This is Bikingman’s hardest Race, the Crown Jewel of the series, and I am not quite sure how I came to sign up for what was to be an experience of a lifetime in the Andes mountains of Peru. In brief it is 1680km of mixed paved road and gravel with 30,000m of climbing.
My biggest concern was the high altitude of the ride – after climbing to over 3000m in the first 300km the route pretty much stayed at that height for the duration with a high level loop after CP2 rising to over 4000m. This had potential for altitude sickness let alone the debilitating impact on power and performance. Daily distances covered would need some re-assessment.
My altitude acclimatisation was thorough. I hired Hypoxic equipment for a month before leaving from the Altitude Centre in London and slept in a hypoxic tent simulating 2350m (to generate more red blood cells) and exercised on a turbo bike with mask linked to the machine simulating various altitudes.
I had trained well working with my coach Rob Wakefield of Propello Cycling with a good mixture of endurance riding and high intensity work. I had a lot of distance in my legs with over 12,000km riding since the start of the year.
I arrived in Trujillo, Peru early and joined my friend Chris and we hired a old pickup and went inland about 180km to Huamachuco at 3150m for five days. Later we were joined by Ed and Kerry.
The ‘Real Hotel’ in Huamachuco was perfect. A good base for some riding and close to the town square. Basic and rustic but staff friendly and once we had worked out what was available for breakfast we set off each day for some easy riding culminating in one good climb at the end of the few days. We could feel the pressure on our chests as the lungs searched for more oxygen but it improved each day.
The town was a busy place with ‘tuk tuk’ taxis racing everywhere but we struggled to find good food – we ordered a pizza the first night and got chicken and chips! Spanish lessons needed! We did find a great cafe specialising in fresh fruit smoothies!
Two days before the race start we returned to Trujillo on the coast to join the other riders for registration, briefing and the usual faffing about how much kit to take for the next nine or ten days unsupported riding. Day time temperatures could be mid thirties up while at sundown there would be a dramatic drop, especially high up and down to nearly zero.
Pollo and Frites were pretty much our go to staple diet for much of the time in Peru but our best discovery later was Arroz a la Cabana – rice with fried banana with a couple of fried eggs on top. Biking fuel!
I tried to write a few notes on Facebook each day so what follows is based on that contemporaneous record of the ride over 10 days. I tried to capture the scale and beauty of the country with photographs which were enhanced by photos from Ed and Chris when we rode together.
Inca Divide Day 1
Forty four riders gathered at 0500hrs for the start outside the Costa del Sol hotel. The usual last minute nerves meant we were all anxious to get going.
We rode the Pan America highway for a while. Sand dunes and sugar cane along the coast for the first few hours in dawns dull early light.
Pan flat so good speed with light wind and then turning East to the mountains had lovely tail wind and the day brightened up. Reaching CP1 became a possibility.
Friendly cops wanted to talk bikes. Tricky with no Spanish!
The big climb started after Chileti. Topped out at 3200m. Mid 30 deg with the sun. Wahoo said 40 one time.
Stopped for cold drinks at every opportunity.
A night climb for the last four hours – dark by 1830 and I arrived at CP1 at 2215. 316km done with 3926m of climbing to Cajamarca. Good to have it in the bank – slow mountain climbing and gravel ahead. Hostel San Vincent for the night. Worried that I might have gone too hard for the first day.
Inca Divide – Day 2
A difficult day with little energy. Sorting food is a challenge. Eventually got a great soup and rice/chicken/egg meal. Put me right for the climb to 3400m before descending to Huamachuco (where we acclimatised a few days ago).
Going to sleep in a bit tomorrow morning. 177km with 3100m climbed. So many stops today and dog attacks in the dark this evening were a nuisance – must have been a dozen. Tactic is to stop and shout at them. Now I have a sore throat. Kerry, who is part of our group, has had to scratch – horrible sickness. Gutted for her after months of training and the effort getting here from Dubai.
Inca Divide Day 3.
A stunning day of riding in the mountains but a slow day of mostly gravel roads (some more rocks than gravel) at 3000m+ and midday temps at 35C. Add to that very few options for food along the way. A bowl of potatoe soup was the main meal – not good.
Four of us ended the day at Mollebamba after 100km. Managed to find a ‘rustic’ hostel. Twice I had to push/ride the bike over gravel road roadworks and everything is coated in red sticky mud.
Lucky to find a guy with a water hose to unclog the drive mech. Add to the mix a nasty cold – I’m not feeling my best at 0600 on Day 4 as I write this!
Inca Divide – Day 4 and 5
Been off the grid for a couple of days in more ways then one. No decent phone reception and horrible head cold continued.
So I set off from Mollebamber at first light. Problems with brakes (so much dust and muck – but now sorted). The day consisted of one big descent and one big climb to Pallasca. Just stunning.
Arriving early afternoon I decided that rest and recovery were the priority so booked into a small hotel. Ed, my pal from Dubai, arrived shortly after and we shared the room. Later that evening Chris – also from Dubai arrived and we decided we would head out together at first light.
Quite a few other riders were in town. Sadly a number were to scratch from the race through injury or more common sickness. Jacques my French pal (we can’t speak each other’s language but are close in age and there are laughs and good fun) lost his bike shoes – apparently stolen from the hotel so he is headed back to base in a pickup truck.
Day 5 – 0515 alarm and away at first light at 0600. The Three Gringos had a great day.
Not a flat road all day and bar about 10km gravel all the way. 76 km and 2100m of climbing on gravel to a number of peaks – all at about 3400m – in the warm sun saw us reach Llapo.
Found the only rooms in town and the only restaurant and now trying to warm up in bed as I write this. Finding food continues to challenge us. Lunch was a sort of puffed wheat with yoghurt from a store – the food places had closed for siesta.
We hope to reach CP2 – just over 200km away – by Tuesday. That means we will be scratched – being out of time.
I made a decision yesterday that I would not be capable of riding the high altitude loop from CP2 to CP3. Basically I realised I have reached my limit. It would not be fun chasing the clock through the darkness to make it. So with Ed and Chris we plan to rest a while at CP2 and then ride what we have called the ‘short course’ back to Trujillo (330km). Strangely I feel good and content with that decision. This has easily been my biggest challenge on a bike.
The experience and grandeur of Peru totally outweigh any feelings of failure or disappointment.
Inca Divide Day 6
We keep going and Ed, Chris and I have been rewarded with the best day on a bike. Scenery just spectacular.
We started with a 1000m climb and at the top the snow capped high Andes came into view – just so special.
We then descended over 2000 m and during the whole day had several hundred switchbacks. Often the road is just carved from the mountain side with hundreds of meters drop off and no protection. Guaranteed to keep you concentrating so plenty of stops for photos and just gasping at the next amazing vista – beautiful Rocky mountain angles with different hues of blue depending on the time of day.
We managed food well today and once at the valley bottom had supper before a 25km night ride to Huallanca and a tidy small hotel – £18 for three good beds! 142 km today with 2000m climbing but over 4000m descending – sore hands from braking!
Well it’s 75 km to CP2 tomorrow at Carhuaz and we will rest up but hope to dump the heavy kit and make a day ride to Punta Olimpica – a famous climb at 4700m. If that works it gives us a couple of days to ride back to Truijillo in time for the Friday party! We shall see.
Inca Divide Day 7.
At 5pm last night we were officially scratched from the race through missing the CP2 cut off time.
No worries – we came to terms with that a while ago and now ride as a team of three and enjoy the amazing Peru experience.
Ed, Chris and I gave ourselves and extra hour in bed and set off from Haullanca after a good egg and coffee breakfast.
We had about 75km to ride to CP2 at Carhuaz. We climbed alongside the Rio Santa river roaring below and soon entered the Canon del Pato (Duck Canyon) often cited as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. It is spectacular with the road hewn out of sheer rock and over thirty unlit single lane tunnels. We eventually emerged at the top of the gorge into a broader valley and had a good run to CP2 with a lunch stop in Caraz for a classic bowl of Peru soup arriving early afternoon.
CP2 at Carhuaz is well chosen and we have booked rooms for two nights at this comfortable hostel.
Our plan is to do a day ride up the famous Punta Olimpica climb tomorrow with heavy kit off the bikes. That will feel so different!
The run from CP1 to CP2 was 617km with the majority gravel roads together with 14,500m of climbing. The three Gringos are having fun!
Inca Divide Day 8.
Today was our pitch for altitude. Climbing Punta Olimpica has been on our minds ever since first looking at this crazy bike adventure. The climb tops out at 4736m and enters a Tunnel that was the highest in the world until the Chinese built one recently.
We had been riding consistently over 3000m but not sure what would happen to the body over 4000 – so a good test!
A lazy start for Ed,Chris and me saw us having breakfast together with five other scratched riders who had come up to Carhuaz.
The climb starts right out of the town and keeps going for its full 46km rising 2100m to the top (and only 50m of descent along the way).
We entered the Huascaran Park and Ed paid the dues. The clouds looked threatening and shrouded the glacier covered peaks. It started to rain and we had a headwind up the valley to the foot of the switchbacks that start just after crossing the river.
Not a steep gradient but it rises through numerous switchbacks for 700m over 15km and needed a good pedalling rhythm. Then the rain eased and visibility improved. Ed arrived at the top first with Chris and myself shortly after. Ed was very cold and not feeling great (2 deg at the top)
We took a few photos at the tunnel and headed back down for a hot drink and hard boiled eggs at the park entrance. The descent to Carhuaz was fun – all 46km!
I felt good throughout the climb and was pleased that my altitude training had worked well.
We now have a couple of days to ride back to Truijillo.
Inca Divide Day 9
This was due to be an easy 200km ride to the coast – nearly all downhill.
It started well and the first 100km was great. We went through the famous tunnels in the Canyon Del Pato riding alongside the roaring Rio Santa River. We then carried on into the lower section of the Canyon and was hit by a nasty gusting headwind. At times the spray from the river rapids was blown 50ft up and rained on us as we rode.
We stopped a few times, the temperature was approaching 40deg at midday. The gusting wind made the vertical drop off into the raging river a constant thought in our minds. There is virtually no roadside barrier protection here.
As the afternoon wore on we were determined to make Santa for the night. Luckily the gorge turned into a wider valley, the wind dropped and we made it with a couple of night hours riding.
We booked into a rather dodgy ‘Romances’ hotel – well it’s a bed! After a quick trip to the local roadside stall for crisps and a beer we were sorted for the day.
Tomorrow we have 120km to the Truijillo finish and evening party. All being well our timing has been good. I think we are the only scratched riders still out on the road enjoying the unique chance to see this stunning country.
Inca Divide -Day 10
We rode the Pan American Highway for 120km to finish at the Coast Del Sol hotel, Truijillo just after lunch.
A little anticlimax in a way riding the busy road on the hard shoulder but a following wind helped and the prospect of good food, a beer, a shower and party tonight pushed us along in good spirits.
It’s been such a privilege and pleasure riding with Ed Menzies and Chris Cameron. The second half of the adventure became a boys trip – the three Gringos – with lots of fun and laughter- special mates.
With only three riders still out on the full race course there have only been 9 finishers from 39 riding solo and a few more in pairs. It has been such a tough ride. We are quietly pleased that although we missed the high altitude loop we still rode 1,359km with 20,381m of climbing and effectively rode the unofficial short course to the finish! Oh and we got up to the famous Punta Olimpica tunnel at 4736m a couple of days ago. One of our pre ride targets. (That is 700m short of Everest Base camp)
We experienced Peru’s Andes Mountains close up and I will have the scale and beauty of the landscape etched in my mind for ever. Roads are cut from mountain sides where angles fear to tread!
My bike – a Mason Bokeh – was the star and looked after me so well. Much of the road was gravel, some horribly rough, but she took the lot in her stride with the WTB 700 Venture 40mm tyres run tubeless were always rock solid. Thanks to Dom Mason for that. They hardly look used and a couple of plugs quickly fixed the two punctures I had along the way.
I did a lot of altitude training before the ride. Apart from 5 days at 3150m in Huamachuco I slept in Hypoxic tent for a month at home to simulate high altitude. A bit OTT I hear you say but it did work! I felt fine with normal breathing albeit power is much reduced at altitude.
The Bikingman team led by Axel Carion together with David and Didier and some fantastic volunteers were in good form as ever. Quietly efficient and supportive as the days progressed.
Abiding memories – friendly people, dog attacks, soaring eagles, tooting cars and trucks, searching for food and the shear beauty of the vast mountain landscape.
Thank you Peru.