After having a rather lovely nine days off the bike, drinking lots of drinks, eating lots of food, having lots of lie ins and celebrating a birthday it was time to again don the now slightly tighter lycra and pedal off South.
Spending my 31st Birthday in a wine cellar
We had decided to not take the ‘main’ border to Chile out of Mendoza and instead keep pedalling South as we were keen on skipping Santiago, having been there before and not being in the mood for a big city. From Mendoza Argentina becomes a little more desolate, towns are much fewer and further between, traffic a lot less and mostly consisting of YPF petrol tankers.
We confidently set off South on the ruta 40 all set for a few days of potential wilderness, we were excited! Because of the routes we had taken so far we were very rarely more than a couple of days in between towns so the prospect of some proper back country was more than appealing.
As we pedalled on we were unsure about what state the road would be in. Some locals seemed to think the ruta 40 was completely closed, others said it was ‘very bad’ and some seemed to think it was absolutely fine. Lots of them suggested we take the nearly 160km detour via San Rafeal to ensure we were staying on tarmac. The only downside in that suggestion was that both of us are way too lazy to even consider a 160km detour, and where is the fun in staying on the safe tarmac?
Off we went like a couple of determined scouts looking for adventure. Disappointingly the road was absolutely fine there was next to no traffic, ok the wind was a bit gnarly but it was completely paved, for ages!
After a couple of boring(ish) days pedalling we came upon a blockade. There were huge no entry signs, warnings and a diversion pointing onto the rough track of ruta 101. Consulting our map it looked like the ruta 40 continued all the way to the next main road. Maybe they just haven’t finished paving it yet and there is lots of construction going on? We thought about it for a couple of minutes, take the diversion onto ruta 101 which was 100km of boneshaking washboard and veered off 50km in the wrong direction. Or, skirt past the blockade and continue on tarmac until we found the construction, sweet talked our way around it and continued on track anyway, albeit in the right direction?
We decided to back our sweet talking abilities and skirted round the blockade. What we were met with on the other side was a perfect brand spanking new road with only the very occasional truck who greeted us with tooting and waving. This encouraged us somewhat as we figured they were construction workers, if they were being friendly to us cycling on their closed road then of course we’d have no trouble sweet talking them and skirting round the construction.
A couple more hours in and one of the trucks pulled us over. The first thing he asked was ‘where on earth we were heading on a closed road?’ We tried to explain our situation and he replied saying our best option was to continue all the way to the end. Once we got there, there was a very small trail off to the left we could take which led us back to the 101. He also told us that after a big downhill there were a number of bridges we could camp under if we didn’t make it all the way out tonight. This miffed us somewhat as we didn’t really want to go anywhere near the 101, mainly because it swung 50km in the wrong direction and as I’ve already mentioned we are way too lazy to be taking detours. After the encounter we spent the next hour or so of cycling trying to digest what he’d said, had we understood correctly? Are we really not allowed just to carry on down the ruta 40? It was not long after this that I actually started reading the huge yellow signs on the side of the road. They were placed at 5km intervals and were counting down towards the end of the tarmac. It was what was written underneath the ‘FIN DEL ASFALTO 10km’ that worried me. ‘SIN SALIDA’. Uh oh, I hadn’t read that bit before.
No, that truck driver said there was a trail.
Did he say there was a trail?
How good is my Spanish?
Surely he wouldn’t have let us carry on if there really was no exit?
If there is an exit then why are the construction workers all driving this way?
Oh god, I hope we don’t have to turn around, we’ve already covered 45km since the blockade.
It was these thoughts that kept swirling round in my head the rest of the afternoon. It was only when we reached a massive downhill with a number of bridges did I start to calm a little. Ok, so Mr Trucker was right about this part. Phew. Lets hope the rest of it is right too.
Team Gruffalo sleeping under a bridge
We picked a ‘three tunnel’ bridge to camp under, designating the highest tunnel to pitch the tent in (just incase it rained it was the least likely to get flooded) and the lowest one ‘toilet tunnel’. We even scavenged enough wood to make a fire and had great fun pretending we were gruffalos for the night. It was during ‘kindle time’ in the tent that night that for some reason I decided to cross check some maps. I love maps, have three different gps apps on my phone along with a couple of paper versions as well. Panic set in.
‘Er Herb, the road we are camping underneath doesn’t exist’
‘What do you mean it doesn’t exist?’ He replied, clearly annoyed I’d interrupted his nightly reading of ‘The Week’
‘Well, here it is on this map, but it’s not on the other three’
On my main map the ruta 40 was very clearly marked. On all the others we were apparently in the middle of nowhere. The ruta 40 had veered off some 100km ago, well before the blockade and here we were right in the middle of nowhere. An awful thought dawned on me. What if this is a ‘new’ ruta 40 they are building it from scratch, and not following the old road? How old is this map? What if beyond the construction there really is nothing? Maybe the signs are right, SIN SALIDA?!
This left us with two scenarios, either swing a U-turn and go back, or keep going until we find the construction and hope like hell that we’d understood enough Spanish and there was a trail that could lead us out of this mess.
The next morning I woke and wriggled over to unzip the door. I was greeted with a wall of white.
Overnight at least three inches of the soft stuff had silently descended and we, cocooned under our little bridge had been oblivious to it all. The best thing about being under the bridge was that our tent had remained completely dry, it was also cold enough that nothing had melted and made it’s way in to soak us. We packed up, wearing nearly all our clothes and dragged our bikes back up to the main road to see a fresh set of tyre tracks in the snow. Ok, so somebody has been here this morning, that means at least there will be somebody near the construction who we can ask about getting out of here.
Decision made we followed the tyre tracks, if there was even the slightest chance we could avoid backtracking then we’d take it. Only a further 3km down the road we finally saw ‘the end’. There was no construction site as we’d expected, the signs were right, the road just stopped. A complete dead end and beyond just fields covered in snow.
This is where we thanked our lucky stars, because of the snow we could see a single set of tyre tracks. The tracks passed through a closed gate, marked as ‘propiedad privada’ and disappeared off into the distance. There was no way we were turning back, we decided to follow the tracks, and if we said enough prayers they might just lead us to the mystical ‘trail’ not marked upon any map but that we think the trucker told us about.
We kept following and following, the tracks having compressed the snow enough that as long as we stayed straight we were able to cycle, veer off into fresh snow and we’d come to an abrupt halt. Upon consulting the map the tracks seemed to be leading us East. East was where the ruta 101 was which we knew definitely existed. After about 13km we came upon a huge dam. YES! This is on the map, all the maps! We’d made it back to the ruta 101 and gone full circle from wanting to avoid it to celebrating it’s existence. It was such an overwhelming sense of relief to be back on the map. There were even people fishing, one was even wearing a Northampton Saints rugby top. Maybe that particular day it was the rugby gods looking over us, without the snow, or the tyre tracks there was no way we’d have found the trail and would probably still be circling fields determind not to go back the way we came.
Daniel the rugby god! By this time we’d descended about 300m and the snow had pretty much disappeared.
It was late morning by this point and we decided to celebrate with an early lunch and hot cafecito. As we were thawing out our fingers and the initial joy of rediscovering our whereabouts slowly wore off we remembered why we didn’t like the ruta 101. It was washboard and went 50km in the wrong direction. This meant that we were now even further away from civilisation with dwindling food supplies and even though it was nearing midday the temperature hadn’t made its way up to anywhere near to 0ºc.
With nothing left to do we remounted our frozen steeds and set off into an afternoon of misery. If you’ve never cycled on washboard, its a bit like trying to ride a very disgruntled bucking bronco, who is having a fit. As the bike crosses between the ridges your handlebars and seat move up and down a couple of inches about once a second. This results in the saddle repeatedly whacking you in the arse and your hands going completely numb trying to maintain control of the handlebars. It’s maybe amusing for about the first 1.5 seconds, then the novelty wears off. After about three hours you’re about ready to spit fire.
Enjoying the washboard…
As I was spitting fire, and shouting a lot of swear words a truck pulled up alongside. We hadn’t seen anybody for hours. A lady about our age wound down the window, poked her head out and asked ‘Cafe?’ ’Yes!’ I squealed. Before I knew it they’d pulled over, lowered the back of their flatbed and had produced a thermos full of steaming hot coffee. Martin and Tatiana were from San Juan and were driving south to ski for the weekend. Martin, a guy after our own heart didn’t fancy the huge detour just to stay on tarmac so had instead opted for 100km of washboard, deeming it would be quicker. We got the impression Tatiana didn’t agree. After a few sips of coffee Martin sprung up as if he remembered something, ran back to the front of the truck and returned with a huge packet of biscuits. ‘Do you want these?’ he asked ready to hand them over. ‘YES’ I shrieked hardly being able to contain my excitement, lunch had been hours earlier and I was always in need of a sugar kick. I looked up at Herbie to see he was wearing an unimpressed expression.
‘No, no thank-you, that’s very kind but we’re fine’ he said over me. Clearly somebody had been living in London way too long and he was ‘out Englishing’ me on that whole ‘Yes I would really love to accept your chocolaty biscuits because we’ve been cycling all day in snow, we’re still 90km away from a town and it’s bloody freezing, but I’m too polite and I’d rather make both myself and Loz very miserable’
Martin and Tatiana, our saviours we let slip away.
Probably seeing my face but Herbie’s authoritativeness, Martin instead opened the packet of biscuits and offered me some instead. After inhaling only one biscuit (now trying to assert my actual birthright of being a slightly awkward polite English person over Herbie’s pretend version) Martin and Tatiana hopped back in their truck and went on their merry way. It was well below freezing and although we were wearing about eight layers and not feeling too bad, I think Tatiana had started to turn blue. As we waved them off into the distance Herbie said ‘We should have asked them for a lift’
‘Arghhh’ we’d just waved goodbye to a chance of a lift, a warm truck and chocolate biscuits. What dumbasses.
It was back to the washboard.
After another two hours, more swear words, fire spitting and a very numb backside we finally reached the main road. Tarmac at last! Again, the initial joy was brief. We were still 60km from any town and it was nearly dark. Although we had enough supplies to camp there was nowhere obvious. The main road was poker straight and we seemed to be on a plane. No trees, no buildings, no bridges to hide under.
Princess Herbie’s toys came flying out the pram. ‘I am not camping, there’s nowhere safe to camp!’
Usually, when one of us goes into ‘Princess’ mode the other adopts ‘get sh*t done’ mode. I gently pointed out that considering we had already been cycling for seven hours that day there was 100% absolutely no frikkin way I was cycling another 60km into a headwind in the dark. I stomped off into some waist high shrubs and found a flattish patch of snow. ’Here, I am camping here and I have the tent! it’ll be completely dark in 20 minutes and nobody will see us anyway. The road isn’t exactly busy!’
Begrudgingly, Herbie knew I was right. ‘Fine, but I’m not happy about it!’
So, thats how we survived our first entire day of unexpected snowy wilderness. It had been one of our hardest days, but unless we froze to death that night we had survived. When we have a particularly bad or challenging day there are a number of phrases we use to describe it listed below on the misery scale. We decided this day was ‘A tale for the high stool’.
A character building day. This one is fairly obvious and the most often used to describe misery of all types in daily life.
A rule 5 day. Another obvious one for cyclists, according to the Rules of the Velomanati Rule #5 states ‘Harden the f*ck up’
A tale for the high stool. For when you’re sat at the bar in years to come, nursing a creamy pint, there is probably a log fire and it’s lashing with rain outside. You’re regaling the tale of adventure and misery to the barman / anyone who will listen, who probably think you are either lying or stupid.
A day with Kevin. My personal barometer for the really bad days. Kevin is my old running coach and part time psychopath. (see below)
The next morning (we didn’t freeze to death, thank you down sleeping bags) we were still 60km from civilisation, the wind was in our faces and we only had one alfajor and a banana each for sustinance. There was nothing for it but to put our heads down, fire up Beyonce in my right earphone and pray the kilometres passed quickly.
It was nearly four hours by the time we reached the village. The wind had been relentless and my neck had stiffened so much I had pain running from the base of my skull all the way down to my fingertips. We dived into the first open building we came to and ordered the biggest sandwich known to humans. ‘Is there accommodation here?’ we asked.
We didn’t quite understand the reply but think it was something along the lines of ’school’. After the worlds biggest sandwich we headed off in search of the school, crossing all our fingers and toes we’d not have to cycle another 50km to the next much bigger town. We found the school and must have looked desperate as a lady gestured to us that we follow her into the village. We cycled behind her car and found ourselves in the middle of the village square and a childs disco. She scurried off for a few minutes and returned with another lady who in turn ushered us off behind some houses.
There it was, a tiny shed complete with hot shower and wood burner. It was better than heaven. We scolded ourselves with a hot shower, put the wood burner on full whack and slept like babies. The next day was only a 50km jaunt into Malargue and a much needed rest.
The shed of pure joy!
* Kevin is a fell runner and a Bob Graham finisher, he completes 100km night runs though the Yorkshire dales in the middle of winter just for fun. So when you go fell running with Kevin, in the Peak district, in January, for about 30 miles, its sideways snowing, your body is numb with cold, you’ve spent a lot of the time stuck waist deep in a bog and the whole experience lasts seven hours. That is true misery, and unfortunately not a one off experience. Where running coaching is concerned Kevin has no empathy, unless you leave the session crawling on your hands and knees with tears running down your cheeks – it wasn’t hard enough. On the plus side, if you want to run faster than you ever thought possible. Kevin is your man.