Almost exactly a year had passed since I broke my pelvis in a fall in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, my winter vacation retreat on the Pacific coast of the state of Oaxaca. I hadn't seen my Mexican bike since that unfortunate afternoon of Valentine's day, 2001, and as I pulled it out of storage (I am fortunate enough to keep it in my landlord's bodega year after year, moldering quietly in the same cardboard bike box I used 10 years ago to bring it down here), I was anxious to see if it had suffered any significant damage when I fell. This bike, a Cilo at least 30 years old, has many dings, scratches and rusty patches -- just right for local riding conditions. Amazingly, there was nothing more than a small, hardly noticeable tear in the rear right hand corner of the saddle, a very common bike crash contusion. Apparently my right hip joint absorbed 99% of the shock of the crash, leaving my trusty Cilo unscathed. This was good news, as finding any sort of parts for a road bike with 700c wheels would have only been possible in Oaxaca City, 160 road miles away. I was happy.
Despite years of whining and pleading, I have not been able to find a riding companion who would accompany me on a stretch of recently (1993?) paved road going from this beach town to the state capitol, Oaxaca. This new route (Mex 131) is more direct than the older, longer (by 50 miles) trajectory, but is regarded as slower and generally more problematic because of steep, curvy grades and frequent slides and washouts. I have been up this road from ocean to mountain as far as the first major summit (about 60 miles/5 hours) many times since the pavement appeared but have always turned around and plunged back to the soothing waters of the Pacific and the comforts of home. From year to year the condition of the roadway varies greatly. At its worst, slides and boulders reduce the already shoulderless highway to a third of its width, putting an end to most motorized traffic but favoring the cyclist. At other times (this year for example) the pavement has just been redone, and the sailing is smooth with only incrementally more traffic, mostly buses taking advantage of the good road to get to Oaxaca quickly. These drivers are quite professional and give all marginal traffic (bikes, burros, people walking, etc.) a nice fat piece of precious pavement as they come by. Most Mexican drivers on these narrow two-laners tend to straddle the center line (if there is still a bit of painted line visible) in an attempt to avoid hitting anything that might spring unexpectedly from the sides of the road. All traffic on the highway is aware of this, and one must be prepared to bear hard right when faced with the occasional bus careening down the middle of the road on a blind curve. For the cyclist it just means staying as far right as possible when the roadway disappears around the next dip or curve. Of course there is always the occasional cabrón who in car, bus or truck comes in just a bit too closely, just like home! The fact of the matter is that once out of densely populated areas, which in this region are few and far between, there really is very little traffic by our gringo standards.
But I digress. As noted above, I had once again arrived here quite alone in the matter of cycling long distances. Partners in fun are plentiful on a hot beach with beautiful water, but I must still pursue my most favorite pastime solito. Most people, both Mexican and tourist, consider me at best eccentric for pointing my bike away from the beach towards those roasting foothills. But this year I have special incentive to do this ride. First of all, my body is in slow but inexorable decline, graceful and decorous, but decline nonetheless. How many riding years are left in these aging thighs!? Secondly, my friend Arnold was going to be in Oaxaca City with a rented car, in which I could put my bike and drive back to the warm Pacific. I liked the idea of not having to cycle back, and here was my chance. The timing was such that I knew I had to begin my adventure just a few days after my arrival from the frozen wastelands of the North, hardly time to adjust to the tropical heat of southern Mexico. It would have to suffice. Thanks to all of my intrepid cycling friends with whom I have spent many hours of productive riding, I am in pretty good shape, and I think I can handle this task. My only real worry is where I would spend that one night on the road.
My first day's goal is the town of Sola de Vega, set in a high valley between a towering ridge to the south and a lesser bump to the north, the direction of my ride. This is a distance of about 100 miles and somewhere between 8 and 10 thousand feet of climbing. I nervously get up about a half an hour too early, leaving my modest bungalow without a hint of light in the sky. Not being in the mood to gamble another disastrous fall, I decide to wait by the side of the road til a bit of sun brightens the horizon. With the advent of dawn I am underway, anxious but determined. The first few hours are spent on familiar roadway and through previously visited towns: San Pedro, San Gabriel, Santa Rosa, el Vidrio, Pueblo Viejo, San Juan Lachao. After about 5 hours I am at the first major summit, somewhere between 5 and 6 thousand feet. The pavement here is brand new, and I rejoice at the smooth, fast descent to the distant valley below. As I plunge downward for about 30 minutes, I want to forget that the looming mountains on all sides seem to be swallowing me up. Reaching the bottom and crossing the narrow valley, I look at my watch and see that it is only about 2 o'clock. The road begins to roll upward, but the climbs are short and easy, and I begin to wonder what I will do in provincial Sola de Vega if I arrive at 3pm. I daydream of continuing on to Oaxaca City and completing the entire 160 mile journey before nightfall at 6:30. I am delighted with my swift progress. As luck would have it I am blessed with a heavy cloud cover that day. The extra handicap of a broiling sun would have slowed me down considerably.
Quite suddenly I become aware that I am heading straight for an enormous wall of a mountain. "There must be a nifty, gentle pass through this earthen mass," I say to myself, there being no one else around to whom I can communicate this thought! But then, alas, as I crane my neck ever more upward, I perceive a faint glint of light sparkling off a slow moving bus, seemingly 30 miles from where I am comfortably rolling along, way on top of that dark mountain. I want to believe that this must be the path of some other uncharted road, something that does not exist on my map. But solidly in my consciousness I face the reality of my fate. I must surmount this Everest to arrive in Sola before dark. Resigned to the task, I begin the climb. It is only about 2:30, but my sense of distance is not clear enough to allow me to relax. Slowly I grind away at the upward angle, switchback after switchback. Periodic roadside crosses mark the spots where unfortunate travellers have met death plunging off the unguarded roadside. One such flower bedecked cross announces the demise of a fellow cyclist, the modest memorial having been erected by other peregrinos ciclistas (there is a shrine to the virgin of Juquila up in these mountains, the destination of many pilgrims in vehicles and on bikes) a mere month before.
As already mentioned, my bike is quite old, and when I bought it used in the mid seventies it was set up with gearing common at that time: 52-42 chainrings and a freewheel whose largest cog was a 24. I guess I replaced worn out parts over the years but always with the original sizes. Thus, my lowest gear was a 42x24, insufficient for legs now 25 years older, and with the addition of another 10 pounds of overnight clothing on a rack hooked to my seatpost, I gradually begin to lose momentum. At about 4 pm I begin to sense that I am coming to the summit, but my legs have turned to salsa verde, and my head seems to be submerged in a large bowl of pozole. My stomach is queasy and unsettled, and with nobody around to witness my degradation, I stop pedaling 3 or 4 times and stand motionless on the roadway -- legs straddling the top tube and head resting on my crossed arms, elbows on brake hoods, thrown across the handlebars.
With the blessings of some unknown Zapotec deity I am finally at the top, and miracle of Mexican miracles, right there at the summit is a restaurant! Not a soul within miles and vehicles passing only once every hour and there is Los Pinos, a restaurant in the sky. Throwing the bike, horrid instrument of my suffering, disdainfully against one of the two white plastic table and chair sets in front of the place, I stagger inside to encounter the cheerful proprietor. Buenas tardes, señora, ¿que hay de comer? Friendly and accomodating and there being no printed menu, she recites the available food: enchiladas de res o de pollo; tamales de pollo, caldo de camerón, tasajo, pescado al mojo de ajo, sopa de verduras, quesadillas de papa, and so forth. "Bring me the tasajo (thinly cut beefsteak, Oaxacan style), 2 cans of coke and a mineral water, please," I croak weakly. The tasajo comes with rice and wonderful black beans accompanied by a true salsa verde and tasty, fresh tortillas. This is not a leisurely meal: all is inhaled within a few minutes. I ask for the bill and am told 53 pesos. With only 50 and 100 peso notes and nothing smaller in my pocket, my gracious host settles for 50 and wishes me buen viaje. Begging my abused bicycle's forgiveness, I mount up and continue on the summit flat around another few curves. Then the roadway plunges the last 10 miles or so to the picturesque town of Sola de Vega, a most welcome and joyous sight!
There is a pretty church on a hillside above town and well-kept, recently paved streets but not much of tourist interest. The highway going through town is flanked by grimy bus stops, garages and truckstop-type restaurants. To my utter relief and delight there is a decent hotel right there in the midst of this roadside clutter, all grey stucco and oddly oversized, 3 or 4 floors. The sign announces the Hotel Aguirre. It is clean and orderly, and I secure a large room with 2 double beds and a spotless bathroom with limitless hot water. The price is 150 pesos, $16.50. The two young women in charge are incredulous at my shlepping the heavy bike up two flights of stairs after turning down their kind offer of secure storage on the ground floor. There is even a TV in the spacious room, albeit with 1 black and white channel. After showering, I put on my shorts, t-shirt and sandals (what a relief to get out of those cleated shoes and tight cycling gear!) and wander around the town a bit. I am strangely without appetite, my late afternoon mountaintop meal having stolen my hunger. Adrenaline still pumping I do not sleep very well, the typical Mexican small town noises -- dogs barking, cocks crowing, burros braying, barroom shouting, church bells bonging, buses roaring -- waking me on and off throughout the night. A quick breakfast of hot chocolate and some bready sweet roll and I am on the road by 8:30.
After a short and easy climb the road heads down towards the great series of connected valleys of central Oaxaca state, the Valles Centrales. The pavement is older and considerably bumpier, so I have to take particular care on the long, fast descents. I am glad it is Sunday because there is much less commercial traffic, but as I approach the city and its extensive network of outlying farm towns the traffic thickens just as the road surface deteriorates. As previously noted, most vehicular traffic is polite and considerate in sharing the narrow roadway, and I am very alert but never really too anxious about the situation.
In an atmosphere where a cyclist would expect the opposite, I have quite a friendly exchange with three large, rumbling, diesel belching dump trucks riding closely together. Somehow for several miles we seem to be going at the same average speed. The 3 drivers and I quickly grasp the difficulty of our relationship, me passing them and they passing me on a narrow, broken highway. They watch me through their right side mirrors and provide a careful margin of pavement as I go by on their right side as they are forced to stop at the frequent, quite formidable topes (speed bumps). This is not Milvia St., and all motor vehicles must get down to 1st gear, virtually a dead stop, in order to clear these high and pointy concrete devils. On a bike I don't even touch the brakes rolling over these traffic stoppers. Likewise when the trucks get up to speed between populated areas -- where the topes are abundant -- I make every effort to take up as little pavement as possible. I actually enjoy their company for the hour or so we are together. I guess I really miss riding companions!
Arriving in town before noon, I find my friend Arnold in our hotel. I chew his ear off about my adventure over a leisurely lunch under the portales in the Zócalo. My confidence buoyed, I can't wait to repeat all of this next year, maybe looping around back to the beach on the bike. Can I make an early appeal for volunteers?
Editor's note: See also Micky's February 2001 account of his Misfortune in Mexico.