When I’m old and sedated by my years perhaps I’ll dine out on the memory of an English summer many years ago when I spent six weeks at 4,000 metres above seal level cycling through an endless Argentine winter.
A detailed account of exactly what one person gets up to on his own in a tent for 45 days is for another day and perhaps a different audience, so here’s a foreshortened version of events for you to draw your own conclusions as to what brought about the terror which that barren wilderness unleashed inside me, enslaving me to demons which now deprive me of sleep and have me bound to a hospital bed, sweating rabidly between convulsions and speaking in tongues.
First off I want to clarify that Argentina is more than just a combination of the world’s greatest footballers and the world’s most beautiful women.
The first thing that slaps you clean across the face is its size.
s h i t i s m a s s i v e
In terms of cycle touring I pretty much experienced the most radical stuff I ever have on a bike.
A savage untamed wilderness haunted me at every turn.
Unending stretches of sand sank my bike wheels halfway through the floor and made any semblance of progress a joke.
And a 7 hour 53km ascent up to a pass at 4,300m almost did for me.
But coasting down the other side was fresh.
75km of nonstop free-wheel
There was also the bonus of cycling the same road drug-traffickers use to run their contraband down from the Bolivian border to Buenos Aires where they ship it out to Europe. With the sheer units involved and the pigs constantly on their tail, spillages are inevitable.
Bolivian uncut, pure as the driven snow. That afternoon I chewed up the kilometres like they were Bubbaloo, relentlessly chatting shit into my ear about absolutely nothing, of which I remember nothing, since I wasn’t listening to a word I was saying.
Nowhere I have been comes close to the remoteness I experienced on the roads out there, the feeling of existing in places where humans don’t very often tread. Every day I saw nothing but empty roads stretching out endlessly away from me towards the horizon; at times so relentless that calculating the distance ahead of me was counter productive in that it made me not want to start cycling at all.
It got so desolate sometimes that for want of a smoother surface I made that shit count and camped out in style.
The hugeness of the landscape obliged me to switch up the focus from a far too distant destination back to the simple process of pedalling; the bicycle equivalent of taking very small baby steps, one foot in front of the other. In this manner I inched my way for 3,200km down the spine of the country from the Bolivian border to the province of Mendoza.
Meeting legends along the way, making memories by the bucketload, leaving pieces of my heart strewn here and there, and more importantly taking time out to grow an absolutely gangsta handlebar moustache.
I also saw some heavy sunsets.
Cactuses bigger than houses.
Villages dedicated solely to the production of condiments.
Some state of the art petrol stations.
Some of the world’s most informative road signs.
And Argentina’s answer to Bradley Wiggins.
Six weeks alone on the road, heat from the locals was an inevitability I had to live with.
So I upped my security with a tight support vehicle.
When it comes to the cycling, I think Hemingway said it best:
It is only by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of a country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.
I definitely think the physical memories of places are intensified by the exertion it takes to haul your tired behind through them, and if I put my mind to it I can remember details of every single day of the 45 I spent in the saddle. The sun on my back, always the smell of the tarmac, the dirt coating my skin, the dryness at the back of my throat that no amount of water could assuage. You forge strong bonds with particular roads you graft through and villages you collapse in. I don’t exaggerate when I say at times I felt even the walls were speaking to me.
The relentless rhythm of cycle touring means that after killing yourself one day, beating your legs into submission, and face planting onto the floor of your tent drooling dust out the corner of your mouth, somehow you get up the next morning and do it all over again. It is symbolic of a bigger thing. You go through every single emotion possible, every single day travelling by bike in this way.
I think touring by bicycle is an allegory for life itself.
And the one constant, the thing that keeps you going, on and on, face down through gritted teeth into the unrelenting headwind…
– asides from some expertly brewed early morning caffeine injection –
Is the thought of what might be round the next bend in the road, down into the next valley, or over the next hill.
When that stops mattering you might as well sack it all in and hit up Cafe Jack.
Yup. Cafe Nero in Argentina is actually called Cafe Jack.