I survived the "Road of Death"


In that great tradition of Throwback Thursday (#TBT) I thought I would dedicate a blog to a time when I cycled down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road”. It happened way back in 2009, a time when the iPhone was a mere curiosity.

Back then I had just finished university and decided to spend another year avoiding being an adult and instead travel around the world. All the usual hot spots were hit on the backpacker trail from South East Asia to South America via Australia and New Zealand. But this is a cycling blog and I certainly wouldn’t want to make you, dear readers, jealous of all the cool things we did.

Ten years later and you would be right to question my memory of the cycling. Luckily for you I kept a detailed and irreverent handwritten journal of my travels. Mostly it revolved my disdain for other travelers to be honest but there were moments of levity and introspection. In preparing for this blog it was interesting to “listen” to the younger me and to realise how much I have changed (for the better).

Good luck reading my handwriting. It has not improved in the last ten years.

Type “World’s Most Dangerous Road” into Google and the first hit you will get is the Road of Death (North Yungas Road) in Bolivia. In some places this road is a mere three metres wide and clings to the edge of vertiginous drops to the jungle below. Blind corners and a terrible surface just add to the cocktail of danger around every bend. Because of its notoriety (it even featured in a Top Gear Special back when it was good) it has become something of a bucket list item to cycle down it.

Once we got to La Paz, the hectic capital of Bolivia, I booked a space on a tour leaving the next day that gave you a mountain bike and a lift to the Road of Death.

I woke up early through a combination of anticipation and the torrential rain. Just what you need when you are about to cannon down the side of a mountain.

The rain in La Paz had fallen as snow in the Andes and we were told that we might not be able to get to the road as a result. The tour left but the general feeling was that we would not be cycling.

Outside of the city we joined a snaking queue of traffic that had been stuck in the snow all night long. Cycling was looking less and less likely. We passed the time by throwing snowballs with the local kids until one of the guys in the group hit a small child square in the face. By this point I was getting hungry and some enterprising Bolivians had set up some roadside food stalls; they had a very captive audience that was not going anywhere fast. I ventured up the road led by my nose to the smell of fried chicken. There was every chance that the most dangerous thing I did that day was eat some roadside chicken.

The snow was so unprecedented that the Bolivian news crews were there to film the chaotic scenes. I couldn’t complain as there were trucks full of Bolivians spared from the elements but just a sheet of tarpaulin.

Hours later the road finally opened and a plough led the way to the start of our cycle. I was young and fearless and I wanted to earn the t-shirt. Unfortunately the tour operator demanded that we spend the first part of the descent stopping every one hundred metres for a photo; I survived being photographed beside a dangerous road”.

That said, the scenery was incredible. The snow had slowly given way to lush vegetation as we descended and looking down there was nothing to stop you falling 600m to the valley floor below. The road up ahead kinked round bends and somehow clung to the side of the mountain. There were constant reminders of the dangers of the road; small wooden crosses marked points where people had not been so lucky.

I decided to ditch must of the rest of the tour behind and crack on down the hill. It had been a long day so far and I wanted a beer. Aside from veering off the road and indulging in some human flight for a few seconds, the biggest danger is the traffic as you fly through the blind corners.

As I descended, with every metre I could feel the air warm as we went from the high altitude to the lowly jungle. It had been months since I had felt humidity and it felt good. I made it to the bar, got a beer and waited for the rest of the group to join me. It gave me some time to reflect on the road and its reputation. No doubt if you are not confident in your cycling abilities then this road could easily get the better of you but for me, I have done far more technical descents at much higher speeds. The vultures hovering above the road must know something after all. For all its hyperbole, it was descending in a beautiful world.

The van picked us up at the bar in Corioco and took us back to La Paz from whence we came. It was much more terrifying driving up the Road of Death in a van than coming down in a bike. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

I survived the road. I also survived the chicken.

Back when I did the route, smartphones were not really a thing yet and the cycling world was yet to experience Strava. There is now a segment dedicated to the descent although given the dangers it is not a KOM I would be striving to win.


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