I’m waiting for a shave and a haircut in the bustling summertime downtown of Argentina’s second city, Córdoba, reading the local newspaper, when I spot a headline on page 3: “52-Year-Old Cyclist Dies in Rio Ceballos.” I quickly flip to the front page to make sure I’m reading today’s La Voz del Interior. The date, February 1, 2018, confirms as much. The news gives me chills, because I’ve just passed through that very town on my latest bike tour. But I’m 53 years old and, thankfully, still alive.
Rio Ceballos is a village at the end point of the Camino del Cuadrado, one of Argentinian cyclists’ most popular climbing challenges. I’ve been riding on “Candace,” my black Tern S27h folding touring bike with 20-inch wheels, fitted with front and back panniers, a tent rolled inside a sleeping mat and three 1.5-liter water bottles bungee-cord-strapped to her sides. I’ve chosen Candace over the other eight bikes in my stable as a humble way to travel internationally in an era when arrogance is often seen as an American export.
This is my third foray into South America by bicycle, this time on a cross-continental jaunt along the 34th parallel. With the Andes and two other lower mountain ranges in my rear-view mirror. The Camino del Cuadrado profiles as both the most recent and most elegant mountain pass I’ve climbed on this trip.
After my long wait with the newspaper, I recline in an oldschool barbershop chair, sporting half a month’s growth of gray whiskers. I’m in the capable hands of Florencia, who whips up some shaving cream for my much-needed straight-razor shave to be executed by Edgar, a skilled master barber. This is a cowboy’s reward following a long stint on the open range.
My approach to the Camino del Cuadrado passed through the towns of La Falda and Valle Hermoso. La Falda is a refreshing mountain community in the sierras of Córdoba Province, notable for historic visits by Einstein, the Prince of Wales and Toscanini. This is where the mountains and high desert transition over a last ridgeline into a thousand miles of pampas and soybean fields. It’s where I make my last substantial climb my way to the goal of making it to Cabo Polonio, Uruguay, which lies 1,500 kilometers down the road on the Atlantic Coast.
From Valle Hermoso, the Camino del Cuadrado heads straight uphill and disappears into a hairpin turn. I drop gears and start spinning past a crew of road workers in matching blue uniforms laying a stonewall. I pass them in slow motion on my loaded bike, inhaling a cloud of mortar dust. Most smile, while several pause to give me a thumbs-ups and enthusiastic shouts of encouragement. I’ve lost count of how many Argentinians have cheered my folding-bike effort as though I was one of their country’s star footballers.
This ascent is a pleasure compared to my traumatic climb in the Andes over the Agua Negra pass 10 days earlier. At that foot of that climb, a pair of brothers sold me a bundle of aromatic summer sausages with musty white mold over their casing, so I’d be sure not to starve. The night before, I pumped up Candace’s Schwalbe Big Apple tires and cleaned her gunked-up drivetrain. Now, I’ll regret running out of wax-based lube after my chain collects a heavy fur of dust on the oil-based lube purchased at Sepa bike shop in La Falda.
The kinks in my back, neck and knees have been worked out through the first 1,000 kilometers of the trip, so they feel lubricated as well. Also, I’m satiated after enjoying perfectly cooked chunks of Argentinian beef smothered in a rich red wine/onion reduction the night before. Breakfast has overtaken dinner and is mostly digested. After riding on rough gravel at altitude in the Andes, a smooth regular edge of pavement is a welcome reprieve. The sun is hiding behind puffy cumulus clouds. I go into a metabolic buzz in pursuit of what I call “The Glory of the Climb.”
Most novice cyclists never get to the place where the glory of the climb exists for them. They may never know how the grind of pedaling uphill for hours can be a romantic connection to the landscape, an effort that can help gauge one’s mental and physical fitness.
On the Camino, I search for the right tempo. I let my breath fall into deep in- and ex-halations at a slower rate than my pedal cadence. I loosen my jaw so it wags back and forth, taking oxygen in through my mouth and nose. I loosen my chinstrap as I tighten the ratchet clasps on my shoes. I’ll find three different comfortable grips for my hands and start rotating through them: hoods, tops and drops. I never lock my elbows, so they are gently swaying and bending. My pedal stroke morphs from a push on the pedal and pull on the cleats, to making a box, to a perfect circle that gets the bottom bracket to float like a gyroscope between my feet on a gently rocking bike.
I perch my butt up on its sit bones so I don’t pound my cojones into the seat. I make calculated up-and-down shifts, melding each gear into the service of pulling my feet up and over the top of the pedal stroke, applying power in all soft spots of the clock’s face. I relax my upper body to drop my shoulders.
I never ride with earplugs and recorded music. Instead, tunes like Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” play loudly inside my head. I’ll frequently bring my forearms close to parallel with the ground that’s evaporating below. I lower my chest to the headwind and cock my chin up. On this multi-hour climb, I will have no sprint when there is no race, and I don’t want to either blow up or slow down. I take some form of sugar every half hour with plenty of water to dissolve it. Clif Bloks energy chews are my favorite, because you can micro-dose predictable amounts of energy without getting a sour stomach.
On steeper parts, I’m motivated to rise out of the saddle and hammer 10 hard pedal strokes in a random attack against no one but the gravity god. This keeps up the pace and allows blood to flow to inevitable numbness.
Mentally, I don’t try to ride the whole hill at once. Sustained hill riding for hours means cutting your mountain down into chunks to be conquered. I ride to the next visible signpost, the next copse of trees, to the next bridge or switchback I can see. Sometimes, I’ll count to 100 pedal strokes, then start over and count them in German.
When the hill runs a little flatter, I take in water. I think of the reward of climbing on the ascent. Fighting gravity usually comes with a payoff—the downhill on the other side. Wind, alternatively, can blow in your face all day on a tour, stealing your soul with its invisible hand. Wind offers no prize like the top of a pass after a long climb. Climbing tests one’s resolve to not give up when the limits of fitness are being reached.
On my pursuit of the 34th parallel, from Pacific to Atlantic across South America, I earned the biggest investment in the physics of stored energy on the Paso de Agua Negra, which climbs from sea level to 4,780 meters (15,682 feet). The lack of oxygen and required effort drove me temporarily insane, but the downhill payback lasted for days. The first outrun of the Andes carried me roaring downhill for 100 kilometer into Las Flores de San Juan without a single hard effort. The Camino del Cuadrado climb is taking me to Córdoba for my first day off from riding Candace in 11 days.
Let it rain. The climb will be remembered as greater because I did it in the rain. The effort produces pain. Pain incites a riot of adrenaline and endorphins in my core. Animal and human become one. Candace, the only folding bike I’ve seen thus far on this journey, becomes one with the animal that pushes her up and forward. Like a father who rips the door off a burning car to save his child, I smash along the last rises toward the Camino del Cuadrado summit.
The ribbon of pavement snaking along the heights of a spine in the ridgeline carries me up until I can see the pale gray outline of a city on the horizon, forty clicks below. I pull off to the side of the road and snap a photo. In the viewfinder of my camera I can’t make out anything distinctive. But when I review the picture of an aerial shot with a smudge of gray at the horizon in a wide expanse of pampas fields, I will know. I will know that was my first view of Córdoba. I will know the prize of the descent. I will have a personal record of the moment of victory on the most glorious of climbs.
I reflect upon all of this in the barbershop chair with my gaze on Florencia’s scattered star tattoos, dark brown vampire hair and platform shoes. All things are good after launching the trip back in La Serena, in the region of Coquimbo, Chile, on January 21. From the waterline of the Pacific I began methodically bottom-gear pedaling (and often pushing) uphill on my 20-inch wheels with a harrowing four-day climb up the Agua Negra pass, before being rewarded with its whirlwind descent.
I’m still alive after five more days riding alone in remote desert landscapes in San Juan, La Rioja and Córdoba provinces. I rode alongside wild mustangs, mules and guanaco, baking for 10 hours a day in scrub desert and salt flats devoid of services. I only loosely planned my trip in my office at the Weary Traveler Freehouse in Madison, Wisconsin. My itinerary was a sketched-out list of towns chosen as daily benchmarks, and a road that connected each of them. With no phone, GPS or map in tow while on the ground in South America, I relied solely on road signs and landmarks, as well as the sun and stars.
Of course, there was no way to plan that second night in the Andes when I slept in a ditch with six hitchhikers, out of the wind, waiting for the customs house at the Chilean border to open. We had a starry Woody Guthrie night around a ditch fire, cooking a one-pot meal for seven, telling stories and listening to Marcus’ guitar. The Mapuche woman, whose name I never caught, had a beautiful voice. I threw in a hard-boiled egg and a can of tuna fish into Diego’s lentil and couscous stew. After wearing out all my Spanish, I lay awake in my tent with the rain fly open, watching as six young souls spoke in different Latin American accents about life on the road, hundreds of kilometers from the next human contact.
Safely here in Córdoba, reading the newspaper, I realize that one cyclist didn’t make it—femurs crushed in an exploding bag of blood and bone under the wheels of a long-haul truck in Rio Ceballos. I’m sure I saw him. I’m certain we passed each other in the Andes. A two-and-a-half-hour ride through the winding curves of the Camino revealed the average profile of a midweek rider. After 10 days of desolate mountain and desert riding, I found myself waving hello every 10 minutes to spandex-clad riders who couldn’t conceal the stockiness of the over 40s. Wisps of salt-and-pepper hair poke out under helmets, forearms slick with sweat, the brilliant late-morning sun glancing off tanned legs and arms like the oily reflection of a jazz saxophonist in the spotlight after a monster set. These day-tripping Argentinians really know how to celebrate getting older in the saddle.
But please don’t let the man who perished be the one I met at the perfect empanada stand perched on a cliff near the end of the Agua Negra descent. I passed more than a handful of 50-ish riders on the pass, and I had a 10-minute conversation with one outside a rustic restaurant. Don’t let it be him, the gentleman who was riding mountain bikes with his 17-year-old son.
If my fate had been that of the other less fortunate soul in the Camino del Cuadrado pass, I would have missed out on so much more of the 34th parallel—an arbitrary line across South America that allowed for some bewildering surprises along the way. My circuitous journey continued through Uruguay and past its fine beaches to a place I can now call home, the Aldea Montevideo bed & breakfast, where Federico and Victoria welcomed me into their home for one month of great food and a place to write 400 pages of my first book, of which this piece offers a quick glimpse.