The end of the world

From Anchorage, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina

Yesterday I arrived in Ushuaia aka the end of the world after cycling more than 30.000km this past year and a half. By the time I arrived I already forgot so much about the beginning. But I didn’t forget what it felt like to ride those first kilometers in Alaska. The howling wind in my ears when I turned right on the Denali Highway. It was spring, the Denali highway, a 250km dirtroad through the Alaskan wilderness was still closed for traffic. For a number of days I was alone doing what I like most, cycling and camping in the wild. Well, I was not really alone, it was me and some very hungry bears I presume. I cycled a lot those first couple of weeks. I was nervous about what lay ahead and I wanted to prove myself that I could do it. Just before crossing into Canada I met Victor. He was the first of many cyclists I cycled with. Victor, Su, Rick, Manu, Ed, Christina, Sandra, Claire, Marge, Juan, Jacinta, Frank, Iris, Bruno, Roberto, Anna-Tina, Sebastian and Julie. It was a real pleasure to share some of the road with them.

Along the way I got to know so many kind strangers who gave me food, shelter and encouragement. A big thank you to all of them. Now more than anything I’m looking forward to being a kind stranger to others.

Several times during this journey I have been mistaken for a boy. I have been called a courageous young man on several occasions. It happens in Belgium as well, but not that often. People assume I must be a boy because I’m travelling alone. It does not fit expectations to be a woman travelling alone.

People told me I have big balls cycling alone through all these presumed dangerous countries. Further south they called it big cojones even further south they said you must have big huevos (eggs). While this also means big balls, it is ironic because women are carrying the huevos. But this is how we describe courage, it is a masculin attribute.

To me gender has very little to do with it. If anything having big balls seems to be a disadvantage when you are spending so much time on a saddle. And although I encountered many examples of the big bearded adventurer archetype, I also met many travellers who did not fit that image. I met some amazing solo cycling women. Not a lot, but more than you would think. All undoubtedly in the possession of very big huevos.

It is a privilege to see the world from my saddle. For some people I met even travelling within their own country is a distant dream. I crossed paths with people looking for a better life some place else. I met people for whom the road was their last resort. Cycling across continents becomes bittersweet once you realise your voluntary choice is someone else’s last resort. The biggest privilege of them all was to get to take a glimpse into other people’s lives. For a moment, to imagine what it must be like to live there.

Through every single country I rode from north to south drinking and driving seemed to be a common practice. It was then that I felt most vulnerable.

More often than not the roads were littered with rubbish. At times it felt like I was cycling through a plastic sea. There is no end to the stuff we consume and throw away. It does not have to be like that. I can carry all the stuff I needed these past 18 months in 3 small bags on my bicycle.

I cycled through 16 countries: through deserts, along rivers, lakes and oceans. I cycled in big forests and even bigger cities and I climbed more mountain passes than I care to count. I rode through pouring rain, hail, snow and thunderstorms, the heat and smog of big cities and countless sunrises and sunsets.

I slept in bus stops, toilets, restaurants, a cellar full of potatoes, schools, churches, a jail in Mexico and truck stops with armed guards in El Salvador. Most of all I enjoyed the nights where I could choose wherever I wanted to pitch my tent. To ride untill I’m tired, to then pull of the road to sleep under the stars, and then to do it all over again the next day is the most freedom I have ever experienced.

In a sense the world got smaller because I cycled from one extreme to another, but in so many more ways my world got bigger. There are so many things I want to know more about, so many more things I want to taste, see, experience.

It is spring again, this time at the other side of the world. Riding with a tailwind ito another spring makes it very difficult to hit the breakes and stop cycling. But the reality is that I have to end this trip to make space for something new and that might not be the end of the world after all.

If you enjoyed the ride please consider donating to the MS-Liga. This organisation aims to guide persons with MS (Multiple sclerosis) through all facets of the desease. It is a cause I feel very strong about and although it is not my place to tell you about what it is like to live with MS, imagining and hearing about the mountains they have to climb everyday, the headwind they constantly have to cycle into, gave me some extra motivation when things got hard. All donations will go entirly to the MS-Liga. Follow this link to donate.

https://www.gofundme.com/working-on-my-calves-for-msresearch&rcid=r01-154292353237-b27c61613df94571&pc=ot_co_campmgmt_m

Als je in België woont kan je rechtstreeks schenken aan MS-Liga Vlaanderen. Vanaf 40 euro krijg je een fiscaal voordeel in het daaropvolgende kalenderjaar. BE97 0000 0001 4649 ; BIC
BPOTBEB1 ; zet Alaska-Patagonië in de mededeling.

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Big feet

From Santiago, Chile to Puerto Natales, Chile

In the early sixties my grandfather who was a machine operator applied for a job in Patagonia. He and my grandmother had just returned from The Congo where my grandfather worked on a ship sailing up and down the Congo stream from Kinshasa (Leopoldville at the time) to Kisangani (Stanleyville at the time) and back again. By the time they returned to Belgium they had 4 kids. My grandmother was fed up with all the adventure and longed for a place to call home. My grandfather reluctantly said goodbye to his dreams of living in Patagonia and got a job as a teacher instead.

When I was a kid I listened to endless stories about that time. The story about how they almost moved to Patagonia always ended with the same question. Did I know Patagonia actually means big feet? As the years went by, fewer stories were told and more and more details were left out. Right before I left the only thing that remained was the question of whether I knew Patagonia actually means big feet. I like to think that was all he thought I needed to know about Patagonia, the rest was for me to find out.

Somehow the story about Patagonia nestled in my brain. It is a fascination with the road not taken. Intergenerational Fear Of Missing Out. I looked at the map of Patagonia, an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle of land, ice and water. Is that a lake or the sea? I still don’t know. One day I was cycling along what I thought was a lake when a dolphin did somersaults in the water. A dolphin? In a lake? In the next town I was told that that was in fact the sea and that what I thought was a dolpin was actually a tuna.

I let my eyes travel over the map and was intrigued by the names. Bahia exploradores, Rio Baker, Villa O’higgins. Patagonia itself was named by Magellan in 1520 to describe the native people that his expedition thought to be giants, hence the big feet. Like Stanleyville and Leopoldville naming a place, a river, a mountain or even a continent is a theft cover up. To name it is to claim it. And while looking at these maps fuels the spirit of adventure in me, it is a gruesome reminder that exploration and repression are 2 sides of the same coin.

The struggle for land and nowasays more valuable freshwater continues to this day. The soutern Patagonian icefield is the world’s third largest freshwater reserve. This area is shaping up to be one of the geopolitical arenas of the future. In a country where privatisation has become the default doctrine, everything is for sale.

Villa O’Higgins has that end of the road charm that makes you want to get out of there as soon as you arrived. There is quite literaly nothing to do and the dusty streets, all 8 of them lead to nowhere. There is no local life. The whole comunity merely seems to exist to cater to the needs of whomever is passing by at any given time.

Villa O’Higgins is the end of the Carretera Austral, a road built during the Pinochet regime to connect these small far away comunities with the rest of Chile. From the North to the South this road runs along majestic rivers, fairytale forests and small farms. Whenever smoke is coming out of the chimney you can be sure to receive a warm welcome. The center of any patagonian house is the woodstove. If it is raining, and it often does in Patagonia, a place at the woodstove to dry your clothes, drink some tea and to bask in the warmth of the fire while sharing stories seems to be all that you need. That and the knowledge that Patagonia actually means big feet and that this is only part of the story.

Somewhere in between

From Uyuni, Bolivia to Santiago, Chile

The day I wanted to start cycling the ruta de las lagunas in Uyuni,  It snowed all day long. This was bad news because it would turn the already challenging route, into a series of ice cold mud pools. For the next week I rode and pushed my bike along one stunning lake after another. There are no towns on the route to get extra provisions and temperatures at night fell to minus 10 degrees. I would wake up in the morning with all the water frozen. Packing up the tent would inadvertently lead to frozen hands and with no way to shelter from the ice cold winds it was hard to get my blood flowing again.

The final day before arriving in San Pedro de Atacama I got sick. The exhaustion of the last weeks and the cold took its toll. Also it turns out that drinking from streams and drinking tap water in Bolivia is not the brightest of ideas. I was more than happy to go downhill back into civilisation and the milder temperatures of the Atacama desert. It took me quite some time to recover and I seem to have permanently lost sensation in a couple of toes.

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Another ice cold crossing of the Andes over the paso de Jama took me to Argentina.

Here, I found the remedy for all this hardship in the form of some other weary cyclists. From Salta I rode with Iris from Belgium and her dad who was visiting her, Juan from Argentina on his way back from an impressive vuelta through Brazil and Marge from France cycling from Canada to Argentina.

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I continued cycling with Juan and Marge along the ruta 40, a road that runs all the way from the north till the south in Argentina.  It is by no means an epic route. It runs mostly along endless pampa. It fails in comparison with the lagunas route in Bolivia or the countless mountain passes in Peru. However it was memorable in an entirely different way.

Cycling along the ruta 40 reminded me of ‘Autonauts of the cosmoroute’. A book in which Belgian / Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar and his wife Carol Dunlop write about their drive from Paris to Marseille. They spend a month for a journey you could make in a day. In that month they did not leave the highway and they meticulously stopped at every rest area. The book is an ode to travelling slow and it could just as easily be about the Ruta 40.

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‘It’s a land of great silence, a land of time that lengthens and nevertheless moves on unnoticed.’

On a road like that, distance becomes meaningless.

‘The more we advance, the greater liberty we seem to enjoy. And not at because we are getting close to Marseille. On the contrary, probably the of having gained distance from the departure point and at the same time completely lost sight of the end of the journey is what gives it this quality.’

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Along the ruta 40, our rest areas were the Grido ice cream stands. We had one rule that it was impossible to pass a Grido without stopping and ordering at least a liter of ice cream. We called it cycream, the wonderful art of cycling and eating as much ice cream as possible in the process.  One day, after jointly devouring 2 liters of icecream for lunch, I said I don’t know what is happening but I feel like I could eat all day. That is because you are happy my companions replied in unison . I never thought about it that way but it makes a lot of sense to me.

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On the penultimate day before arriving in Santiago I crashed a fiesta at the firestation. I barely put my bike against the wall before I was offered a gigantic plate of food. These people knew all along that food makes you happy!

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However on the culinary front not all was well in Argentina. They like to massacre red wine with ice cubes and the size of the empanadas is way too small.

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After saying goodbye to Marge and Juan in Mendoza it was time to meet another old friend of the road. I cycled with Victor in Alaska and Canada and met him a couple more times along the way. Now it was time to pay him a visit in his hometown. Not surprisingly,  there was more food and more drinks. I arrived just before the national holiday, which in Chile they celebrate for a week. I finally got to taste a drink called teramoto or earthquake. It is a mixture of cheap red wine and pineapple ice cream. And after a few of these you feel like you have been hit by an earthquake.

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The aptly named Museo de la memoria in Santiago is dedicated to the lives of all the people that went missing and got tortured during the Pinochet regime in Chile. It ensures the stories of the victims will not be forgotten in order for this to never happen again and it is a constant reminder for those who would like to forget this dark page in history and their role in it.  For violations of human rights recycling experiences into a collective memory is crucial to ensure history will not repeat itself.

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The same does not go for everyday experiences in life. As I get closer to the end of this journey,  I ask myself why we feel like we should remember everything. It is not possible and it is probably also not better. It is the desire of humans to capture or master time I guess. As if the value of experiences lays in the degree in which we can share or remember them. While experiences have value in and of themselves.

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The only chain that gives freedom is the chain of a bicycle

Lately I find pleasure in collecting moments rather than memories. To see something amazing and not take a picture. To experience something incredible  and to not tell anyone about it. In this case, everyday experiences are probably one of the only things where consuming is prefered over recycling.

These last couple of weeks have been filled with new experiences. I made new friends and connected with old friends. I experienced what it is like to eat a shitload of carbs each day. Very windy. I experienced what it is like to have dinner at midnight as argentinians do. Excruciating. I experienced what it is like to ride into a headwind keeping another cyclist sheltered from the wind  and to be sheltered from the same headwind by another cyclist. Meanwhile, I am left feeling sorry for some of my toes who seemed to have lost the capability to experience. It was a memorable experience and time will decide what memories will remain. After all experiences and memories are not mutually exclusive. Experiences feed memories. Like most things in life it is probably a matter of finding the point somewhere in between.

 

Remote control

From Huancavelica, Peru to Uyuni, Bolivia

From Huancavelica, Peru the further I rode South, the more remote the roads became. I cycled along the altiplano South of Cusco and the northeastern shore of lake Titicaca. This all accumulated in some glorious days of cycling in the North of Chile. I cycled from one national park into the next, a string of snowcapped volcanoes on my left and an unimaginable vastness in front of my wheels before crossing the salar de Coipassa and the salar de Uyuni back in Bolivia.

To me, the desire to go to remote places is never better captured than by Rebecca Solnit in ‘A fieldguide to getting lost’.

‘For many years I have been by the blue at the far edge that can be seen. That color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of the distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here. The color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.’

I too feel that desire and still, for the first time since Alaska, I felt intimidated of the remoteness that was ahead. There are lots of unknoen factors and they are all a source of worry. Will I find enough food and water? Will I find a shelteted campspot from the afternoon winds on the altiplano? And how will my bike and body cope in these extreme conditions?

According to Solnit ‘ Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t, and it suprised me how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.’

There is a loss of control whenever you go somewhere remote. Then I remembered the words of endurance cycling legend Mike Hall, ‘If you get lost, get unlost‘. I guess that is what you need when you are heading somewhere remote. The confidence that whatever the situation, you will find your way out. What is scary about those remote roads is whay makes them irresistable at the same time. To lose control and to be totally on your own.

And then there are these small towns, islands of nowhere in an ocean of remoteness. Some of them totally deserted, others booling little enclaves attempting to ignore their geographical juxtaposition. It seems like no one except the odd cyclist uses the road in and out of town. In those small towns I cycled through, I always feel sorry for the young people because they do not have the opportunities I have. At the same time, I feel envy for the old people, because they did not feel the pressure of an excess of opportunities. In spanish, to hope and to wait means the same thing (esperar) and there is nowhere this seems more applicable than in an altiplano town.

It is easy for me to define the people living in those towns by their poverty, because that seems so apparant. But people are not defined by the conditions they live in, but how they cope with these condotions. It seems for the people of Bolivia, the preferred coping mechanosm is a fiesta. In about every town I cycled through there was a fanfare playing and a parade prancing arround. At first I thought it was coincodence, my impeccable sence for timing, but after I stumbling upon a gazillond fanfare, I realised this wasn’t coincidence. This is a way of life.

Another intriguing coping mechanism of the Bolivianos is the confidence that it is always a little bit colder, a little bit further down the road. I think that is a sound outlook on life. Whenever I arrive in a town, this is the conversation that unfolds.

– Es frio aqui ( It is cold here)

– Si, bastante frio (yes, really cold)

– Siempre frio aqui ( it is always cold here)

– Muy frio (really cold)

– Donde vas? (Where are you going?)

I say the name of the town a little bit furthet down the road

– in bycicleta? ( on your bike?)

– si (yes)

– Ah mas frio aillar ( it is even colder there)

For the first time it feels like I’m mastering smalltalk, but this is beside the point. A strong believe that things always could be worse is optimism in disguise and a sign of resillience.

Remote regions also make for more relaxed border crossings. Gone are the days of hagglers and queues woth no end of Central America. When I arrived at the border between Bolivia and Chile, the Bolivian official arrived more than an hour after official opening hours. On the other side the Chilean official opened the door in her pyjamas. After that, Maria, the woman who was in charge of making sure I wasn’t smuggling any vegetables into Chile offered me coffee and bread. I stayed for 2 hours answering her questions about my trip and asking her what life is like here at the end of the road. During that time no one else crossed the border.

Cycling to the end of the road or living at the end of the road are two very distinct things. The aspect of temporality makes all the difference. But whether you are cycling remote roads or living in the middle of nowhere, a loss of control is inherent. It is how you deal with this loss of control, how you react to the unknown, that will determine if you will find your way out.

2 wheels in the Andes

From Vilcabamba, Ecuador to Huancavelica, Peru

In 1979 Dervla Murphy walked across the Peruvian Andes from Cajamarca to Cusco. She was accompanied by her 9 year old daughter Rachel and a mule named Juana. I reread the account of her journey, 8 feet in the Andes, while cycling these same roads with my trusted steel mule. Dervla Murphy is one of those adventurers that through their writing lit a spark in me. I travelled through books, long before I jumped on my bike.

Like books, maps have the ability to let your imagination wonder. I followed every single one of the roads I am riding now with my finger on a map. I looked at rivers and contour lines trying to figure out how much it was going to hurt. As far as the roads in Peru, reality exceeds imagination.

After admiring the Andes in all its glory, Dervla Murphy wrote: ‘As a painting this scene would have seemed vulgar, as Andes it was superb’.

Somehow I think travelling was more exciting back then. There were still blank spots on the map. The condition of the roads was unknown, sometimes it wasn’t even sure if there was a road. I’m following a gps track which tells me where I can find water and shelter. I’m always following in someone else’s wheels.

According to Dervla Murphy, ‘the internet has brought a change in the very concept of travel as a proces taking one away from the familiar into the unknown. Now the familiar is not left behind and the unknown has become familiar even before one leaves home.’ It is not easy to finf the right balance, to let the excess of possibilities to communicate not stand in the way of the everyday experiences that make travelling worthwile.

However, it does not mean that travelling has become redundant. It never will, I think, because it is not a collective experience. It isn’t any less valuable because someone else already did it. Although I got access to a lot more information than Dervla Murphy in her time, I still don’t know what will be arround the bent. And I’m still curious to see what is arround that bent. Arround one partiular bent in the middle of la nada, I encountered a man playing the trumpet. Luckily these chance encounters do not appear on a gpx track. There wasn’t a pueblo nearby, there wasn’t an audience up until I arrived. I was struck by this man playing the trumpet in the middle of nowhere. A muscian without an audience must be truly free. That or the other inhabitants of his village were fed up by his constant trumpet playing and gave him an ultimatum. Switch to panflute or go play the trumpet in la nada.

Cycling in Peru makes me feel as the human equivalent of a jojo. It is up and down all the time. In the last 14 days I climbed 18 +4000m passes. I can’t remember the last time I rode 5km flat. Distance doesn’t matter anymore. I’m on this road, climbing and that is all that matters.

One afternoon I was stopped by a roadworker. I chatted with her while I was waiting for the road to open. I told her I came all the way from Alaska. She asked if I wasn’t tired. Yes, I told her, I’m really tired. It took quite some time and eventually the woman went over to the man in the digger to tell him to stop for a second so I could pass. I heard her yelling over the sound of the heavy machinery to stop working so the moto could pass. I couldn’t believe it. When passing by them I yelled ‘es una bicicleta, es una bicicleta’. Pride is a funny thing.

It is the human condition to look for comfort. Cycling in the Peruvian Andes is the antidote of this. It is hard, but it is supposed to be hard. I’m measuring myself against the elements. I want to put myself to the test. See how much I still have left when I think everything is gone. To wake up day after day and find myself surrounded by mountains. Those first rays of sunshine on a frozen tent. To gasp for air while simultanously admiring the view on yet another pass. To fight against the howling winds and to shiver from the cold. It is the absence of comfort that provides me with the unmistakable sense of being free.

Crossing borders

From Popayan, Colombia to Vilcabamba, Equador
Late March I crossed from Colombia into Ecuador. At the border in Ipiales I found myself surrounded by Venezuelans fleeing their country. Literally everyone I talked to was from Venezuela. There were lots of signs at the border stating ‘here you can speak bad about Maduro (the current president of Venezuela) and Chavez’ (the former president president of Venezuela). According to the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, 180.000 Venezuelans have crossed into Ecuador in the first 3 months of 2018, compared to 230.000 in all of 2017. The UNHCR reports that neighbouring countries have been working hard to provide an appropriate response but are increasingly overstretched and more international support is needed.

Witnessing this stream of refugees reminded me of riding the Transcontinental race in the summer of 2016.
This is an endurance cycling race from Belgium to Turkey. In the Balcan I crossed border after border, meanwhile refugees were waiting like criminals behind a fence at the other side of the border. Their only offence: fleeing from violence and seeking a better life. Apparently the first is allowed, the 2nd is frowned upon.
It made me realise once more that crossing a border is a privilege. According to Roxane Gay, acclaimed writer and bad feminist, you don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. But you do need to understand the extent and the consequences of your privilege. Cycling across a continent becomes bittersweet once you realise your voluntary choice is someone else’s last resort.
The refugees from Venezuela are roaming out across the South American continent. In doing so they follow in the footsteps of their compatriot Simon Bolivar in the 19th century. El libertador, Bolivar, travelled all across South America to free the continent from Spanish colonialism. As so often proved in history, irony is a bitch. Bolivar ended up as a dictator of Colombia and after his death became a posterboy for the dictatorial Venezuela of Hugo Chavez. His legacy: idealistic traities about the nature of the state, a statue and a street in every town in South America and melodramatic prose about the beauty of the country. The latter accompanying me on my journey across Ecuador.

I arrived in Ecuador in the middle of rain season and quickly got accustomed to a couple of quirks of cycling in Ecuador. The first one being cobbled climbs. Here the cobbled climbs are nothing like the steep short climbs in Flanders. The only similarity being that the people building the road were probably drunk when constructing it. Deciding that tossing the cobbles randomly along the countryside would save time and therefore money.

Another quirk of cycling in Ecuador in rainy season: mud, loads of mud. One memorable day I pushed my bike across the paramo for 8 hours. Only encountering 3 men and 3 horses. Coincidently they were together.

Paramo is an Andean ecosystem that can be found around 3500m of altitude.
It was cold, it was raining on and off and there was no place to shelter. I reminded myself that I had chosen to be there and that all I got to do to get out of this situation was to put one foot in front of the other. That is quite a nice position to be in, I convinced myself. So often in life doing your best is not enough and we are depending on sheer luck to get in or out of a situation. Disclaimer: this is not a protip. It worked for a while and then it sucked, it sucked big time. Late afternoon the sky cleared and for the first time in a while I felt sunbeams on my face. Now became the difficult task to pick a wild camping spot. How do you settle on a wild camp spot when every time you turn a corner another spectacular vista reveals itself? Eventually I settled for a spot without cowshit, sheltered from the wind and enough soft moss for the most comfortable bed. 5 stars.

Onto the next quirk of cycling in Ecuador: volcanoes. First one on the list, noblesse oblige, volcan Cotopaxi. Arguably it is the most famous of ecuadorian volcanoes. The volcano last erupted in 2016. Cycling in Cotopaxi national park was a dream. Quiet dirt roads all around and views that make you forget you are cycling into a headwind.

On to Quilotoa, a crater lake just shy of 4000m of altitude. When I finally got there after some very steep climbs, the lake disappeared in the clouds and appeared time and again. Some patience is required to admire this beauty of a lake.

I was hoping I would be equally lucky with the weather on Chimborazo. It is the highest mountain in Ecuador and is situated in the Bolivar province. You will never guess who this province is named after. Because it is so close to the equator it is the closest you can get to the sun with your feet on the earth. Bolivar climbed the mountain in 1822 and wrote about it in the poem Delirium on Chimborazo.
I reached the icy regions, the thin air stifling my breath. No human foot had spoiled the diamond crown placed by the hands of eternity on this king of the Andes. I said to myself, “ This cloak of Iris has served as my standard, I have carried it to the infernal regions, crossed rivers and seas, and climbed to the very shoulders of the Andes; the Earth has yielded under the feet of Columbia and time itself has not been able to stop the march of freedom. Bellona has been humbled by the brilliance of Iris – will I not be able to tread on the white hairs of that giant of the Earth? The watchtower of the world? Yes, I will be able!”
Did I mention he was slightly dramatic?

The mountain makes its own weather and is often surrounded by clouds. When I climbed up the mountain it rained. Climbing higher the rain turned into hail and eventually snow. I arrived at the refuge. It kept on snowing all afternoon. When I woke up in the morning it was still snowing. Usually in the morning there is a brief window of good weather. That day as well. I took it and skidded down the mountain.

After the long descent from Chimborazo, I felt like I grew a 2nd pair of lungs overnight. I had enough breath to do my secret hip hop gestures while listening to music on the next climb. Resulting in a lot of stunned lamas along the road. But I guess looking stunned is their default expression.

A final quirk of cycling in Ecuador: the culinary habits. No complaints as far as the chocolate caliente goes. After a long day in the cold on the bike the promise of a hot cup of chocolate milk was all I needed. That and dry socks. I was less of a fan of the smoked pigs who were not only the food, but were also expected to advertise the restaurant while skewered on a pole in front of the restaurant. It definitely had the reverse effect on my appetite.


Meanwhile one year has passed since I left home. It was a privilege, it still is.

Ride and prejudice

From Cartagena, Colombia to Popayan, Colombia

Colombia is the first country on this trip in which I regularly see local people cycling for pleasure. In Boyaca, the Mecca of colombian cycling, I saw lots of people out on road bikes, some were wearing lycra and looked quite professional, others were wearing ponchos and gummy boots. Though I’m not sure about the aerodynamic merits of the latter outfit, it is a pleasant sight. The ever present cycling culture makes Colombia an ideal country to explore on a bike.

Leaving Cartagena, I needed to ride a long, hot stretch of paved road before I got to the mountains. I was heading for Norte de Santander, an often overlooked province in the north east of Colombia. After all the paved roads and easy touring in Central-America it was about time for some adventure.

I’m sitting outside a grocery store in Ayacucho. People don’t want me to take the dirtroad into the mountains. I ask why. Once, people told me not to take a road because it was a dirtroad, with all the stones and mud it is dangerous for the bike. This is different, I realise when the people that have gathered around me make semi-synchronic shooting gestures. Exclaiming it’s peligroso. Guerilla groups are still fighting. And the situation deteriorated the last couple of months. On my way to town I passed a blown up bridge and a lot of military guarding the new bridge. It is always difficult to assess the safety of the roads. People tend to exaggerate danger. But when the whole town unanimously tells you not to go there, it just might be best to not go there. Luckily there is more dirt further down the road. Meanwhile one more long hot day on a paved road awaits.

Once you leave a main road, and ride a dirtroad, something happens. Or actually something doesn’t happen. Life slows down. Instead of riding along the landscape, you are riding in it. You stop in a town, immediately someone offers a chair and for a couple of hours you get to witness life in a remote mountain town. It is a town all the young ones want to leave, cause nothing ever happens. It is a town where all the old ones want to stay cause this is what they know. It is a town surrounded by military police because not so long ago the dusty streets were controlled by guerillas. The border with Venezuela is a stone’s throw away and I occasionally encounter people fleeing from Venezuela asking me where the next military checkpoint is.


A couple of kids on bmx’s chase me and ask me where i’m going. To Argentina, I proclaim, it is this way right?

On my first day into the mountains, some kids yelled Nairo Quintana to me. Unfortunately it did not make me climb the mountain any faster. It reminded me of me and my little sister hiding in the bushes, yelling ‘allez museeuw’ and scaring the crap out of every cyclotourist, on their way to their 11 o’clock beer, pseudo justified by the fact that they managed to pull their body in too tight lycra earlier in the morning.

When i descend the pass to Villa Caro, a town tucked away in the mountains of Norte de Santander, i wizz by a lonely house with a lot of people outside. I stop, they ask me the usual questions and we take a lot of pictures in all sorts of compositions. They offer me tinto (Colombian coffee, sugar not optional) which tastes amazing after the cold on top of the pass. Before I leave they fill all of my water bottles. I have a big smile on my face the whole way down. The kindness of strangers is magic.

In El Salazar, a man comes to me asking where I’m going. His daughter spoke english and was eager to talk in english to me. After I told the father I was from Belgium, the father said that there was a Belgian cyclist who won the Tour de France 5 times, Eddy Merckx. He started to name all the cyclists he knew; Hinault, Anquetil, Fignon, Indurain, Lance Armstrong. He pronounced the names rather peculiar, I didn’t understand the first time so he asked his english speaking daughter to repeat. It felt like a quiz. Finally all those hours memorizing the Tour de France winners would pay off. After a while I figured every single one of them out. It was really nice to talk with someone who was as passionate as I am about cycling history. They didn’t leave before buying me drinks and dessert.

On the average colombian climb I have to sprint at least 10 times, evenly distributed between dogs and wannabe Nairo Quintana kids who wanted to race me. I decided to visit the town of Nairo Quintana. Combita lays on the altiplano north of Tunja. I arrived into the town and asked in a restaurant if this was the town of Nairo Quintana. It was, said the owner, pointing at a big poster in the corner of the restaurant. His house is 2km down the road. His parents are potato farmers and have a small place where you can drink tinto.

I start climbing. 2km down the road I ask again. Yes the house is 2 km further. On the top of the hill I ask again. Yes it is only 2 km from here. Meanwhile it was getting late and everywhere around it had started to rain. It would be just a matter of time before I got soaked. I decided to head downhill to Tunja instead, trying to make it there before the rain hit. I did not make it. Torrential rain started. Within minutes the roads turned into rivers. I felt my tires searching for grip in the streams of water and mud, but there was no other option then to continue into the rush hour traffic.

One day I stopped for a drink at a small shop when another cyclist pulled over. His name was Alexander and after we chatted for a while, he invited me for dinner with his family. We had a nice dinner together. It was getting late and I asked them if I could camp. I could. They offered me some agua panella, a sugary hot drink with lemon. In the morning they gave me some panella for the road so I could make my own agua panella.

I’m grateful for this family welcoming me into their home without knowing me, showing me what hospitality is all about. Making me feel at home thousands of miles away from home. They also gave me bocadillos de lena. This is guayaba jelly and apparently the secret of Nairo Quintana. I’m not sure if it is a secret if everyone knows. All the sugar does give a lot of energy. The following days i got bombarded with bocadillos. You know it is the secret of Nairo Quintana? I’m currently carrying a stash that will last me until Argentina.

All this to say that I met a lot of very friendly cycling loving people in Colombia. I often got the question what we in Europe think about Colombians. Do you think we are all dangerous, drug trafficking guerillas?


In theory, I understand the concept of prejudice (eventually after one failed attempt at my psychology exam). As a mechanism it helps simplifying a complex world in which there is not always time to make a thought through decision. In practice I think prejudices are just a load of crap which prevent you from interacting with the world.

I met a lot of friendly colombians. They seem to be very cheerful. The response to buenos dias sounds almost without exception very genuine and joyful. But I don’t want to start another prejudice that all Colombians are friendly, I met some very unfriendly Colombians as well. Luckily. Prejudices make the world less exciting. If you already know what is going to happen, what is the point of interacting. After all, not all Colombian cyclists are climbers.