August 27.15 – Donhou crosses a continent – Part 2
At the end of 2014 Alasdair Couch took his Donhou bicycle on a truly epic adventure in South America, travelling from Argentina to Chile and into Bolivia. He was generous enough to spend some time telling us about his experiences.
Donhou Bicycles: Alasdair, what an epic journey. What sort of mileage did you clock?
Alasdair Couch: I didn’t really keep a great deal of stats on the ride. I rode about 3,000km in total. I would generally try to ride between 100-130km a day. The longest day of riding I did was about 190km. I generally waste too much time stuffing my face with food and wine to ride much further. The highest mountain pass I rode over was in Bolivia and it was about 4,700 metres high.
DB: Where were your favourite places to ride? Any tough parts?
AC: Favourite place? That is such a difficult a question to answer because there was so much variety. The landscapes are all so unique and I suppose you have to factor in the quality of the riding. The Lake District in Chile definitely had the best ratio of beauty to effort. The vistas were all so lush and green. There were idyllic rolling hills, with massive volcanoes as a backdrop. I think the Atacama desert and southern Bolivia was the most fascinating area for me as it is so far removed from anything I had ever experienced before. It was, however, the most brutal cycling my body has ever experienced. The passes were at such altitude and the roads so appalling that you would be hard pressed to call it cycling a lot of the time. My lungs really struggled and it was a struggle to make even the smallest distances without stopping and slumping over my handlebars to try and gather my breath. I love cycling by myself, but in those moments it would have been great to have someone around to motivate me. In the end I took a wrong turn after spending several hours over a pass. I only found out when some locals asked where I was going. I only had information for my intended route, so I ended up hitching a lift. I was completely beaten!
DB: Ouch! So were people generally kind? No sketchy bits?
AC: I had zero “sketchy” moments relating to people. I never felt threatened once this trip. The wind was probably the sketchiest thing. In Patagonia the winds were consistently blowing around 100 km/h, usually sideways. Every time a truck drove by it felt like I was being thrown around in a washing machine. There came a point when the winds snapped the poles of my supposedly “bomb proof” Hilleberg tent clean in two. That was a huge slap in the face. Nothing is indestructible in Patagonia.
There was so much kindness from strangers. Being on a bicycle stirs up people’s curiosity, so they are instantly keen to know your story and help you out. It sets you apart from other tourists. In Southern Bolivia I was camping by myself at Salar de Chalviri by myself when a Bolivian family invited me in to celebrate carnival with them. I was given a feast of grilled llama and we partied until the early hours. The next day was brutal to say the least! Top tip: don’t drink and ride at high altitude!
DB: It’s not the first adventure you’ve taken your Donhou on either, is it?
AC: I was teaching in South Korea when Tom built the frame and fork, so I got it sent out there. I actually had no idea Tom was a frame builder until I saw my old housemate, George Marshall, had a Donhou bicycle. I had never owned a bike worth more than a couple of hundred quid and had never owned a car, so I decided that I had to get one while I could afford it. I have ridden it in Korea, Japan, Holland, Belgium, Northern Spain, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia… and of course in the UK. On this South America trip it performed really well. I’m not very precious with it, so it took quite a battering, yet it more or less came out the other end unscathed. I got a couple of broken spokes on the rear wheel – sprocket side – which fortunately happened when I was within reach of a bike shop. After that I got my hands on a chain whip and wrench because I was worried that it might happen again somewhere remote. The last thing I would have wanted was to get stuck in the desert with a wheel on self destruct.
DB: And the roads there were OK to ride on?
AC: In Chile most of the roads were perfect. A lot of the roads that were marked on maps as dirt roads had been recently paved. I used 2″ Schwalbe marathon mondiale tyres. I could probably have got away with riding thinner tyres, but there is no doubt that it opens up more options having wider tyres. When I got to Bolivia it became clear I had made the right choice. Calling some of the routes “roads” was laughable. It was more like riding on the moon. Personally, I think wider tyres gives you more flexibility to explore.
DB: Thanks Alasdair!
Huge thanks to Alasdair Couch for use of his photographs, more of which can be found on his Flickr account.
Visit Alasdair’s excellent blog for more on this most recent trip, plus his other expeditions.