Posts in Bike Travel


Throw Back Thursday - Gravel Roads From The Deserts Of Peru To The High Andes

02 November 17

We pull off of the Pan Americana highway for the final time with a feeling a relief. Sometimes hectic, sometimes tranquil, we have been dodging on and off this road for the past 4000 kilometres. In Peru the standard of driving has fallen to an all time low (which is takes some achieving) and we are happy to leave the lorry drivers, coach chauffeurs, and various other homicidal lunatics behind us. 

We pull up at the gate house of the private road, shake hands with the jovial guard who merrily waves us on towards the the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas, The Cordillera Blanca. 

The road is a gravel track, and will continue so for the lions share of the next month. We are in a desert now with not a sign of life. The desert is beautiful, the contours of the hills the rocks and the sand cast a multitude of hues. 

This is the South America that we came here for, wilderness open space and beauty. Amidst this parched lowland desert it is difficult to comprehend that just a hundred or so kilometres away stand giant snow capped mountains. Come dusk we find a fine camp spot with a magnificent view, the only sound is silence. The sky is clear as we lay outside the tent after dinner watching the stars. We try to identify the Southern Cross. We think we find it, then we find another cross, then another, it is astonishing just how many celestial crosses there are in the night sky. We find Orion's Belt, we always find Orion's Belt, we are happy that Orion's Belt exists for there are few other constellations that we can identify here, then we spot the Plough, larger than in the northern hemisphere and upside down. We discus the size of space and the fact that the universe is expanding at an incomprehensible speed, we wonder how, given that space is infinite, it can be expanding. We discus black holes and white dwarfs and worm holes and light years. We discus things that are really beyond us, we realise that we are becoming very confused and so we retire for the night. This always happens when we camp in a desert.

There is a momentary silence as the roar of the raging torrent bellow is replaced by the crunching of gravel beneath our tyres. It is now the second day of the long climb to Huaraz and we are entering one of the many narrow tunnels hewn into the side of the Canyon del Pato. The single lane track clings to the cliff face high above the Rio Santa, the river that relentlessly gouges out the canyon on its journey to the sea. The tunnels on this rock strewn gravel road are narrow and we are pleased that the traffic is light, to meet a lorry in one of these dark passages would be far from good. 

                          

Finding camping in this narrow valley is a challenge. Tired after a long day in the saddle we fuel ourselves with a sugar hit from a battered bottle of warm cola before clambering to a ridge high above the road. We while away a pleasant evening there laying outside the tent drinking tea and arguing about which constellation is the Southern Cross, we have to date discovered 37 crosses. 

The following morning the wind is kind on the climb to the Cordillera Blanc. When it builds to something closer to a gale in the late morning it is behind us. Still our progress is always slow, we blame this on potholes rocks and piles of loose sand, not on our tired old legs. We stop for a drink break at a small settlement of just a few houses, what do people do out here? There is mining but the level of traffic is so low that despite the occasional appearance of men as black as soot we conclude that it cannot be coal; I see a small restaurant with the word opal in its name, and wonder if this is what they are clawing their way into the rock face for. 

We sit down with a big bottle of something fizzy and full of sugar, the proprietor gives us an apple each and engages us in a short conversation, where are you from? Where are your going? By bicycle? Wow, very strong? We agree about our strength and point our handsomeness as well. He seems impressed.This open friendliness is repeated all along the way. 

Exiting the final tunnel we leave the canyon and find ourselves in another world, metaphorically speaking of course. The valley is green, cultivated, and populated with a back drop of giant snow peaks.  The contrast to the past three days is startling. 

It takes us a total of four days to complete the 330 kilometres to Huaraz.  The final 70 kilometres are on paved roads peppered with potholes and populated by drivers who can most politely be described as incompetent, although we came up with a variety of more colourful adjectives with which to describe them. 

Now at 3100 metres we will spend a couple of days here acclimatising before heading higher into the thin air of the big hills.

 

 

 

Throw back Thursday #1 - North East Vietnam Exploration.

12 October 17

A recent rummage through an old diary of thoughts and observations from a life on a bike, living on the road has inspired me to publish a tale and some old pics. Throw back Thursday I though I would call it, and the plan is a tale and a few old photos, once a week, you can guess which day. First up, a chance encounter as Phong and I explored our rather super Northeast Vietnam tour.

Northeast Vietnam, 2011, summer, around lunchtime.

At lunch time we roll into the dusty main street of a one horse town. A wooden lean-to fixed to the front of an egg shell blue house with wooden lattice shutters serves as the town diner. We lean our bikes beneath the shade of a banyan tree as a girl, hiding from the sun beneath a turquoise parasol, drives a small heard of cattle along the dusty main street. I pause to watch the girl use her parasol to urge one of the cows to stop eating an old ladies poinsettias, and by the time I enter the restaurant Phong is already in deep conversation with the proprietor and his wife. I am not an expert in the Vietnamese language, but for all the world it appears that Phong is explaining how to fry noodles. Our hosts appear fascinated by this new learning from the wise city boy. They stand transfixed as Phong goes through the finer details of stir frying, their concentration only broken when they realise that standing in the doorway, framed by the bright light of day against the dark interior of their home, is an Englishman.

We exchange pleasantries and I take a seat. There is a little more conversation regarding the frying of noodles, and then three small glasses are plonked before me.

I am hot, thirsty, and very hungry, I know full well what the three small glasses mean, I am gripped by fear. I protest, I ask, nay beg Phong to politely explain to this gracious man that as much as we would love to join in an afternoon of frivolity and merriment, needs must that we soon be on our way - sober. Phong flicks me a glance, I know it well, it says "there will be no discussion, no negotiation, we are in Vietnam and we must honour the traditions and customs of this proud nation" (yes, he can convey all that in one glance, he would make a fine wife). Our host makes a small speech as he fills each glass with home distilled rice liquor, Phong translates; “it is not often I have the honour of hosting a well spoken city slicker from Hanoi, and a worldly traveled foreigner - friends, a toast!†We down our tots of fiery brew in one and our host pours three more glasses and commences on another speech, I can see where this is heading - and so it begins.

Each moment, each movement, every thought made by man and beast, and every incident of nature for the next hour is deemed worthy of a toast. Scattered around the room are bodies, clearly victims of a previous toasting. In a dim corner sits a jovial looking fellow, his eyes roll slowly, and from time to time his tongue flops from his mouth only for him to look thoughtful for a few moments before returning his tongue to a more dignified position with a grimy finger. In the middle of the room is a large table where an elderly fellow in a straw hat wobbles precariously on a flimsy plastic chair, seemingly oblivious that one leg is on the very edge of a step and that he was on the brink of disaster.

One hour, a plate of fried noodles, and countless glasses of hooch later we emerge staggering, ever so slightly, and blinking weary eyes into the bright tropical daylight. Our host sways in the doorway as he bids us a thousand fond farewells, and we wobble through the dust narrowly missing several more victims of our host’s hospitality as they snooze quietly in the afternoon sun.

We cautiously mount our machines and gingerly pedal on to the top of the next pass where we stopped to catch our breath and rehydrate. The view is magical, mythical. As I sit sipping from my water bottle I am spellbound by a scene where I quite expected to see elves and goblins and hobbits, and little green dragons that puff plumes of smoke instead of breathing flames. I turn to Phong, “I think I can stop now” I say. Phong looks puzzled. “Now I have seen this” I say gesturing at the jungle covered karst hills spreading out to the distance, “I think that I can find a home, and settle down”. “Oh yes” says Phong, “I think you probably can”

The lovely village of Tam Son where we spend two nights which alosw us to explore on of South East Asia's best kept secrets.

Phong heads into a small Hmong village

Winding up to Heaven Gate Pass

   Typical Northeast Vietnam scenary

Rice terraces

 

A Ride Through The Pearl River Delta

02 July 17

Apparently the largest urban area on earth, the Pearl River Delta may not be the fist place to pop into a cyclists mind when looking for a rural ride. The nine largest cities in the area have a population pretty much the same as the UK, so solitude is not something that one expects to find in ample abundance. However, the Perl River Delta is where Echo and I are to be found between our recent exploration of Sichuan Province and our forthcoming Mongolia Lat Rat Run, and so, with the desire for a ride we set of one recent sunny morning for the 155 kilometre ride from Zhuhai to Chiken.


Chiken is little more than a village, but is reasonable well know for it’s rather novel architecture. The nearby county town of Kaiping was home to an adventurous bunch of Chinese who early last century made their way overseas in search of wealth, something that had enough success in to be able to spawn a small building revolution of more European type dwellings, and fortified towers deemed necessary to protect themselves from marauding bandits intend on relieving these nouvo rich traveler from the hard earned wealth.

With the mercury showing in excess of 35º I was nothing short of impressed with Echo’s performance on her first ever 150 kilometres cycling day. I was also rather happy happy with the majority of the route we managed to find, courtesy of some fine fellow’s route on Strava mixed with some walking routes courtesy of Google’s algorithms. Even navigating out of  Zhuhai was a painless affair, with small riverside paths and some leafy shaded streets more reminiscent of Hanoi than a typical contemporary  Chinese city. 

Out in the countryside we found the sort of landscape one may expect of a huge river delta, with lots or riverside paths, bridges and fish farms that put us in mind of PaintedRoads’ Mekong Delta Tour. And the lovely quiet streets of Chiken, where we enjoyed an evening of street dining and cold beers in a cooling breeze, was a fine destination in which to relax after a fine day on the bikes.

A Gravel Road Tour In The Offing.

17 February 17

A Thailand gravel tour has long been on my mind. Slowly, for longer than a decade I have been dipping a metaphorical toe into what I thought was a meandering stream of unsealed tracks dotted around this nation that offers so much to the adventurous cyclist, but as time goes by it has become apparent that the babbling brook is in fact teaming torrent. 

Finding routes here has long been a somewhat hit and miss affair. The paper maps available have always been, and I am searching deeply but with little success for a kind way to say this, absolute tat. They showed what any half wit could easily imagine, major roads between towns. So whilst finding a route suitable for a tour was a satisfying activity that left one with a glowing feeling of success, it was nevertheless a trifle trying. And then came Google. In the early days Google Maps were not all that great for exploring, and having to drag a MacBook out of a pannier was far from convenient, but by golly have we not come a long way since then? 
Now the world is mapped, and mapped so bloody well that it leaves me wondering, and worrying a little, about how it's done. Algorithms I am sure the I.T. Savvy are crying out, but what does that mean? Orwell plonked a huge imposing TV screen in the corner of every home to watch our every activity, I expect that the concept of the spy being carried freely in our pockets, and voluntarily, even with enthusiasm, sending all manner of info regarding our every movement and ponder back to Big Brother was even beyond the vision of even the great visionary back in 1948 - but I digress, more than a tad. 

So Google and Garmin (which niggles me greatly but seems to have no viable completion), have come together to make route finding for the gravel loving bicycle itinerant a joy to behold. 

My plan for the past week was not to create a tour suitable to add to the PaintedRoads website this year, rather to give me an insight, knowledge, and confidence necessary to ensure that my long hoped for for Gravel Tour of Thailand could soon be a reality. And in this respect it has been an outstandingly productive week, as well as a lot of fun. 

A Thailand gravel tour has long been on my mind. Slowly, for longer than a decade I have been dipping a metaphorical toe into what I thought was a meandering stream of unsealed tracks dotted around this nation that offers so much to the adventurous cyclist, but as time goes by it has become apparent that the babbling brook is in fact teaming torrent. 

Finding routes here has long been a somewhat hit and miss affair. The paper maps available have always been, and I am searching deeply but with little success for a kind way to say this, absolute tat. They showed what any half wit could easily imagine, major roads between towns. So whilst finding a route suitable for a tour was a satisfying activity that left one with a glowing feeling of success, it was nevertheless a trifle trying. And then came Google. In the early days Google Maps were not all that great for exploring, and having to drag a MacBook out of a pannier was far from convenient, but by golly have we not come a long way since then? 
Now the world is mapped, and mapped so bloody well that it leaves me wondering, and worrying a little, about how it's done. Algorithms I am sure the I.T. Savvy are crying out, but what does that mean? Orwell plonked a huge imposing TV screen in the corner of every home to watch our every activity, I expect that the concept of the spy being carried freely in our pockets, and voluntarily, even with enthusiasm, sending all manner of info regarding our every movement and ponder back to Big Brother was even beyond the vision of even the great visionary back in 1948 - but I digress, more than a tad. 

So Google and Garmin (which niggles me greatly but seems to have no viable completion), have come together to make route finding for the gravel loving bicycle itinerant a joy to behold. 

My plan for the past week was not to create a tour suitable to add to the PaintedRoads website this year, rather to give me an insight, knowledge, and confidence necessary to ensure that my long hoped for for Gravel Tour of Thailand could soon be a reality. And in this respect it has been an outstandingly productive week, as well as a lot of fun. 

I would venture to say with some confidence that I now have 50% of a brilliant route ready for a group to ride. Even better than that I have the knowledge and understanding of the lay of the land, and the working of the necessary apparatus, to finalise a tour with just another two weeks on the road. 

And be assured that this will be a most beautiful tour. I have traversed mountain paths, riverside trails, cattle tracks and rice paddy gravel roads, and byways free of traffic enough to be able to create a wonderful and varied route. 

More than ten years ago I cycled the length of Thailand for the first time and saw the country afresh, a land not awash with backpacker's and tourist, but the real Thailand, a land I quickly developed a great passions for. And now, all these years later I have cycled half the length of the land on roads most will never know exist, and my love for this country is refreshed anew. 
Should a gravel adventure through Thailand tickle yer fancy then please either sign up for the PaintedRoads news letter, "like" PaintedRoads on Facebook, or better still drop me a line and I will keep our up to speed. 

Oh, and one last thing, fancy an adventure in Mongolia this summer? If so, please email me, I have a little something brewing.. 

 

The Kinesis ATR shod with Clement MSO tubeless tyres is the perfect machine for this sort of riding. Averaging 150KMS on day with a mix of gravel, dirt tracks and sealed roads the mantra Fast Far, as coined by the ATR's designer Dom Mason is most apt. Having converted to tubeless tyres last summer I feel that  the 30 to 35 psi pressure I was able to run without fear of punctures was ideal both on and off road. Way to go dude, as I believe the young say these days.

 

 

PACKING YOUR BIKE FOR A FLIGHT, AS DOCTOR WHO WOULD: IN THE TARDIS.

08 October 16

The following is an article I wrote three and a half years ago, meaning that I have now been reguralry been using a Tardise bag for well over 6 years, and (at the risk of tempting fate) so far no damage has come to my bicycle.

I do take a little more care these days with packing though (well, most of the time I do), placing some of the pipe lagging as used by domestic plumbers around the front forks (carbon fibre on the bike I use now) and around the frame where the wheels make contact with it. I am also planning to add a corrugated plastic layer between the bike and the bag but have yet to make this. I will hopefully get an update done soon.

THE TARDICE.

Three years ago I made a purchase to settle a curious itch. I had already learnt that flying with a bike was no problem - getting to and from the airport though could be a different kettle of fish. With the bike in a box it was always touch and go whether it would fit across the back seat of a taxi, and with both hands full of bicycle box carrying any extra bags could be a pain. And then I discovered the Tardis.

Named of course after Doctor Who’s famed police box time machine the Tardis is remarkable in its ability to swallow a whole bike plus hordes of other luggage in a sturdy bag that one can slig over one's shoulder and amble effortlessly down the street in search of a taxi. Once said taxi is located there is no doubt this diminutive bag will sit happilyly across the back seat, even allowing room for a pasanger to squeeze next to it.

The only down side to The Tardis is that the bike takes a tad more stripping a rebuilding that with other bags. But with both wheels having to be removed and placed across the frame’s main triangle I feel that the wheels are less vulnerable than when the rear is left on the bike. 

 

Bike and Tardis ready and waiting…

All necessary tools for stripping.

Salsa Vaya ready for disassembly

The instructions that come with the Tardis suggest leaving the crankset in situ which is quite likely fine, but for the sake of loosening two allen keys and removing the screw from the end of the shaft I always take mine off.

Note: These days I dont always remoce the crank. If I leave the crankset in place I secure a pice of pipe lagging to it and to date have had no problem.

Note where the crankset is positioned and tied in place along with the rack, theory being it is less likely to become damaged. Wheels are strapped into place with straps I carry in case I need to secure a bag to the rack. Note discs facing inwards out of harms way.

I loosen the steering stem and turn the front forks flat, thus protecting them from potential damage. I always feel the STI leavers are a little vulnerable but so far no damage. The saddle and seat post are tucked in a safe and convenient spot and loose items are all placed in the bag that houses the Tardis when it is not in use.

Once the bike is in the Tardis you will note that there is lots of spare space, which is ideal for tucking away clothing, panniers etc. If carrying panniers keep one out for hand luggage on the plane. For most light trips in the tropics I can generally get everything in the Tardis and the one pannier that will be my carry-on bag.

Ambling the streets with your bike and belongings is a relative breeze with The Tardis. Here I have just arrived in Rangoon and have everything necessary for a few weeks exploring Burma slung over my shoulders, including the bike.

If flying into one airport and out of another fear not, the Tardis packs down into an A4 size bag just a few inches thick. 

 

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