Heading home

0020170430_120236

The Big Ride is finished – bags are packed and I’m now at the airport for the first of my flights back home.
I’m a tad dissapointed I didn’t get all the way to Ushuaia, but to have covered 80% of the distance in 90% of the time I’d set myself (excluding injury time) is pretty good going, and I’m very satisfied with this achievement. Any disappointment is also more than offset by the huge adventure I’ve had. In 12,028 miles from the Arctic to the Atacama Desert, I’ve cycled through challenging and stunning landscapes, experienced diverse ways of life, met amazing people, ate great food and been up close to animals in the wild. To have been successfull in avoiding an array of tropical diseases, bear attacks, road traffic collisions, and crime (despite passing through 5 of the 12 most dangerous countries in the world) is another bonus!
In the end I didn’t set foot in Bolivia (combination of altitude & poor road surface) or Argentina (sustained altitude and inadequate tent). But I did manage to end the ride “on a high” by cycling up to just over 4800m above sea level (just under 16,000 feet – the same height as Mont Blanc). This was an incredible experience, and like the whole trip, off the end of the challenge-reward scale.
It will be great to be back in Jersey with Sue, though I gather the weather’s been a bit wet, and having not seen rain since mid March, it looks like I’m in for a shock!
Again, thank you for your comments and support – especially to Sue and my parents.

PS I’ve been uploading photos and blog entries to Strava. For those not on Strava, my brother Ken, has kindly added them to this page: www.keith.bike/strava

 

Enjoy!

Advertisements

Into the Tropics

All of a sudden, it’s got very Tropical! Since passing Dallas, the landscape had been semi-arid with little in the way of trees, but plenty of hardy bushes and cacti. The cacti came in all shapes and sizes, from iconic tall cacti

to cacti with a bumper prickly pear crop

to cacti grown commercially

and even cacti planted as a wall!

The fields of corn had continued into Mexico, but now it was being grown for tortillas rather than for animal feed or bio-fuel. Even the smallest of villages I passed through had a small shop with a clunky noisy tortilla machine, with dough being fed in at one end and a constant stream of tortillas appearing on a conveyor belt at the other end.

But in less than a day, the wide open spaces

were replaced by crowded growth

The fields of corn

replaced by fields of sugar cane

and the ubiquitous limes that were served with every dish – here’s where they come from

The cacti was gone too – replaced by banana trees

Every available patch of ground seemed to have something growing – very profusely and very green

Even the full width shoulder at the side of the road had succumbed to the green weeds that were growing with frightening voraciousness

The trees are larger, which is a good thing as the shade was a welcome relief from the strong sunshine

Even the roadkill has gone tropical – a snake over a metre long – so big that cars were driving around it!

There are still butterflies, but they had changed from the yellows, oranges and browns to an exotic black and electric blue-green

As you might guess from the amount of green, it has also got noticeably damper – either as water on its way up in humid air or on its way down as rain. But the temperature of the rain is just right – cool but not cold – so it too provides a welcome relief from the heat. While the increased heat and humidity make the cycling harder, it’s good to have a change, and it finally feels like I’m in the tropics!

Slightly disapointingly (but hardly surprisingly) all this didn’t happen when I crossed the Tropic of Cancer (latitude 23 degrees north) on the 11th of September. It happened after two days of downhill on the 26th and 28th of September. This descent was from the central high plateau that I’d been on for the previous 3 weeks, down to the lowlands running along the Caribbean coast.

Unfortunately it was wet and cloudy for much of this descent, so I couldn’t just fly down, and I missed out on much of the view

Fortunately I caught up with a truck that was going at just the right speed for me to follow. This meant I got plenty of space from overtaking vehicles and didn’t have to worry about the poor visibility.

Or the narrow tunnels!

The view I really wanted to see was that of Pico de Orizaba. Not only is this a dormant volcano with glaciers, it’s the highest mountain in Central and South America. I’d seen it two days earlier as I approached Huamantla, looking a bit like mount Fuji, but at 80 miles away, I couldn’t see its full grandeur. So I was looking forward to the view from just 10 miles as the main road passed its southern flank. Here’s what I was hoping for

and here’s what I got:

That’s mountain weather for you!

But back to the cycling – an added advantage of the lower altitude is more oxygen.

This was what one of my water bottles looked like at the top:

And at the bottom:

The 27th was spent in the city of Orizaba picking up a replacement security key for my wheels. After losing the original one, I had been unable to change the inner tube on the rear wheel, so by now had a record 6 patches on it. Not all of these were air tight, so the tyre needed pumping up on an almost daily basis.

There were many people involved with the delivery of this replacement key. Firstly, a big thank you goes to Sue for sending out the replacement part. Another big thank you to Chris Minto for using his contacts to find someone who only lived 5 blocks from my planned route. In a country the size of Mexico, this is truly remarkable! The biggest thanks goes to Mundo and his wife Estefania:

Not only for being there to receive the part, but also for welcoming me into their home and giving me a place to stay for the night. Not only that, they also gave me a Mexican national football team top. I’m now feeling like a proper honorary Mexican!

With the hub key I was finally able to replace a very battle weary inner tube

Thanks also to Orizaba’s premier bike shop AST Bikes, who helped me out with internet access to find Mundo and Estefania’s home, and a track pump to get the new inner tube up to maximum pressure with ease.

Crossing the Tropic of Cancer was the second line of latitude with an astronomical significance that I´d crossed so far this trip. The first was, of course, the Arctic Circle – the most southerly point where the Sun can be seen for the whole of the longest day in June. The Tropic of cancer is where the Sun is directly overhead on the same day.

More than being able to say that “I’ve cycled from the Arctic to the Tropics”, this gives a unique perspective on the relationship between the tilt of the planet Earth, and it´s nearest star, the Sun. The sort of perspective you don´t get from going “around the world” (which, it could be said, from an extra-terrestrial perspective, everyone does every day). Another sign of my heading south across a curved surface is what is happening to my view of constellations familiar from my childhood. Constellations such as the Plough, familiar because they were always there, high up in the night sky. But I´m now seeing less and less of them as they appear to gradually sink towards the horizon.

The next line of latitude with planetary significance will be the Equator, the point where the Sun is directly overhead on the March and September equinox. But that will not be until December – or even next year at the rate I´m going now! 😦

Finally, a few other experiences of note from my last days before descending into the Tropics:

It might have been over a week since Mexico´s Independence day, but the town of Huamantla had obviously put a lot of time into lining their streets with flags, and were in no hurry to take them down

Besides, they were too busy enjoying a bit of Sunday afternoon rodeo action:

This video has the cowboy standing in the arena showing off some nifty rope skills (even jumping through his own lasso!) before casually catching the horse as it runs past!

Now that the Independence day celebrations are over, what happens to the traders selling Mexican flags and sombreros? Time to switch to a very colourful Halloween!

Before the vegetation took over, there was more colour with some very striking graffiti art promoting concerts and events. I saw another one in progress, and was impressed with the ease with which the huge letters were drawn, and the speed with which they were coloured in.

I also came across my first group of cyclists out for a ride since the Ragbrai in Iowa. This wasn’t on the same scale, but given how few road riders I’d seen in Mexico, a loose group of 70 riders was quite a sight, and good company for a good part of the morning. It didn’t look like a typical UK club run – but it was well organised with most people wearing the same jersey, and even an official looking motor cycle escort (one pictured here with the now ubiquitous back-of-a-phone pointing in my direction!)

There was also a vehicle up ahead that appeared to be part of the ride. So I made my way up the group to take a look. It was a pickup truck, with an object covered in flowers, and as I got closer, I could see these were surrounding a religious statue. As I got closer, I noticed that the lead riders behind this vehicle weren’t chatting much. Suddenly the thought occurred to me that “what if this is some sort of memorial ride”? There was me, happily wishing everyone I’d passed “Buenos días” (good morning), and now pushing to the front to gawp at something that could have great personal significance to those I’d passed. Crikey. Time to err on the side of caution and pull back a bit.

A short while later I got chatting to one of the riders. It turned out that this was an annual pilgrimage to a holy site, and this year was special as it was the 25th anniversary. So much to my relief, there was no coffin or ashes in the shrine on the pickup. The lead riders were not paying respect, just taking part in a bit of divine drafting!

Finally, for those of you not on facebook, I took a day off on my birthday to visit the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Appropriately for my ride of astronomical proportions, the two main pyramids are the Pyramid del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun)

wp-1479132837301.jpg

and the Pyramid del Luna (Pyramid of the Moon).

wp-1479132829860.jpg

While the Pyramid del Sol is the larger one (the third largest pyramid in the world) I thought that the Pyramid del Luna was the more impressive.

So there I was, standing on top of the Pyramid del Sol on the autumn equinox – the same day as my birthday. Just as I was wondering if this would have some auspicious significance, I started chatting with the other guy in this photo:

wp-1479132823233.jpg

Charles was a very enthusiastic guy – and also the voice of Mario, one of the biggest characters in the history of video gaming. A very random, yet interesting and enjoyable encounter!

As ever, to keep in touch, check my facebook page for occasional posts:

www.facebook.com/keith.davis.7906

(you’ll need to login to facebook to view this)

and my Strava profile for daily updates, including photos and some of the things of note that happened that day:

www.strava.com/athletes/12305969

(you’ll need to login to Strava to view this)

imgres

Independence Day

At the end of the second week in September, after several days in a row of not getting to my planned destination (punctures, and feeling weaker after several days of upset stomach, credit card hassle) I was in need of a bit of cheering up. 

I knew that Mexican Independence day was comming up, and was hoping to catch some of the celebration. Independence day is the 16th of September, and is a public holiday marking independence from Spain in 1810. But a bit like Hogmanay, the main celebration is on the evening before. I was looking for a town big enough to put on a good show, but small enough to avoid endless crowds.

On the 15th, after cycling 50 miles from the tiny village of La Sauceda, I reached the town of San Jose Iturbide. I set about looking for somewhere to stay – there were no campsites or motels, and the first couple of hotels I saw were way too expensive. The third one, while at the top of my Mexico hotel budget (500 pesos – about £20) was perfect. It was right on the town square where preparations were being made for the celebrations that evening. Food stalls were already up and running, and everything Mexican from flags to sombreros, in sizes from “slightly Mexican” up to “hugely passionately Mexican” were on sale. 

In the middle of the square is an attractive park with plenty of trees and grass. The square was closed to traffic, as were two of the side streets that were lined on both sides with food stalls. In the square, there was a stage by the town hall, more food stalls, and a 3 storey high frame being setup with fireworks. 

This looked like exactly the sort of place I was hoping to be – and I had found somewhere to stay that was right in the heart of it!

As the sun went down, a church next to the hotel was lit up in red white and green. 

The show started on the stage with traditional Inca drumming and dancing. The drumming was impressive and the costumes colourful. 

Inca dancing

Traditional drummers

A crowd of around 1000 people had gathered to watch. Next up were some slightly camp looking cowboys in tight trousers and pastel coloured shirts, along with their partners in big vibrant coloured dresses being worn under what I can only describe as an apron. 

Cowboys and ladies 

But the crowd loved it:

Cowboys and ladies 

I went to grab some food – big crisps with a chili sauce drizzled over them. Bit on the hot side for me, so some lemon sorbet next to cool down. Then a corn on the cob on a stick – smothered in butter, rolled in grated cheese and dusted with chilli powder. This was great – and the corn the most tender I’ve ever had. Then a piece of what I can only describe as caremelised melon. Then a thick tortilla, fried, sliced in half like a pita bread, and filled with chicken and red pepper with a green sauce. Very tasty. Then a thinner tortilla folded in half, with a tuna filling, heated and sauce added. Even better than the chicken one. A hot cake (bit like a drop scone / pancake), milk shake, some more icecream, then some warm mulled apple punch. I was glad that my stomach had just got back to normal. I had no idea what all this was going to do to it, but it tasted great.

Every so often I went back to the stage – after the smartly dressed Cowboys and Housewifes, were Mexican flamenco dancers – the men with quick footwork and their arms behind their back – not to dissimilar to the irish “riverdance” dancing. The ladies were the opposite – the action with their arms waving around their flamboyant dresses. 

Mexican flamenco  

Then it was the turn of the Mariachi band – smartly dressed (more tight trousers!) but playing in a relaxed style with the occassional bit of joking.

Mariachi band

Firstly they were playing and singing on their own, then they were joined buy female singer with an almost operactic voice. After that, the mariachi band were joined by a man who was acting like a cheesey latino Tom Jones  – all hammed up with obviously died black hair, sunglasses and pure white teeth that were obviously false. Despite all this (especially the teeth) he was a good singer. He was very skilled at making jokes at his own expense and changing guises mid song at the same time as obviously being a very good singer.
By this point the crowd watching all this had grown to 5000, if not more. 

Scan of the crowd

There were all ages in the crowd, families, couples, groups of kids, teenagers and adults. There was a great atmosphere, everyone seemed to be relaxed and good natured, enjoying the occasion. Beside me there were a couple of guys in their mid teens, drinking something out of plastic tumblers. Something that was obviously alchoholic. One of them knelt down to refil from a bottle in a bag, using the crowd as cover. When he reappeared, i caught his eye and gave him a knowing smile. He seemed genuinely shocked that he’d been rumbled! Later one of them knocked the bag over with the distinctive clank of glass bottle against glass bottle and concrete. While his mate was barating him, a middle aged man infront of me, who did not appear to know the teenagers, heard this, turned and cuffed the one who’d knocked the bag over on the back of the head. But not in a “your too young to drink” sort of way, more in a “you prat” sort of way.

It was now time for the formalities of the evening to begin. The mariachi band left the stage and were replaced by the mayor, his wife, a dozen local dignitaries and the beauty queen. A bell was run, a flame lit, the mayor read out a proclamation. There were a couple of speaches – all serious, nationalistic stuff. Off stage a Mexican flag was being unfurled, and everyone saluted in the direction of the flag. The salute was with the lower arm horizontal across the chest, with hand flat, palm facing the ground. When I say everyone, it was everyone I could see – the dignitaries on the stage, adults around me, the two teenagers beside me – everyone. But even here there was a light moment. Not far from me there was a very young child sitting on the shoulders of, what I assume to be, her father. Another adult standing near them, gently took the child’s arm and folded it into a salute across her chest. This was much to the amusement of the father and those standing nearby. The child looked a bit bemused, but held the salute. What made it remarkable to me (in a good way) was that the man and the father did not appear to know each other – and that they and no-one else appeared to be bothered by this. It wasn’t like a crowd where everyone knew everyone else – but rather a crowd without any strangers. 

Formalities concluded with the mayor passionately shouting out “Viva (country / town / people / etc)” with the crowd shouting back “VIVA” each time. All very rousing. Then fireworks, mariachi band back on stage, and another cup of mulled apple punch – this time with a shot of tequila to round the evening off. 

The music continued to about 1:30, and I got to bed at about 3 after editing and uploading the video clips, and going through the evening’s photos. So it wasn’t until about 9 by the time I got up. I was thinking that, after the party the night before, it was going to be a quiet morning. This notion was quickly dispelled when the silence was shattered by the sound of drums and trumpets echoing through the hotel from the square. I hastely finished getting dressed and shot outside to see the square lined with people on two sides – and the start of a parade! 

The parade ran along one of the streets that had the food stalls the night before, past the hotel, then a left turn past the town hall. There were not as many people as at the hight of the celebrations the night before, but there were crowds lining both sides of the route up to 4 deep. 

I managed to cross the road to the square and across the square to where the band was now. I was surprised to see that it was a school band – probably a primary school at that. But a tremendous sound – echoing off the buildings that lined the square.

Next was a group of chirdren of various ages with some form of disability,  then to the opposite end of the age range to a group of ladies and a few men, the youngest of which looked at least 80. They stopped by the town hall, infront of the stage with local dignitaries seated at a long table. Then they started singing what I assumed to be the Mexican national anthem. Many voices were a bit frail, and there were a few, who, how can I put it, were possibly a bit deaf. But the crowd politely listened (i did see a few amused smiles) as the singing warbled across the square. 


Then it was the turn of the Municipal Police, who made an almost Soviet May Day Parade show of force. They might not have the resources of the State Police, or the national Federal Police, but that wasn’t going to stop them from saying “don’t mess with us!”. After the 4 dogs and handlers – complete with live demonstartion:


(You don’t get that sort of thing at Jersey’s Liberation Day celebrations!)

There was the march past with assault rifles:


Customised pickup trucks with motorcycle outriders brought this part of the parade to an end

Then came an almost endless procession of childern from what appeared to be all the local schools. Large groups


Small groups

With traditional uniforms and dress:

And a big flag


And more bands. Lots more bands. The drum beats helping everyone march in time with not so much a left-right stride, but more of a defiant stamp! This shot showing the parade passing the hotel and streaching back as far as the eye can see.


Finaly, after about an hour the parade was finished off by some well dressed cowboys on horseback

Mexicans are a very proud people, and I had read that their Independence day is held in high regard. So I was hoping for a good celebration,  but this was far more than I was expecting in many respects. Definitely one of the trip highlights, and more than made up for the week’s earlier frustrations.

Back on the road

After a day’s rest and a good night’s I’m not feeling 100%, but well enough to get back on the road, and to quote The Fugitive TV show: “Never in one place too long.”

(Thank you to Paulina Cabrera for the photo)

Back onto route 57 – I’ve been on it most of the way since crossing into Mexico at Piedras Negras. With each city, Monclova, Saltillo, San Luis Potosi the road became bigger and busier. But since Queretardo, its been a propper 3 lane motorway. But there was less than 5 miles before the junction to a quieter road. 


On my way out of San Juan del Rio I stopped at a traffic light. A car pulled up beside me, passenger window down, driver and passenger with big smiles, enthusiasm and asking where was I going. With less than a minute before the lights changed, I told them in my best spanish where I’d been. Did I want anything? No – then I pointed to the green traffic light, said thank you and good bye, and started to move on. As they started to pass me, the passenger handed out a bottle of coke as if they were my official support car. I took it and said thanks. Shortly after this, they passed me going the other way, all smiles and waving. Yes, they had literaly gone out of their way to say hi and check I had everything I needed!
As I joined route 57,  there was a “No Cycling” sign – the first one I’d seen in Mexico. I paused for a moment – but I didn’t have an alternative road, it was less than 5 miles, and it wasn’t like it was a policeman stopping me. So I carried on, riding on the hard shoulder, away from the traffic. This was fine until the road started to go up hill, then the hard shoulder became a 4th lane. With a crash barrier at the side. Not good. But the lane was only being used by occasional slow trucks – so I sprinted as hard as I could, uphill, in the gaps between the trucks from one gap in the barrier to the next. This was not the gentile half day ride I had in mind. Then in the next gap in the barrier there was a couple of cars parked by the side of the road – one of them was a police car. Just great. I’d no option but to cycle right past this car. Had they seen me? I didn’t look to check. But of course they had, and a couple of minutes later I saw in my rear view mirror, the police car approaching with lights flashing. I was now pushing as hard as I could, but my breathing was becomming increasingly laboured (being at 2100m above sea-level, higher than most alpine ski resorts, didn’t help). Then I realised that the police car wasn’t trying to overtake and pull me over. No, I was being given a police escort! I got to the next break in the barrier, pulled off the road and caught my breath. I waved at the police car as it passed, and got a beep of the horn in reply. It then carried on up the road as i got my breath back. 
I was happy to turn off onto the smaller road, that was part way through being upgraded to a dual carridge way. But in a very piece-meal way – one minute it was a single carridge way with a nice big shoulder:


Then there was no shoulder – I had to move off the road several times to let rapidly approaching traffic past:

Then there was a section under construction that was traffic free and firm enough to ride on:


Then a huge wide expanse of lovely new tarmac that I had all to myself – the cars and trucks had to use a narrow strip on each side (between the pairs of white stones)

Even a section through a narrow gorge where I had to ride on the sloping concrete gutter to avoid the traffic. Not as difficult as it looks, but weird to be traversing a slope!


As I came up to a pickup truck parked at the side of the road, the driver got out and waved me to pull in. After a short chat with Rafael and Paulina, I was offered tacos, strawberries, water, beer, a lift for me and my bike past the next section of road and even money. I happily accepted the first two and politely declined the others.

After photos, swapping facebook details and farewell greatings I headed off. It was just then I noticed that they were going in the opposite direction. Yes, they had passed me going the other way, made a u-turn, overtook me, pulled in and waited for me to catch up. Yet again, people literaly going out of their way to be friendly and generous.

Shortly before getting to today’s destination, Huichapan, I got another “Mexican Wave”. Basically a line of vehicles passing the other way, one of drivers waves at me or gives be a peep. By the time I wave back, that vehicle has passed, and the driver of the next vehicle thinks I’m waving at them – so they wave back. I wave at them, and so on, usually for about 6 vehicles. Only in Mexico!

I crossed into my 6th Mexican State – Hidalgo, with fields of corn and pink flowers:


And alien plants waiting for the right moment to take over the world:

I got to Huichapan just in time to take this sunset photo with a silhouette of the large statue of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the initiator of the Mexican War of Independence and the person this state was named after. 


Before enjoying the spoils of the day:

If this seems a lot for just half a day of cycling, most days in Mexico so far have been as varied as this in one way or another.

Finally, it it just me, or does this look like a happy skull and crossbones???

Body says “No!”

​There have been days when I’ve woken up tired, weary or achey from the previous day. But today was different – finally, after:

  • 104 days of cycling (9000km),
  • 3 complete rest days, 
  • finishing a protracted Stage 9 yesterday,
  • 2 cases of a dodgey tummy in the past week,
  • and a run of bad luck (excuse the pun) over the past week with 6 punctures and losing my cerdit card

– my aching all over, itchy eyed and dehydrated body said “There will be absolutely no cycling today, and don’t even think about getting up before midday!” . I did wonder when I’d get a day like today – and here it is. Timing is good – I’m in a reasonable but cheap hotel in the centre of the pretty but congested town (bit like Henley) of San Juan del Rio. 

The 104 days of cycling excludes the time when Sue was with me in Texas.

Of the 3 rest days, two of them (Coldfoot & Monclova), were forced because of lack of onward accomodation, and the last (Eagle Pass) was to finish my pre-Mexico todo list.

The 2 cases of a dodgey tummy both following the consumption of deep fried chicked. I would have hoped that being Scottish I would at least had some genetic resistance to bugs from deap fried food! The first time was at a KFC in the city of San Luis Potosi was forced because of security considerations – I only got there just before sunset, so it was dark by the time I went out for food, so had to do with the first place I found. Despite my poor Spanish, unfamiliarity with local food and the energy demands of cycling, I’m happy to say that this has been the only time I’ve had a meal at a US chain restaurant in Mexico (MacDonalds? Burger King? Subway? Nope. Nope. Nope.). The other fried chicken was given to me by one of the occupants of one of the cars that stopped to speak with me on the main road out of the big city of Queretaro yesterday evening. After chatting with them, they started to drive off, then reversed back along the hard shoulder and offered me the chicken. It was getting late, I was hungry, and there’s only so many times I can say “no, but thank you”. Another car that stopped did so after tailing me for a good 5 minutes with its hazard warning lights flashing to “protect” me from traffic behind (this personal escourting has happened at least 3 times this trip – all in Mexico). The official advice is that if a vehicle passes you, then stops up ahead, you should drive on, only stopping at a place of safety. I followed this advice in Monclova when a very large, very black and very expensive looking pickup truck overtook me and pulled in ahead. I passed it, it over took again and pulled in at the side. I passed it a second time, and it overtook me and pulled in a third time! I wasn’t going to be able to out run it, and didn’t know the back roads or footpaths, so pulled in behind. Out climbed the driver – it was almost as if my helmet cam knew that the identity of this person should not be recorded

What was he doing with his phone? Calling a couple of heavies? Was I going to get mugged or kidnapped by some drug cartel to make some sort of point?

No, he wanted to photograph me and the bike, and show me video clips of his son taking part in local mountain bike races!! 

Damn you smartphones and your multi media capabilities. And here is one of the photos he took, posted to the internet, and seen by someone, who 5 days later passed me, stopped and excidedly exclaimed that he’d seen a photo of me in Monclova!

He said that the guy who had stopped me in Monclova was “one of the good guys”. This was reassuring, though “there aren’t any bad guys any more” would have been better.

Numerous times since then, everytime a driver has overtaken and pulled into the side, I’ve been greeted with smiles, enthusiasm and generosity. The biggest frustration with my Spanish is not being able to reciprocate and answer their questions.

As for the run of bad luck, strickly speaking it wasn’t “bad luck”, but mostly haste/inattention on my part. I lost my credit card at a service station while I was pushing to get to San Luis Potosi  before sundown. Having to stop for two punctures and being slowed down by hills I was running late, so had to put extra effort in to make up time. So I was a bit wobbly when I got to the service station. I saw a cash machine as I entered the small bright family friendly shop, and that it was from the same bank that issued the card. So I thought this would be a good time and place to top up my cash. I withdrew 1000 Mexican Pasos (about £40), then picked up some water, sports drink and biscuits, went to the till, and couldn’t find my card! After a thourgh search of the shop, no card. Another search – no card. The only place the card could be was in the machine – but I had the cash, surely that I must have taken the card. All very confusing, and the sun was getting low and I had another hour of cycling to do. So I had to head off. I got to  San Luis Potosi just before it got dark and found a place to stay. But I didn’t have any way to call the bank (I couldn’t make a call with either of my mobile phones, despite attempts the previous week I had no international calling card I could use from Mexico, and the place I was staying at had no internet access) My only option was to plough my finite cash reserves into a payphone. Only wanting to do this as a last resort, the next day I tried again to get my unlocked phone to work locally – but despite the best efforts of the lady in a local mobile phone shop, (and me entertaining her two year old son so she wasn’t distracted. Desperate times required desperate measures!) this wasn’t an option. Then, as I was heading on my way through San Luis Potosi, I saw a branch of the bank that had issued my card. Perfect I thought, they’ll be able to help me out. But two hours later they had been unable to connect me with any call centre that could help me out, they couldn’t make an international call from the branch, or provide any internet access – and I had lost the will to live. So much for the “World’s local bank”!

In order to make a reasonably priced international call, I needed a phone that the calling card company could contact me on, which I didn’t have. So I needed to get in touch with Sue to get her to help set one up. Which needed internet access – that I didn’t have on my phone. With cyber cafes being a thing of the past, I had to find a shop that would let me use their internet access (and know the password). I found one, got in touch with Sue, she setup the international calling card and sent me the details (thank you Sue!). Thinking that I was now ready to cancel my credit card, there was one final hurdle. Despite the calling card having a free phone number, I needed to get a payphone card in order to make the call! Call finally made, credit card cancelled, and cash reserves preserved. What a palaver – really shows all the things that I take for granted back home.

As for the punctures, just count ’em:

The week before, I had lost the security key to remove the wheels. So any punctures needed to be repaired in-situ and at the roadside. 

This in turn required greater reliance on tyre leavers, and made it harder to check the tyre for the cause of a puncture (so it can be removed to avoid a repeat puncture). 
The first puncture wasn’t so much bad luck, as a statistical inevitability resulting from the local truck drivers’ preference for using tyres until they fail, with resulting rubber & wire debris at the side of the road. I did hear a dramatic sounding  blow-out when one of the many double articulated 18 wheelers lost one of its 34 tyres. Fortunately I was on the otherside of the road resting at a cafe. Inattention on my part also contributed to the first puncture. At the time I was trying to memorise the Spanish on my “script”, so paying less attention to avoiding tyre debris. 

This laminated piece of paper with effectively an FAQ of my trip on one side, and usefull emergency expressions (eg I need water/food/somewhere to sleep) on the other – all in Spanish. It has undergone various name changes from “scrip” that I got from a travel web site, to ones depending on the situation or the reaction of the person reading it. For example “fame pass” (they treat me like someone famous), “distraction pass” (people are sufficiently impressed that they forget to ask an awkward question – eg “why did you leave the border zone without buying a tourist permit”), “press release” (I’m too kackered to speak – have a read of this), “blagging slip” (eg “Can I camp here?”, or “keep my bike in a meeting room?”, or “use your WiFi” etc etc) or “freebie pass” (people have responded with offers of food, beer, water bottles, cash etc etc). But after getting a positive response from a couple of local police who pulled up beside me, I’m calling it my “get out of jail free card”. I should hasten to add that I’ve not needed to use it for this, but given its success to date, I’m pretty sure it would work for that too. The script impressing a couple of the local polis:

Anyway, I fixed my first puncture last week by the roadside. But didn’t glue the patch well enough – and the next day the rear tyre was flat again. I replaced the patch, doing a more thourgh job. But a few hours later the tyre was flat again. This one had been caused by over zealous use of tyre leavers (pinching the inner tube and making a hole). Two days later, another puncture –  now averaging one per day. I had no part in this one, but I didn’t look carefully enough to find the cause (small stiff piece of wire) so got a repeat puncture. This was all very unsettling and time consumming – about an hour per fix – losing the equivalent of a whole day.
But there were no punctures yesterday – so fingers crossed!

Hoping to be back on the bike for at least part of tomorrow for more onwards and southwards

Blog updates

Sorry for the lack of updates on this blog – I’m spending too much of my time cycling (not complaining! ) and adjusting to life on the road in Mexico (food & language being the biggest problems). The app for updating the blog also continues to be problematic – I was not impressed to say the least when it deleted a blog post I’d been working on for 6 hours.

I am still making daily updates to Strava with a photo and short comment from the day (you need to sign with Strava up to see these, but it’s easy and free)

https://www.strava.com/athletes/12305969

The tracker page is still being updated (account ref 572079, password keithdotbike)

www.login.trackershop.com/#

Though there continue to be intermittent problems with it reporting its position,  so I’ve got a second tracker that reports back via satellite (so doesn’t have the mobile network related problems of the original tracker). You can see where I am on this page:

http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0l7imKPgIxqYP28q82lNmPoMlLGvqHT4o

Other than that, the big news is that in Monclova I reached the third of the way mark: 5,000 miles done, 10,000 to go! While that last statement is factually correct, it is a slight over simplification of the challenge ahead!

Finally some of the better photos from the past few days:

A monunent to the steel industry and a very large flag in the centre of Monclova: 

Some welcome rain just before Monclova: 

Not that there was enough to turn this into a river!

Rough camping in Mexico is a bit riskier – but at least there aren’t any bears. Then shortly before my first night camping I saw this sign: 

Other wildlife – butterflies: 

Just loads and loads of butterflies!!!

https://youtu.be/xUP95xZ5AHc

And this wee critter hitched a ride:

From Route 75 to backroads

August to do list:

  • Get to Allen Texas before Mark goes on holiday – done
  • Get to San Antonio and meet Sue at the airport – done
  • Have a great Texas road trip with Sue – done
  • Catch up on admin, plan route through Mexico, check schedule for Sue’s next visit in Peru, set up another GPS tracker, backup photos, pack maps and supplies brought over by Sue, bike service – done
  • Catch up on blog – right, where was I? Ah yes . . .

After getting a world wide top 100 place in the Strava July Distance Challenge, I was hoping to have an easier day on the 1st of August. But the road I’d been traveling along for almost a 1000 miles was becoming increasingly bike unfriendly – ie it was going to turn into a freeway (ie motorway) well before my next stop on the Reading Reunion tour.

Navigation for the first 2000 miles was easy – three roads (Dalton, Richardson and Alaska highways) and that was it. After that, the rest of Canada and North Dakota were sufficiently sparsely populated that the direct routes were relatively quiet, and without any bike restrictions. But after Fargo where my route went due south, the towns got bigger, and the direct roads became Interstate Freeways – ie motorways where bikes were banned. Luckily I found Route 75 – an interstate road that went due south from Fargo, all the Way to Texas – perfect. When I say “found” I mean on the map – trying to get on the actual road was not so easy. My scenic route through suburban Fargo/Moorhead did not escape the eagle eyes of Mr Minto:

(My daily Strava updates can be seen here: Strava )

When I did eventually pick up signs to Route 75, there were further detours caused by extensive roadworks, and even a train that parked on a level crossing for what seemed like ages. Just when I thought I was past the worst of it, the bridge over the Interstate 94 was entirely closed, with a detour heading back to my suburban scenic route. By now it was almost 6pm, so rather than go back to where I’d come from, I waited a short while for the workmen to finished for the day, and pushed my bike past the bulldozers. My aversion to detours is a curious thing – you’d have thought that after cycling 1000’s of miles, a few extra miles here or there wouldn’t make a difference, but I find myself with the attitude of a non-cyclist – “Cycle 2 miles? That’s way too far!”

But after a shaky start, Route 75 served me well. It was everything from a country road (with no shoulder) to a city bypass with 2 or even 3 lanes and a full hard shoulder:

(yes, that car really did pull into the outside lane to pass me, even though I already had more than enough space on the shoulder!)

As with the Dalton and Alaska highways, there were mile posts – a small sign every mile counting down the miles. While route 75 is an inter state route like the Alaska highway, the mile posts here counted down the number of miles until the next state, not the end of the road. This helped break the journey down into state sized chunks. Though they were sometimes a curse – on the long days where I was slowing down because of the heat and the head wind that was bringing it up from the south, it sometimes seemed to take forever for the next post to appear, or they were a reminder of how little distance I’d covered in, say, the previous hour.
Because Route 75 was a relatively major road, it would have motels, restaurants and gas stations + convenience stores along it in any sizeable town. So not only was it easy to follow, but there was a minimum of time spent looking for food or aircon.

While short sections of dual carriageway with slip roads were OK (eg around Sioux City), as I approached the Texan border, it was going to be like this all the way to Allen. It was also the 1st of August, and as I’d made up so much distance in July, the thought of taking some quiet back-roads was appealing. Looking at the large scale state map and google maps I worked out what looked like a direct route south from Atoka.

It started out OK – I got an early start, made good progress while the temperature was in the relatively cool low 30s C, and found a terrapin that I moved from the road before it got squashed like many others I’d seen:

But my paper map had too small a scale to show the detail of the back roads – like when the tarmac road I was on split into two dirt tracks. As I had already covered 20 miles, I was not that keen to go back, so I took the south turning and carried on. The map did show a river running east-west and some sort of road on the other side, but not whether there would be a bridge to cross this river, or even if the road on the other side was rideable. As I headed down the road to find out if it was a dead end, the wildlife continued. I saw a snake – just a small one, and too fast to capture on camera. There were also Cicadas – a small insect with a cricket-like mating call so loud it disables its own hearing to prevent it from being damaged by the 120dB volume!

Cicadas

As well as the sound of the Cicadas, the video clip also shows the substantial bridge over the river! It was a great relief to see a solid bridge – not only did i not have to decide between turning back or carrying my bike and gear over the river – but it increased the chances that this dirt track would lead to a road. Then a few miles later, there was a house – with power lines. I just had to follow the power lines, and I’d be back to civilisation!

The appeal of backroads was now long gone – especially after a particularly short steep gravely hill that I had to push my bike up – the  first time I’d done that this trip. 

It was 2 hours of dust before I eventually joined a main road at the halfway point between two villages, each one with a road heading south. Fifty-fifty decision – I chose to go east because the road on the map looked slightly larger, and got to a petrol station just before Bennington. This was very welcome as it was now starting to get properly hot (high 30s C) and a cool drink in the air conditioned convenience store / cafe was just what I needed. The lady working there asked where I was going – and she was very definite that I should not go via Bennington, despite it being just around the corner. I was told that going that way would involve going through a place called Wade that was a “bottom of the bucket place”. Every time she went to Bonham, she always went via Bokchito. To me it looked like 2 sides of a rectangle, but she was very insistent with her advice. To compound this, her niece who was behind me at the till, generously insisted on paying for my drink and snack. I now wasn’t going to be able to stick to my intended route without appearing to be ungrateful – so I relented and went back the way I’d come.
After reaching Bokchito I headed south, and past the “Museum of Creation Truth”. I thought about taking a look, but it would probably just be too frustrating / depressing, so I carried on.

I saw an armadillo, but unfortunately like all the other ones I’d seen in Oklahoma, it was very much an ex-armadillo. These appeared to be the unfortunate local equivalent of hedgehogs in the UK.

I also passed an ex-house – it appeared to have been quite some time since the tree crashed onto it – all adding to the impression of the low value of property and land:

Shame it hadn’t been built as robustly as the remarkable mailbox on the right:

The gravel road earlier had slowed me down and tired me out, so despite the early start, it was now the hottest part of the day and I wasn’t anywhere near my destination. I had also underestimated how far it was from the petrol station to Bonham, and despite being back on tarmac, I was going slower because of the heat. So by the time I got to the deserted village of Yuba I had at least another 2 hours to go to get to Bonham, but only enough very warm water for half an hour. While I wasn’t suffering any specific heat exhaustion symptoms, I was concerned that I wasn’t feeling any cooler when I rested in the shade. I was also more conscious of over exertion after the previous day when I stopped for a break, drank 3 litres of fluid and then slept for an hour! OK body, I get the hint.
I could see on the map that I was about half an hour away from another river, and I had a water filter – so I consumed the last of my water knowing that I would at least be able to get some from the river. But just before I got to the river I came across this oasis: a drive-in off-licence:

I was to busy refilling containers with water and ice, and gratefully consuming a couple of cans of cold caffeinated carbonated sugary drinks to get answers to questions like “drive-in off-licence – is that not encouraging drink driving?” and “why is this off-licence here in the middle of nowhere?”.

What I hadn’t noticed on the map was that the river wasn’t any ordinary river – it was the Red River, the squiggly border between Oklahoma and Texas. I was now in my last state of the USA!

Almost 10 hours after leaving Atoka, I finally got to Bonham – but even finding somewhere to stay wasn’t simple. Now that I wasn’t on the main route any more, I was away from the motels, restaurants or shops. I didn’t have the energy to shop around , so decided to just stop at the first place I came across. This turned out to be a very new Holiday Inn Express – a far cry from some of the very dodgy motels I’d been staying in recently. It was more expensive than I was hoping for, but the receptionist obviously felt sorry for me as I got a suite for the price of a basic room. It might not have been quite the rest day I’d been looking forward to, but I was going to have a comfortable and sound night’s sleep! I think I deserved it 🙂

July – going the distance

The last day in Kansas also saw my first rain since Canada. It was full on torrential rain, thunder and lightning – the works! Normally this much rain and wind would bring on a chill without rain gear. But it was too warm to put on anything over my cycling shorts and base layer T-shirt.  So as the rain started,  I just carried on cycling, expecting to get a chill despite the heat. But the temperature of the rain was perfect – warm, with just a bit of coolness to take the edge off the hot air, and no chill from the wind. So I carried on cycling through these surreal conditions – simultaneously comfortable and soaking wet!

This took away the humidity that I experienced in Nebraska and Iowa, but the heat is still there, and with clear skies it feels like a furnace at times. The southerly headwind is back, which helps take the edge off the heat, but it’s a headwind,  so it does slow me down. But despite all this, progress is good.

After buying a better phone at the end of June, I was able to record the actual distance traveled (detours and all) without the problems with the GPS tracker.

I’d used Strava (the cycling equivalent of Facebook) during my training, and thought it would be interesting to upload at least part of the ride I’d been training for to make comparisons.

Every month, around a quarter of a million Strava users across the world sign up for that month’s “distance challenge” – to record how far they cycle in that month. To ecourage a bit of competition,  everyone gets a ranking of how their distance compares with others in the same challenge. During my training I was ranked around 15,000th – but where would I be ranked now that I wasn’t spending 40 hours a week working? I certainly wasn’t expecting to be No 1 – cycling a heavily laden bike on unfamiliar roads would put me at a disadvantage. Early in the month I set myself a target of a top 100 place.

With the flatter roads in central Canada and the American mid west, I was expecting to do better in July than June  (2850 km, 1780 miles) . But I was not expecting to go as far as 3600 km (2250 miles), and with 12,500 meters of climbing, it was far from flat! Satisfyingly,  this is just further than this year’s Tour de France (3519km). OK, so the Tour riders did this in 21 days to my 31, and they went through the Alps –  but I didn’t have any support team, and they didn’t have 30kg of luggage!

Here is the distance I cycled in July on a map (my Strava heat map) :

Or how it would look from space!

My July Distance ranking? 76 out of more than a quarter of a million cyclists across the world. So comfortably in the top 100 🙂

Kansas

After the achievement of reaching the quarter way mark (and on schedule), and all the activity surrounding the Ragbrai, Kansas started out as a bit of an anticlimax. The striking big wide horizon was replaced by ordinary rolling hills. The industrial strength agriculture was replaced by either patchy crops or patchy fields of grassland without much in the way of cattle. There were also many signs of a rural decline. Many of the wooden houses along the road outside of the towns were in a poor state of repair. In fact is was sometimes impossible to tell if a house had been abandoned,  or was still someone’s home. Some had up to a dozen old rusting cars, trucks, farm equipment and maybe an RV. The long grass around them (or growing out of them!) an indication as to how long it was since they’d last been used, and the slim chance them still working. Other signs of decline were businesses that had long since ceased to trade. Sometimes it was obvious – grass growing up through the concrete around a former petrol station, or bushes growing up the side of an old shop. Other times not so obvious – as if when the business went bust, there was no money left to buy a “closed for good” or a “to let” sign. After several instances of these I just looked for a neon “Open” sign – at least this meant that the electricity hadn’t been cut off, so a good chance that the shop was actually open! It looked like this part of this state had “let itself go” a bit, and that enough weedkiller, skips and a wreaking ball could go a long way to help look to a future rather than dwell on the past. But the reality appears to be that the land has little value – no point in clearing a site when you can just build somewhere else nearby. A strange concept for someone living on Jersey! Given that it was obvious that this state wasn’t as prosperous as it once was, I wasn’t surprised to read that it had recently had its credit rating dropped – there are now only 4 states in the USA with a lower rating. This state was an obvious target for the “Make America great again” message – and it certainly seemed to be a popular one.

But the people I chatted with were no less friendly,  interesting and kind. From the couple I chatted with briefly while I was having lunch, who paid my bill when they left (so i didn’t  get a chance to refuse or thank them). The guy called Craig from Wichita – just another customer at the petrol station, who, after short chat and on parting told me that he was the brother of a Hollywood & TV actress. No way to prove it, but it was so out of the blue, and the way he told me, I’m inclined to believe him. Another guy who pulled up in his car while I was drinking some water (I pour the water that goes luke warm in the heat into a flask of ice for a gloriously refreshing and cooling drink) and asked if I needed anything – food, drink. On saying that I had enough of everything,  he got his wallet out and offered to give me some cash (obv I declined that too). Instead I gave him a quick description of my trip that he videod on his phone and he drove off happy. Those will be my lasting memories of Kansas. 

Even the dogs were friendly – and happy to pose for a photo:

First night in Kansas at Sabena – motel beside a supermarket – cerial, cold milk and air con: bliss after a long hot day!

Harley dealer in Topeka – complete with it’s own Harley-ville highstreet! 

The original Little House on the Prairie :

Ragbrai 

A conversation at the beginning of April between myself and a good friend Ian Richardson went something like this:

Keith: “you riding much?”

Ian: “Not riding much but will be riding across Iowa in July! ”

Keith: “Iowa in July? Care to be more specific? Planning traveling south along the Iowa-Nebraska border, getting to Blair on 20th July. ”

Ian: “… I’m riding the Ragbrai (West to East) starting around the 25th.  I’m in the state from the 17th.  Hmmm…this is crazy. ”

Three and a half months, and almost 4000 miles later, crazy happened at the Ragbrai expo in the town of Glenwood, Iowa:

I also met the people he was cycling with Connie,  Missy, Ron and the support team Jarrod, Brian and Connie & Rons dad. Missy also took this photo:

I can’t remember what Ian had just said – but “Keith, your legs – what colour do you call that?” or “Keith, your bike has a kick-stand:  what’s that all about?” are quite possible. 
The original plan was to meet at the campsite some 30 miles away, and I would carry on south the next day while Ian, Connie,  Missy and Ron would return to Glenwood (where their bikes were stashed) for the first day of week long Ragbrai ride. Someone suggested that I join them on the ride – I could leave the bike in Glenwood and get a lift to the campsite and back. After cycling on my own for so many miles, the thought of taking part in a ride with these guys and 8000+ other people was a very appealing one. It would mean that I’d be a day behind, but given my success at making up time so far, there was enough time for me to make up the day it before meeting Mark, and then the lovely Sue Powell in Texas. There was also the logistical challenge that there wasn’t enough space in the car for all my bags (I really am carrying that much stuff!) so I had to work out what to take and what to leave for the first time this trip. With 4 of us in the back seat, it was a bit cramped –  but I was greatful not to have to do the 60 mile round trip, and enjoyed the novelty of traveling in a vehicle for the first time in nearly 2 months! Leaving the bike in Glenwood also made this the first rest day in 3 weeks . The ride from the southern suburb of Omaha was just under 20 miles – the last time I had a day this short was when I left Beamont just south of Edmonton –  back in Canada!! I realise that to most people, cycling a loaded bike for 20 miles would not count as a “rest day” – but its a good indication as to how well I’ve adapted to the physical demands of this trip.

I’d never heard of the Ragbrai (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa)  but it has been running every year for over 40 years. With the number of places limited to 8000, it is also huge – and at seven days long, a massive undertaking for riders and organisers. Every year the route is different, with towns in the state keen to be one of the start/finish points, or just to be en route. It originally started out as two journalists taking to the road on their bikes for a week in search of news for their paper the Des Moines Register.
Given that there was a good chance I’d cycled the furthest to be at this event (I did bump into a couple of cyclists who had ridden from Washington state on the west coast. Fortunately they didn’t seem unhappy that I’d trumped their journey!) I thought the organisers or newspapers might be interested. But given that I was only one of 8000 cyclists, infact worse than that, I hadn’t actually entered, it was with some trepidation that I approached one of the organisers and said “hi, my name is Keith and I’ve cycled here from Alaska. Do you know anyone from the newspaper who might be interested?”. An hour later I was chatting with one of the journalists and a photographer! Here is the resulting article.

The next day, after a super early start, we got ready:

and rode out of Glenwood as part of a continuous stream of cyclists of all shapes, sizes and ages – many in teams and wearing some sort of fancy dress so they could be picked out in the crowd. It was much more relaxed than a European sportif – no official start time or timing chips. And there must have been way more than 8000 people taking part – I wasn’t the only one who turned up on the day! It was unusual to be cycling in single file, and the line of cyclists stretching  out into the distance along some of the straight rolling sections of road looked like a busy line of ants. It reminded me of the time I rode the London to Brighton ride in the early nineties. There were a couple of points where there were so many cyclists, a traffic jam formed, and everyone had get off their bikes and walk. But everyone was relaxed about it – i didn’t hear anyone complain, and nobody was trying to push through the crowd. 

For me, the relaxed, slightly off the wall yet organised nature of event  was best summed up in this moment  – in one of the small towns en route someone was giving encouragment to the riders over a PA system that was also playing MC Hammer (Hammer Time) at a right turn where the marshal was dressed as Santa Claus:

Ragbrai randomness 

Ian and Connie rode on ahead, and I rode with Missy and Ron. Ron was the only person in the group who had ridden it before – so he knew all about the iconic Ragbrai food stops – for example the Beekman’s icecream stop where the icecream is made fresh, and was very welcome on the hot sunny day:

Beekman’s icecream stop

Missy had never done a ride like this before, but she was doing really well, especially as she was more used to running and horse riding, and had only had her bike since February.  I rode with them most of the way, but after I stopped to take some photos, I was behind them and trying to catch up when this couple rode past:

I had a great few miles drafting, then doing my bit at the front – hard work on the touring bike, but great fun! I met up with the othes at the end of the stage in Shenandoah. They stashed their bikes for the next day while I rode the 25 miles back to the campsite –  by the end of which I was starting to wish I hadn’t ridden quite so hard with the two riders earlier!
The next day, the Ragbrai riders headed east, and I got back on ny ride south. It was a great couple of days, and one of the highlights of the trip so far – catching up with Ian, making new friends, and bagging a stage of the famous Ragbrai!

View from the campsite overlooking Iowa fields in the foreground and Nebraska in the distance:

Bidding farewell to Iowa, and hello to Missouri: 

Then back into Nebraska: 

Then south into Kansas: 

PS Ian: I found my headtorch – I’d put it in my food pannier. Numpty!