31.01.2023 Tuesday 0715 Tigre Ferry Port Argentina on the River Plate
Spelling errors are your fault.
Hurry up and wait, you’re in the army now. Getting 31 mostly old and fat cyclists (with a decent sprinkling on this trip of the young and handsome too) around a very rural river border crossings in South America is not a quick business.
We’re on the edge of Uruguay trying to get in, because the flatlands on this side of the River Plate are much more interesting to pedal through for hours that the Buenos Aires urban sprawl on the other side. We did 58ks of that yesterday, warming up in 6×6 groups with a gentle if very sweaty cycle around the sights of BA, stopping for tourist lectures from our guides, before grabbing a vast meaty street-food sandwich lunch by the nature reserve and then heading out of town to the ferry terminal.
Think A4 from Harrods to Heathrow and you’re half way there, with lots of lanes and angry trucks and worst of all the buses, pulling out to pass you and then stopping right in front of you, loving the game of seeing just how much they can hack you off. The Truants don’t do those posh racing-bike charity cycle rides that copy the Tour de France. No, we pop our mostly too-portly frames on crappy old local bikes and follow our brilliant local support team through the urban jungle until we find some air in a national park and head out along the river through once posh suburbs and rowing and tennis clubs until we have to get back on a horrible highway again to get to our first cheap-hotel-with-a-pool-and-cold-beer at about 6pm. How does it take 8 hours in and out the saddle to do 58 f’ing k’s? Ask an Argentinian bus driver. Or the psychotic mobile crane driver who after multiple horn blasting efforts achieved his aim of judging a cut up just right to whack a Truant shoulder with his wing mirror. C=word. No damage done. And end of Day 1.
02.02.2023 Thursday 1115 Colonia Ferry Port Uruguay, also on the River Plate
Day two starts at 0600 with a surprisingly decent breakfast and then a sweet little early morning suburban commute to the pretty little ferry dock where the 60-seater ferry takes 2 hours of border bureaucracy to load our correctly stamped bikes bags and bodies, before a 3 hour blast up and across the widest river in the world, the River Plate. Take that Amazon. That takes us to Carmela, hanging around while the Uruguayan border guards do their thing. We still have 50ks to do and it’s 1100 and flipping boiling.
The 20k’s up from the river to our lunch stop at the Zubizaretta family vineyard start all cute in the little hot town, kids cheering and dogs chasing, and then we roll out through ever vaster fields of soybean and maize, all of it pre-sold to the PRC they say. They make good money in these parts it seems, though they don’t spend any of it on the roads. The giant green John Deeres cruise past as we bump and judder up into the headwind for 75% of the metres and down the hill into the headwind for the other 25%. We like it flat, not hilly; and smooth not bumpy. We are not real cyclists, but our leaders (Henk the mighty muscly South African and Lucy the willowy brave entrepreneur who bought the tour company just before Covid, and is making a brilliant success of it) could only find us bumpy hills. We love them anyway.
But the hills are ever more beautiful as the soybean turns to vines, though it’s hard to appreciate the beauty when it’s 35° of full on afternoon sun and you forgot the 1st rule of cycling: never, ever put suncream above your eyes. And when we’ve climbed to the top of the prettiest, it’s a lot later and we can’t really see how we will do the last 35k scheduled for this day, unless we do them at night. But we cheer up as we turn into a pretty little homestead and meet a lovely lady with lovely kids and lots of English who wants us to taste her lovely wine, but is OK about it when we just want to drink gallons of her iced water and eat loads of the cheese and cold cuts and then slump in the shade of her vast grape-vine. Or crash out on her shady lawn. There won’t be any shade on the road that’s looming, that’s for sure.
It’s too soon when Henk starts shouting at us again and off we go, following Mariano. Hugo and the rest of the engineers have made do and mended the broken gears, brakes, tyres and even back-to-front forks. But not the backs, bums and aching thighs. Or the sunburn. Who knew you could get it through your helmet or where your belly bulges out a bit over the lycra? Yuk and Ouch.
The afternoon is just horrible. The road is now a furnace, the enthusiasm and energy confined to just the 5 or six of us who do a lot of cycling. The rest are just grinding it out. At the back it’s way less than 10kph, at the front maybe 20kph. By the time we stop for a water refill after 10 k’s there are miles and miles between the front and the back. We just follow the signs Mariano puts up at the front and Henk and the Doc, Lee, though we call him Matt, take down at the back.
Our rear-guard has several over 70 years and several over 20 stones though no-one is both thanks be. Their life is just shite for this afternoon, as they dehydrate and wish they’d dieted, or practised or cried off sick. But the old hands who can do it a bit take turns to circle back and encourage and act as wind breaks so as to draft-tow their teammates up the hills.
We’re hours behind schedule when we turn down the hill to the Maria Maria Cabanas outside Conchilla. We were warned the accommodation would be basic, but promised the beers would be cold and both are exactly true. You use the beer to cope with the ancient holiday huts. But Hallelujah! In each one there is a ruddy great aircon unit, which puts the mozzies to sleep as it roars away stopping you from doing the same on your 20 year old foam mattress or the cracked loo seat or dripping shower. But never mind that, the barbeque dinner is fantastic and we eat meat like creatures from a horror movie. One thing though…you know they say Argentinian beef is the best? It may well be, but you wouldn’t know it, because on both sides of the river they cook it to bloodless death. The only properly judged steak we had was in a top BA restaurant on our final night dinner. The rest was tasty shoe leather, albeit surrounded by loads of great salad and bread.
But hey the atmosphere at the holiday camp for impoverished Uruguayans was fantastic and the Tindley’s broke out their duty-free stash and we all got carried away without a thought for tomorrow. At least until we crashed out knackered at 1030, covered in anti-mozzy juice if we had thought to bring that.
03.02.2023 Bus to BA airport and home.
Day two is always the worst, but on this ride Day 3 would have been, except that it dawned overcast and spitty, which is just perfect weather for what we are doing. The wind never varied from inyerface though and the lactic acid had not really faded away, even if the morning waft through the super pretty town of Conchilla, was bright and breezy. The main drag was called David Evans Calle. Turns out David was a Victorian Brit who got shipwrecked nearby and with his crew founded a quarry that supplied all the stone that built BA. As they built David’s fortune, they built themselves a little model town, all neat bungalows and masonic halls, and a place out of time as we went through it before most anyone had woken up.
But after that, though the tarmac was a blessed relief, it was into the headwind all the way. It was more down than up mind, but there is nothing worse than having to pedal downhill to keep going. Those who formed pelotons and drafted had it easier, but many of us aren’t confident enough to cycle 6 inches from the wheel in front, so it’s chest out and into the wind all the way for you, duffer. How it works is that every 10ks we stop to regather, fill our bottles and guzzle nuts and bananas and dusty local sweets. The fittest get way more rest than they need and the fattest get way less. No way round it really. We carried one e-bike for emergencies, but when Doc Lee told Rod he had to use it, Rod threw a proper strop only to face a diagnosis of dehydration and be forced to do the next 10k in the bus. You’d think he’d be pleased, but Truants, particularly the Yorkshire variety don’t think like that. He took his watery medicine and was allowed out again for the next bit.
Which was just the same as the last, but with glimpses of the river from the top of the hills or bridges crossing the motorway that raised spirits as we counted down the k’s to Colonia, and the end of our third 60k day and the job our sponsors pay for. Job Done. We regathered one last time by the shore and cruised in, slowest first, fastest last; 5 first timers. 5 who’ve done all 9 and 21 others who done a few or lots. There have only been 80 Truants these 13 years and £5 million raised, and 5 of those have passed away, for we mostly live in snipers’ alley anyway.
And we 30 were like all our predecessor groups: a proper bonded team by the end. SO ready to celebrate, knowing there was just 3 or 4 k’s to and from ferry terminals and hotels the next day. It’s lovely watching a team gel through shared suffering and achievement. It’s the hardest bits you remember most fondly in the end. That hill in Morocco, or Kerala, or the 90k 90° straight road in Mexico. Or the dirt-road climb from the vineyard to the cabanas only a day ago, though it feels like another life once you are in the hotel pool and being told off for drinking beer there.
And that was it. More overcooked beef, more ferries more hotels and then perfect steak at last – go to Cabana Las Lilas in BA to make your beefy dreams come true folks. And don’t be put off by the hyper-inflation. Their economy survives OK. Like that in South Africa, Italy or Britain say. And they too think their politicians are a joke. It all makes them damned pleased to see your hard currency and even if they are still mightily p’d off over Las Malvinas they are lovely people very proud of their mongrel European heritage. As for Uruguay, well we only the saw the bits no tourist would ever find, and they were beautiful. Verdant, rich and just for a few hours, hotter than hell.