Go Big and Go Home

Go Big and Go Home

“Hey you guys, watch out for the pig when you come around this corner,” Julio said, looking back up at us from around the tight switchback we were about to dive into.

“He’s right here in the middle of the trail. And make sure you don’t ride over his leash. You should never ride over a pig’s leash.”

It was our first day of riding in the Andes outside Huaraz, and as if we needed any reminders, things were a bit different than biking back home. The first thing you learn about riding in Peru is that you never know what to expect around the next bend. Whether it’s a fully-loaded bus peeling around a hairpin corner on a one-lane mountain pass, a pack of angry dogs snarling at your heels, a group of brightly-dressed campesina women leading a train of donkeys into the hills, or a ragged marching band with a religious procession winding its way through the dirt streets of town, your fingers are always at the ready while screaming down the never-ending selection of trails that braid the Andean slopes.

And that’s just one reason why mountain biking here is so damn fun!

A decade after our friends James Wilson and Jeff Boeda met and became lasting buddies with Huaraz mountain biking guru Julio Olaza, James decided to convince a gang of us to hook up with Julio and ride the best trails the area has to offer in celebration of his 40th birthday.

An overnight flight and seven-hour bus ride took us from the approaching Canadian winter to spring in the high Andes, where we immediately settled into the Olaza family’s sparkling new B&B. Our routine quickly turned into having breakfast on the rooftop patio while admiring views of the glacier-capped peaks; followed by lathering our milky skin with sunscreen and piling our bikes and bodies into a 4×4 minivan so our fearless driver could whisk us up the lumpy gravel roads above town.

For the first few days, Julio took us on what he calls good warm-up rides for those who aren’t acclimatized to the sparse air above 3,000 meters. We drove 1,000 meters above Huaraz into the Cordillera Negra and then followed a mining access road eight kilometers along a treeless hillside, lungs burning and brains tingling from the effort. Many of the routes followed trails dating to pre-Inca times, that wind through farms and villages where Quechua families herd sheep, tend their gardens and watch puzzled as a band of strangely-clad gringos on bikes go flying past, hooting, hollering and shouting “buenos días” on their way by. It was a big mix of smooth, dirt singletrack, wide grassy runways hemmed in by ancient stone walls, rocky technical sections with water ditches and stone staircases.

Expressing our delight like giggling schoolboys, Julio chuckled, put his fingers to tongue and said: “This is just a little taste of the riding here. Just wait until you see what else we’re going to ride, man.”
He sure wasn’t kidding.

After our warm up rides, Julio lined up a two-day adventure riding around the hulking shoulders of Huascarán. From Huaraz we drove into Huascarán National Park where we stopped beside the turquoise alpine lakes of Llanganuco and then up the insanely narrow and twisting road to the Llanganuco pass. At the top of the pass, we unloaded, filled our cheeks with coca leaves and began the 50 km descent onto eastern side of the Andes, towards the Amazon basin. From there it was a matter of picking out lines of ancient singletrack next to the road that rarely feel the squish of a mountain bike tire. Leaving the alpine, we were then faced with hours of ripping down dirt roads that traverse lush, terraced hillsides and pass villages that are like the setting of a Tolkien novel. We then dropped into the blazing afternoon heat of the tropical river valley, where we met the van headed to the town of Chacas for a night of beer drinking in a ramshackle 100-year-old hotel. The next day it was more of the same as we drove up to the 4,850-meter Punta Olímpica and descended back into the Río Santa valley on serpentine roads, through grassy meadows and on ancient cobblestones.

As if that wasn’t enough, we capped our trip with two days of descending more than 8,000 meters, as we rode back down to sea level on bikes, returned to Lima, and did the famous Santo Domingo de los Olleros ride outside of the capital city the next day. Wonder what James has in mind for his 50th birthday?

By: Grady Semmens.
He is a science writer and freelance journalist from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is currently preparing to race in the 600-km TransRockies, Challenge mountain bike race in August, 2006. gsemmens@ucalgary.ca