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18 Cyclists in the Andes

                                                         

 

18 Cyclists in the Venezuelan Andes   -  

Including John Bennett, aged 67


John Bennett, 67 years old,  was a mining engineer with the National Coal Board for 10 years before running his own engineering businesses and, latterly, a Trade
Association for Engineering companies.

He sent this account of his cycling tour of the Venezuelan Andes to laterlife…

 

Like myself most of the 18 cyclists on this Venezuelan Andes tour were looking for a challenge as well as leaving the British winter for a tropical South American adventure. 

Did it live up to expectations? Certainly it was tough.

  • In 13 days ‘on the bike’ we recorded a total climb of 20500 metres – well over twice the heightof Everest  

  • On 3 days we were climbing continuously for over 40 kilometres  

  •  Daily heightgains of between 1500-2000 metres (each equivalent to doing the strenuous 3 Peaks Walk )  

  • On the biggest climb of 2000 metres (to a heightof 4007 metres) my average speed was 5.1mph (8.9kph) on a gradient – I guess – of about 1 in 10 with a gradual thinning of oxygen supply.  (On the other hand there were the equivalent downhills giving a chance both to relax and to enjoy the vistas, provided you kept a wary eye on the road surface.)

Blowing hot and cold  

We would have breakfast about 7.30 am and leave the hotel at 8.30 just as the sun was beginning to warm the air. As we climbed the sun got hotter but the air became cooler because of the increasing altitude so that it only rarely became unpleasantly hot or humid.  We had regular breaks at roadside cafes or villages before reaching the pass about lunchtime with a chance to congratulate ourselves, have a bowl of soup, admire the view, and prepare for a long descent. Thermal winds gave a little assistance in climbing and equally cooled the descent but as this took place later in the day when clouds were more common it sometimes meant that extra clothing was essential. Road surfaces were normally good, much the same standard as country roads in UK, but were subject to sudden, unexpected rough spots and frequent fallen stones so that constant vigilance was needed particularly on fast descents.

Passing the scenery

Venezuela is a vast country so we only saw a minute rural area. From the high passes there were wide  panoramas over mainly barren hillsides below razor sharp rocky peaks but no snow. But mainly we cycled through narrow steep-sided valleys and rounded lower hillsides on which grew citrus fruits, bananas, strawberries, vegetables, coffee, maize and sunflowers. We watched bullocks driving ploughs and the people actively working the land and living in small single story cottages made often from mud and timber. There was the inevitable barking (and occasionally biting) dog, loaded washing lines and blaring Latino music. Most homes kept a cow or two, some chickens, and a goat all of which were often encountered strolling across the road. Coffee beans were spread along the road surface to dry. Fortunately other road users (of which there were never many) were well aware of these hazards.

Water everywhere

There is an abundance of water. There was, unusually, no rain at all during our three weeks but in the rainy season (July to December) plenty falls to stock up the irrigation system which is piped across all the valleys and feeds sprinklers in most fields often providing a pleasant shower to any passing cyclist. The rivers and streams were plentiful, supporting bamboo and sugarcane on their banks.

Life in an easy chair

In the towns and bigger villages where we stayed, life appeared basic and rarely hurried. The most prominent feature of many shops was an easy chair for the proprietor to await the occasional customer. Only in the confectioners’ and chemists’ did ‘presentation’ seem to be a recognised word. Many ‘passed their sell-by date’ fruit and rotting vegetables languished in the heat.

Traffic in towns was mainly old US ‘gas guzzlers’ acting as taxis. With petrol at 5p a litre fuel economy is not an issue, nor apparently are lights or any controls on exhaust emissions. Every village had at least one formal, shady square with a prominent church along one side. Invariably the square is named after Simon Bolivar the Liberator – of Venezuela from Spanish rule in 1815. His statue, and occasionally those of his associates, abounds. The bolivar is the Venezuelan currency. Bolivia is named after him.

Wherever we went, crowds surrounded our bikes and studied the maps of our route. There were several 8-10 year olds, shoeshine boys eager to do business. We saw no signs of theft, or drugs, and few beggars, smokers or heavy drinkers. Even mobile phones were relatively rare.

An absence of fresh fruit

We stayed at good hotels built for holidaymakers from the cities but mainly empty being out of season. The meals lacked variety, mostly consisting of two savoury dishes- chicken or trout is a favourite –occasionally with a few vegetables, and a liquidised fruit drink. There was surprisingly no fresh fruit on offer. Prices were very modest – 25p for bottled drinks, less for coffee. Fruit even cheaper when we bought it ourselves. The tour leader acted as interpreter, cashier and headwaiter sorting out the menus for each meal.

The other cyclists

The group consisted largely of ‘early retirees’ – mostly in late fifties or sixties. There were two young women who managed to keep the more rowdy male element in check and one married couple. Two had been racing cyclists in their earlier days, one was a determined tri-athlete, but most were occasional individual riders - some of whom had trained before the tour. Others had not and suffered for the first few days.

We had expected to feel the effect of altitude on the one day that we reached over 4000 metres but, apart from a little giddiness, no-one was ill. We suffered a few digestion problems and some colds which meant a few people had to have a day or two off the bike and were given a lift in a ‘sag wagon’ but everyone managed to complete the tour. At the end all appeared lighter, thinner and certainly fitter and tanned. 

Bring your own bikes

There was the usual mixture of bikes, touring being the most popular with a few hybrids and a couple of mountain bikes. Although we were warned about limiting the amount of luggage there were some very ample panniers, bar bags etc., but two of us managed to squeeze all the necessary belongings into one pannier (and carry it all the way!). We rarely cycled as a group, for extensive hill climbing it seemed more important to find an appropriate colleague (both temperament and speed) with whom to share the pain. We did, however, re-group each afternoon before arriving at the overnight stop.

So, would I recommend going on next year’s tour? If you fancy a challenge, can get yourself reasonably fit beforehand and would enjoy a different environment  than you are likely to find in Europe, then send for details. You can certainly rely on the accuracy and the comprehensiveness of the information from the tour leader to help you make up your mind.

The trip cost 1750 for 3 weeks all, except lunches, included. Find out more at
www.ctc.org.uk

 


 

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