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Mountain Biking

Frankly the idea of belting down the side of the world’s highest active volcano on a mountain bike is about as scary and ridiculous sounding as it is appealing and challenging. So when the opportunity to do just that presented itself both fear and excitement were growing as I approached Mt. Cotopaxi , the meeting point to start our journey.

Cotopaxi from Quito (courtesy Biking Dutchman)

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I had first heard about mountain biking down Cotopaxi volcano some years ago. I lived in Quito for five years and often caught glimpses of Cotopaxi on clear days. This volcano looms large on the southern skyline, a giant snow-capped sentinel, 19,150 above sea-level and some 10,000 feet above Quito .

We started our biking trek at the Magic Bean,a hostel in the downtown La Mariscal area of Quito . Anna, the Ecuadorian wife of Hans, the famous Biking Dutchman said “be there at 7 am sharp.”

Here is our guide Mo.

I arrived just as a custom built Toyota Land Cruiser pulled in front of the hostel. Our guide, Mo, jumped out and greeted us in near fluent English. To my mind he looks just like an adventure guide should! It’s probably a beard thing; I don’t wish to offend less hirsute types, but to my mind, mountains and adventure are synonymous with the bearded, craggy faces of the men the mountains attract. Mo turns out to be half Chilean, half-Ecuadorian, born in Hungary where his parents had met after his Chilean father fled the Pinochet regime. Meet Mo.

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Two others joined us, Frank and Vanessa and all hopped up into the Toyota which has been customized to carry 8 passengers, maybe 10 at a push.

Here’s Mo and the custom Land Cruiser.

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We left Quito and headed for the valley of Tumbaco to pick up the bikes at the shop where dedicated mechanics maintain them every day. Then we were off!

Although Cotopaxi ‘looms’ over Quito we rode more than 40 direct miles south on the Pan American Highway . Then we turned left onto a track leading to Cotapaxi National Park . From this turn, there’s is only one way to go… up!

My adventure companions included Dieter, on a 4 week vacation from Germany , plus Vanessa and Frank, a young Dutch couple traveling around the world.

I compared my clothing with theirs with some consternation. I wore jeans, a sweater, a waterproof jacket, a baseball cap and trainers. They wore Goretex everything – climbing jackets and boots, trousers, gloves and woolen hats and ear mufflers. They even had mountain goggles.

The thought occurred to me, “Oops, either they or I am wrong!”

I did not have long to think about this as Cotopaxi came into view, peeking through the clouds.

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We rode through pine plantations until we reached the park entrance, a wooden hut with a barrier and headed up past the timberline, a blur below us in the mists. We rumbled past volcanic boulders that had spewed from the deep Earth’s mantle in eons past. As we traversed the flanks of this behemoth mountain we caught tantalizing glimpses of the summit far above. The Toyota groaned and shuddered as it hauled us ever upwards on a stone strewn track on which we would soon hurtle down on our bikes.

A final turn and lurch brought us to what may be the highest car park in the world. It most certainly is the highest car park on an active volcano anywhere on this planet. A sign indicates you are 4,500 meters (nearly 14,000 feet) above sea level.

Today our views were shrouded in mist but here is how the car park sign looks on a clearer on a better day.

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The views from this car park on a clear day are spectacular!

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The shift from our cocoon in the warm car to a hostile environment of howling wind startled us all as we stepped from the Toyota . I was dressed badly and I made a mental note to dress better next time. In less lucid moments I daydream of climbing the summit of this mountain.

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Yes, me the guy who hates the cold.

We were served cinnamon tea while our driver, an indigenous Ecuadorian, scrambled on to the roof rack and un-fastened our bikes. This cinnamon tea or called by the shaman, Canela and Panela, is to ease altitude and help the body to adjust quickly. It’s not only delicious but very warming.

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Even though I used the jeep as a wind break and cradled the hot cinnamon tea my hands were numb. Mo pleased me no end when he offered me spare wool gloves along with all the requisite safety gear; helmet, knee and elbow pads.

The Gary Fisher bikes confirmed that Biking Dutchman is a professional outfit. Mo altered the saddle position as low as possible – a useful technique for steep descents. He and the driver checked the brakes…a precaution I quickly learned was vital.

They taught us how to fall on our shoulders to break less bones if we built up too much speed and were headed for a precipice. I listened and suppressed an urge to re-check the brakes!

Here we are for the last check of the bikes.

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I had not really noticed the incline on the way up. Perhaps the Toyota made the climb seem effortless. Maybe I had talked too much to my companions. Call me unobservant or naïve, whatever, but what I didn’t ingest on the drive up I immediately understood in the first moment of the ride down. No need to pedal!

I let go of the brakes. Oops. Three seconds later I flew past a startled Vanessa at 25 m.p.h. The next corner hurtled toward me and I rushed to apply the brakes to avoid a catastrophic flying leap over the edge. Sleet and wind in my face, I registered surprise, nay, shock! I squeezed the brakes as hard as I dared to without locking the wheels but my bike and I kept moving. Locking the wheels became an attractive proposition. Fear gripped me, and I gripped the brakes .. harder, much harder! I contemplated the shoulder slide. I skidded to a halt with five yards to spare.

Thumbs Up! I survived with bike and shoulders intact.

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My heart pounded. Forward momentum is controlled by just one thing; the brakes. If I hadn’t realized this before I did now. As a corollary to braking, it’s crucial your hands stay warm to operate the brakes. My hands were frozen. Everybody’s hands were frozen. I took off my gloves and did the old Alaskan fisherman slap. You slap both sides of your body simultaneously with the opposite hand to the side you slap. My companions smirked and laughed, I got warmer. Moments later all my fellow bikers were Alaskan-fisherman-slapping like crazy.

Here we are, all smiles after warming up.

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What a blast! This shot taken by the Biking Dutchman says it all.

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Hands warm and now glued to the brakes we all continued downwards. Other hazards included a deep rut on either side of the track and stones strewn across the track as well as the occasional pot holes. Occasionally a straight stretch would present itself and Mo flew by us at 40 m.p.h. or faster yelping like a loon. Soon we were a thousand feet lower and away from the glacier above. I could feel the sun now and the wind dropped. I no longer had icicles for fingers and the track flattened slightly. We began to appreciate the views more because our eyes weren’t fixed on the road.

After half an hour we saw Mo waiting for us where a path forked off from the vehicle track. We followed him across a plain surrounded by distant mountains and the volcanoes Pasachoa and Ruminahui. Still we headed downhill but it was less steep. We re-adjusted the saddles and it felt good to pedal. Somehow I felt more in control!

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We cycled alongside a gurgling brook. Swallow-like birds flitted from bush to bush or observed us from atop boulders the size of small homes. The volcano intimidated us with its continual presence. The feeling was amplified by huge boulders and the realization that they were carried by unimaginably large torrents of water released as the summit glaciers instantly melted when Cotopaxi erupted.

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Glacially deposited rock makes a good leaning post for my bike

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We found a flat spot and laid our bikes down and waited for the land cruiser to catch up. We had a picnic lunch of spicy tuna-coleslaw sandwiches, cinnamon tea, juice and brownies. Mo recounted his various mountain biking experiences around Ecuador .

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We watched a herd of wild horses graze just 200 yards away. There are apparently hundreds of such horses up here on these moors. Seasonally they are rounded up. Dozens of cowboys herd these loose animals that have scattered to the winds over the Andean paramos.

Here is a shot of a biker and the wild horses taken by the Biking Dutchman.

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After lunch we mounted our iron steeds. I felt the beginnings of an addiction. This sport exhilarates and gets you fit as well. (Days later I could still feel it in my legs.) Further along the track we needed to ride harder to ford small fast-flowing streams and even struggle up slight slopes. We had entered the park in the morning at the southern entrance and left by the northern entrance; again just a solitary hut.

We stopped to snap pictures of the land we had just ridden over and as the clouds lifted we had much clearer views of Cotopaxi . Here we are at the end of the national park.

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For the rest of our journey we cycled downhill along country lanes with a pastoral feel. We entered into a green valley and weathered indigenous men led burros up the track we came down. Volcanoes were on both sides of a valley that is a perfect track for horse-riding, hiking or cycling.

Altitude controls temperature in Ecuador and at the lower terrain we remarkably warmed. Off came the jacket, then the sweater and shirt. Unbelievably, considering the conditions at the outset, we finished the ride in t-shirts and shorts. A bike ride from sub-arctic to sub-tropical in under four hours – where else in the world!

The day ended with the ride back to Quito by a different route.

I spent a cool half hour with Frank and Vanessa in a downtown café and enjoyed a super-sized cappuccino. We recounted our adventure and spoke of future plans as the street lights started to twinkle on the surrounding hills of Quito …a fitting ending to a wonderful day’s ride.

Steve