There was a cocky 19-year-old who was invincible in her mind even when it came to cycling. I have never been someone who rides a bike all the time but cycling was always a fun pass time on holidays. Whilst doing the generic South America gap year I did plenty of cycling up until the point of Death Road in Bolivia. My friend and I had been hiring bikes for a good 3 weeks none stop beforehand and despite a few minor blips of me crashing into parked cars, we had had minimal fuss. However, that was all to change.
Death Road is one of those touristy attractions that everyone goes to Bolivia for. It is very much like going to New York to see Central Park. Therefore, when presented with the opportunity to go and cycle down the infamous road I jumped at the chance. My friend Tom, who was travelling with me, did ask if it was a good idea, as I was unsteady on the roads in Peru the week before. I dismissed his worries and we signed up, no worries I thought it will be fine. Death Road, after all, was surely just a name to drag in the punters?
We arrived at the tour company early the next morning eager and excited to see what the day had in store. There was a large group of us, maybe 12 people in total all of varying cycling abilities, I was by no means the worst. The tour company drove us and the bikes to the top of Salla Jipiña, a 4,944-metre-high mountain in the Cordillera Real in the Bolivian Andes. Here we all departed the vans and got our helmets on.
Once all suited and booted one of the tour guides explained that the first stretch of road was a highway and there would be lorries on it and more traffic. Death Road itself would be quieter but more treacherous terrain. With everyone too eager to get going not many people listened. We set off and I was cautious at first. Tom and some of the other boys sped off being the experienced cyclists that they were, I held back for the first few Kilometers, absorbing in the breathtaking views.
After plodding along for a bit I got a bit fed up with waiting for the other slow cyclists and I began to get confident and cocky. The roads were fairly smooth and steep so holding back seemed like a waste of time. I was after all, here to enjoy myself!
Trying to recall this moment is a little hazy, its all still a bit of a blur. Throughout the first instalment of the ride down the highway, the guides would stop every 5k or so to regroup and make sure everyone was OK. Each time we stopped the cockier I got and the more my speed increased. Eventually, I was keeping up with the boys and having a great time. Tom had slowed down to chat with one of the girls behind us so I carried on with the people up front. Speeding down these steep, bending roads, I felt like I was on an episode of Top Gear minus the Jag.
On the final regroup stop the guide explained that this was the last stretch until Death Road and the last place we could pick up decent speeds. He instructed any front-runners to wait at the hut at the bottom of the road. With that off, we went. I raced down the final stint with the front cyclists, ducking and diving between them all of us racing each other. However, the roads began to narrow and the speeds were getting a bit silly. I do not know what caused me to suddenly have an epiphany about how dangerous this was, but I did.
As I began to actually think about what I was doing rather than letting the autopilot carry on I stopped focusing. I was suddenly aware of stones and boulders on the road and worried about hitting them. This caused me to try and slow down, bearing in mind I was going exceedingly fast, any brake pressure at this point would make things a little hairy. I slammed the brakes on, not thinking about this at the time.
The bike began to swerve and in doing so hit a pothole on the road. I recall thinking “Oh God this is going to hurt” and it did.
I flew over the handles bars of the bike which ended up few yards up the road from me. Tom came around the corner, shouting at me to get out the road. This was not clear as I was dazed and sat in the road unaware of where I really was and of the lorry coming down the road. Important note: driving in Bolivia is scary in a car, you do not want to be in the middle of any road waiting for a lorry to run you over.
From what I recall I began to realise I was in a sticky situation, so I crawled to my bike up the road. I could feel blood down my back, could not walk straight, was in shock and to say I could not see straight was an understatement. As I picked up the bike Tom was asking if I was OK and the impending Lorry sped past. I felt the breeze of it go past that is how narrow the roads had become and how fast traffic was moving down the mountains. There is no way the lorry would have stopped if I had not got up in time. The tour guide looked white, Tom looked concerned but had a smug grin on his face as if to say “told you not to get carried away” and I was in all sorts of pain. I had torn all my arms and legs up. My head was pounding and my back was covered in blood. All I could think was “thank God I had a helmet on or I would be dead”, “thank God Tom had come around the corner or I would have been sat on the road wondering where the devil I was for ages”.
The tour guide advised against carrying on, but I did, I could not be wiped out by the none Death part of the tour!
After this, I lied and told everyone I was fine. Needless to say, I was not. I was dizzy and could not see straight for a while, I was in a huge amount of pain where the skin had left my body and my Ego had a large cycling dint in it. However, the worse thing was thinking what if. What if I had not gotten up in time? I would be road kill. What if I had fallen in another way? Would I be paralysed? I was not a fan of cycling anymore, this had totally ruined my confidence. However, I carried on thinking that it must be like getting back on a horse after falling off. To a degree it was, I cycled along Death Road with no problems until we picked up any sort of speed and then I would shut down, trundling along at snail's pace, worrying about the what ifs and thinking I had just been lucky that morning. This continued throughout the day and has done so ever since.
So when I say I can not cycle, that is to an extent a lie. I can and I am OK with it as long as I am moving at a glacial pace. Any sort of speed, distractions, traffic or objects to dodge on the road send the fear of God into me. I just have flashbacks of Bolivia and what could have happened and how lucky I was not to be hit by a truck. It was not only an Ego dint at the time but also a huge eye opener into how dangerous cycling can be. People may laugh at me for that, and I would have done before Bolivia, but now I am far too aware of what can go wrong and the implications of this.
I am hoping that Iron Man will teach me to get over this fear of cycling. After all in at the deep end is sometimes the only way to go…