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The Only Way is Down

If there is a god, she has a sense of humor. Down at the dog and the deities, the almighty one and her Bolivian chum, Pachamama, were certainly chorlting over a few jars of celestial chicha after my batch of mountain bikers headed down the "World's Most Dangerous Road."

CUT TO THE CHASE: Show me the photo slideshow of the World's Most Dangerous Road (in a new window)!!!

Our early morning bus from La Paz to the high pass was accompanied by the polite conversation and sporadic silences found in the newly formed groups, heavily spiced with anticipation and expectation for the ride ahead. As roads go, it's just your average gravity-defying Andean engineeering miracle. From the pass the view out is over a landscape of scraggy, rocky outcrops fringed with snow-capped peaks, glowing brightly in the fierce equatorial sun. At 4,750 meters, the clear blue sky has deepened a few notches, as it tends to when you get closer to outer space.

On terra firma the road begins a steady fall, winding through the gentle slopes on a sealed road before the nightmare begins. An innocuous-looking right turn leads the cyclist to a dirt road that drops dramatically through the moist, forested tropical slopes of the Yungas for 44 kilometers. In all it's a vertical descent of 3.6 km that for the entire length is edged with a precipitous drop, in places up to 800 meters straight down. If the challenge is lacking, there are a few moving obstacles along the way to keep you on your toes. This unassuming dirt track doubles as the main artery between the northern lowlands and La Paz. A broken line of trucks, buses, jeeps and cars move up and down the road and they're not going to stop for a bunch of joy-riding gringos out on a pleasant bike ride. This sobering cocktail of traffic, gravity and loose gravel reportedly takes a passenger bus or truck off the edge every fortnight -- few make it out alive.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the "World's Most Dangerous Road."

Pachamama is a complicated, and venerated, heavenly lady. In Bolivia terrestrial beings come, go, travel and live safely at the behest of this Latin Mother Earth. And with many of her ilk she has a weak spot when praised. Bestowed with gifts, she will even go as far as protecting and defending those in her charge. So after a traditional sprinkling of pure alcohol at the roadside in her honor and a few lines of quiet reflection, the rear wheel brake is quietly released and our merry band set out to safely enjoy the challenges of one awesome downhill ride.

Beyond the summit, the road becomes a part of the Amazon watershed. Steep cliffs act like the sides of a sub-continental bath-tub, steadily filling with water-laden clouds, bullbing up through the valleys from the rainforest lowlands. Normally this ride would give the divine sensation of biking above the clouds, but someone had left the taps running through the night. Within a few yards of the downside slope the crisp, slightly chilly but clear air was gone. Visibility that would have blessed the work of the soaring condor was reduced to a few meters in minutes. A gentle mist turned to cloud, bringing rain, snow and hail. What started off as a gentle face massage quickly became a barrage of ball bearing missiles, each one an intense spot of pain. This, I imagine, is what it feels like to be eaten by piranas. Pachamama had clearly taken her guardian eye elsewhere.

There's absolutely nothing stopping you doing the ride solo, aside, perhaps, from common sense, but the beauty of this trip is that you can do it all in a day from La Paz, as long as you're sufficiently acclimatised. It's packed with adrenaline for all travelers of experience from the near novice to the experienced rock hopper. Pick the right company: Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking is easily the safest option, and you get top-class guides, world-class bikes and more support then Gran's favorite stockings. One guide leads the pack. They are what is euphemistically referred to as 'truck bait,' while another takes up the rear, helping with the stragglers at the back. Logic -- and the guides -- suggest you stay a sensible distance from the rider in front. It's not fun, or sensible, to be zipping along at 35km/h with some idjeet sitting on your tail. And what is visibility means you can't see past your nose -- how, in Pachamama's name, do you stop?

One handy tip best avoided, put to great effect by one of our group, is to use the front of a bus as a crash barrier. On impact David left a fairly large dent on the bumper of a bus, which left him in a rather advanced state of shock. Fortunately, gradient and the general condition of the Bolivian transport fleet combine to slow these vehicles to a virtual crawl. First laugh to Pachamama, second laugh to the bus driver, who David was equally shocked to hear, wanted payment for the damage. And all this barely 20 minutes into the ride. Dave jumped -- well, floated -- in a trance-like state if the truth be known -- on to the support bus. The rest of us jumped on our bikes and continued downhill. As fingers, noses and all things exposed numbed and froze, a steady stream of riders dumped their bikes on the roof rack and took shelter in the bus. Within 40 minutes of the summit all 12 riders and guides were in the bus exhaling shards of ice, scooping snowballs out of pockets and recovering from mild hypothermia. "Quite cold out there," understated one of the four doctors in the group. More laughs from Mother Earth, but at least we had plenty of medical cover.

After a brief stop to refuel and warm up at the notorious Unduavi drug check point (chicken sandwiches and coffee), it was back on the bikes for a rare uphill section of road accompanied by an equally rare spot of dry weather. Was Pachamama warming to our dogged determination? No, she was busy causing a landslide to block our descent of the dirt road. Never mind, a small detour through a river of mud which in Bolivia happens to call a road, and a small shivering entourage, warmed by a stiff shot of adrenaline, began the shattering descent.

 

With index and second finger clenched tightly on the rear brake, speed gathers and confidence wavers in direct inverse correlation. What seemed like speeds approaching Mach1 were probably no more then a crawl. The reinforced tubes of the Kona's could take a pounding, which all the ankle balancing and seat perching in the world cannot help from steadily reverberating through the body. Everything on these bikes is designed to minimize the impact on the rider and maximize safety. Even so, every rock, stone and pebble jarrs its way through the frame and body, testing every joint and axle, manmade and natural. Hands loosely gripping the handlebars, the wrists transmit morse messages of pain. Eyeballs judder in the sockets as the world slowly becomes a blurry approximation of reality as if an advert for some vodka-based cocktail. "Oh yes, this meant to be fun," the brain slowly computes, as it applies the brakes a little more firmly.

The naïve and, quite frankly, quite stupid might dismiss this as a simple downhill ride. Go as fast as you can but stay just to the right side of the edge for maximum fun and adrenaline shots. It's a fine philosophy but you've got to be ready for the unexpected. Perched up on ankles and slightly bent legs, I saw the biker in front take the outside of a blind right -- it was a good line, the best, providing maximum visibility of oncoming traffic round the bend. But it didn't look any better as a locked rear wheel grabbed at flying gravel, spinning outwards and inching ever closer to the cliff as he avoided the oncoming V-O-L-V-O letters emblazoned across the teeth-like grill of the approaching truck.

For sheer exhilaration and concentration there are few 1-day trips that are so demanding. It's a classic self-selecting trip -- few would even attempt the ride if they didn't think they were capable. The kit used by Gravity Bolivia is the best on the market and it needs to be -- these bikes are put through more hell in one season than your average mountain bike gets in a lifetime. But for all the beefed-up gear and safety talks in the world, you're the one on the bike. Accidents happen, and mostly with men, where testosterone exceeds ability. One error, one misjudgment and you're toast. On one side of the road there's a sheer rock face which makes a very uncomfortable crash barrier, on the other side of the 3-m road is the drop -- and the odds are you won't land butter-side up.

While we cursed the bitter cold, rain and drizzle that accompanied us for most of the day's ride, Pachamama blessed us in one way. With occasional glances through the clouds, the desire to look at the stunning view while screaming downhill was thankfully curtailed. The road continues with a relentless downhill of twists and turns. Passing through a couple of waterfalls, glimpses of the tree-cloaked slopes and misty river valleys occasionally peeked through the clouds. The mystical sirens' voices in the misty depths tempt you closer to the edge to view the beauty below -- there is a magnetic attraction in looking down a sheer cliff. Having inched to the edge, you peer down to realize you've chosen an overhang that will, one day, join the scree of geological detritus in the valley below. Time to move on as that gnawing desire to feel the edge of life is forced back to the inner sanctum where it normally resides.

Passing points make a comfortable spot for a rest and usually come with their own morsel of history. Take the so-called Martyrs of Democracy that marks the narrowest and rockiest park of the road. It's the spot where a group of political dissidents was allegedly dumped without parachute over one of the greatest drops on the road.

Pachamama toyed with us all day, but she never left us. Shaken right through, the slope and texture of the road becomes more forgiving towards the end of the day-long ride as the comforts of Coroico -- hotels, showers, swimming pools and beer -- can be seen through the clouds. Slightly warmer, but still not the tropical comfort zone we'd been expecting, rain-sodden cameras begin to appear with the only chance of producing something worth remembering. Rounding the corner to cross the last river, you can almost feel cleansing soap and warm water massage away the aches and pains. But no, Pachamama played her last card: a landslide completely blocking the road and our route to comfort. Anyone fancy riding uphill?


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