El Silencio: The Film, the Bikes, and the Backstory
El Silencio: Cycling the Peru Divide tells the story of a group of riders and their journey across the mountainous heart of Peru’s Central Cordillera, a region noted for its remoteness… and its quietness. We chat to filmmaker Jay Ritchey about the challenges of making the film and the gear he used, and take a look at the Tumbleweed expedition bikes built up for the trip.
If you’re a regular to the site, you’ll likely have noticed the amount of Andean content that we feature. It’s for good reason: South America’s most celebrated mountain range offers some of the best bikepacking on the planet. Within this range, Peru’s high mountains are about as good as it gets. And within these rugged, mineral-streaked peaks, few places are as heartbreakingly beautiful as the mining district, in the country’s central Cordillera.
Last year, four friends set out to tackle a portion of the Peru Divide, an epic dirt road route expertly devised by Neil and Harriet Pike. The group put aside a month for their adventure, allowing time for the long bus ride to Ayacucho, cycling to the start point of Huancavelica as a way to acclimatise, and an added hike-a-bike traverse of the testing Cordillera Huayhuash at the very end of the journey, which concluded in Huaraz, in the Cordillera Blanca. The journey was captured by rider and filmmaker Jay Ritchey, who also crafted the beautiful short film Bikepacking the Mongolian Steppe, with much of the same crew.
We’ve always admired the authenticity of your films, for want of a better word, and their gentle, unforced pace. They tell the stories of real adventures undertaken but real people, in a non-intrusive way. El Silencio, however, has a lot more going on than Bikepacking the Mongolian Steppe. What was the difference between this trip and the last? In what ways did you want to change the way you told the story?
I learned a lot filming and editing “Bikepacking the Mongolian Steppe” and I knew I could push myself farther given another chance. Being embedded with a group of touring cyclists gives a lot of opportunities to film the development of a trip. However, participating in the tour is a double-edged sword, as it’s up to me to motivate myself beyond my exhaustion of mountainous riding to be creative and devote a bit of energy to filming. Having done the Mongolia trip, I knew that I needed to pull out my camera more despite fatigue, to capture Peruvians, weather drama, personal struggles, and the many highs and lows of a month-long trip like this. This time I had a better, though loose, plan of what I wanted to capture and focus on… and crossed my fingers that it all would snap together in editing.
Can you share an overview of your gear? Anything that you’d do differently?
For this film, we were able to bump up the production quality by using a DJI Mavic Pro drone and a Pilotfly H2 camera stabilizer. Though they were pretty heavy to bring on tour, I think it was worth it! There were things that I never ended up using, such as additional small microphones and lights, but I would bring them again since it’s so hard to predict when they would be helpful. Thankfully my pack mules – Daniel, Pepper, and Cass – carried a couple of pounds of gear a piece, helping to spread out the load.
My everyday run ‘n’ gun camera, carried in my Porcelain Rocket DSLR slinger, was a Panasonic GH5 with a 12-35mm f/2.8 lens, with a Hoya Variable ND filter and a Rode Videomic Pro. Other lenses I had were a tele lens and a wide aperture prime for night stuff.
Where there any high points of the trip you? And, dare we ask, low points?
The highs… not crashing when one-handed gimbal bike riding down some fast downhills! Honestly, it all was incredible, and I feel super lucky to have been a part of it. The route’s scenery, fantastic riding, and picturesque camping really made the trip memorable, whether or not I was there to film it or simply ride.
The low would be falling hard in the remote Huayhuash mountains and bruising my ribs, which was quite painful. That was toward the end of the trip and a couple days into the hardest section. I was so exhausted in a massive way, without the mental or physical capacity to film for a couple of days.
Can you tell us a little about your filming techniques? Did you prep shots in advance, or just catch them on the fly? And, how do you approach filming local people in these culturally sensitive areas?
Covering a ride like this is all about having quick access to my gear. Whipping my camera out, attaching a proper mic, powering up and speeding both video and audio takes at least 10 seconds, which is a pretty slow reaction time. I’m always wishing I was 20 seconds in the past! Since I can’t shape-shift time, the best I can do is anticipate when something is about to happen and put myself there and hold a shot as best I can, hoping that someone won’t step in front of me, or talk over the top of my subject, all the while hoping my lens is clean!
When filming Peruvians, I asked with my limited Spanish if it was okay first. Most of the time it was fine; people were often as interested by us as we were of them. But once in a while someone objected, so I smiled and moved on.
We checked out your setup and your homemade bags in a Rider and Rig post. It seems you’ve formalised these designs and created a small brand now…
In order to carry my 10 pounds of camera gear on my bike, I ended up sewing a padded camera bag that sat on my front rack. It worked great and I enjoyed making it. Since September, I’ve started a small, one-person company sewing bags for bike touring called Bags By Bird, or BXB for short. At the moment I have one model, called the Goldback, that pays tribute to traditional saddlebags and is offered in four different sizes. It’s meant to carry camping gear for tours, but an internal foam panel can easily be installed for camera storage. I’m hoping to expand my lineup and offer more camera specific bags in the future. You can find them on Instagram @bagsxbird and online at www.bagsxbird.com.
Given the hardy terrain, chunky two-track, rocky singletrack, and mixed weather conditions, large volume ‘plus bikes’ were chosen for the ride, all of which were fitted with ultra-reliable Rohloff Speedhubs. Whilst Mongolia proved to be the perfect testing ground for prototype Tumbleweed frames, Peru put the final production Prospectors through their paces. The four riders reported neither technical issues nor punctures over the length of the trip.
Prospector Discount for Bikpeacking Collective Members
If you like the look of how these bikes turned out, consider the special preorder discount for the impending, updated Prospector v2 that Tumbleweed Bicycle Co is offering to Bikepacking Collective members. If big trips in remote locations are what you aspire to – whether you favour 4″ tires, 29+ wheels, or even the 27+ format – these bikes should certainly be on your shortlist of options.
All members of our Bikepacking Collective are eligible for a $200 discount on a Tubmbleweed Prospector frameset preorder between now and January 6th, 2019. This offer is valid for current members and anyone who joins before then. Interested in owning a discounted Prospector frameset, along with a whole host of other great benefits? Get signed up today, and stay tuned for an email containing your discount code soon. More details on the updated bikes can be found here.
For more on Jay Ritchey’s films, visit his website.