Here’s the thing about traveling — sometimes things go wrong.
And here’s the thing about traveling as a mountain biker — you are doing something relatively dangerous and strenuous and you are hauling around extremely expensive equipment so when things do go wrong, it tends to be catastrophic.
So, considering the possibilities, Inca Avalanche wasn’t that big of a catastrophe. Our bikes survived six (SIX!!) flights in a span of two weeks. Nobody broke any bones (although there were some close calls). And I may have lost eight pounds due to food poisoning, but as far as I can tell, I haven’t brought any parasites home with me.
So, let me start at the beginning. Normal people go to Peru’s Sacred Valley to hike up Machu Picchu. Since, as has long been established on this blog, we are not normal, we went to the Sacred Valley to ride our bikes down a totally different mountain. Inca Avalanche is a downhill mountain bike race that starts at 15,000 feet and descends to close to 9,000. It’s rocky and wet and starts with an absolutely ridiculous mass start involving 150 people sliding down a trail-less, muddy mountain face and toppling into one another. Good stuff.
The race is split into two days, with two qualifying runs on Saturday and the finals on Sunday. Things started to get interesting on Friday, when Sean crashed in a typically epic manner and shattered his front wheel (and almost his leg, nbd). Since trying to find 27.5in wheels in Peru is a really funny joke, he was out for the weekend. Which, seeing as he woke up the next morning with an intense case of Peru belly (I’ll leave the details up to your imagination), was probably just as well.
I felt fantastic Saturday morning, which, in retrospect, probably should have been a huge sign of my impending doom. The first qualifying run was a blast — I didn’t crash, I didn’t flat, I didn’t even get last. In fact, I think I was the third woman overall. And because I was feeling pretty cocky, I decided to head up the mountain for the second (and optional) qualifying run. But first I made a fatal mistake. I ate a choripan. It was delicious. If only I had known what was to come…
If you’ve never been at 15,000 feet before, let me clarify something for you — nobody feels great at that sort of altitude. And so, as I was dragging my bike up the last hike-a-bike section to the start and starting to feel pretty shitty, I was telling myself it’s just the altitude, Syd. All you have to do is get on your bike and go down and you’ll feel fine.
I must have looked horrible because Macky suggested I roll down the hill and hop in the car with our driver. But driving down the curvy mountain road sounded equally unappealing. Actually, at this point, everything sounded unappealing. I huddled in small, cold ball of misery until it was time to get on the bike. I had an equally miserable start to the race. The first section, which had been slick on the first run, now resembled a gigantic, muddy slip n’ slide. And in case you’re ever considering bringing your bicycle, with all it’s sharp, metal pokey bits, along with you on a slip n’ slide — don’t do it. Horrible idea.
I was still feeling pretty lousy after fifteen minutes of racing. I stopped and took my jacket off just in case my nausea was due to over-heating (on a cold, foggy day at 13,000 feet?). You know how when you’re in a crappy situation your brain tends to fixate on one, usually less-than-critical thing? Here I was, hurtling down a rocky, slippery trail while feeling extremely dizzy and off-balance and my internal monologue was this: whatever you do, do NOT puke in your full-face helmet.
Because that was clearly the worst case scenario.
There is a moment in any illness when not vomiting becomes worse than vomiting. I was trying to make it the next road crossing, which was only about 15 feet away, down one last steep embankment, when I hit that point-of-no-return and bailed off the trail in a spectacular hurricane of bike equipment and regurgitated choripan. For the record, I did get my full-face off in time.
Since I love puking with an audience, I had timed my barfing perfectly, i.e. directly in front of the police escort vehicle and the line of impatient vehicles that were trailing them down the mountain. Because I was up the embankment, all the police could see was a scattering of bike, helmet and pack and my convulsing back. Naturally, they were concerned.
“Amiguito, amiguito,” they yelled from the road. “Estás bien?”
Seeing as I was vomiting too much to provide a satisfactory answer, they dispatched the large and rather intimidating policewoman to scramble up the trail and check on me. By the time she arrived, I had sort of gotten my act together and was able to say, rather unnecessarily, “I’m puking.” And then, “But, really, I’m fine.” She was unconvinced and proceed to snatch up my bike and drag it down to the road where she loaded into the back of the police pick-up truck.
“Get in,” she said. And because all my capacity for protest had been used up with that “I’m fine,” I clambered into the truck-bed with my bike.
Now, while puking on the side of the road in the middle of the race may not seem great to you, there are worse places to be when you have food poisoning, one of which is undoubtedly the back of police vehicle that is careening down a curvy mountain road at 90 miles per hour.
I spent the drive hanging my head over the back, taking deep breaths and calculating the velocity and direction that my vomit would have to take to avoid smashing into the windshield of the car behind us. You would think that, knowing the circumstances, they wouldn’t be tail-gating. However, Peruvian drivers are creatures of habit.
Towards the bottom of the mountain, the police stopped to load a few more people into their truck because apparently that’s what you do in Peru. Unluckily for me, the guy who joined me in the back found me extremely interesting.
“Where are you from? Were you racing? What happened? Is this your bike? It’s really nice. I like it. This is my bike. I decided not to race the second round because I was tired. What’s your name? Are you okay?”
Had this interchange been in English, I probably would have come up with something witty and pointed to say in response, something along the lines of “If you do not shut the fuck up right now I will projectile vomit all over your skinny ass.”
Alas, we were speaking Spanish so I settled for the somewhat less pithy “mmmmmeeeh.”
As we approached the end of the race and the event venue we encountered a stand-still traffic jam caused by large trucks trying to squeeze over a tiny bridge two at a time. I groaned. This, I imagined, was exactly how convicted prisoners probably felt if they got stuck in a pile-up on their way to the guillotine. Everyone seemed to be staring at me like they knew I was moments away from doom.
“I’m going to get out,” I told my talkative companion. “Pass me my bike.” And this is how I jumped out of a (barely) moving police truck.
Luckily I found our driver pretty quickly and rattled off, in what probably was my fastest Spanish ever: “Hi Achilles, how are you I’m sick here take my bicycle and please go find Macky thank you thank you thank you thank you.”
And then I high-tailed it to the nearest cover (a really pathetic scraggly bush) and vomited again. There really is nothing like puking with an audience. And that is how the story ends. Eventually Macky found me (turns out he had won the second qualifying run, but naturally I failed to ask about that) and took me back to our hostel where I proceed to be sick for the next 30 hours or so. Sean, however, wins, as he was sick for almost three days.
Here we are, with our gatorades, the next time we had to walk up a hill:
What’s the worst illness you’ve had while traveling? Share your experiences below!