The Quietest Road: A Tale of a Bazillion Punctures
Cass heads out for an overnighter with visiting bike travellers and celebrates the rich variety of pedalling machines that are always passing through town. He considers the dubious merits of the fabled Pan-American Highway, and wonders… how many punctures does it take to ride the quietest road?
I’ve mentioned it before when writing about bikepacking in Mexico: the city of Oaxaca forms a bustling intersection for bicycle tourers and their steeds, both in the way riders are funnelled through town before being waved off in different directions – be it to the coast or into the sierras – and in the very bikes they choose to ride.
Cyclotourists of all creeds converge on rugged rigs with soft bags, chunky tyres, and ambitions of singletrack, or aboard lean gravel machines designed to devour more miles than memelas, or even captaining pannier-laden touring bikes with the girth of gallions. Each bike is, in a way, an insight into its owner’s character, and I delight in talking to anyone I chance upon, sharing day rides and occasional overnighters with those who get in touch – especially if I can bring my dog along for his daily burst of exercise. It’s now reached the point that Huesos will bound ahead from our home to the small square where we arrange to meet, his long tail swooshing excitedly from side to side as he bobs up to anyone with a bicycle, on the assumption that they’re surely his friends and doubtlessly part of The Huesos Pack.
I’ll always recommend a low-traffic route out of town, and when timings coincide, sometimes Huesos and I will come along too. Riding eastwards to Yagul for the evening – a rocky citadel that rises abruptly above lush wetland and tall grasses, through which Huesos loves to bound like an African gazelle – has become something of a favourite overnighter and a great way to bid these travellers buen viaje. It’s mellow enough not to demand too early a departure. Tyres soon scrunch dirt as riders skip from one rural doubletrack to the next, barely touching pavement. And the skies above are invariably open and uplifting, particularly at this time of the year, when rain cedes to sunshine, with occasional storms sponging the horizon clean. To a backdrop of swaying carrizo and tall corn, these dirt roads are shared with campesinos with long machetes strapped to their bike frames – often curly-barred, twin-top-tubed Benottos – and horse and carts. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate exit to a city that charms almost everyone, including Alain, Pascal, and Ann, three tourers whose company we’d been enjoying over the days prior.
Also of interest to cyclists of a travelling pursuasion, no matter their biking denomination, the route passes by well-stocked restaurants and ice creameries in every village, promises a splash of chaos in Tlacolula – a town that’s known for the barbacoa tacos of its Sunday market and the gusto of its vendors – before culminating in a discreet, ledge-top camping site. It’s here that riders are presented with an unexpectedly sweeping and glorious view, out towards a Zapotec fortress that’s surrounded by prehistoric caves and towered over by the Sierra Norte, framed by the thick arms of an elderly organ cactus. I like to imagine this noble plant bidding them farewell, and a long life, on behalf of the ancient Mitla valley.
To be transparent, I could also mention the soundtrack of late-night firecrackers, brass band marches, and mariachi music that invariably ricochet across the valley at weekends, but as these are synonymous with much of Mexico, I’ll chalk them up to the often puzzling but always beguiling joys of touring here. Besides, on this occasion, we were serenaded by the yipping of coyotes come sundown. By then, Huesos and I were cosied up in the tent and my guardian did little more than prick up his ears, appraise the situation, and cast me a quick glance that seemed to say I’ve got this, everything is going to be okay, before falling soundly back to sleep.
Perhaps it was because he felt fortunate to be safely sharing this spot with his bike-riding pack, even if luck had shone less favourably on their tyres. Equipped with ye olde inner tubes, all of them – from Alain’s 30-year-old steel eBay tourer to Pascal and Ann’s brawny Surlys – had ended the day riddled with a bazillion wounds, limping into our campsite. Plans for a leisurely morning sipping coffee were thus usurped by the dubious pleasures of pumping up a multitude of tyre of all sizes, honing patching skills, and giving finger and thumb muscles a full workout, in an effort to convince unimagineably stubborn rubber back onto rims. And when we feared we might run low on patches and glue – because yes, it really did get that bad – we checked, double-checked and triple-checked each tyre again, hunting and digging for old thorns with a penknife and pliers to be sure we left no miscreants behind.
Granted, I did feel a pang of guilt, given that my tyres were freshly topped up with sealant and hadn’t lost so much as a breath of air. I wondered: should we have ridden the road more travelled and avoided such a deflating scene? I hold up my hands. Over the last few years, I’ve sought, with an increasing degree of obsession, not only to avoid busy highways, but to unearth the quietest roads that I can. Roads where cyclists can ride two abreast and chat, or allow themselves to be completely immersed in deep thought, or even pull over and picnic, using the verge as their tablecloth. Even, tracks that I suspect might just peter out in a field, or end in river crossing or a protracted hike a bike, only to discover with triumph – and relief – that they lead me exactly where I hoped they would, leaving me with a beaming smile and a soaring spirit, and a renewed appreciation for the humble yet mighty bicycle.
Which is interesting, because I didn’t always aspire to see the world in this way. Case in point: the Pan-American Highway, first conceived in the late 1800s and still considered the ultimate road trip by many. It even passes through Oaxaca City and the Mitla Valley, through which we were now riding. When I was a fledgling tourer, I imagined it as a magnificent journey that spanned the continents, along which people and their cultures mingled, and wares were traded. Picturing majesty and romance, I yearned to bike its length.
Some two decades later, when I finally found myself following it, tussling with large trucks loaded with shipping containers in Panama, I couldn’t help but remember ruefully that it was the Pan-American’s name alone had catalyzed my desire to bike tour. Now, no amount of love or money could convince me to spend a moment longer riding it than I had to – and that probably goes for every one of its 15,000 miles. I may even have developed a knee-jerk reaction that sends me as far away from it as I can, if not in distance, then in road surface, at least. Hence steering us away from the carretera federal and onto the style of unorthodox ramble that we’d taken to get here, landing us in this thorny tangle.
And yet! We had ridden the quietest road, despite its proximity to the Pan-American Highway, which was never been more than a few kilometres away. And it had allowed us to ride two abreast or deep in personal thought, and taken us to a glorious campspot too. As for the bazillion punctures, well, let’s call that a rite of passage, and speak of it no more. Or at least, all agree to run sealant next time.
Postscript: Alain continued onwards the next morning, riding the Vuelta de los Pueblos Mancomunados before heading north, and claims to have had only one more puncture since. He’s currently riding the length of Mexico – check up on how he’s getting along here. Pascal and Ann adjusted their plans to detour back to Oaxaca, and replace leaky inner tubes with sealant, before continuing their journey southwards to Guatemala and beyond. You can follow along here and here.
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