Riding bikes in the Peruvian Andes

Given this blog is mainly for our future selves I make scant apology if much of the following makes little sense to someone who doesn’t ride a mountain bike…

Cusco, centre of the Inca empire, a city who’s streets retain the Inca layout and famous interlocking stone work. It is also nestled amongst the andes with a network of centuries old tails running in all directions.

I had been itching to ride a bike and I’d found a guiding company that offered  a YT Capra and a run on the IncAvalanch race course. Sign me up. Understandably they want to get a measure of their clients abilities before letting them loose on a DH race track so an ‘intermediate’ day of Cusco Backyard loops is required riding.

8am pick up, guide, driver and me. 40 minute uplift to a switchback pull out at about 3,800m. The familiar discussion about left vs right rear brake, 10 minutes of faff and off we roll. A gradual 6km descent of about a thousand vertical meters of ancient Inca trail, exiting into Cusco city centre’s hectic tuk tuk traffic and chasing dogs. Mixing it up with the belching buses and honking cars was… erm ‘lively’.

We weave through the tiny cobbled streets and tourist packed allies and ascend the other side of the valley. On the way up we meet Benjamin, 56 y.o. local ripper who is out for a run or two. So now we are three. This track is a little more entertaining, high pastures, heading into woods and with a bit of pace.

A discussion at the bottom and a suggestion we ditch the itinerary and head to some snide local lines. I suspect 20 years of riding showed a little. At the top of the next drop we meet two more locals, builders in fact, and we cut our way down 500m of their berms and fly-offs. We are now five riders and we decide to hit Santa Maria. A steep, fall-line track of about 1000m drop in tight gulley runs through eucalyptus forest. Back wheel locked slaloming down to the catch berm. Chainless, after snapping in the carpark, obs. Ace fun. The locals skin one up and we take in the views. The final section is a flat out urban drop into the centre of town for cold beer and cerviche.

We stop off at Benjamin’s compound where he runs an outdoor business. Racks and sheds of toys; kayaks, mtn bikes, carve boards, climbing gear and at the back a surf board. Turns out he spends half his time surfing on the coast the rest in Cusco riding bikes and kayaking the white water

Two days later and I’m in the minibus with an expat Australian couple. Up and over the pass to the sacred valley to Calca where we pick up Bryan, the head honcho and Miguel another guide. An hour’s uplift to 4,300m via a couple of remote villages full of indigenous peoples finds us in the clouds, prepping bikes. This is a 18km run with Aaron the Australian setting the pace. The recent rains mean much of the trail is boggy and we don;t really get up to speed at all, but the scenery, 5000m peaks on either side of the wide verdant valley is stunning.

Trail obstacles include roaming Alpacca, a tiny, tiny, woman in hand woven attire, no teeth and walnut face, several red faced, staring children in rustic dress and a handful of men heeding home from their fields with sickles and a shoulder of crops.. We roll through a highlands village, to the gaping stares of collected peoples who have  gathered to trade their vegetables and crops amongst the adobe and thatch.

The day has turned to light rain by the time we hit the dirt road and find the wagon with a warm lunch of maize and matte tea. Our next uplift is to 4,500m the top of the inca avalanche track. We drive the remainder of the sacred valley, passing terraced hillsides and roadside vendors hawking hot choclo from pots over fires. At the pass summit the rain and cold temperature mean we don’t hang around for long at the top. This time Miguel and I set the pace with Aaron and Bryon as a pair. Miguel is a Chilean national racer and very handy on a bike, so it is flat out for me to keep his wheel. He is also a talented street BMX rider and his style reflects that, constantly finding bus-stop-drops on either side of the trail and flicking tweaks from every pebble. Makes for an entertaining descent trying to follow his lines.

We drop nearly 2000m and the temperature difference means we’re peeling layers after the first 15 minutes. What started in open high altitude grassland transformed into increasingly verdant scrub, then forest, and then farmed patches of potato and quinoa as we hit the valley. We cross and recross the mountain pass, dropping switchback to switchback on slippery limestone single track.

A final high speed exit along the river and into the village, beating our uplift truck by several minutes.

Beers, fist bumps and other stereotypes are fulfilled as we climb in, wet and muddy, for the drive back to Cusco.

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