We had a great time staying in Mazatlán with our wonderful host Norman. We’d got to meet some of his friends as well as relax on the beach by the Pacific for the last time in a good while. Our plan is to head inland to the colonial cities of Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Guanajuato on the way to Mexico City. Leaving the coast would mean climbing up the Sierra Madres on el Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) which laid between us and Durango. We had been warned many times about how difficult a ride it would be as we would have to climb from sea level to around 3000m (9800ft) on small winding roads packed with logging trucks.

The large amount of climbing meant that the ride would take a few days. If we had been in a rush, we could maybe have got up in 2 very long days, or 3, but we had no need to get to Durango by a certain time. We spent 21 hours riding over 5 days with numerous photo breaks and siestas to do the 6000m (20000ft) of climbing split over 330km (205 miles).

The hills didn’t start until a good couple of hours after we had left Mazatlán which is usually great, as it lets me get into a rhythm, but for some reason when they did begin I didn’t feel great. Maybe it was the sun and the heat, but until we had a nap under a bridge, I was enjoying the ride less than I should have, given the scenery. However, after the nap I was back to life and it made the ride wonderful. We climbed up until we stopped at a staple for every town in Mexico, no matter how small, the beer shop. Pedro got a few ice-cold beers while I jumped into the hammock for a nap.

Before we got back on the road, the man at the shop told us about a couple of cyclists that had passed by two days earlier. We were surprised, considering we had seen no-one else on the road, but had no real way of catching them unless our paths crossed in Durango.

The free road takes 6-7 hours for cars to drive as it winds its way along the side of the mountains. They are constructing a toll road, which they are aiming to have opened by the end of the year, that will cut that down to 3 hours. We had been on the very beginning of it, but then were told that we had to pull off before it started climbing as it didn’t continue any further. You can imagine our surprise then when we saw a dirt road off the free road which lead us down to the empty toll road. Even though traffic on the free road had generally been courteous, it made for a nice change. The free road has a lane in each direction and so just doesn’t leave much space for passing.

The toll road ended a few kilometres later as it hit a bridge that was still under construction and so we turned off and found ourselves in the village of Guayanera. We found the restaurant and, after a cheap dinner of chilaquiles (30 pesos!), were allowed to camp there.

The second day started with a climb and a big descent and then as we started heading up again I was surprised to hear police sirens. I was even more surprised when a couple of road bikes came flying up the hill. It turned out that the 4th day of Vuelta Mazatlán was taking place, a 5 day set of races all starting in Mazatlán. They had started in the morning in Mazatlán and were riding 100km up to the town of Santa Rita. It made the ride up there seem so much faster and I had a huge grin on my face most of the time.

When we got to Santa Rita, we had a great time hanging about and talking with lots of the cyclists who were sitting round. They ranged from guys that were happy to just finish, to former national champions and even a couple of women that would be going to the Olympics. Those who tried out my bike loved my Rohloff, but were horrified with how heavy the bike was.

After all the cyclist had headed back to Mazatlán, we continued on. When we were just short of El Palmito, our goal for the night, the rain started to come down heavily. A few km out we saw a lorry stopped on the side of the road and stopped to take shelter next to it. It turned out that it had veered off the road and smacked into a tree. From what I could tell, the tree was all that had stopped it careening off the edge and into the valley hundreds of feet below. The lorry had been transporting mangoes, but, with the cab so badly damaged, wasn’t going to be moving anywhere anytime soon. The three men inside were moving crates of mangoes over to a new truck, so Pedro and I helped while we waited for the rain to stop.

After the rain stopped, we were treated to a majestic view over the valley with a double rainbow. We could see our destination of El Palmito, hiding in the forest, on the other side of the valley, and after lots of pictures rode the short distance to town.

We got dinner and then started looking for a place to put up our tents. We ended up asking at the hotel, and, with a bit of persuasion, the owner let us camp outside. He then went to speak to his son and offered us a room for only 100 pesos. We would have been fine camping, but $7 for a room as nice as he had was difficult to turn down, so we treated ourselves.

The third day saw us leave the state of Sinaloa for Durango, our 4th Mexican state. We continued to climb and be awestruck by the beauty of the road. Around half way, we got to a sign saying Espinazo del Diablo, and I finally realised that the name refers to a rock formation that is visible rather than the road itself. We stopped at a gordita (like a small stuffed pita bread) stand, and got to talk with Jose and his family who run it. They mentioned being from La Ciudad, our destination for the night, and so I asked where we could camp. They told us to meet them at the Pemex in town after they were done with work and they’d sort something out, so we kept on with the last 25km.

A few km after the stand, my chain started giving me issues, and I had to pull over. Pedro was ahead of me, so didn’t know I was having issues. The bottom bracket needed adjusting, and after a bit of fiddling I had it working again, just in time to see Pedro rolling back down to check on me. Apparently, after a couple of km several motorists stopped to tell him that I was sat by the road and he should come back to me.

In the evening we arrived in La Ciudad and waited at the Pemex for Jose and his family to turn up. The thunder-storm of the previous day was repeated and we were glad to have some shelter as torrential rain fell and lightning hit near by, taking out power in part of town.

When Jose came, we followed him through the rain to his house where we were invited in for coffee and bread before being shown a good spot on the outskirts of town to camp. We thanked them and went off for dinner, but after dinner ran into them again in the grocery store and they invited us back to their place for a second dinner. It was such a wonderfully kind offer that all stemmed from stopping at their gordita stand.

Day 4 was the day of England v France in Euro 2012. Jose had said I could watch it at his place, but as it didn’t start until 11am I knew I could make it the 60km to the next town before kickoff. Not being English, Pedro preferred to go at a more relaxed pace as he had been finding the ride the most beautiful area he had ever seen. I was on the road before 7 and, even though my bottom bracket needed adjusting again, made it El Salto by 10:15. While there were some climbs, the constant climbing that we had faced for most of the first 3 days was over and we were actually gradually losing elevation dropping back towards Durango.

In the centre of town, I explained my Englishness and desire to watch the game to a group of policemen who pointed me towards a hotel. I repeated the explanation to the man at the front desk and he said that of course I could watch it and switched the TV on. Even with the lower expectations that everyone has about England this year, it felt the same as always. They had a 10 minute spell when they were ahead and there was that belief that we might do something, and then it was backs-to-the-walls hoping that they could hold on for a 1-1 draw.

After the game, I packed up and went to the Pemex to meet Pedro and as soon as I left the hotel the rain started coming down. We had an hour or so wait for the rain to stop before we could push on towards a place to camp. We had the choice of taking either the free road or the toll road, and took the free one to the next town. When we arrived we felt like pushing on for 30 minutes to the next dot on the map to get dinner.

The next town was slightly off the map and down a graded dirt road. It felt like hiking in the English countryside as we rolled through a farming community until the dirt road stopped being graded. Pedro jumped off and inquired about a restaurant or shop and was told that there wasn’t one in town, but that the dirt road we were on did indeed lead to the toll road. We continued along it and it degraded into a very rocky hiking path and then soft sand as it wound its way through rocky silence. It was Pedro’s first off-road riding and he really enjoyed bombing down the hills even though he came off twice. I, on the other hand, got a good forearm workout riding my brakes to ensure I didn’t fall off.

The path stopped with the highway just ahead of us, well kind of. It was also about 200ft above us with a rocky goat path standing ahead. We stripped our bikes down and clambered up needing multiple trips until we finally had it all up on the toll road. That off-road section had been such a beautiful detour, but tired out muscles that I’d not used in forever. My shoulders in particular ached from all the pushing.

The toll road was 4 lanes wide and recently paved, but for the first hour or so had no lines painted on it. With the lack of cars, it felt like we had our own personal highway and was amazing. We pushed on, hoping to find a place to get some water and dinner, but after a couple of hours the sun was setting and we were nowhere near anything. We pulled off at the first junction we had seen, with signs to Otinapa, but found nothing at the exit. We looked around and found a field to put our tents up in before eating some of the many snacks that Pedro carries with him for dinner.

The final day of our ride to Durango was mainly about finding a place to get water and food. Thankfully there was a glorious downhill into Durango which meant that we made it into the city nice and early. Pedro did a spectacular job of getting himself 7 punctures as he rode over a thorn-bush trying another off-road adventure, and after fixing that up we got some food, chilled in a McDonald’s and then met our Warmshowers hosts Frida and Jorge Luis. We’d made it. People had told us that climbing up to Durango was too hard, but they were wrong. There were a couple of parts where the road kicked up, but once I was in the climbing mindset it was an absolute pleasure when joined with the sheer beauty of the area that I hope the pictures can start to convey.

Day 1 – Villa Union

Day 1 – Chupadores

Day 1 – Diversion

Day 1 – Pretty view from the toll road

Day 1 – End

Day 2 – Rainbow

Day 3 – Rainbow

Day 3 – More rainbows

Day 4 – Motel room

Day 4 – Pretty town

Day 4 – Off road town

Day 4 – Off road adventure (Very bouncy)

Day 4 – Before camping

Day 5 – Look around the camp site

Day 2 – Up in the hills

Day 3 – Looking over the edge

Day 4 – El Epinazo del Diablo

Day 4 – Lumber yard

Day 4 – Pretty town

Day 4 – From the highway