All six of us were up early and preparing for the adventure ahead. David, Yun and Indiana were in the dining room when I arrived, finishing up their breakfast and anxious to get going. Flash had already eaten and was busy packing. Roger, nowhere to be seen, was suffering from a travellers stomach and not straying too far from his room.
Another delicious breakfast, a little more flirting with the waitress and it was time for final preparations. I needed to go the Super Maxi to pick up some bottled water to fill my Klim hydration pac and a padlock for the locker that I would be leaving my belongings in at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rentals. David likewise wanted water for his hydration pack, and Roger was really hoping to find something to settle his stomach – like Pepto Bismol or Immodium.
Now, I acknowledge that I was in full wide-eyed wanderlust mode, so it stands to reason that almost everything impressed me to one degree or another, but I have to mention this: the Super Maxi is as well stocked as any Metro, Loblaw’s, Sobey’s or Kroger that you are likely to find yourself shopping in back home – and it was cleaner, better appointed and quite honestly offered a more enjoyable shopping experience.
Interestingly, while many people were carrying hand-held shopping baskets, no one was pushing a cart, which caused me to start to pay more attention to the local way-of-life.
There is a passion for living life in Ecuador. Rather than planning every moment of every day, it seems that people in Ecuador instead choose to make decisions about daily things – like what to eat – on a daily basis. And in turn have more time to enjoy life as it happens, rather than planning the happenings in their lives. What a novel idea.
Okay . . . where was I?
We gathered our purchases – and yes, Roger was successful in finding a stomach remedy – and made our way back to the hotel. We were expected to be at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental at 10:00 in order to load our bikes up with our gear, go over final preparations and be ready to hit the road by noon-ish.
Our three riding mates were all ready to go when we got back to the hotel. The sun was shining and the cool morning air was warming quickly.
Adventure was awaiting . . .
We hopped into two separate taxis and made our way to Ecuador Freedom Bike Rentals – a $2.00 fare to travel about 6 or 8 city blocks. All six bikes were ready and awaited their riders and we wasted no time strapping down our gear, mounting our GoPro cameras, stowing tool sets and spare tubes, getting familiar with the GPS units and giving our steeds the twice-over.
I should mention that this was my first disappointment with Ecuador Freedom Bike Rentals – there were only 3 GPS units available for 6 riders. Court mentioned that a couple of units had recently been stolen, but really – in my opinion: at $1,875 (US) per rider, keep a couple of frickin’ spares!
Ok, point made.
Finally, it was time to get on the road. Six riders who had known each other for a matter of hours, riding rented bikes in a foreign land at altitudes that make even breathing a difficult task, heading out on a 6-day adventure that the owner of the tour company very clearly advised was the most difficult tour offered.
Hell, what could possibly go wrong?
We lined up for the obligatory pre-departure shot – I have to wonder, now, if these photos are taken just-in-case as a means to identify missing riders 😉
Handshakes and well wishes all around, we fired up our bikes, kicked them into gear, and with a wave we were off.
It took all of 10 minutes for things to go a little sideways.
Travelling through pretty dense Quito city traffic, trying to follow the route laid out on our GPS units, the lead rider, Yun, made a quick right-lane change just before an on-ramp. I followed, as did David; however, Flash, Indiana, and Roger were not prepared and ended up on the ramp.
The group was split into two already.
So, this is where I put forth a proposition based entirely on personal experience, training and opinion of right-and-wrong as it pertains to group riding:
If the group gets split, the lead rider(s) stop immediately, allowing the separated riders an opportunity to return and regroup. Ideally the lead rider and the tail-gunner are in communication via headsets.
That was not the case here, unfortunately. Also not the case, it seemed, was any concept of group riding ethics. I accept full responsibility for not having more in-depth discussion with the guys about the expectations of group riding.
However, that being said, there is no way to account for the differing personalities as well as personal expectations of an adventure like this. Not everyone wants to be held-back in the middle of the pack, or responsible for being the sweep, or last rider in line. And as mentioned, we had only met each other as a group a couple of days before. We had no idea of each other’s riding habits, styles or preferences. Sure, I had met Yun last fall, and gone out on a 2-hour trail ride with him, but we didn’t know each other. Indiana knew Flash, and he had also raced with Yun on a few occasions, but again it was not like they knew each other’s styles, likes and dislikes. The only two who had spent any length of time riding together were David and Yun. They were also the only two who had compatible communicators on their helmets. So the two guys who knew each other were able to stay in touch. The rest of us were going to rely on each of us watching out for one another.
Hand signals and mirrors – the tools of group rides since the early 1900’s
Something’s to keep in mind if you find yourself planning a similar adventure.
So, Yun, David and I pulled over on the first side street to await the return of Flash, Indiana, and Roger. Thirty minutes later we realized that they were not coming back, and so onward we went. We figured that at worst we would meet up with the guys at the first stop along our Quito-portion of the adventure, the tourist-attraction that is the equator. We pulled our bikes into the parking lot, David and Yun headed off to see the sights and look for the guys while I stayed with our gear-laden bikes.
It seems this too was going to prove a challenge since Ecuador has Two Different Equators
As fate would have it, we were at one location, and Indiana, Roger, and Flash were at the other, and had been for almost an hour.
The adventure continued to be split in two. We agreed that it would be easiest to simply regroup at the location of that evening’s lodgings, and so carried on as we were, two groups of 3 riders.
But having broken into two groups wound up having more consequences.
The Guayllabamba River Canyon
After leaving the tourist-trap location of the fake equator, Yun, David and I began the next leg of the route which was to take us to the Guayllabamba River Canyon and then on to San Jose de Minas.
The road that twists its way down into the Guayllabamba canyon is all asphalt, and generally in very good condition. There are numerous switchback curves that have a lot of sand and pea-stone gravel on them, so caution is the name of the game, but man-o- man what a fun road. We were travelling in a tight pack, Yun in the lead, David in the middle and I was riding sweep. After about 15 minutes of canyon-riding we stopped for a photo or two of the surrounding area, and at that point I asked the guys if the minded my taking point – I wanted to really run the canyon!
click images for lightbox view
David and Yun gave me the go-ahead and within 3 switch-backs they were no longer visible in my mirrors. I was riding fairly hard, pretty close to the edge of what the TKC80 knobby tires mounted on our bikes would handle, and I am sure that my smile could not possibly get any wider – this was awesome. The road was twistier than any that I had ever ridden before – and that includes those awesome Rocky Mountain roads like the Lillooet Loop, the 3A and highway 8 in BC – as well as being at a butt-cheek-clenching grade – this truly was the world’s greatest roller coaster, made of asphalt rather than rails. I never quite got over enough to scrape pegs (that would come later in a much less enjoyable experience) but I sure was punching it through the curves.
About 5, maybe 7 minutes into my adrenalin-producing ride I decided to pull over and wait for the guys. I was about a ½ kilometer from the bridge at the bottom of the canyon, an altitude of about 1,600 meters, and would soon start our ascent back up to 2,500+ meters.
Yun came into view in my mirrors and I extended my left hand, low, waving him on. He stopped to comment on some skid-marks that I had left in one of the hairpins, and then headed on through the curves to the bridge at the bottom of the canyon. I heard David’s bike approaching and was waiting for him to pass me when I heard him yell “Houston, we have a problem”
Incredibly, after ½ a day of street-riding, David had a flat front tire.
I told David that I would be right back, clicked it into gear and rapidly accelerated in pursuit of Yun-Kan. Yes, I was secretly smiling inside that I actually had at least a semi-valid reason for speeding. I caught up to Yun in pretty short order, and informed him of David’s predicament. In truth it wasn’t that difficult. Yun had pulled over to wait for us.
We turned around and raced our way back down to the bottom of the valley, crossed the bridge and pulled up beside David.
It was then that we realized the worst result of our being separated from the other 3 members of the group: We had tubes.
We had tubes. We had 2 pumps.
We had NO spoons.
Left with no choice, we decided to pump David’s tire back up to pressure and see how it held air, while Yun tried to contact the other guys via cell phone. We had an emergency phone provided by Court, but cellular service in Ecuador can be spotty depending on where you are in the country, and there was no guarantee that our fellow riders were going to hear their phone ringing.
The tire held for about 8 minutes, and we once again pulled over – this time into a scenic-lookout, allowing us room to park and work.
Well, luckily the phone was answered. Our fellow adventurers were already in San Jose de Minas – and had just ordered food!
Yun was able to convince two of them to come to our aid (it really should not require convincing, should it? A fellow rider is in need, you have the ability to help. You just go, plain and simple.)
Anyhow, Flash and the Indiana eventually made it to our location after about an hour long wait. We had the DR650 leaning over on its side, a large rock under the skid-plate to lift the front end, and Yun was currently struggling to remove the front wheel. Unfortunately the left-side fork tube had rotated outwards, causing the caliper to bind on the disc and the axle to likewise bind in the pinch-bracket.
It seemed nothing was going to be simple today.
Did I mention that of the two air pumps that we had, the one supplied by Freedom Adventure Bike Rentals did not work?
Shortly after getting the front wheel off and beginning to remove the tire a local pulled up on his bike, he and his wife dismounting to watch.
You know that they were both thinking “how many gringos’ does it take to fix a flat?”
South American Life Experience #2 – the locals really do just want to help. They truly do live by the golden rule.
The newly arrived local rider approached and offered to help, and to make a long story a little shorter, a new tube was installed, the tire re-mounted and the wheel reinstalled on the bike in less time than it took to remove the wheel in the first place. We graciously thanked our helpful new friend and his wife.
We then hit the road making our way to the restaurant, in San Jose de Minas, where Roger, Flash and Indiana sat awaiting our arrival. Since we were already running late and were further delayed by the flat we set out at speed!
After meeting up in San Jose de Minas we all headed out together for the day’s final destination, The Hacienda Cusin, a restored seventeenth century estate in the Ecuadorian sierra.
We traveled along our first off-road portion of the journey shortly after leaving San Jose de Minas, and also experienced our first cloud-riding.
Admittedly the clouds were low, as we were only at about 2,500 meters, but we were cloud-riding just the same! It was fun having all 6 of us together for what amounted to the first time, and we wound our way higher and higher into the mountains in a slight drizzle and heavy clouds before making our way back down and onto a very nicely paved PanAmerican highway and on towards San Pablo del Lago Otavalo.
These are the notes that I wrote in my journal that evening, concerning the roads that we were riding:
The roads are amazing and suicidal at the same time – landslides, washouts, dogs, cows, really big rocks, even bigger trucks, vans and buses, horses, donkeys, chickens, sheep, mud, gravel – you name it, you can see it on Ecuador’s roads. The twisties and switchbacks on 15% – or greater – grades; endless off-road which varies from fractured centuries-old cobblestone to dirt to rocky goat and donkey trails. This is a rider’s paradise!
We had to make a U-turn or two, as there have been significant highway upgrades since the maps were last updated, and many spots that used to be a ‘left turn’ are now a solid median with a raised concrete curb. We actually past several spots where there were still left-turn arrows in place and no lane left to follow – just one more thing to keep in mind when you decide to do this tour.
We arrived after dark at the Hacienda Cusin.
It was pretty close to 8:00pm by the time that I got situated in my room – but we were just in time for the late meal which we enjoyed thoroughly. After dinner we had a brief chat with the owner and he told us about some of the significant parts of the estate, including the gardens and the monastery.
A hot shower and some writing soon gave way to a great night’s sleep.
What I awoke to left me in awe. . .