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The S24O

Riding The Route of the Condor was one of those reckless bar-talk ideas that wouldn’t normally have got traction beyond the hangover. Like most beer-charged plans, it should have been added quickly to the graveyard of other wonderful yet fantastical ambitions such as unicycling the Pan American Highway, or cycle touring the Kamchatka Peninsula. Yet somehow it sticked, slowly gaining momentum with none of the original inebriated party wanting to back down. And so it was that I found myself this February rolling very early away from my front door in Santiago, Chile. My two friends and I puffing away up the ski resort road by the beams of our bike lights. Our sights set on a real S24O test piece.

The S24O (that’s bikepacker for “sub 24hour overnighter”) is the bread and butter outing of bikepacking trips. The rules are simple: head out from your front door taking charge of food, water and shelter until playtime ends 24hours later. Our bikes that morning were loaded with everything we thought me might need, and several items we hoped we wouldn’t. In the handlebar bag was a sleeping sack, Therm-a-rest mat, bivvi bag and warm jacket. In the gastank bag were the tools. Food was stashed in the seat post bag and a gallon of water sloshed around the half-frame bag inside a bladder. Almost everything would be used before the clock ran down.

The Route of the Condor is a rite of passage ride. It is a modest 32miles in length, but climbs and then descends 6000′ of dirt mountain pass. Its remoteness demands complete self sufficiency. The altitude and exposure to the elements mean you have to be prepared for a cold night if someone takes a tumble. And the name itself – La Ruta del Cóndor – refers to the 80-year-old carrion birds with their 3-metre wing span who sail overhead, waiting to swoop down on unfortunate souls. Our ambitious plan conceived during a night on the liquor, suddenly was a serious and sobering reality.

Yet we had set out. And as anyone knows who dares to do what their fears try to deny them – this is more than half the battle. We turned onto the dirt at La Ermita and entered the Valley of the Covarrubias River. As we cleared the first few rolling miles of meadows and horse pasture, a familiar and liberating feeling came upon us. Even on a short S24O it is possible to slip into that dropping-out-of-society sensation. For a sort while you will be answerable only to yourself. You will not be bound by emails, or phone. You will not worry about making good time, or keeping it or even having it. Instead you are a rolling autonomous entity. Open to the sensations that come blowing on the wind.

Slowly the verdant greens of the lower slope were smothered by the cactus and talus streaked Andean foothills. The air thinned and intermittently crackled with electricity from the overhead pylons for which our dirt track was originally built to service. Time spooled out. Switchbacks zig-zagged above us like a seismograph reading, reducing us to a concentrated silence. Climbing on a fully loaded bicycle can be tiresome if you choose to let that feeling in. But whilst intimidated by the task ahead, we did not yet wish it all to be over. And in this way the switchbacks passed without difficulty ever turning to hardship.

Around noon, three Chilean cowboys came whooping over a ridge, driving their cattle. At over 8000′ above sea level we had now climbed into a rarely visited rock-scape, where only the hardiest snakes and wiliest condors could pick a living. It was unclear where these men had come from, or where they would spend the night. Perhaps they thought the same about us. But as we rattled up the last climb, with water and sleeping gear stowed safely in our bags, we knew we could weather any problem we came up against.

Well, almost. The issue didn’t present itself until late in the afternoon. We had reached the top of the pass around 3pm and briefly sought shelter in a ditch. Here we shared fruit and shouted silly stories into the wind. Any apprehension about not making it down by nightfall was shaken off, and any doubts about our good sense in attempting the ride were finally put to rest. The descent was rutted, and dusty and slippy and fantastic. Stray weeds burst from the middle of the track, thwacking against the frames as our bikes burst downhill. Layers of curious sulphur flashed in the rock bands like trapped streaks of sky. And clods of baked earth burst under our wheels in the lower folds of the cooling mountain.

Whilst I was lucky enough to have a proper bikepacking setup (see previous post) my friends muddled along with pannier bags and rucksacks

The village of El Alfalfal was where we realised our mistake. Night had all but fallen, and in our enthusiasm to keep riding we had run out of both daylight and mountain slope to make camp. From the first household there spilled raucous cumbia music and the light from a naked bulb. The neighbourhood feel disconcerting and the chances of safely throwing down our bivvi bags for a few hours sleep unlikely.

But as so often happens when you take a chance on the unknown, events seem to conspire in your favour. A hesitant inquiry about sleeping in the front garden of a local store led to dinner, beers and a space being cleared for three tipsy cyclists to sleep in the shed. Early the next morning we closed the 40mile road loop around the mountain. Despite the renewed soreness in our heads, we lost no time along the way in planning our next 24hours of freewheeling adventure.

Check out this mega 3D fly-through of the Ruta del Condor, created by the photographer Brendan James.


Call for comment

  • Where could you get to from your front door on an S24O?
  • Ever found good things come your way when you get out on your bike?

Matt Maynard is a British cyclist, writer and environmentalist. He is based in Santiago, Chile. Find more of his adventures on Twitter, Facebook and at his website matt-maynard.com

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Bike Touring Ambition

Hi adventurous types!

I’m very pleased to have some space on the BikeShopHub blog to spin some stories about bike touring, and share some words of experience along the way.

If you read Josh’s introduction you’d think I’d been travelling the world by bicycle all my life. The truth is, however, my bike touring ambition had humble beginnings when I bought my first proper machine, aged 24. I had some big plans like everyone else, but before that, I just got out there.

mattm-bike-snow-training-
Whilst saving up for my first bike, I would train on my parents’ static in the garden shed

My first ever journey was on my steel framed, fully rigid Claude Butler Dalesman touring bike. (It’s still my one and only ride.) My panniers had arrived in the post that morning and I remember hastily zip-tying them onto my back rack (not recommended) in my rush to get going. I had a short 3 day trip planned in the UK, from my home in South-East London to the northern city of Sheffield. It was an ambitious goal, covering about 200miles of rolling English countryside. (Post about what to pack coming soon!)

These byways and back roads of Britain are unknown to the majority of English folk. Most journeys between the major population centres in England are done by car on the spiritless motorways (Yanks call these highways). This leaves the quieter roads for the cycle tourist to discover, with their hedgerows full of bird song, sleepy villages, tea rooms and picturesque churches known only to the locals (and the popular American imagination.)

Whistling along that first day, on those roads less traveled by, I navigated using the torn out pages of a national map book. I ticked off the names of the towns and villages as I went; occasionally peeling back overgrown branches of oak and creeping ivy to reveal the name of the settlement I was approaching. I ate pre-made sandwiches from a Ziploc I had taped to the frame, and scrumped (a British pastime involving the theft of fruit) apples from heavy autumn trees at the side of the road. In essence, I was discovering the simplicity of bicycle travel, which, thousands of miles later, is still my main source of joy and drive for setting out on adventures today.

Day 1 of the Great Divide MBR ...A couple of ambitious journeys later
Day 1 of the Great Divide MBR…A couple of ambitious journeys later

Strangely, my second reason for loving bike touring, came from a herd of midnight cows (see future post about choosing ideal wild camp spots and avoiding bovine bed fellows.) I laid my bedroll down that first night in the lee of a blackberry bush and brushed my teeth in my underpants, whilst looking up at the moon. I plummeted into the deepest sleep I had ever known until, WOOSSHH! My sleeping bag dragged off me, and 20 long faces were staring down, the boldest of the herd chewing provocatively on the stolen bedding.

Okay, so this wasn’t my most glorious moment cycle touring. But it did mark a moment. An indelible memory. When I woke up the next morning, the fence of paracord I had built around my sleeping bag with dangling keys, whistles and bike bells was still standing. From then on I would almost always sleep in the protective housing of my tent, and seek out better wild camping spots well before dark. But I had survived 24 hours outdoors because of my own resourcefulness. I was discovering the pleasure of sleeping where I wanted, eating when I chose from my rolling buffet bar bag and of heading in any direction I desired. Bicycle touring brought freedom.

Matt Maynard
Hitting the cycle touring sweet spot, Patagonia

I did successfully make it to Sheffield over the next two days. I had made a lot of mistakes and was assisted along the way by the kindness of strangers – the incongruous site of a C21 human being loose in the world on a bicycle always seems to bring out the best in people. Most importantly, I had started something. And once you drive away those excuses, crack the inertia and get rolling, it’s a long old open road to simple living and freedom. Let the adventure begin.

Next Up: Planning Your First Cycle Tour – “Taking off on cycle tours”

Matt Maynard is a British outdoor journalist, environmentalist and photographer based in Santiago, Chile. 2016 credits include: BBC Travel, The Guardian, Men’s Fitness and Red Bull. His stories seek to draw on that clarity we have when living life with determination and truthfulness.

Find more of his adventures on Twitter @MattNMaynard, Facebook and at his website Matt-Maynard.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Accidental Utility Cyclist

Once upon a time, we were all utility cyclists, and all of our rides could be adventures. Riding our bikes was how we got to school or the library, how we explored new neighborhoods and found independence. Riding half a block or half a mile was nothing. But somewhere between junior high and college bikes became uncool. We stopped riding our bikes and started getting rides from friends and parents in their cars and vans.

Biking became a sport around the same time we got a car of our own. It wasn’t something that we needed to do, but rather something that we chose to do. Biking was a tribe that we belonged to. We kitted up and bought into a uniform of lycra shorts and clip-cloppy shoes. We went out for group rides, kept a tight pace line, and started reading Bicycling Magazine in the bathroom. We obsessed about training, and shaved everything. Our cars were ornamented with bike racks and oval stickers, MS150, TdC, PBP. We sipped Gatorade, gnawed Clif Bars and sucked Gu packets dry. We followed The Tour and loved (or loathed) Lance. We loved our bikes so much that we inked them under our skin. We cared about Campy, sneered at Suntour, and resigned ourselves to Shimano. We rode challenges and centuries.

Wesley Cheney prepares to start his first time trial in Johnson, Vermont, while his little brother Bradford looks on. (Photo Credit: Karen Cheney)
Wesley Cheney prepares to start his first time trial in Johnson, Vermont, while his little brother
Bradford looks on. (Photo Credit: Karen Cheney)

But one day the car wouldn’t start, or a friend bailed, or a check bounced, and we found ourselves unexpectedly and only relying upon ourselves. So we got out our bikes and rode again because we had to get to class or the church on time. And maybe we arrived a few minutes earlier than we expected, and in better spirits. Our clothes might have been slightly damp and our hair a bit tussled, but we were there, and we had gotten there through our own muscle power. The inconvenience of self-exertion was more than offset by the satisfaction of self-reliance.

Now instead of riding for charity or fun, we ride as a way of life. During fair weather the car never budges from its spot. We ride to work and school and the store without a second thought. Our friends marvel that we ride after dark, or under dark clouds. Sure, we drive when it’s too wet or cold (or not), but we really enjoy getting there by bike. And when we’re on a bike, every day can be an adventure.

esley Cheney rides with his son Kelvin in tow in a Norfolk, Virginia Critical Mass. (Photo Credit: Liz Schleeper)
Wesley Cheney rides with his son Kelvin in tow in a Norfolk, Virginia Critical Mass.
(Photo Credit: Liz Schleeper)

Our road bikes grow dusty, while our mountain bikes grow squeakier. Our daily commuting bike is not the lightest and fastest of our lot, but rather the most comfortable and reliable. Sure, it’s fun to take the fixie out for a quick spin, but it isn’t practical for middle-aged joints, day in and day out. Fat tires and fenders make for a softer, cleaner ride. Wide handlebars leave plenty of room for headlights and bells. Instead of buying racks to hold our bikes, we’re buying bicycle racks to hold stuff on our bikes. We want to get home with an extra library book or a gallon of milk, without overpacking a messenger bag. We need a place to haul our bike lock. We are intentional utility cyclists.

When we were kids, we laughed at the slow, old guy on his bike as we passed him by. But by now we’ve learned to never underestimate an old guy on a mountain bike; he will get where he wants to go.

esley Cheney rides in a kilt to another day of work as a Utility Cyclist at Carry Norfolk. (Photo Credit: Liz Schleeper)
Wesley Cheney rides in a kilt to another day of work as a Utility Cyclist at Carry Norfolk.
(Photo Credit: Liz Schleeper)

Wesley Cheney is married to a midwife in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes, builds bamboo bikes at 757 Makerspace and reposts The Onion on Facebook.