The hardest part

Not even one week after leaving Salta, I was sitting alone in the only open restaurant in the small town of Cuipan, eating flavorless pizza and tossing back more brews than would have been necessary under normal circumstances while listening to infinitely sad and proud folklore music blasting at full volume. I felt empty, burnt out, and I was not even sure if I would be able to continue cycling the next day. Lean back, as it takes a moment to explain the reason for my dismay.

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The desert is cruel and ruthless. We made sure to care sufficient water at all times.

At first, things were finer than ever: Upon leaving Cafayate, we turned onto the famous Ruta 40 for the first time. The fact that I was rolling on the last of the spare inner tubes I had brought from Germany was no longer worrying, since I was carrying an Argentinian counterpart and scores of patches in my panniers. I felt safe from harm as we rolled southward towards Santa Maria on smooth new asphalt.

Back in Salta, Ileana had told us that the Ruta 40 turned into bad gravel just before Santa Maria and that it was actually quicker to take the beautiful detour to Amaicha del Valle on a longer, but paved road. When we came to the intersection, we immediately believed her words: the loose and sandy gravel before us would probably force us to push our bikes instead of cycling before long, and the washboard surface and the abundant potholes would have been terrible for Ben, whose back was still hurting. Unfortunately, the road to Amaicha was not in much better shape. Cracks and holes in the pavement had been fixed sloppily, and my teeth rattled as I rode on. As if that was not enough, the road turned into a steep climb not long after the intersection with Ruta 40. I can only imagine (and do not really want to know) how this road surface felt for Ben.

Ben fighting his way up the road to Amaicha del Valle.

Ben fighting his way up the road to Amaicha del Valle.

In Amaicha, Ben had to lay down for a while until the sharp pain in his back settled. I already thought we would have to call it a day, but Ben recuperated quickly and we agreed to continue to the next town, called Santa Maria. The road down from Amaicha was as bad as it had been on the way up, but for some reason, the speed evened out most but the most severe irregularities in the road.

The road down to Santa María at dusk.

The road down to Santa Maria at dusk.

It did not take us long to roll into Santa Maria, and we actually felt like going even further. So we asked a policeman if we could find a place for the night after Santa Maria. He told us there was only one town within cycling distance on the road ahead, called San José, and that we should ask at the police station there to find out where to sleep. We  hoped the miracle of San José de Mayo in Uruguay would repeat itself, and that we would be offered a place to sleep at the police station. But we were out of luck, and the police officers only informed us very friendly that there were two hotels in town, one considerably cheaper than the other.

We checked out the more economical option first, but the price was not cheap at all. We soon found out why: the more expensive hotel was booked out, and the owner of the other hotel presumably had adapted his prices to match those of the more expensive option. But since we were out of options, we had no choice to accept the excessive price. However, when we arrived at the hotel, we found that the owner was gone. Waiting for him to return, we spent two hours roaming the town and unsuccessfully following several vague hints at private lodging we received when asking the townsfolk. When the owner finally came back, he told us that we could stay, but that there was no running water. At this point, we were so exhausted we did not even have the strength to insist on a discount.

The next day was so much better. After a delicious coffee, we sped into the empty wastelands ahead with a strong tailwind on immaculate roads. We had been told that there was not a single tree between San José and the next town, Hualfin, and that description was quite accurate.

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This is the largest amount of water we saw on that day.

At first, we rode along a desert river that was little more than a dry riverbed. When that disappeared, too, the landscape became as dry as a bone. And that can be understood in the literal sense, since the ground next to the road was littered with animal corpses in varying degrees of decomposition and mummification. If they were roadkill or victims of the heat and drought, we did not know. It was surprising enough to see some live goats, donkeys and horses grazing on the meager vegetation.

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Even in this dry wasteland, we saw quite a few small herds.

All the while, the Andes loomed to our right, inviting us to stand on their powerful shoulders and look down on earth. Sometimes, I wish I had brought some equipment for mountaineering to explore the massive summits above us, some of them more than 6000 meters high.

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We passed this small chapel on one of the highest parts of the road.

And while we did not reach any of the summits around us, we did our fair share of climbing without even noticing it. The road was straight without even the slightest bend and climbed at such a low gradient that we effortlessly gained height. Suddenly, we found ourselves at more than 2300 meters above sea level, the highest point I had cycled to date.

Such a cozy place for a lunch break.

Such a cozy place for a lunch break.

Our map marked the last stretch before Hualfin as gravel road, and our morale sunk a bit when we saw a sign announcing the end of the asphalt and construction works ahead. But we were lucky, since the construction works were well underway and the road was almost finished. Only the uppermost layer of asphalt was still missing. Actually, while the softer and smoother tarmac below the actual road surface was perhaps not suited to heavy automobiles, it allowed for an even swifter ride on our relatively lightweight bicycles. At one point, we came to a sign indicating a detour onto a rough gravel road. We chose to ignore it, since the almost-paved road continued as far as we could see. It was not quite like at the Laguna de Rocha, but the similarity was striking: just like that time, the road suddenly ended in an abrupt gap. There were quite obviously plans to build a bridge, but construction had not yet commenced. We came across many unfinished bridges during this part of our journey; obviously, completing them is the last step when building a road.

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This was harder to ignore than the road sign pointing the other way.

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At least the alternative route was a lot of fun.

We arrived at the isolated town of Hualfin early in the afternoon and learned that there were natural hot springs nearby. After checking into a quiet motel on Ruta 40, we jumped on the unloaded bikes to find the springs and enjoy a hot bath. But first, we went to the supermarket to stock up on food and drinks. There, we met the first person who seemed genuinely angry about the whole World Cup business, more precisely the German team kicking out Argentina. The rather robustly built man snorted angrily when he heard that we are Germans and thus pretty much personally responsible for stealing the world championship from his home country. It didn’t help that we had just been inquiring as to the whereabouts of the hot springs. When we left the shop, he followed us and asked how much our bikes were worth. It surely was genuine curiosity, but we felt that it would have been all to easy for him to follow us to the hot springs and avenge the humiliation suffered by the Argentinian soccer team by snatching the unguarded bikes and/or teaching us a lesson of the physical kind. For a moment, we even considered not going to the hot springs at all, but in the end, we could not resist the temptation of a relaxing warm bath. Of course, nobody followed us to the place where the hot springs ought to be. Maybe that was bad luck, since they could have helped us find them: we scrambled around the desert rocks finding nothing but smelly puddles and wet sand. Disappointed, we went to bed early to start cycling with the first rays of sunlight.

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Mountains. Desert. Sometimes, clouds.

The next day brought about a certain monotony. The surroundings did not offer much in terms of variety. We followed the road as it wound downhill through the desert, gripping the handlebars tight on the many detours over washboard gravel whenever a bridge under construction needed to be circumvented. Due to our early start, we had covered the 60 kilometers to the town of Belén before noon. It seemed our getting up early was paying off and that we could push on to the next larger town, San Blas, at 80 kilometers to the south. We felt unsure if it was a good idea to push ourselves and go that far: if anything went wrong, we would have to ride in the dark and arrive as late as midnight. Our experiences with riding in the dark had been far from pleasant, and more importantly: Would we be able to find a hotel in San Blas, then? We decided to cycle the short distance to the small town of Londres and do some research there. Since we did not find a public phone, I tried to call hotels in San Blas from the tourist information. However, my efforts yielded no result, since the phone numbers I had found on the internet were either wrong or outdated. To top things off, when I came back from the tourist information, Ben informed me that my bike had fallen over due to the rear tire going flat again. Now, riding any further was out of the question, since I first had to find out what was causing the flat tires.

Swearing, I hauled my bike to the nearest hostel, checked us in and spent the remainder of the afternoon meticulously examining any potential reason for the flat – alas, without finding any. So far, none of the flat tires I had suffered had been caused by the usual suspects like glass shards, thorns or sharp stones. Such punctures would lead to a hole on the outside of the tube, where it touches the tire. Instead, they were on the inside, where the inner tube touches the metal rim. But the rim seemed perfectly fine – there were no sharp edges, and the rim tape protecting the tube seemed in excellent shape. I felt like I was fighting an invisible enemy. I disassembled and cleaned everything thoroughly before carefully installing the rear tire again.

I did not get very far the next day, but far enough to find myself in the middle of the desert when I began to feel the all-too-familiar wobble of my rear tire quickly losing air. Again, the hole was on the inside and again, there was no visible cause for it. It was not easy, but I maintained my calm and set to repairing the tire. But it turned out that it was impossible to repair it, since the patch covering the previous hole had itself developed a hole and a patch cannot be patched again. Once more, I was down to my last spare tube, the one I had acquired in Cafayate just days earlier. Suddenly, a brightly colored bus stopped next to us and the lovely couple piloting it offered to help us. We gladly accepted the guaraná they offered us and kindly explained that the situation was under control. Asking them for a ride seemed pointless, since they were going in the opposite direction, but it was good to see that there were helpful people out on the road should we ever get into more serious trouble.

I rode on uneasily after fixing the flat, feeling like I was sitting on a time bomb. It was extremely unsettling that my rear tire kept going flat without any apparent cause. We made it to San Blas, which turned out to be somewhat smaller than Londres. Getting there without incidents restored my confidence. It was still early in spite of the flat tire, so we tried to push on to the city of Pituil, to gain some more kilometers and make up for the unsatisfying last stages. It can be considered a fortunate circumstance that when I got the next flat, it happened in the small town of Cuipan and not in the middle of the desert. At this point, it seems needless to say that the puncture was again on the inside of the tube, and that there was no apparent reason for it. It is perhaps also needless to say that I was devastated. We have patiently endured continuous rain, massive headwinds, reckless drivers and many other nuisances since leaving Rio, but we have been spared of defects for the most part. Up to this point, I had been proud of the carefully and sensibly chosen equipment that had worked like a charm for more than 3500 kilometers.  Now, it seemed like our entire endeavor was in danger if I was not able to find and eliminate the cause for my constant flats – and all I had was one shot. Another puncture would leave me without spare tubes and render my bike immobile.

Obviously, I had not approached the problem from the right angle, so I sat down and thought hard. I had not suffered a single flat before I had to swap the rear tire in San José de Mayo in Uruguay, and all the holes were on the rear. Also, the rim tape did not have an adhesive backing, but was held in place by the pressure of the inner tube. Perhaps the new tire was sitting more loosely in the rim, thus allowing the rime tape to move around and rub against the inner tube. Eventually, the resulting friction could theoretically cause a hole. Although it seemed like a long shot, I decided to replace the seemingly intact rim tape. Of course, an adequate replacement was impossible to find in the tiny settlement, so I used a roll of band-aid from the local pharmacy. If that didn’t work, I would be stuck in Cuipan without spare tubes and dozens of miles from the next bike shop. After the unsatisfactory dinner described in the introduction, I went to bed wondering if I would need to hitchhike to a larger town, or if the band-aid would save the day and allow us to continue our voyage.

3 thoughts on “The hardest part

  1. Pingback: Hitting rock bottom – la vuelta sudamericana

  2. Pingback: 4263,4 km – la vuelta sudamericana

  3. Pingback: Fast forward – la vuelta sudamericana

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