For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
I remember nearly a year ago sitting around discussing how I had absolutely no intention of cycling anywhere near the likes of Mexico City. It’s a good thing that thoughts evolve as yesterday I completed a thrilling scoot through the middle of the worlds third largest city. Since spinning out of Jalpan, the steamy scene of my last post, I have conquered the longest single ascent of the tour so far and set a new VeloFreedom record for altitude gained in a day. I’ve toiled under dark skies at 9,000 feet and had a mechanical mishap force me into an unwanted night in a hotel. Then there was the open rolling farmland of the highlands, the heavily undulating ride under a canopy of old mixed forest and a fortunate case of mistaken identity. It has only been five days riding, but they have been five of the best.
It’s been a while since I had a ‘pinch me, am I actually here‘ moment, well this is what I’m having now sitting in a beautiful house in the Del Valle district of the Mexico Distrito Federal. Karma waved its magic wand and blessed me with an unlikely meeting that would smooth my passage through downtown Ciudad de Mexico and back into the life of Denise, a kind Mexican I had met up the road in Fort Bragg, California. My immediate impressions of the city are positive, there is a surprising amount of space and trees here. Cycling into the City has given me an appreciation of the topographical, social, economic and architectural gradations that lead from rural to the deepest of urban environments. So despite being in what could pass as a different world to that I left in Jalpan five days ago, the change, although dramatic has seemed natural and as organic as the extremes would allow. Mexico has everything, a quality that derives from vast geography and the planting of hispanic culture in an already fertile society five centuries ago. This is why surprises here have come to be expected and expectations shattered by surprises.
241 miles ago I packed my bags, loaded up Shermy, scoffed down four bananas, did my morning stretches and pushed on the pedals away from the hotel Maria del Carmen, Jalpan. On the bike by 6:30 am and my thermometer was already reading a sticky 28 degrees Celsius. Sweat was pouring off me even before I started the ascent out-of-town and soon I found my jersey soaked through. We English don’t have the constitution for hot climes so I was relieved to be moving up as every 1,00o feet would win me back a few degrees of cool. It wasn’t long before I had risen 2,000 feet to 4,400 foot of altitude and the start of a few miles flatter riding. For the first time in days I felt a slight chill and my word did it bring a smile to my face. By suffering the heat I had earned the meteorological good fortune of that day. After the struggles to climb in the heat a couple of days previous I was preoccupied with a concern about temperature. Fortunately, my earlyish start and kind clouds saved me from the worst. The sun didn’t really make an appearance until 9:30 am and when it did the road turned away and took me into shaded aspects.
Fueled by cakes, Cokes and all manner of other calorific treats, I climbed all morning with little break. Acknowledging a special day I threw out any thoughts of economy and really indulged. These indulgences went an interesting step too far when just 1,500 from the climbs first summit I decided to take a break from Coke and went for another exciting looking canned beverage. I tipped the can and drank it dry, punctuating the enjoyment with a throaty belch. Only on inspection of the used can was it revealed that I’d just taken down quite a handsome draught of tequila! On an empty stomach and having already sweated up 5,000 feet, the legs started feeling a little heavy after that. Still, onwards we forged until at exactly 13:00 I reached the first peak and a welcome lunch. 6,299 feet climbed isn’t a bad mornings work! In one morning I’d managed to smash the tours previous record of 5832 feet climbed in a day (Elliot Highway into Fairbanks, Alaska). After lunch the road dipped before climbing back up to about 8,700 feet. This single ascent had me climbing 6785 feet in 5 hours 55 minutes, over 30.26 miles at an average speed of 5 mph. On good roads with dramatic views the effort was a privilege and genuine enjoyment.
After peaking, the road (Mexico 120) predictably fell away into a stunning world of high desert mountains. That day I would climb a VeloFreedom record total of 7769 feet and come away in awe at the beauty of highway 120. I continued to ride 120 down as far as Tequisquiapan the next day and although the last 20 miles weren’t that inspirational I definitely put it up there with the likes of the Cassiar Highway, Sea-to-Sky and other beautiful tracks of north America. It is a high and mountainous area so climbing is standard and may deter other riders from taking this route, but I loved it and would encourage anyone else who has the chance to get themselves into Jalpan and climb the 120 out.
Once I left the relatively busy highway 120, it was smaller secondary roads that led me all the way into the urban area leading into Mexico City. The weather was variable with one thankfully overcast day that threatened rain yet never delivered. That day I climbed to well over 9,000 feet and the highest point of the tour so far. These highlands are relatively open agricultural land dotted with numerous smaller settlements and pine copses. The air was fresh and the feeling rustic as the road rolled over the humps and bumps in towards Jilotepec. By the time I reached the Pemex (Mexican petrol station) on the edge of Jilotepec it was clear that Shermy was not well. Her rear rim had cracked to the extent that it was now too wide to fit between the brakes so I had to unhook them. The rear tire kept deflating and I was convinced that the two problems were chronically linked. With darkness near I swallowed my pride and ducked into Hotel Campestre on the way out-of-town.
I must have cut a dejected figure sat in my hotel rooms car port, huddled over a bubbling pot of pasta. I was convinced that my adventure into Mexico City was over and spent the time trying to think up ways I could get me and my bike into the City. Then my stove stopped working… talk about kicking a man when he’s down. Fortunately I was able to wrestle the stove back to life and after my feed set about exploiting the light and facilities my hotel room offered to figure out what was going on with that back wheel. I was delighted to discover a couple of punctures in the rear tube were the cause of the deflation. I doubt many people have celebrated getting punctures so wildly, there were loud whoops and my fists pumped as the dream returned and I would after all be able to run the gauntlet of Mexico City.
A couple of days ago I enjoyed a good 30 miles of picturesque hilly forest before hitting the town of Cahuacan and the start of my descent into the greater metropolitan area of Mexico City. I was feeling good; a huge lunch in Villa del Carbon had settled and my body was super fit after days climbing at altitude. The lunch stop had been remarkable in that the cook was convinced I was a cyclist that had appeared on Mexican television recently. This must be another similar looking chap doing a similar trip because I’ve certainly not been interviewed yet. Anyhow, this case of mistaken identity meant my plate was never empty and I got five-star treatment. I even signed an autograph and had my picture taken by admirers before making an escape. They could not be convinced I was someone else but interestingly the same observation has been made by others since… maybe I was on television and just don’t remember.
As I sped down towards Villa Nicolas Romero the road rounded a corner and I was afforded my first glimpse of the urban behemoth of Mexico. Everybody knows this place is huge but I wasn’t prepared for that sight. All I could see nestled in between the surrounding sierras were buildings; a sea of concrete riding subtle waves of undulation into an indeterminable distance where horizon does not exist, only a blurring of smog. I snapped a picture and remounted to mutterings of ‘Fuck me. Nathan what are you doing!’. In no time I was in amongst this human zoo and jostling with the busy early evening traffic. Dodging buses, avoiding lorries and swerving in and out of fleeting gaps and between parked obstacles, the adrenaline was pumping and I was loving it. My lungs were filling with carbon but I was at one with my machine and we confidently tore our way down to Atizapan. Man and machine, inseparable, a team galvanized under the banners of carpe diem, kill or be killed; we demanded respect and the traffic opened for us accordingly. As I settled into my room at Hotel San Francisco that night I was thirsty for more, I wanted those juices to flow again; I craved the gladiatorial pit of city traffic and wanted to remount that tightrope of danger.
So yesterday morning I rose from a comfortable nights sleep to the same four banana breakfast that got me up the mammoth climb out of Jalpan, tanked myself up with coffee and plunged back into the smoggy fairground of Mexico City traffic. I never really had any clear idea what road I was on or where exactly I was, relying instead on instinct and occasional glimpses of the compass to ensure the right direction. I soon found myself being swept along on the busy three lane madness of Blvr. Avila Camacho and figured it would be in my interest to get off and onto quieter roads. So I turned off into the Ciudad Satelite district and started meandering around smaller streets. It was on one of these much more civilized streets that I chanced to pass the house of Patricio Torres, a well-known Mexico City bicycle nut who just happened to be leaving on his bike at that very moment. Patricio was incredibly excited to meet me and ushered me inside to see his impressive cycle ‘museum’; bikes and related bits and pieces that confirmed a clear obsession. Having broken his leg in six places and smashed his ribs in a motorcycle accident a year previous, Patricio is lucky to be alive let alone riding his bike, an appreciation that no doubt spurs this cycling maverick. The ‘Power from the Towers’ as I learnt to know him took it upon himself to guide me through the maze of Mexico City to Denises house.
Chance meetings and lucky encounters no longer surprise me as incredible stuff seems to happen to me all the time on tour, but this meeting really smacked of something a bit more pre-ordained. Having Patricio take me through the city probably halved the time and distance I would otherwise have cycled and made the whole experience a joy instead of something that could easily have turned into a labored stress. We visited bike mechanics and shops to inquire after my mechanical issues and search for a new rim. This purpose gave Patricio the excuse he craved to reacquaint himself with the people and cycling community he left behind a year ago when a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle. He was buzzing and so was I as I followed this madman deep into and through the crazy world of downtown Mexico City traffic. He had me up and down curbs, along railway lines, frequently charging the wrong way up one-way streets and playing traffic signals to our advantage. All the while his arms were flailing, directing traffic, me and generally owning the road. Vocal and extrovert, my escort delivered me safely to the door I sit behind now and built a credit for which I shall forever be indebted.
I tend to harp on a lot about Karma and the like but it is no surprise when people like Patricio and Denise drop into my life. It was a massive coincidence that I should be going through the same door at the same time as Denise all those months ago up in California. Just as it is a quirk of fortune that I should fall into the capable grasp of Patricio ‘The Power’. These chance encounters are the spine of magic that seem to be illuminating this tour and take it out of the ordinary and beyond the simple story of a curious man riding his bike. Mexico City is too intimidating a prospect for many End-to-Enders and is often avoided just as I figured I would when I considered it a year ago. My immense good fortune has lubricated my course here and I am looking forward to exploring this tamed beast. I just hope that my mechanical issues don’t sour what promises to be yet another treat on this meandering journey of freedom.