This article originally ran in Cycling News in March of 1997, after I returned from my first trip to Ecuador.
There I was in my big chainring. No, that's another story, another time, another place. This time I was in my littlest chainring and my biggest cog—the lowest gear I could find.
Three, three point four, three, three point two—my cycle computer smirks out the flashing numbers—this is slower than a walking pace and every puff of breeze makes balancing a real challenge.
But I'm almost there. “There” being a plateau of sorts in a very uphill world. Nancy is somewhere behind me riding even slower, or maybe she's stopped for one of her “Isn't this great!” big smile and breathing breaks.
The long downhill for today is behind us and even that was relatively slow going. Without knowing what to expect from the roadway around each curve (or from the drivers for that matter since we were as yet unversed in Ecuadorian traffic philosophy), Nancy had been hedging her bets with regular braking. In respect for her prudence and to keep us within photo opportunity of each other, I had been doing the same. Now it’s lunch time and since crossing the Guayllabamba River everything has been uphill—extremely uphill.
We didn’t get a very early start out of Quito. We’re headed for an overnight in Cayambe, a small city below a snow-capped mountain of the same name. Another day’s ride will take us to Peguche, a quiet little town near Otavalo, where they have the famous market, and Ibarra, Nancy's favorite city in Ecuador.
Leaving Carcelén Bajo, where we have been staying with our friends Miguel and Bernarda (and Miguelito and Andrea), Carcelén Alto offered the first reality check for our “bicycling the Andes” scenario. No more than three minutes into the ride we were walking our bikes up the hill from hell. The buses and taxis that passed us were also doing a walking pace. But they didn't seem to be gasping for air.
Sufficiently humbled by Andean suburbs, we filled our CamelBaks® and water bottles in Carcelén Alto and ventured forth.
I'm topping the rise now and none too soon. I need water but my struggle to pull oxygen from the thin mountain air hasn't left me with any breathing room to pull water from the reservoir on my back. Easing to the edge of the pavement, I dismount and lean back against the top tube of my bike to watch the road behind me for the appearance of Nancy. Pulling in alternating quantities of air and water, I wave or nod at the trucks and buses grabbing and grinding for second gear as they top the rise. Some drivers nod back or wave and others gesture out their windows. I'm not familiar with the hand sign they use and don't know how to react, so I just smile and wave. Nancy arrives and we move on.
Guayllabamba is a one-street town on the highway. Speed bumps keep the big trucks from passing through without noticing it. We're hungry but starting to slip behind our/my (unpublished) expectations for the day’s ride. We stop to buy more water and Nancy sits on the sidewalk to eat her PowerBar and a couple of bananas she buys from a man with a wheelbarrow full of them. We watch the people and the traffic. There are lots of young boys on bicycles. Some stop to examine our rigs and one boy explains the fine points of touring to his friends, pointing out the various pieces of specialized equipment on our bikes.
We move on, riding quietly past orchards of avocado trees full of fruit, occasional palms and statuesque eucalyptus trees forming a canopy over the roadway like a tall dark tunnel headed ever upward. Some of the grade is gradual and easy riding, but that soon changes. High above us on the right now is a ridge running parallel to our highway. I notice how the line of trees along the top bends down toward us under the onslaught of some very strong wind we are not aware of here below. Our progress is slow and I suspect that our goal of a night in Cayambe is slipping away from us.
We stop at a small store, next to a restaurant. Both seem isolated and out of place this far up the mountain. Spreading our map on the counter, I ask the young attendant where we are on the ribbon of red highway. She does not know. Or, perhaps, she has never had to read a map.
“How far is Cayambe?” I ask.
“Maybe half and hour,” she says.
“How far by bicycle?”
“Maybe an hour.”
We know that can't be true. Especially in the mountains. Should we hitch or hire a passing truck to take us the rest of the way, or maybe just over the top of this mountain, or should we press on?
As if to clarify the situation, a heavily-loaded truck stalls in front of the store and it’s several minutes before the driver can get it moving up the grade again. Nobody is going to stop for us here. We must get to a more level spot if we are wanting a ride.
I feel rested. I pedal off, ahead of Nancy, up the grade, following a sharp, blind curve to the right.
I round the corner just as a truck passes me. For a moment I gain momentum as the vortex of his passing pulls me forward.\
Wham! In the next instant I'm stopped cold and off my bike, quickly, before it can fall. Sandblasted, assaulted with dirt, leaves, grass and pieces of tree branch all being swept through a cut in the ridge that has been sheltering us. I lean into the gale, waiting for Nancy who is already off her bike and struggling to walk it forward up the mountain.
“Get close behind me,” I holler over the wind. “Draft on me until we get through this cut.”
We are a walking paceline but Nancy still gets dropped and we struggle individually through the notch in the mountain.
Like most of the summits we have reached today, this one also leads to another, but once through the gap the wind is tolerable and I resume riding.
Up the road a ways, I wait for Nancy and we again discuss our options. I tell her about the gesture I have received several times from passing truck drivers. They hold out their hand, palm up with the fingers slightly curled and proceed to raise their hand in several short motions.
“Maybe they were asking if I wanted a lift,” I speculate. “Maybe I’ll try returning the gesture to the next truck that looks promising.”
No promising trucks pass by in the minutes we wait by the road so we press on. We think we have found ourselves on the map by now, courtesy of the “wind from hell” through the notch. There is a highway intersection, and possibly a village, just a few miles up the road.
The wind still blows and the road still climbs but we do find the intersection. It is a small community and there is a pickup truck with driver just waiting for us to negotiate a price.
We reject the driver's initial price. Nancy’s Spanish is much better than mine so she does the talking. Another truck arrives and Nancy asks him what he would charge. Without hesitation, the new arrival points to the first driver and responds, “Whatever he said.” It’s a strong union they have here in the Andes.
We break off negotiations to follow the smell of fresh bread wafting from the nearby panadería. Ensconced on the curb with a coke and warm bread we exude an air of people with no immediate needs or trains to catch. The original driver approaches with a new offer much more to our liking and the bikes are loaded into the bed of his small pickup while the three of us are squeezed into the cab.
Nancy has chosen our destination—Mitad del Mundo (the center of the world). This “Mitad” is much smaller than the one near Quito but it marks the equator nonetheless. From there, our ride into Cayambe is doable in the remaining daylight.
Ironically, our ferry trip is mostly downhill. We were very near the top of the grade when we chose to take the truck. As we ride along talking (mostly Nancy’s Spanish and my grunts and nods), I have her ask about the gesture I received from the truckers. While she asks, I demonstrate, repeatedly lifting my open hand with my fingers slightly curled.
Our young chauffeur turns red in the face. He is at a loss for words. I repeat the gesture and wait most attentively for enlightenment. He is definitely flustered and finally, realizing that he'll not get by without an answer, he points to his crotch, apologetically blushing under Nancy's gaze.
“Click!” The light bulb goes on. “Ah, huevos! Sí?” I ask.
“Sí,” he replies, obviously relieved that a more verbal explanation to Nancy in Spanish will not be required. “Huevos! cajones! Sí!”
I’d been pretty sure that the gesture held no insult. The faces that went with it were never scowling—usually smiling. But I had no idea that I was actually receiving a compliment. To be told that you have balls for cycling the Andes fully loaded is much better than being told you are crazy for doing it.
Note: Before we finished our excursions in Ecuador, Nancy received “the high sign” while pedaling up a long grade. Yes, she has “balls,” too! She’s my inspiration and the reason I’ve been to Ecuador.
Note: For readers with no Spanish, “huevos” are eggs, plain and simple, but the euphemism implied works in either language.
© 1997 Fred Meredith