Chapter 5: Rolling Fast

Crushed Out 131 Miles First Day Back on the Pavement

By on October 31, 2009 in Rolling Fast // 19 Comments

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Some days everything just clicks. I left Humaita´ after downing a pineapple vitamina, or smoothie with milk and sugar, and headed down the longest paved straightaways I’ve laid eyes on since my days in Indiana. The heat never passed 98F and a headwind kept me cool. I pedaled like I would never get tired, and yesterday, I didn´t. After 131 miles I reached Porto Velho and felt exhilarated. As the ruthless commodities trader Mark Yost would exclaim…”TASTE IT!”

I passed from the state of Amazônas, to the state of Rondonia, back into Amazônas before returning to Rondonia and Porto Velho, this state’s capitol. I went through two check points insuring no cattle from Amazonia enters Rondonia where all the cattle are vaccinated. I didn´t ask what they are vaccinated for…I had already eaten my share of Amazonian beef.

I was straight into a headwind for the first 8 hours of riding. I haven´t faced much headwinds whatsoever to this point. Part of the reason I chose to ride from East to West was to travel with the prevailing weather patterns. I was averaging 10.4 mph until the headwind let up in late afternoon and I could put the hammer down.

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To be honest my intention was to get fairly close to Porto Velho and camp. I tried to find a suitable spot along the road but only succeeded in adding some painful lacerations to my legs from grass I waded through. I don´t know the name of this type of grass is but it reminded me of the elephant grass in Vietnam I have read about. I couldn’t really tell how bad it was until 10-15 minutes later when I started sweating again. Today they are sticky oozing messes! Anyway, there was only scrub and fazenda without a decent tree to hang my hammock by late afternoon.

A feature of the landscape I have passed since leaving Belem are these enormous and far reaching ant hills which are easily seen in cleared fazendas. I stopped to take a picture of a field with a typical group of these mounds which regularly reach heights taller than me. I’d like to take my machete to one but have images of ants exploding out of the hole and dragging me back into the earth. I’ll stick to taking pictures.

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As the sun set, and my hopes of finding a campsite faded, I began to focus on reaching Port Velho. I had only 18 km to go by the time I switched from sunglasses to clear lenses and donned the headlamp. My legs still felt strong so I said “Let those dogs hunt!” and cranked up the tempo. I pedaled through swarms of tiny bugs that got stuck in my beard, hair, and sweat with the beam of my headlamp bouncing all over the road.

After almost exactly 12 hours since leaving Humaita´ I reached the ferry to go back across the Rio Madeira and into Porto Velho. My pedaling time was just over 11 hours. The ferry was crammed with tractor trailers, dirt bikes, other bicycles, pedestrians, and a bulldozer. When I rode into the downtown region I realized this was a very major city.

I found a cheap hotel next to the bus terminal (Hotel Porto Rico, very classy at 20$ a night) and strolled to find some food. I quickly realized Porto Velho was indeed urban in every sense. On my block I passed 2 rather suspicious motels connected to rowdy bars. This morning I received some flattering words from two transvestites drinking beers at said motel. Always a nice ego boost first thing in the morning!

However, despite the fact the some street fighting experience may be a plus to those looking to visit Porto Velho, I was able to replace my completely shredded pedals with a decent pair of Shimanos (the bolts and bearings were no longer in existence in the old set, it’s been over 800 miles since the pedals started to fail). I also re-outfitted my rear tire which was worn thin and pieced back together a set of worn out bearings in my headset. However, these will need to be replaced as soon as possible.

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I meandered the streets trying to find the main nerve of the city when I found a side street bar packed with people dancing to a samba band. Everything was set up on the sidewalk under the canopy of two huge trees. There was beer drinking and dancing between the plastic tables. Of course I just watched, I couldn’t dance two steps without looking out of place next to these guys . Besides soccer, and pool (which is played more than soccer from what I’ve seen up here in the north), the Brazilians that I’ve observed can dance like it´s nobody´s business… just effortlessly. I stayed up until midnight watching them boogie before limping back to my room.

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The unloaded Dragon gets a tour of Centro P.V.

Alexandre The Great

By on November 05, 2009 in Rolling Fast // 12 Comments

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Since leaving Humaita,´and passing through Porto Velho, I’ve cycled 443 miles in 4 days on the bike. I’m now resting in the city of Rio Branco. I had the fortune of meeting some fellow cyclists while in route from Porto Velho to Rio Branco, including the toughest man I’ve ever met…Alexandre!

The road out of Porto Velho is a major highway with fast traffic and long rolling hills. After a few minutes I passed a group of 20-30 road cyclists staging for a Sunday morning ride. They had the latest in high-tech equipment, the first I’ve seen of that kind while in Brazil. In the group was the guy I bought my pedals from the day prior. I took a quick pic and tried to keep up but the slightest incline had me spit out the back of the pack. A loaded mountain bike is no match for a feather-light road bike.

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This far east in Brazil the rainy season has already begun. Everyday storms pass by, sometimes dumping huge amounts of rain. These storms move incredibly fast. You can see them coming from the jungle. The rain soon obscures the tree line and within a few minutes the storm closes the mile or so gap from the edge of the jungle across the cleared fazenda and into the road. When they barrel through it gets cold too…relatively speaking of course. When you’ve grow somewhat accustomed to 100 degrees rain in the upper 70´s is downright frigid!

The first day I planned to stop in a small town just 60 miles from Porto Velho but all the hotels were booked! I pedaled another 42 miles to a town called Mutum-Parana´ where I was able to get a hot meal, a cold shower, and a place to sleep. My room was as much chicken coup as it was a hotel room but I actually slept like a rock.

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The following day I was to cross the Rio Madeira for the 3rd and final time. I had about 20 miles before the crossing when sometime in mid-morning I saw a form a ways off coming straight at me. Even from a considerable distance I could tell it was a cyclist, but a cyclist with a purpose. Someone commuting to work a few miles and someone on a journey have a much different presence or form on a bike. I could see this man was on a mission.

He was riding against traffic on my side of the road. He wore a baseball cap, a soccer jersey and shorts, and flip-flops. His eyes were red from the sun and wind (actually he never really unsquinted his right eye at all) and he was all smiles. We stopped our bikes front wheel to front wheel and shook hands.

Alexandre was on his way from somewhere in Peru to Rio de Janeiro to see his family. He couldn’t tell me how many days he’d been riding so far. He road a single speed steel bike with one brake, an entire spare wheel strapped to the rear rack (not just an inner-tube or tire, the whole wheel), and a book bag with a hammock and some clothes tied to his handle bars. He road in flimsy rubber flip-flops (a non-matching pair), he had no map, no food with him, not even any water or water bottles!

I started to feel put in my place. He was probably wondering what the hell I had in all those big red bags all over my bike. I began to wonder what the hell I had in all those bags too. While I was nibbling on cookies and Tang he was probably mawing rocks, roadkill, and washing it down with a quart of motor oil! This was one tough dude.

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I gave him some of my water, he glanced at my map to make sure he should turn right at Porto Velho, and we parted ways. I had a lot of admiration for him. With the true minimum of supplies (with the exception of his entire spare wheel!) he was carrying out his adventure. He continued down the road on the wrong side with his head low grinding away at the pedals. I have a feeling Alexandre has been going the wrong way his whole life.

Once again I crossed the Rio Madeira and was within 50 meters of Bolivia. The hills and headwind kept my pace slow all that day but I kept thinking of Alexandre as I rode. After some more storms and another 100+ mile day I reached the town of Extrema.

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Again, hot meal, cold shower, and a room with real walls this time. Up until this point I haven’t had too many problems with mosquitoes. I think all the mosquitoes in the Amazon were in this hotel. After turning on the lights and seeing little specks of my blood all over the sheets I suited up in all my Ex-Officio insect repellent clothing and bug helmet for the night. I didn´t get much sleep and was out the door at 5am the next day.

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Rio Branco was now 112 or so miles ahead of me. I was feeling the wear and tear of the previous day’s miles so I gave myself ample time to make the distance. The hills were getting bigger again and that damned headwind was in my face. It is an impossible enemy. The wind never tires, it’s everywhere, the harder you fight the more you lose. Headwinds can be very a frustrating force.

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For the time being I don’t mind the rain. It breaks up otherwise monotonous hours on the bike and washes away some of the salt from my skin. I know when I am back in the jungle and dirt in Peru I’ll be cursing it again. I snapped this shot of a couple of Gaúcho’s walking in from the fazendas, chaps and all. They gave me a thumbs up and a “Hey Patrao” (boss) as I passed.

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I’m now in Rio Branco planning my route through Peru. The road from the Brazilian border, through Porto Maldonado, and up the Andes to Cuzco is going to be tough to say the least. There are a lot of dirt stretches that might pose quite a problem with the frequent rains. I also have to climb 14,000+ feet of elevation… no big deal. There is dynamite blasting in the mountains where the Trans-Oceanica route is being built that can close the road for entire days. I don’t have a map of this section and can’t find one anywhere in this city.

But hey, what would Alexandre do?

Rio Branco and an Interesting Flea Treatment

By on November 06, 2009 in Rolling Fast // 14 Comments

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I was laughing in wonder as I watched these guys treat a mother dog and her two puppies for fleas. It probably wasn’t something to laugh at but it just seemed so bizarre. They used a two liter coke bottle filled with the blackest used motor oil and poured it all over these poor dogs. From branco to preto with just a little oil.

They said it works very well to treat flees and the dogs seemed to enjoy the oil massage. The oil was rubbed into the fur and the dogs that were once white and brown were now completely black. What happens when they start to lick the oil off?

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I indulged in a little personal care as well with my first professional straight razor shave and a haircut. After looking at some of the pictures of myself I figured some grooming was in order. I headed down to the praça, or park area, and walked into a barber shop filled with old men. It wasn’t easy trying to explain in broken Portuguese what I wanted but it worked out well.

The shave took almost 45 minutes and my face was prepped with cachaça before being lathered up. The alcohol was so strong my eyes were watering and I started to choke and gag at the nauseating booze smell. But when it was finished I had the best shave of my life and nice trim of my grown out buzz cut. I felt like a million Reais (which is about 600,000 US right now).

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Rio Branco is a large enough city where I could find some very necessary parts for my bike once again. After all the wear and tear and 2000 miles across the continent I had to replace the bottom bracket (for you bike enthusiasts I had to buy a whole new Shimano Alivio crankset since they didn’t sell a new bearing set separately for the Ultegra components, bummer) and a bearing set for my headtube. Both were completely smooshed and crumbling apart when I removed them. At this point I have replaced nearly the entire drive train of the bike.

I visited the market area with enormous trees and bamboo shoots providing cover overhead. I like to see all the herbal remedies from Amazonian plants in hand labeled bottles. I saw one that contained a crushed green powder in a 500 mL plastic soda bottle with a handwritten “Viagra” label on it and nothing more. No thanks.

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While enjoying a beer at a bar next to my hotel I watched a man grab a goiaba from the gutter, cut it open, and squeeze the juice into a plastic cup of cachaça. I imagined it tasted pretty good. Shortly there after his friend came in with a plastic bag full of uncooked hot dogs and sausages. He handed them out to any takers. Uncooked hot dogs aren’t a big deal but sausages? I was offered some but politely declined.

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The other night I was speaking with some Brazilian men staying in the same hotel as me on business. They took me out for some Brazilian cuisine I had yet to indulge in. In a broth was boiled ox tail, shrimp, rice, and an Amazonian plant that made your mouth numb after eating it. The ox tail was very tasty and tender.

While we ate under a thatched street side hut it poured rain as it has everyday, sometimes all day long. The streets looked like rapids it was so heavy at one point. If you had an inflatable tube you could float down the gutter. This made me think of the road ahead in Peru.

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