I have come home… no, not given up and returned to the UK, I am back on the bike and in the rhythms and routine that over the last 14 months have become my lifeblood. Once again traveling the road, I’ve finally completed my cycle through the worlds second biggest city and have wound up luxuriating in a hotel room off the zocalo of Tehuacan, in the state of Puebla. Five days have passed, a short time during which I’ve covered a meager 183 miles. But anyone who appreciates the essence of cycle touring will know that the mile count means nothing, it is the experience that stands for everything and mine since spinning out of Mexico City has been one packed with refreshing changes and notable landmarks: With the rainy season in full flow, I’ve been riding in the rain for the first time in Mexico. My course has taken me to the highest elevation and camp spot of the tour. The landscape is now delivering the welcome sights and smells of green vegetation. And most significantly, I’ve snagged myself a riding partner.
To say it was a relief to cycle out of Mexico City is an understatement. Not that I dislike the place at all, more that it was beyond time for me to reacquaint myself with the twin delights of the rural environment and days of cycling. I should have left weeks ago but had to hang around to wait for delivery of my new bottom bracket… it never arrived. I fell victim to a particularly Mexican attitude, one where I was constantly told that my part would arrive in the next day or two when in fact they had never even ordered it. My final two weeks in the city were frustrating and essentially a big waste of time that cost me money and inconvenienced my gracious host, Denise. There was anger but that has passed, arrangements made for the part to be delivered further down the road and me back to the pleasures of actual bicycle touring. This episode and the experience of letting others work on Shermy have taught me that if you want something done properly, then do it yourself.
A few days before I kissed Mexico City goodbye I received an email from Jens, a fellow Pan American rider. We had first met up on the tail end of the Cassiar Highway in Canada, crossed paths briefly on my way into La Paz, Baja California (he was in a Volkswagen Camper traveling the opposite way) and have exchanged numerous emails. Jens looked me up for inspiration as he prepared to leave Mexico City and was astounded to find that I was still there. We truly are the snails of the Alaska to Argentina cycle touring fraternity, still in Mexico when our fellow 2010 starters are mostly a good deal further south. There are various reasons why our progress south is less than speedy, reasons that largely reflect tales of bad luck and the irresistible urge to explore and experience rather than bodies lacking in cycling ability or work shy minds. Whatever, I was excited to discover he was going my way and we arranged to meet up in the city of Puebla, giving me three days to make 100 miles and the perfect way to ensure I didn’t do too much too soon after six weeks off.
Throwing my leg over a loaded Shermy for the first time in weeks was a pleasure that comes close to unholy. With a new sprocket, reversed chain ring and new chain she is running better that she has for months (despite a couple of rapidly crumbling bearings in her bottom bracket cartridge). The old feelings soon returned and I put my head down to negotiate the uneventful slog out of Mexico City. It was a good 20 miles before I found myself on a dirt track surrounded by fields and out of urbanity. Initially glad that I had obviously just missed an almighty down-poor my luck would soon run out as the rain came and I dusted off the waterproofs. Wet but pleasant and ever so slightly exhilarating best describes the remainder of my ride towards the township of Amecameca and a cheap room for the night.
The second and third highest peaks in Mexico are the volcanoes of Popocatépetl (17,749 feet) and Iztaccíhuatl (17,159 feet). These giant features just happen to reside between Mexico City and Puebla, and could not be ignored as I route planned my way towards Oaxaca. I therefore took the road that climbs over the Paso de Cortes, the pass that lies in the saddle between these two behemoths. At almost 12,000 feet, crossing this pass inevitably involved a juicy bit of climbing and would take me higher than I’ve ever been before. The climb was fun despite being done almost entirely in pouring rain and encased in a thick blanket of grey cloud. After about 10,500 feet things became noticeably more challenging on account of the altitude but otherwise the climb was uneventful. I had set out from Amecameca late after spending hours fiddling with a failed brake spring and thus only reached the highpoint about 16:30. The cloud cover meant I could see nothing of the volcanoes and therefore had little incentive to hang around before the descent. My tentative plan was to reach Cholula for the night and that plan was still on until a cheaply pimped Volkswagen Golf crawled past me.
The two guys in the car stared through me with menace before pulling up at the Paso de Cortes visitor centre. I tend to think that confronting a potential aggressor is the best way to avert problems, believing that if I ingratiate myself to them then they’ll feel less inclined to take all my money. Although standoffish these men were nice enough, but the prison tattoos and their general demeanour triggered a niggling concern. So when they set off down the dirt road I was going to take I feigned to go the other way, this despite them knowing I was headed Puebla way. Still, when I started my descent I encountered them parked up less than a kilometer from the top. I have no doubt they were waiting for me so at first sight I dove off the road and down a ravine into some sheltered forest. I trust my judgment of character and having given these fellas a chance to gain my trust I feel I know what they wanted… I wasn’t going to let them have it.
So by 17:15 I found myself on a track deep in a small ravine at about 11,500 feet and on the run from evil. Knowing that it would be an easy ride into Puebla the next day to meet Jens, I decided to pitch up and enjoy a night at altitude. It wasn’t long before I’d found a spot and had the tent up, a process that ended with the opening of the heavens. As the rain deluged out of the sky I tried and eventually succeeded in getting my stove lit only to then knock over the precious water I’d set to heat (I knew it would happen eventually). Getting soaked and now without enough water to cook I retired to the tent to enjoy a dinner of chocolate spread tortillas. Then the real fun started… an almighty storm hit. I cowered in my trusty tent as one lightning bolt after another illuminated the world outside. Thunder growled and my shelter reverberated noisily under the relentless attack of rain. Just inches from my head lay my bike, a great hunk of metal just calling out for a lightening strike. I became a little worried as the video footage below demonstrates. This fear would drive my naked frame outside to splash around bare foot in the mud and banish Shermy away to a safe distance. On my return to bed I realised that the hollow my body had previously occupied was now full of water… I had a water bed. My mind did eventually succumb to slumber but it was a restless night to say the least.
Morning was welcome and delivered a few fleeting breaks in the clouds. As I began my descent towards Cholula I could briefly make out the snow line on the two volcanoes, unfortunately their summits were still shrouded in heavy cloud. There were flashes of sunshine and a smile on my face as I sped down hill on the rain abused dirt road. It is amazing how much easier and more fun these things are when you have two brakes (my absent rear brake returned with a new rim in Mexico City). After ten miles or so the road surface became sealed and by 11:30 I was sat in the centre of Cholula enjoying a coffee in front of the widest pyramid in the world.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as Tlachihualtepetl stands 180 feet high on a footprint of 1,300 by 1,300 ft. Time has taken over the structure so it now looks anything but man-made, instead resembling a huge grassy hill and home to more than a few trees. The most striking feature of the pyramid now is the dainty Spanish church erected up top of its hulking mass in the 16th century. Although it is unclear whether the Spanish were aware of the significance of this apparent hill, this church still stands as a remarkable statement of conquest.
That afternoon I cycled into the charming historic city of Puebla. As I waited to meet up with Jens I established myself in the zocalo next to the Cathedral and laid out my gear to dry. Once everything was thoroughly aired and I’d received an extraordinary blessing from a passing spiritual healer, I set off to find Jens. I found him at his hotel and as we caught up and looked at possible routes the ‘Velo Alliance’ was formed (so named on account of Jens’ website being Velomerica). The next morning after a brief tour of Puebla and a few miles false start (my having initially ridden off from the hotel wearing only one cycling glove) we were on our bikes and underway. Yesterday we enjoyed some delightful riding over lush rolling hills and then some less than delightful riding down the busy road to Tecamachalco where we shared a cheap hotel room. Today was equally relaxed; we didn’t set off until after midday so I could watch Darren Clarke seal his British Open triumph and rolled only 40 miles down the road to Tehuacan. We are again staying in a cheap hotel, it is a distinct advantage of traveling in a pair that accommodation is much cheaper, a blessing during the rainy season. Tomorrow we look forward to continuing our adventure to Oaxaca… things are about to get hilly!