougher, with a long slow steep climb until curve 9. By now, all my water was disgustingly warm and I didn’t have much left. I began to doubt I’d make it.

I kept on pushing. By curve 14 I was suffering, and beginning to cramp a bit. I knew there was water at curve 15, but there’s a huge gap between curves 14 and 15, where the road just climbs relentlessly, at a gradient of about 7.5 per cent. About half way along it, I decided I was going to have to call it a day. I was getting too dehydrated to carry on, and I really didn’t want to get crippled by cramp out here. So I reluctantly turned around and headed home.

The petrol station at the start of the Farellones road was pretty much the only thing open in Santiago. I was incredibly glad it was because I had long since run out of water by the time I got there, and the last bits in my bottle had actually been hot. I bought a lot of liquid, and the last half hour back home was a lot more fun than the descent up until that point.

It was a shame not to have got further but I knew I’d left too late to make it. 41.1 miles and 2000m of climbing was still an OK effort, I thought.

Strava log

San Cristóbal crash

Ever since I realised that I was actually a good downhill cyclist, I’d been trying to set the fastest time on Strava for the descent from Antilén to Pedro de Valdivia. My personal best was 7 seconds slower than the overall best time. Today I went for a late cycle over the hill, and felt good on the way up. When I got to Antilén, the roads were quiet as the park had already officially closed, so I had a really good chance to set a new personal best at least.

I powered down the hill. All the way to Mapulemu I felt like I was on for a record. Looking at Strava later I was actually 6 seconds up on my previous best time and 3 seconds up on the overall fastest, with half the run still to go. Surely I could do it.

There’s a sharp left turn at Mapulemu. I knew that it was the curves where I needed to carry a lot of speed through to have a chance at the record. I leaned heavily and attempted the curve at a faster speed than I’d taken it before, and suddenly I lost grip. The back wheel slid out, and suddenly I was on the floor, rasping across the tarmac.

I came to a stop pretty quickly, luckily without hitting anything else. Two people who I’d overtaken just moments earlier came to see if I was OK. It was a very, very stupid crash and I felt pretty silly. I also had some physical damage, some savage road rash and a nasty cut on my ankle. But after a couple of minutes I’d caught my breath and got back on the bike to painfully head home and clean myself up. It was an epic fail for record breaking and I decided I was, as I’d previously thought, not very good at downhill cycling.

Strava log

Via Roja and Cerro Manquehue

Via Roja and Cerro Manquehue

I climbed Manquehue two years ago, when my back was still fragile after surgery. That time, we’d climbed from La Piramide via a route that goes most of the way to the top of Cerro Carbón. Today, with a friend who often visits Chile and loves getting out into the hills, I tried the route via Via Roja.

The route via Carbón had taken us about 4 hours in total to get to the top at a very relaxed pace. Starting from Via Roja was supposed to take less than 2 hours. I arranged to meet my friend at 11am, and I thought I would cycle to the start of the climb. I set off at about 10.30, and by 11am I was on Via Roja, a mile and a half from where we were meeting. But what I hadn’t checked was how high the end of Via Roja actually was. It’s just over 1000m above sea level, so I had a 400m ascent to do. It was a great ascent but tough going with an average gradient of 7.5%. By the time I reached the end of the road, my friend and her friends had got bored of waiting and set off.

So I set off on my own. It was an amazingly steep climb, much tougher than the route via Carbón, but also much quicker, and after an hour and a half I got to the top, not too far behind my friends.

Going down was much tougher on the loose and slippery ground. We somehow ended up a little way from the route we’d taken on the way up, on a much steeper and more precarious path. So it took pretty much exactly the same time to get down as it had to go up. The cycling was a different story. It took me about a quarter of the time to go back down Via Roja as it had to go up it, and I carried the momentum all the way home. In total it took me 5.5 hours to get from my house to the top of the mountain and back.

Strava log

How to fix a broken bottom bracket

How to fix a broken bottom bracket

After more than two years off cycling following back surgery, I’d got going again with a vengeance in 2015. But after not much use for a long time, my bike was suffering. It started making lots of unpleasant noises when I was pushing, and eventually in June it was clear the bottom bracket had broken.

Fixing this was difficult, firstly because I didn’t know what most bike parts were called in Spanish, secondly because I didn’t know what most of them were called in English either, and thirdly because some of the parts I needed were not in stock anywhere in Santiago. But finally today I fixed the thing. Here, for the benefit of anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation, is my simple 14 step guide to fixing a bottom bracket in just three months. What I did was this:

  1. Bought new bottom bracket from local bike shop
  2. Ordered bracket removal tool from the UK, waited a month for it to arrive
  3. Realised I’d bought the right size BB but the wrong type
  4. Went to every single bike shop in Santiago, failed to find correct type
  5. Ordered one from the UK, waited a month for it to arrive
  6. Failed to undo the bottom bracket despite extreme effort
  7. Realised drive side thread is reversed, tried again, still failed
  8. Bought big spanner, still failed to undo bottom bracket
  9. Bought big mallet to hit big spanner with, still failed to undo bottom bracket
  10. Bought screw to secure tool to BB while I stood on spanner. Screw too long.
  11. Bought shorter screw, attached tool to BB, put spanner on tool, stood on spanner, waited several minutes, got bored
  12. Considered just buying new bike
  13. Sprayed WD40 all over bottom of bike, went on holiday
  14. Returned, stood on spanner again, finally loosened the old BB and replaced it

With the new bottom bracket, riding the bike was nicer than it had been for months. The old one was so horribly broken that I’m amazed I could even pedal with it.



I headed back to San Pedro. The scenery was really mind-blowing, with giant volcanoes on the horizon, over the wild rock formations of the Valle de la Luna. Lascar had erupted only a few years earlier, and Putana was smoking. I hoped that one day I’d be able to come here and see an eruption.

In the evening I cycled out to the Valle de la Muerte, much closer to San Pedro than the Valle de la Luna. It had been a pretty tiring day, and in normal circumstances I might have slept late the next morning. But I had to be up at 3.30am, because I would be returning to El Tatio.

Atacama cycling

Atacama cycling

I’d been to San Pedro before. All backpackers in Chile come here at some point on their journeys, and I was no different. I stopped off on my way north to see some desert sights.

I’d cycled in the desert last time, and I decided to do the same again now. I don’t really like riding bikes that aren’t mine, but the flat-pedalled, slightly too small machine that I hired would suffice for a few tens of miles anyway. I headed out into the desert.

I cycled to the Valle de la Luna. Most people come here at sunset; I arrived in the powerful heat of midday. The advantage was that I had the place entirely to myself; the disadvantage was sunburn so bad that it was visible for weeks. But that would only affect me later. On the day, I enjoyed it.

The most dangerous road in the world

The most dangerous road in the world

In the middle of the Salar de Uyuni, I’d met a traveller from Manchester who said that by far the most exciting thing he’d done in South America was cycling from La Paz to Coroico. I like mountain biking a lot, and this ride, which would actually involve mountains, sounded like a lot of fun. So when I arrived in La Paz on Boxing Day my first priority was to book onto a tour.

The ride doesn’t actually start in La Paz, which is a mere 3600 metres above sea level. It starts at La Cumbre, a pass high, high in the Andes at 4700m above sea level. Coroico is 64km away horizontally, and three and a half kilometres vertically. It’s downhill all the way, but the catch is that the road is just a narrow ledge cut into breathtakingly steep mountainsides. Sadly, it’s a road with a reputation for tragedy – buses and trucks fall with horrible frequency into the valley, and it is frequently described as the most dangerous road in the world.

So I was slightly nervous when I got up at 6am to get ready for the tour. I was also extremely tired, having made a tactical error by choosing a room in my hostel which had a balcony overlooking Calle Sagarnaga. The balcony was nice but Calle Sagarnaga does not sleep, and neither did I thanks to the continuous rumbling of traffic and noise of people throughout the night. I got a strong coffee and then went to the offices of the bike company. We drove up to La Cumbre, where clouds whipped by in a bitterly cold wind, and snow lay on the ground. Here we had a safety briefing, and we all rode around a little bit to get used to our bikes. And then, it was time to set off.

The route began on smooth, well-paved roads, which meant that we could go very fast. However, it was below freezing, and before long I couldn’t feel my fingers and my eyes were watering so much I could hardly see. Things took a turn for the worse the very first time I had to brake at all hard, when my bike started fishtailing and before I knew what was happening I was crashing down onto the tarmac. I was pretty shaken and my right shoulder had taken a hard knock, but I was OK to carry on. But now I lacked confidence in my bike, and found myself propping up the rear of the group, with even a timid Swiss girl easily able to outpace me. This was very disappointing for me.

We descended through a police checkpoint. Coroico lies in the Yungas, a region of Bolivia which produces large quantities of coca leaf. The leaf itself is used widely for chewing and brewing, as it has been for centuries, but it can also be used to produce cocaine, of course, and so movements of large amounts of coca leaf are monitored intensively. We passed through and carried on down. Soon we reached a short uphill section, which would have been a great workout as we were still only just under 4000m above sea level. I was hoping to win the informal contest, having been so slow on the downhill, but as soon as I put the power down, my entire rear derailleur collapsed into the rear wheel with a horrific crunch. It was game over for my bike.

Luckily it was not game over for my ride. The company had spares, which were in a support vehicle following us. They drove me to the top of the uphill section, past my fellow cyclists, and prepared a new bike for me. I was genuinely disappointed not to have done the uphill section, but no-one believed me when I said this. The new bike instantly felt enormously better, and when we set off again I was able to lead the pack. Soon we were at the end of the tarmac and the start of the tricky part of the road, and here we split into two groups. I decided to try the faster group, and this proved to be the right decision.

It was the rainy season, and this part of the road was pretty rutted and muddy. Occasionally waterfalls fell right onto it. But the ride was becoming extremely good fun, as we twisted and turned through breathtaking mountain scenery, all the while with dizzy drops just a few feet to our left. We stopped fairly frequently for snack breaks and equipment tuning – brakes needed constant checking, as the consequence of a failure didn’t bear thinking about. The lower we got, the thicker the air got and the faster we went. I had my own personal favourite moment of the tour on this muddy section when the guide overtook a bus just before a bend. I decided to follow, passing the bus at speed on the outside, just a few inches from the edge of the road, with my shoulder still killing me from my earlier tumble.

As we got lower, the temperature rose and it became humid. We were now in the coca, coffee and banana-growing regions and the air smelt earthy and fertile. The road was dusty now, but having spent the last two weeks more than 3000m above sea level, I could breathe through my nose and still cycle as hard as I could. I was amazed at how acclimatised I was, and understood why athletes train so much at altitude. Now I was really hitting my stride, and the guide and I led the pack by a long way.

Eventually we saw Coroico on the hillside ahead of us. I was disappointed; I would have been happy with hours more cycling. But our cycle was to end at a small lodge in the jungle, at the end of an extremely steep trail. This was a final flourish which I enjoyed hugely, even though I set off far too enthusiastically and took my second fall of the day. I jumped back on and raced through the tree with my enthusiasm undimmed, and got to the end with bleeding elbows, a shoulder I could hardly move, and a huge grin on my face.

At the lodge, there were hot showers, and a huge amount of food. We had a fantastic couple of hours there, refuelling, and it was good to finally have a chance to talk to the people I’d cycled with: during the ride, everyone was pretty focussed on the road ahead. It was strange to find myself in hot jungle, when only hours before I’d been on a windswept pass high in the mountains.

And then it was time to head back to La Paz. This proved to be more frightening than the cycle down, because the weather had deteriorated and we had to negotiate the road in thick fog and heavy rain, as night was falling. We went much too fast for my liking, but we got back to the top unscathed. I was in an incredibly good mood. The guy from Manchester was right – this had been one of the most exciting things I’d done in South America.

Desert heat

Desert heat

I stocked up on more cakes from the cafe across the road before leaving Calama to go to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus journey took us through some forbidding Atacama scenery, rocky canyons and exposed plains and barely a speck of green in sight, and it seemed amazing to me that people could make a journey like this, through some of the harshest terrain in the world, by bus. My fellow passengers were mostly locals and I looked around at them, feeling some kind of envy that they lived in this remarkable place.

I arrived in San Pedro in the early afternoon, and the sun beat down on the low whitewashed buildings which glared fiercely. I found a hostel and checked in, and wandered around the tiny village, quickly exploring more or less all of it. It was clearly a town that lived off tourism, but it didn’t seem as in-your-face about it as El Calafate or Pucón had been. El Calafate seemed to be built with wealthy visitors in mind, while Pucón was a middle-class Chilean sort of place, but San Pedro was definitely about backpackers. It made for a sociable time but I never much like places where local culture has been overwhelmed by outsiders. It’s the central problem of travel really – I want to visit amazing places and see spectacular things, but I don’t really want anyone else to.

I hired a bike in San Pedro, and spent a day exploring the surrounding desert. Fortunately I got a sensible machine, far more realistic a proposition than the contraption I’d hired in Puerto Madryn and definitely up to the task of cycling in the driest place on the planet. I started by heading north to the Pukará de Quitor, a hilltop fort which was the site of a last stand during the Spanish conquest. The views from here over the desert showed what an anomaly San Pedro is, with trees and vegetation in an otherwise unremitting sea of light brown.

Further north, I spent a while in the Quebrada del Diablo, a twisting narrow canyon that cuts deep into the hills. I don’t know how far I went down it – I started by cycling but before too long the floor of the canyon was too rough to make that worthwhile, so I left the bike and went on by foot. It was an amazing place – just hot sand, orange rocks and blue skies, and if I stood still and held my breath the silence was total. It was obvious that water had rushed violently through here at some point, but extremely hard to believe that could ever happen in the arid heat of the middle of the day.

After the Quebrada, I headed a little bit further down the road to what was allegedly the Inca ruins of Catarpe. But either I didn’t go to the right place, or Catarpe is really rubbish – there seemed to be nothing at all to see except a stone wall which could have been built yesterday. It was now far too hot to realistically explore any more, so I headed back to San Pedro for lunch. I’d taken plenty of water and drunk pints and pints, but still I’d almost lost my voice thanks to the extreme dryness. I found a shop selling ice cream in San Pedro and decided that for health reasons I should buy some. One portion left me feeling only partially restored, but a second had me feeling like doing more cycling, and as the afternoon heat gradually receded, I set out for the Valle de la Luna, an area of rock formations 17km south of San Pedro, to catch the sunset there.

This was far less fun than the morning’s cycling had been. Earlier, there hadn’t been even a breath to disturb the hot stillness, but now in the late afternoon a wind had sprung up from the west, and it was getting stronger by the second. Although it was much cooler than it had been, the wind was hot, and it felt like I was cycling into a hairdryer as I slowly pedalled down the tarmac toward the valley. The scenery was stunning, barren beyond belief and with towering volcanoes fringing the horizon, but I was beginning to get angry with the wind. After a few kilometres the tarmac stopped and I was on a sandy track, with the wind still blowing right at me, and every time I stopped for a second to catch my breath, the wind seemed to drop to nothing, only to start up again when I pushed off. At times I even struggled to cycle downhill. I cycled on in a furious rage, cursing the desert and the wind and thinking I could have been sat on an air-conditioned tour bus which would have cost me less than my bike hire had.

But eventually the valley appeared, and as soon as I wasn’t cycling any more I enjoyed the cycling I’d just done. The valley looked alive in the blazing evening light, and I scrambled up the sides to get stunning views over the surroundings, with Volcán Licancábur standing solemnly over everything. After the Sun had set the light quickly began to fade, and I set off for the return cycle. This was massively more fun, and with the wind behind me it took me barely half an hour to get back to San Pedro. By the end of the journey it was almost dark except for the light of the full moon, and I felt pretty pleased with 50 kilometres of cycling in the world’s driest desert.