FILM SET • Peru. Crest of the Andes. Glaciers. Volcanoes. Source of the Amazon. Dense jungle. Part-owner of the highest, driest desert in the world. And home of the Inca, an ancient but advanced civilization. How advanced? Besides architectural, agricultural and technological wonders they built 50,000 kilometres of trails through the world’s second-highest mountain range. Thirty grand are still in use, most perfect for mountain biking. That advanced.
ROLE CALL • October, 2007. Staging out of Lima for a few days before heading to Cusco, seat of the Inca empire. It’s the usual mix of personalities: Freeriders Robbie Bourdon and Richie Schley, youngster and veteran, the two shortest guys in mountain biking; Corey Horton from Ride Guide and Whistler-based photog Paul Morrison; trip leader and Sacred Rides founder, Mike Brcic, chimera of downtown Toronto and B.C. mountain culture—dirtbag with an attitude; local guide Wayo, former South American downhill champ whose attitude is a very Canadian “Give ’er.”
ROAD HAZARD • It starts with Olleros, a 1,600-metre descent to the ocean outside Lima. The four-hour drive up is on a road so narrow Bourdon sits on the bus roof in case it goes over a cliff. “What if a vehicle comes the other way?” “Don’t worry, it only happens once a week.” The bike trails are safer—because you are in control. At the top, shepherds and their herds dot a rugged desert mountainscape, ridges stacked on hazy ridges running all the way to the sea. They descend through a village where cows and kids wander before dropping 1,300 metres of buff, Utah-style singletrack to the valley floor, followed by 35 km of gradual downhill to ocean level. It’s dark when the ride ends unceremoniously in a smoky garbage dump, but no one is complaining.
TOURIST TRAP • The hotel in Cusco is next to a cathedral the Spanish layered over the foundation of an Inca temple. Part of the hotel, in fact, is an Incan wall of stones improbably aligned and fitted with such perfection that you can’t pass air between them. Chariots of the Gods? As in most of Peru, Cusco’s food takes you by surprise. A variety of good restaurants fill the tourist capital; Whistler-style dining for a quarter of the price with excellent South American wines included. An Argentine steakhouse is outstanding—huge slabs of meat, quaint little dining room, a wandering pan-flute band piping haunting Andean music. Magic.
TRAIL MIX • The 12,000,000-strong Inca empire laced trails through agricultural terracing that soared thousands of metres into the mountains. that was only 500 years ago, and the paths have been well-preserved by animals and people still plying them. Some rides are cultural journeys on unblemished singletrack, others as artificial as a day in Squamish or Whistler with stunts, berms, bridges, doubles and hips. Somehow, the Inca bequeathed bike culture to the Andes. Ladder bridges at Yuncaypata are old, scary spans of rickety wood wired together; the pros rode with panache while the rest hold on for dear life—much like the impoverished people and the few plants and trees clinging to the dry, barren landscape.
GETTING HIGH • At Marcahuasi there’s a drive to 3,000 metres, then a 1,000-metre climb on horseback while porters push the heavy bikes up. Out of Cusco there’s a ride from Ollantaytambo, staging area for the hike to Machu Picchu; it takes you to the Maras Salt Mine. It has been worked for thousands of years, the salt continually replenished as it’s washed out of the mountains into settling ponds. Rolling into it there’s a booter four metres high. But the cross-wind is so bad it’s too dangerous to hit—heartbreaking because it’s a great shot. at least they have a laugh when the miners get pissed at Wayo falling into one of their ponds… guess you had to be there.
STAYING HIGH • Schley has altitude sickness after shuttling up to about 4,500 metres, so the crew stops at a coca shop to buy some leaves and a carbon “activator” of anthracite coal. Chewing this mess helps with the altitude sickness and provides a mood lift on the order of a four-coffee buzz. Needless to say, riders’ cheeks now bulge with a wad for most of the trip. Other than altitude and crazy roads, the biggest hazard is the swarm of llama fleas at Machu Picchu. You are eaten alive walking around there, proof you’re better off on a bike.
RESPONSIBLE RIDING • Sacred Rides was started by Brcic in Fernie, B.C. From opening eyes to the sanctity of landscape, to donating bikes to those in need. Since 1996, Sacred Rides has offered small-group trips in B.C., Peru and Chile, with a focus on responsible riding. That sounds pretty advanced, too. How advanced? Responsible rinding believes that bikes matter; that tourism should be based on creating and sustaining strong, vibrant communities; that biking, environmentalism and responsible travel go hand in hand; that you can make a difference by limiting the environmental and cultural impact of your activities, making sure your operations benefit local inhabitants, diverting a portion of revenue to local development and sustainability. That advanced.
From Mountain Life – Coast Mountains, summer ’08.