JEFF: I had another idea: mountain bike down a volcano. In January, we had both climbed Mt. Orizaba, the highest peak in Mexico. The truck ride from the trailhead back to civilization took over two hours: two hours of downhill, dirt and rock.
JIM: The truck had to slow for turns and bumps; I commented that on mountain bikes, we could downhill much faster than the truck could….
JEFF: …so I figured we could rent a couple of bikes in Ecuador and bike down a volcano.
JIM: I hadn’t been riding recently, due to a winging scapula that makes me lose control of my right arm and hand during cycling. But I found that if I could hold down the scapula, I could use my right hand, so long as my arm was below the shoulder. So maybe I could bike.
JEFF: We arranged for a SAG’ed ride down the Pichincha volcano, east of Quito, Ecuador. For ninety American dollars, the driver took us up to the hut, handed us bikes, and would drive down behind us. The road up to the hut was 4WD, double track, dirt rocks and sand. The hut is 14,700 feet above sea level. At that altitude, we were in the clouds, and the temperature was about freezing. Although there were six riders on this trip, Jim and I decided to climb the volcano first, and get a later start biking.
JIM: I didn’t want to get ahead of the group early, spending a lot of time waiting for the slowest rider. Besides, I was going to be the fastest, right? The driver had selected bikes for us based on our height. Additionally, since I was an American who had NORBA points in 1995, he was giving me his best bike. I got a Trek 930 with a RST front shock and grip shift. I had asked for toe clips, but was told that the agency didn’t supply them.
JEFF: I got a Trek with a rigid fork and a stem shock. “Noodly” about describes it.
JIM: I had broken something in my left hand earlier in the week,
so I taped that up, and then put some nylon straps across my chest
and back to hold my winging scapula down, so I could get some control in
my right arm. Hey this might really work! The tight straps held the
scapula in, but also held my lungs closed. I could bike, but barely
I got on the bike and proceeded downhill. I was adjusting well to this bike. I was moving quickly, negotiating the hazards, keeping the momentum up through the sandy corners. The road had a lot of wash-outs: short, half-moon dips perpendicular to the road. I got good at crossing these. Brake hard before the dip, then off the brakes and off the seat going through at a right angle. Easy enough, and I was becoming so proficient, I was getting air on the way out of the dips.
JEFF: Jim took off and was out of sight. I was having trouble figuring out this bike, with handle bars that move up and down. There was a definite disconnect in the handling.
JIM: I came upon one dip way too fast. I braked hard, but
was going too fast when I had to release the brakes before going in.
Now, call me spoiled, but If I was on my bike, well….. My bike has
a lot of progressive fork travel. My bike has toe clips. My
bike has a rear suspension. This bike didn’t. The front tire
went in hard, and the front shock bottomed out, kicking up the front of
the bike. Next, the rear tire went through, launching whatever used
to be on the seat into a low-altitude orbit. My feet and butt were
kicked off the bike. (I really wanted toe clips.) I was now
downhilling in the classic flying W position. Don’t know what that
is? Take a good look at the character, [w]. Do you see a rider,
head on? Body in the middle, hands on the bars, legs flailing up
in the rear? At first, the only contact I had with the bike was my
hands. But soon enough, I came down hard on the seat and had three
points of control. If you could call it control. This was more
like a rodeo bull, and I’m riding atop it for a while. I tried to
find some pedals with my feet. That, I figured, would get me back
in control, and I could then apply some brakes. What my left foot
found, however, was the front tire.
The ride suddenly got smooth, but only because neither the bike nor I had any contact with the ground. This feeling was short lived, as gravity took over and I crashed to the ground twenty feet later, with the bike and I each stopping in separate piles of dirt and dust, sixty feet apart.
I got up and took inventory. Everything on me worked, albeit scraped and bruised. (Yes, I do wear a helmet mountain biking, and no, I didn’t hit my head.) Next, the bike. The left (front) brake lever was snapped off, hanging by a crimped brake cable. The front tire had a hole in the sidewall, with tube bulging out. The rear rim had a dent, and the bars, fork and stem had apparently done a 360 degree spin. The brake and shifter cables were wrapped once around the stem. It’s supposedly impossible for this to happen, the shock stabilizer can’t pass under the down tube. Yet, somehow, it did, and refused to go back around. Meanwhile, Jeff comes by…
JEFF: …I rounded the turn to find a cloud of dust. Jim was standing in the cloud, looking like Pig-Pen from the peanuts comic strip, holding the bike. I waited around to see if everything was okay.
JIM: I got back on the bike and rode a while. With the cables
tensioned around the stem, the bike wanted to pull to the right, and turns
to the left added cable tension, shifting both front and rear derraileurs.
Jeff tried to ride with me, but with only a rear brake, I couldn’t let
this bike go downhill very fast. So I sent him on his ride.
Next, I figured that if I swapped brake cables, I could use the good rear lever to control the front brake. So I swapped the cables, and found that now I could bike much faster, and still have braking power, since the front brake does most of the braking, anyway. This worked until the first switchback. One application of front brake in a switchback and I was back on my face in the dirt again. So I waited for the SAG vehicle.
The driver wasn’t very happy. This used to be his favorite bike. He took the twisted Trek 930 and gave me a Trek 830 with no suspension, and warned me to be careful; which I took to mean with his bike, not my body parts. I had to limit my speed anyway, without having benefit of a suspension. So I pedaled ahead to catch up to the group.
We had been downhilling most of the way, not concerned with shifting, when the road changed from dirt to cobblestones for a steep uphill section.
JEFF: I hadn’t really figured out how to shift this bike yet, and these thumb shifters were mounted on a bar that was moving up and down. I got to the uphill in the wrong gear, and for everyone, it was the wrong altitude. This was our first piece of uphill, the first time we needed to pedal, and this climb would have been tough enough at sea level on a bike I knew how to shift. So I walked up it with everyone else.
JIM: I caught up to another rider on the cobbles, and pedaled
up it while he walked his bike, although, at this high altitude, I didn’t
go any faster than he did. We biked into a small mountain town and
regrouped for lunch.
After lunch, we did a more gradual descent, mixed in with some uphill climbs. Here, Jeff quickly moved to the front of the pack, with me trailing behind, and the others too far back to see. I guess Jeff had figured out how to shift.
JEFF: I took off, enjoying the descent. Jim would drop behind, and I’d find a shady place to let him catch up. One muscle-bound Dane was hammering to catch up, when the road turned up hill…
JIM: …The uphill was not steep, but it was long, probably half a mile. The Dane who was gaining on the downhill, was nowhere in sight on the uphill; he didn’t know he was trying to catch Western Jersey Wheelmen! We took a break on a downhill curve, getting drinks, taking off layers of clothes, and letting the other bikers catch up and get ahead. When all the riders got ahead, I took off downhill, with Jeff behind.
JEFF: I rounded a turn to see a river and all the riders standing around the river bank. The road continued on the other side of the river, about fifty feet away….
JIM: …the ride actually ended at the Rio Blanca, the headwaters of the Amazon River, 3,000 feet above sea level. We were standing at the end of the ride. Only no one told Jeff that’s where the ride ended. So Jeff powers ahead into the river, almost making it through the river to the other side. The water was over a foot deep, pedals and axles were under water, and the current was fast. Jeff looked like he was having too much fun, so I tried the water crossing as well, falling half way through.
JEFF: In all, we had an 11,700 foot descent, from freezing alpine
tundra into the tropical rain forest.
JIM: Overall, it was a great experience. We capped our vacation with the down hill mountain bike ride of a lifetime.
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