I boarded a plane to Lima, Peru
Bound of full of excitement, fear, nervousness.. this was the trip of a lifetime. I'd never before undertaken something on this scale, by myself (well only for the plane flight in reality). 10 days of full on, action and adventure, high up in the Peruvian Andes.
I'd heard about Sacred Rides from one of my mates in Toronto, he recommended them, a specialist Mountain Bike Guiding company, which did hard core trips for solid riders. No nancy tootling along gravel roads here mate. I mean pick how solid a rider you are, match it up with the trip and go nuts. This particular trip was rated 4/5 on skills, and 4/5 on fitness. Meaning you had to have a number of years under your belt riding, and be able to crank out solid rides day after day.
Leading up to the date of the trip I kept watching youtube footage of the Olleros downhill, and other inca trail rides. I kept getting more nervous - since leaving New Zealand, the years had dwindled since my bike had seen anything resembling a mountain, all these Ontario trails were tight twisty technical singletrack, and flat, BC boys call us 'FlatLanders'.
I was really hoping the endurance from 100km+ road rides was going to pay off, because in Toronto, there is not a mountain in sight to get those hillclimbing legs into shape.
I hook up at the airport, with another dude who had a remarkably familiar looking bike bag. Turns out he was coming from Calgary. Awesome! (...but he has mountains in his backyard....) A sketchy taxi shuttle to our hotel in MiraFlores, Day 1 follows a few hours later, of all of our compadres rolling into the hotel. 3 Australians, 1 South African, another Kiwi, and my Canadian mate I'd met. The Commonwealth storming peru.
Day 2, or really Day 1, begins with a breakfast and loading up the bus with bikes to head up to our first adventure. The bus is made for it, bike cage on the top, cooler covered in stickers, newly installed LCD to play bike p^rn on. The boys were impressed. In short order we're at the trail. Our lead guide, who is officially the man, Wayo Stein. Has been none other than the Peruvian Down Hill Champ, heads us out on some old river bed for our first ride. An ascent of 2-300m, felt pretty tough (oh o..) all was made better, on the turn around and the downhill began. A good 5-10km of -6% or so descent, fast, flowy fun. We meet up with our bus for lunch. Then we get introduced to the word of the trip.
Exposure. Peruvians have built their country on it. Big scary one slip and you're screwed type stuff. Concentrate and don't stuff up. There's a sat phone, but you really don't want that number called.
We start tackling a single track, along the edge of a mountain side. 1-2 feet wide. It started at first rocky, devoid of any vegetation with a nice little natural ledge to stop you going over the edge. A few kms and we drop down into a nice area to view one of our first Incan ruins. Then we get onto the exposed bit. 1-2 feet wide, *no* ledge. Culvert on one side, cliffs on the other, if you tumble off that's it. Dare not look down, lest you go the direction that you're looking. That would be bad. Granny gearing it we just mosey along. Some more km's down and it gradually winds into some hills with lush vegetation. Wayo calls out, 'it's a little slippery'. Be careful. Jacket's on it's cooling down. That turns out to be a test of bike control, wet muddy, mossy ground. First little bit of carnage begins, Don behind me can't slow down and asses' it. (Garmin Graph)
The downhill, to end all downhills. Olleros.
Up at 5 in the morning, on the road at 6, for 4 hrs, 3 of which on a road that defines sketchy (although not as bad as I expected), including the most scenic pee breaks of a lifetime. Driving up the foot hills of the Andes we were headed to the Olleros (o-yer-os) trail built by Incans long before modern civilization.
Dust is the order of the day to start. Paving way to sketchy exposure and ever increasing grade - at some points easily -20%. Brake pads started smelling at only 2-300m of the descent, after about an hour of riding we end up in the town of Olleros, eating and some impromptu bike maintenance we were off again..
Every kilometer of every bit of mountain biking I'd ever done put to the test. This was the "All Mountain" part of the "XC/AM" trip for sure. I kept thinking about the brave sods on a hard tail I'd seen from pictures a couple of weeks before. The terrain started out hard pack loose rock over scenic valleys, quickly giving way to maximum exposure on windswept ridgelines, and then it got sketchy. The trail cut into the side of the mountain as we got off the ridge, loose rock switch back descents, wincing as rocks pang off the down tube, 8inch rotors squealing, trying to stay clipped in, trying to stay on the bike, hugging the side of the mountain.
Every rest gave the brakes and riders a short respite, 1000m down it turned into super loose gravel, which was near impossible to control, bike surfing... holding the rear brakes, trying not to dab the fronts - my lack of weight actually hindered me - I couldn't get rear traction, locking it up or not, didn't make a damn bit of difference. Nearly collected one of the other guys on the fastest bit - had to lay it down on a very opportunely placed feature otherwise we were both going down.
We averaged, get this, averaged -18% grade for 8km. 1500m of descent. A few technical drops required a couple of steps off the bike, as the grins gave way to exhausted arms, messy handling started showing up - the switchbacks being particularly ugly. Never before exposed to terrain like this trying to just stay on the bike was the only mission. If you went down in the wrong place wrong time, your bike, or you, or both were toast. Wayo's words "you're riding by yourself" never rang more true - don't trust what's around the corner.
By the time we'd dropped 2400m we were toast, and then it was the way out along the valley floor, 25km of -6% grade, pulling it out to the Pacific Ocean. The landscape at one point surreal, like a moonscape, concrete like hard pack, grip was off the charts. Wayo was just having fun, launching off anything that would lead to air, weaving in and out, railing natural berms.
The Garmin counted down till we could smell it, then hear it, then see it - The Pacific ocean. 5hrs previous we were 3.7km up in dry arid, thin air. Now grins, everyone agreeing that was the most epic trail they'd ever done. Beers all round. (Garmin Graph)
Groggy from the previous night of breaking down bikes, but the stoke still going on strong from Olleros. Breakfast is hoofed down, and we transport our selves to Lima airport. Next stop Cuzco. As if out of nowhere, clouds open up in what felt like one of the quickest airplane descents - we landed at approximately 3500m. The immediately cooler, and drier Cuzco greets us. In short order we're at our hotel and building bikes just as quick as we broke them down.
If you didn't know how to pull apart and put your bike back together. you will after this trip.
It doesn't take long, and we're climbing out of the hotel, onto a gentle granny gear grind up a hill. And oh my god what a grind. At 3500m suddenly things just seem hard. The legs pumping away to get this hunk of Carbon, Alloy and Titanium up the mountain leading up from our hotel. An Incan ruin, and a history talk from Wayo is very welcome, letting what little of the oxygen is in the air find it's way to my quads. "By the end of the trip, you will be comfortable climbing at 4000m" really ? (Garmin Graph)
Finally things level out and we get to play on single track, and then descend into Cuzco. We get to see parts off the beaten trail. Back alleys, dirty downhill trails, littered with trash and water drains you're not really sure what is going on in. This isn't your average tourist trap walk, and I'm sure lonely planet isn't pointing out these places. An unexpected style of riding - urban downhiling into Cuzco. One of the highlights, nailing the 3rd big staircase in a row. Stunned tourists not knowing what to do with these crazy dudes, wearing armor, and bouncing down stairs on bikes.
Eating in short order, the ride package includes Breakfast and Lunch everyday, so we were treated to some very tasty food at a cafe just round from the hotel. Everything here is fresh and pretty damn organic - no chicken mills, or snap frozen produce. The fresh lemonade just kicked ass. A quick rest at the hotel, and then dinner seemed to roll around in no time - we all went out to dinner with the guides, which was quite welcome - giving us advice on what was the go or not.
Altitude sickeness and weaker stomachs started affecting a couple of people. One went down with some dodgy food and my room-mate started looking decidely ill, later figured out the altitude was affecting him. There's no rhyme or reason. I'd brought Diamox, and started taking it at Lima, but after seriously tingly fingers gave that idea up.
We were gelling as group the mix of antipodean's may go down in SacredRides as a "do not mix together". Definitely not a stayed bunch of politically correct gentile's. No sir. Mix aussies, kiwis, south africans, and a Canadian into the mix and you have a recipe for one heck of a time. This is something about a guided trip, you have no idea going into it, how it's going to end up - with your mates you know what the outcome is going to be. Complete strangers - everything is new territory. We'd figured out our riding styles. Coming to an hill climb the group generally sorted itself out one way, downhill another.
Day 5 Rolls around
Hump day, our 4th day of riding. This is where if you'd done multi-day stuff before you were glad. We spend a day on the trails, checking out Incan ruins. Starting to build on the days in the saddle, I could feel my technical downhill skills going up. Some moments following Wayo, hammering out some sections I was fully stoking. I could feel the body slowly acclimatizing but still, today was TOUGH. It started with a hike a bike @ 4000m. I forgot to turn my Garmin on, but I'm sure we did 2-300m vert hike a bike. Lung busting stuff. The day took us from 4000m, down to 3300m or so. But it was punctuated by lung burning uphills. You had to get into a rhythm and not push your muscles too far, as the oxygen debt you couldn't recover from, but slowly and surely, it was getting less tough at this altitude. But don't let me sound like it was easy. Nope. No siree. Many an uphill resulted in resting, head in between my knees trying to force oxygen back in. The standing joke was every 30mins it was someones turn for a mechanical, be it Derailleur adjustment, puncture, headset, anything ... just give us a break for 10mins. Tonight we hit the hay exhausted. (Garmin Graph)
The Sacred Valley
We pack up our bags, throw them in one vehicle. Bikes in another. We shuttle to the start of our ride, while the 4x4 heads off to Ollantaytambo. Lots of wide open easy rides greeted us today. Long, red, dusty roads. Great way to eat up the kilometers, to one of the bigger atractions - the Moray. A great incan agricultural project. On our way we stumble upon something none of us have seen. "Look up" A halo around the sun. Crazy stuff. Then we reach, one of the fastest, most balls out fun section. There wasn't exposure, there wasn't any cliffs, just very quick hard pack. Video on Vimeo, of the balls out run from Church to the Salt Mines.
Rest Day - Macchu Picchu
Ha ! Rest day my arse. I nearly got heat stroke, and was totally shagged by the end of it. 6000 people a day visit Macchu Picchu, only 400 go up to Huayna Picchu. Guess what we did ? Yep. You got it, we legged it up to Huanya Picchu. This is hands down the scariest place I've ever been. If you're even remotely afraid of heights, by the top, you will be a gibbering wreck. No guard rails. No barriers. It's your own stupid damn fault if you decide to get to close to the edge. And for some of us, even a metre away from the edge was still too close. Most of the crew decided to do the full Grand Cavern route. 3 hours of hard slog. Drenched. (don't wear jeans, oh but you knew that already..). Some very very sketchy wooden ladders. Token wire ropes for the really scary exposed stairs. For one of our group this was a childhood dream to do Macchu Picchu, and it certainly was very spectacular. The entire time, you kept thinking, how did those poor buggers get stones all the way up these stairs, all over the place. Absolutely crazy. The pictures below speak for themselves. click for larger versions
An awe inspiring respite from being in the saddle.
The last two days of riding
Fully rested from our day off the bikes, we hit our last two days of riding. I however, was not rested, a touch of altitude sickness/mild cold meant I started the day feeling like sh*t. Day 7 we rock up to 4400m/14'500 ft (Garmin Graph) and so began the ride. You know it's going to start out rough, when the clouds start rolling in over the mountains. Not more than 20mins into the ride, hail starts coming down. A peak that we'd passed on the van ride up was dusted in snow, which was completely dry an hour before. You know the drill. Nasty horrible wet riding. Riding shoes soaked through. A couple of the crew didn't have waterproof jackets (if you're reading this, and going on the Inca trip, pack one!). Really what MTB trip wouldn't be a trip, without a complete epic ?. I even managed one-when-no-one-was-around-tanty after falling off for the nth time. I don't know whether it was the altitude getting to me, or the solid week of just shredding, but man I was *tired*. 2-3 hrs in I realise I'd been riding at 120mm travel instead of 150mm, my front tire was too hard, and generally I was out of sorts.
Despite the epic nature of the morning, we were in luck, lunchtime rolls around and we were treated to a delicious meal of soup and fresh Trout, in one of the local families own home no less. Talk about 7 happy chappies, warming up to Soup and a hearty meal. (Garmin Graph)
It was as if the riding gods pressed the magic good time button. The clouds parted, and epic single track unfolded.
It's almost over.
My out of sorts-ness turns into a head cold. Fantastic. But I'm going to finish the ride come hell or high water. We pack our bags to leave the Sacred Valley, get on the bus, and head to our final start point. The last day was uneventful bar the biggest hill climb of the trip. 3/4hr of grinding (really, that was the biggest hill climb), finishing with a fast downhill run into Cuzco, the biggest danger avoiding the mangy dogs... As long as we had expected the day to be, with our beat tired selves, it was over pretty darned quick. (Garmin Graph)
It is over....
Beers to celebrate. The boys all made it in one piece. We spend our last 24-32 hours in Peru, eating, packing up the bikes, thanking the guides, causing mischeif. This was one helluva ride. It will go down, I can safely say for all us, as one of the most memorable things we'd done.
All of my 18 odd years on a bike culminated in this one trip. I couldn't have asked for a greater bunch of guys to ride with, or better guides to take us on this adventure.
For me personally, it was 10 days of waking up stoked, every morning to ride, every day having another epic trail to ride on, every day a new adventure, every day constantly pushing it.
All pictures (but those of me), taken by me. Some are HDR. Appreciate linkage action back if you like any, feel free to post with credits.
Full Flickr Album Some pictures, yo.
SacredRides.com Hooking up the trip
Wayo Stein Our freaking awesome guide with Micky and Russo !
Trek For making such an awesome bike
Trek Toronto Robert at Trek Toronto for getting my Remedy sorted.
Panasonic GH2 The ultimate travel camera system