I Went Down, Down, Down
After a day at the Casa de Ciclistas, which included a glut of homemade pizza and a free patch kit from Santiago, I headed out early, leaving a few new friends behind. Chris was leaving the same day, but as he moves at a slower pace, there was almost no point in heading out together.
Thankfully, there was a way south that avoided Quito entirely. Going that way involved some climbing, and once I got past Quito, more climbing. And then more. I didn't quite notice at the time, but the day was, for the most part, a long climb followed by a long descent. The Andes have a different scale than other mountains.
Just before I got into town, a sight I've never seen before: one of the volcanoes was smoking! I only wish it had continued the next day, when I would have gotten a closer look.
I had a WarmShowers host in Ambato, though he had only given a vague address and no directions. I went directly to the point that the WarmShowers map indicated, only to learn I was nowhere close to what I was looking for. One person told me it was 20 km back!
After strongly considering ditching the host and pressing forward to find a cheap hotel on the way out of town, I backtracked about 10 km and found the right place, only after asking directions about five more times. By the end, I was going block-by-block. The only "address" I had to work with was the name of a store next door. There is more than one location, and when the name of the store is "Industrias Catedral," that means I'm going to look for a church unless you tell me it's a store.
The backtracking and five or six stops for help meant I finished about an hour later than I could have, and I was on the north side of a large town, rather than the south. That would cost me another hour in the morning.
Leonardo runs a bike shop that, for a reason I never discovered, has a Canadian flag on the sign. He let me inside the locked gate and told me I could pitch my tent in the garden, a patch of grass about 2x2 meters, directly next to the busy street, which was fortunately a little quieter at night.
While I was showering, Leonardo left two apples next to Valeria. Hey, what a guy! A little later, he told me I could help myself to all the bananas and apples I wanted, and offered to help me with my weak rear brake in the morning.
Come morning, Leonardo didn't want to help with the brakes until 8:30 AM, when he opens up his shop. Fair enough. Assessing the situation, he concluded I needed new brake pads. When we got out my spares and he took out the current ones, we made a discovery: my spare pads are not compatible with my brakes. For all the things Richardson Bike Mart sold me that either aren't compatible with Valeria or simply aren't what I ordered, I think that brings the tally up to eight.
Folks, don't go to a bike shop for a touring bike, or anything related to one. No one knows what they're talking about. Best case scenario, you'll get a guy who used to race in college and watches the Tour de France, not a guy who's replaced a spoke in the pouring rain, nor put his bike and all its parts through 15,000 km in the most demanding conditions possible. No one who's gone for a ride without the ability to use a cell phone and call a friend if something goes wrong. They'll try to sell you the latest greatest trend, not what's always worked and always will.
And the selection for touring gear? Laughable. Most stores will have one touring bike, and it will probably need half its parts replaced before it's tour-ready. They will have one waterproof/breathable jacket, so loaded with "features" it's unusable. They will have one set of panniers that's big enough, and they won't be waterproof. They will have one Brooks saddle, in one color, rather than about 30 different models, in many colors. They won't have any Schwalbe Marathon tires, though 90% of touring cyclists use them.
Instead, get everything online, and if you have a question, Google it. You'll get a lot more information online, from people who have been on a tour, than you ever will from someone trying to persuade, not educate.
Without the ability to switch out the brake pads, I used the sandpaper from my patch kit to scuff up my pads, which were smoothed out and covered in a thin film of grease. That alone worked!
After that mess, I finally got on the road around 10:30 in the morning. It was to be a short day, but I knew it would be a slow one. Lots and lots of mountains. At one point, I was sandwiched between two volcanoes, one of which is, depending how you measure it, the highest point on Earth! Since the Earth is not a perfect sphere and bulges at the middle, Chimborazo's great height and proximity to the Equator makes it the farthest point from the center of the Earth. Everest is the highest point from sea level, which changes with latitude.
Sadly, it was cloudy that day, especially around Chimborazo, so I didn't get a good look at it. I was able to see the snow line though, and it was clear that it keeps going a long way up from there. Mind you, this is only 200 km from the Equator, and this mountain has a ton of snow on it, year-round.
I'd fashioned myself a pair of rain knickers in Plano, following the model of a Texas 4,000 teammate who has since done his fair share of touring. It only took two days before I got a chance to try them out. I hate rain...but I like my knickers! As Travis described, they're a fantastic compromise of keeping rain off the important areas, combined with allowing some air flow and keeping your legs from pouring buckets of sweat. I could see these being good for hiking, too!
I made it to my destination in late afternoon, and for the second day in a row, the distance was less than had been predicted when I mapped it out in Plano. I could get used to this!
Since it was my last night in the mountains, I tried to find a restaurant in town that served cuy (guinea pig), a local delicacy. After the hotel owner happily told me about three places that had it, none of them did. According to a few folks I asked on the street, nowhere in town did. Unsuccessful, I walked back to the hotel, where the front door was locked. I waited over an hour for the owners to return.
The day to La Troncal was already long, but since it was mostly one giant descent, I figured I could make it even longer. The first 20 km though, what a climb! By the time I was done, there was snow on the ground near me. In spring, only 200 km from the Equator!
Not to mention, Chimborazo was now visible. It was still a cloudy day, everywhere except around Chimborazo!
The ensuing descent, from 3,850 m down to sea level, would've been the fastest, most magnificent downhill of my life, except for two things:
1. There was a series of 4-5 rumble strips across the highway every 500 m or so. I wish I were exaggerating.
2. I kept stopping to take pictures. The landscape today was gorgeous.
By the time I reached the bottom, my rear brake wasn't working very well again, and it became foggy, which gave way to drizzle. I may have gone faster, but I rode the brakes more than usual because of the poor visibility.
Somehow, I was tired by the time I got to La Troncal, which was a little farther than I'd thought. It was only 3:00 PM, and i could've made it another 30 km to the next town, but I decided staying on schedule was good enough.
I found a hostal that said I couldn't come in with Valeria. Then I found one that said Valeria had to stay locked up outside, and they charged me an extra dollar for that privilege. Rather than ride all over town looking for another hostal, with the chance that everyone here is so inhospitable, I relented to their ridiculous demands. They didn't have WiFi, which isn't unusual. They also didn't have an electrical outlet in the room.
The fire alarm in the hostal kept beeping like it needed a new battery. At 11:00 at night, I went to the lobby, stacked a dresser on a chair, and removed it. Just as I was finishing and climbing back down, the owner overheard, came out, and demanded that I put it back.
"It needs a new battery. Without a new battery, it does not work."
"I'll get one later. Put it back."
"It doesn't work now, there is no reason. Later, you are going to need to take it down again."
"Why did you take it down?"
"All the night, BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! I don't like noise. It is a problem."
"It is mine. Put it back."
I'm starting to think Latin Americans don't merely tolerate noise more than most people. They like it.
The food I brought from Plano lasted all of three days. I shouldn't ever get chocolate peanut butter trail mix again. It is my crack.