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by Helmut Pucher
February 24, 2016
Photography by Helmut Pucher
The Pan-American Highway network stretches more than 30,000km from the southern tip of South America all the way to northern reaches of North America. Riding the length of this network represents a colossal challenge; a challenge that Austrian ultra-endurance cyclist Helmut Pucher is about to attempt.
In recent years Pucher has completed several epic journeys by bike, crossing South America from west to east; crossing southern Asia via Iran, India, Myanmar and Vietnam; and crossing northern Asia via China, Mongolia and Russia.
Today, equipped with a well-travelled backpack and his trusty cyclocross bike, Pucher sets off from Ushuaia, Argentina — the southernmost city in the world — and heads north. Over the next 18 months he will ride the length of the Americas, aiming to reach Prudhoe Bay, Alaska by late August 2017.
Ahead of his departure, Pucher took the time to share a story from the lead-up and explain why he uses the setup he does.
Many people ask me why I choose to use a backpack rather than panniers. Whenever I ride long-distance I am always in search of secluded campsites at the end of a long day. Getting off the road is one of the biggest challenges when carrying a big load on the bike. With the backpack it is straightforward to climb, hike, jump. With the backpack I have even hiked up hills to pitch my tent.
I am used to riding with the backpack and I don’t get any back pain or numbness in my arms. It is, for me, the one and only way to express myself on the road and the places I go to. The personal value it has nowadays exceeds any utility I’d get from high-end Ortlieb panniers.
Getting the weight off the bike also means it feels like I’m riding a road bike rather than a tank — the bike is much more manoeuvrable than it would be with panniers.
It was just a couple days until the Panamericana kicked off and I had been testing my new gear for about a week along Highway Number 3 in Argentina. It was baking hot on that particular day and I was starting to run out of water. I was hoping for a “Estacion” or “Pueblo” (service station) within the next 10 miles.
“El Perdido”, the sign read in bold letters. “The Lost”. “What a coincidence,” I thought to myself, and went for it with the little something I had left in the tank. As I tried to keep my speed at a decent level against a persistent headwind, I cursed the extra food I had brought with me all the way from home.
One thing was for sure — if I was wrong with my hunch and El Perdido turned out to provide an abandoned steel factory rather than a service station I was going to be done for the day.
I was right about the factory, but it wasn’t abandoned.
The Pan-American Highway stretches from the very southern tip of South America to the furthest reaches of North America. Image: Seaweege/Wikimedia Commons
Two guys were busy working in the heat of the day. With the last few words I remembered in Spanish I tried to ask whether there was a shop around “town”.
“Sure”, one of them said, and pointed to a brick house on the opposite side of the road. There was no signboard out front and the shades where completely shut. “This guy must be kidding me,” I thought to myself.
But then he opened the door and it was clear there was more to this little house than the exterior would suggest. There was so much stuff crammed into this small building — after four hours of cycling it was hard to get my head around the extent of the collection before me.
I have heard of people who collect newspapers or car parts but this was one of the most impressive collections of random stuff I have ever seen. Cheesy photographs, clichéd paintings, trashed hub caps, out-dated magazines, lost number plates, weird cups … you name it, it was there.
Behind the counter stood the owner selling drinks to the local workers as if it was a grocery store like any other.
Ten minutes earlier I had been questioning the whole expedition, sapped by the Argentinian heat and desperately in need of water. But here I stood in this place of memories, every item in the cluttered store with its own story to tell.
I found myself looking at my backpack, thinking of all the weeks, months, years we’d spent together on the road. The good times, the tough times — the experiences.
These experiences are why I cycled on some of the worst roads in Turkmenistan, why I camped in the cold of the Altai Mountains, why I’m doing the Panamericana.
It’s moments like these that stun you out of nowhere. They might not seem so dramatic to the outside observer, but they offer sharp relief for the exhausted rider who has spent many a monotonous hour on the road, riding in solitude. They are moments you have in far-flung places you would never visit had you not been on an adventure of some kind.
This is why I ride the Panamericana.