The British comedians, Marcus Brigstocke and Phill Jupitus, were in Bolivia, inching their jeep down the North Yungas Road and scaring the shit out of themselves. We were in the hostel in Queenstown, watching The World’s Most Dangerous Roads.
“I’ve mountain biked down there,” a guy said.
“Oh yeah?” I said, trying not to sound too impressed, and quietly added it to my bucket list.
A year on, I was in a minibus heading up the mountains out of La Paz. A South American backpacker was stuffing coca leaves into his mouth in the way that a fat man would eat crisps. Then he started dabbing at a bag of coke the size of a packet of crisps. The driver changed the mood from EDM to hip hop.
The road had been blocked further down by protesters and the traffic kept bottlenecking all the way up. I was bursting for the toilet after two hours in the minibus, and when we stopped again, I slid the door and trotted down the track. Then the traffic cleared and the bus set off and it was up the hill and round the corner by the time I had finished. I ran and caught it but the altitude hit me like an unexpected punch. I gulped and puffed and tried to convince myself I wasn’t going to die. It would be too ironic to die on the way to the Death Road.
We started the ride way up in the mountains on an asphalt road that plunged down steep straights then flicked round hairpin bends. The landscape was dangerously beautiful with snow-dusted mountains striped with waterfalls and a deep, deep gorge carved out by a river with millennia to spare. It would be madness, though, to turn your head from the road for long.
A distance marker flashed past and I was startled to see that the number it showed was a fraction of the one which I had passed a few seconds before. I had just started to register how much speed I had built up when a switchback bend hurtled towards me and I had to brake hard to get round.
The skies greyed out and the clouds descended and we cycled through them, and the landscape was no longer a distraction. An old truck struggled past with its passengers peering at us over the high-sided body, and was gradually swallowed by the clouds until nothing was left but the sussing sound it made on the overrun, which floated eerily through the gloom for miles ahead.
This section was exciting enough, but it was only a warm-up, a chance to get used to the bikes. The Death Road was yet to come.
Until the mid-noughties, the North Yungas Road was the main route from La Paz to the Amazon; but forget any ideas of what a major road should look like. It is a rough track grudgingly hacked out of the side of the mountain by prisoners of war in the thirties. There are short stretches where two vehicles can just about pass, but most of it is narrow single track. The surface is mud and loose stones. There is a sheer rock face at one side of the road, an unfenced drop of 600m at the other. The road descends 3,600m over 64 kilometres – or 56 metres each kilometre.
They call it the Death Road – el camino de la muerte – because it reliably claimed around 300 lives every year until a new and better road opened in 2006. The worst of many terrible accidents happened in the eighties when a bus toppled over the edge full of passengers. Much of the traffic now uses the new road, but a landslide had blocked that when I was there.
“It is no a race,” the leader told us. But for a few of the guys, it was. A bunch of Latin American travellers burst from the start with the leader, leaving the rest of the group far behind. I was determined to finish in at least the first five, so went heavy on the pedals and light on the brakes to catch the group at the front. I passed one rider then another, until there was only the leader and the guy who had been dabbing the coke up ahead. But they must have stayed off the brakes all the way, and their cojones must be bigger than mine. I could not get within a bike’s length of them.
I saw the jagged rock too late to hop over or swerve round, so had to clatter over it and hang on. The back wheel jogged out towards the edge, too close, but I had a nice dual-suspension downhill bike and it shrugged it off and ploughed on. I am used to a more skittish hardtail and scared myself into slowing down a bit then, and two other riders streaked past, bumping me from second to fourth, not counting the leader. Then one of them was out with a puncture and I was back in third place and riding fast again to catch the others, but I never even got them in sight.
It started to drizzle, then properly rain. The road became boggy, mud splattered my face and all of my clothes were soaked right through. Then I rode through a waterfall and would not have been wetter if I had got in the bath fully clothed.
I plummeted down a long, fast straight, up out of the saddle, flicked the brakes with one finger as I came to a corner, and went hard on the pedals again. Two riders from another group had slowed to a crawl and were converging in the middle of the road in front. I strangled the brakes but had no chance of stopping in time. “SHIT! SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!” I shouted – because I didn’t have a bell to ring – and they wobbled apart leaving just enough room for me to barrel through.
I calmed down again, until I swung round a corner and met a petrol tanker coming towards me through the mist and had to move over to the left up against the 600m drop.
The leader was waiting with the first two riders at the top of a side track which led to the foot of the mountain. I think they had been there for a while. But if I had come a poor third, I was still a few minutes ahead of the next guy; and it was another ten minutes at least before the last of the group trickled in. Those at the back had been braking all the way.
I started close behind the South American guy on the final stretch down the side track, but took a corner too fast and had a bit of a job on to stay out of a drainage ditch, and by then he was again way in front.
I still finished second, though; third if you count the leader. But I doubt that anyone except me gave a toss.
(c) Richard Senior 2014