370km, 9km of climbing, 9km of descending and far too much dirt road, the Estrada Real was a definite challenge. According to the official numbers, 46% of the time is climbing and 43% descending, leaving very little time for anything to be flat. The official documents also say “It’s not necessary to be an athlete to travel the Estrada Real, because the difficulty is not that high, but it is necessary to be in good shape and used to spending several hours in a row cycling, walking or riding a horse.” I’m not sure if they missed the word professional in there, but anyone trying to claim that the level of difficulty is not that high has obviously never ridden it, or is Nairo Quintana. Yes, my bike is heavier cos I’m not just riding the Estrada Real, but anyone who thinks that climbs that are often steeper than 10% on a combination of rutted dirt, sand, rocks without that much shade aren’t a challenge is clearly insane.
I didn’t do the whole Caminho dos Diamantes. I got sick of it. Spending hours pushing my bike up hill, having to frequently downhill on my brakes, and dripping with sweat all day long just wasn’t worth it. There were often beautiful vistas, but I was rarely able to enjoy them, as I was too busy trying to not die on descents or focusing on just taking another step pushing up while my forearms ached. My first shortcut was on the 3rd day when the official route almost doubled back on itself, seemingly just to find some even steeper hills, and I sat down to look at my map. If I kept going straight, I’d save about 30km, miss a few hours of pushing up a hill and oh look that truck is stopping to see if I’m OK, yes I’d love a lift thank you!
While in the back of the truck, I had a new appreciation for the beauty of the area, because I could actually see it. I made it to the next town and had a new energy that pushed me on to ride out of town and camp by a river in the middle of the next stage. I’d had to stop there because it was getting dark and even though a local seeing that I was pedaling had assured me it was close – and almost flat – to the next town, I knew it wasn’t. When I woke up the next day it took me almost 3 hours to get to town. That day I moved for 7-8 hours and went about 45km. I made it to town and very nearly paid for a hotel, but ended up going to see the church and being invited to a Legion of Mary meeting, standing out not only for my foreignness, but also for the fact that there were 12 women there, and not a single man. I’d gone there with the hope that someone would feel sorry for me, as I was feeling for myself, and invite me home, but ended up camping under a roof by the church – an improvement on the ‘behind the gym’ that the police had mentioned, which would have been OK but people were playing there until closing in on 11pm.
A pretty waterfall
I only crossed paths with one other cyclist, a guy called Markus, and 0 people walking. I rode in the same direction as Markus for about 30km, but he seemed to be the least sociable Brazilian I’ve met yet. I told him I had to stop to get some water at a petrol station; he stopped for about 20 seconds and then kept riding. Even though he was riding a lightly packed mountain bike, I caught up with him before the next town, and we arrived together to the museum where we had to get our passports (a recent idea to have tourists get a certificate for doing the path) stamped. We arrived together, I went to wash my hands, and by the time I was back a minute later he had already gone without a goodbye. The third time we crossed paths was in the town of Bom Jesus, where I saw his bike stopped outside a restaurant. I was going with my new version of a ham and cheese sandwich – a piece of one with a bunch of the other inside – as part of my plan to lower the number of carbs I eat so stopped outside a bakery.
While outside the bakery a guy called Fernando started talking with me. It turns out he loves cyclists and tries to talk to every one that passes through town. We were speaking for a while, before Markus turned up, stopped briefly for a photo and then left. I suggested that Fernando should sign up for Warmshowers so he could meet more cyclists after he mentioned that people like Markus just seem to be going along and not wanting to talk.
From Bom Jesus I took a decision, no more dirt roads. There was a paved option the whole way to Ouro Preto and I was going to make the most of it. It felt so lovely to ride on it. Sure, there were still some steep climbs, I’m in the mountains after all, but they were much nicer and I could actually look around. It also meant that I wasn’t restricted by the sun and rode into the night – after an hour break in a petrol station as I’d been feeling rather faint descending towards Barão de Cocais. 5 large cups of coffee later and I was buzzing and ready to ride another 15km to the next town, accompanied most of the way by a local cyclist called Rafael who wanted to hear my story while out for a ride.
The day and a half of pedaling on the paved roads was more enjoyable than the 3 and a half before it. I still got to see most of the pretty towns, but without the terrible road. My hub is still holding up and, thanks to Andy, his friend Alastair, my dad and the people at SON dynamos, I should be getting a replacement in São Paulo. They hadn’t been that fast at replying to my emails, but then my dad called up and they were apparently very good. Then I just needed a way of getting it over to Brazil. I could get it shipped, but the shipping here is awful with packages taking months to arrive (see my previous experience with overnight domestic shipping taking 4 days). Andy’s friend Alastair is coming to Brazil to watch England in the World Cup and very nicely said he’d be willing to bring my replacement hub over for me.
I’m now in Ouro Preto, staying at República DNA, the Brazilian equivalent of a frat house, thanks to someone on Warmshowers.