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by Helmut Pucher
October 20, 2016
Photography by Helmut Pucher
It’s been eight months since Austrian ultra-endurance cyclist Helmut Pucher jumped on his bike in Ushuaia, Argentina and started heading north. His goal: to ride the length of the Pan American Highway, from the southern tip of South America to the northern reaches of Alaska.
But eight months is a long time to ride on your own; time enough for motivations to change, particularly when the going is tough.
In his latest missive, Helmut writes about the decision to put his Pan American adventure on hold and how helping others helped rekindle feelings he’d lost on his difficult journey north.
My legs are burning and as I slowly start drifting to the back of the bunch, I realise there is a gap. Every pedal stroke pushes me deeper and deeper into that dreaded cave of pain. I am holding on for dear life. I take one last gasp for air before finally giving in and burying all of my hopes of catching up. The gap to the main bunch is devastating and so is my despair at not being able to hang in when it matters.
Riding the Altiplano feels a bit like this; a bit like having a poor winter of training and then lining up with the “big guns” in the first race of the season. Morale-sapping.
Located in west-central South America, the Altiplano (Spanish for “high plains”) straddles Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina and sits at an average elevation of 3,700 metres. Riding the old Arequipa-Puno Road here gave me the same sort of sensation over and over again. That same feeling of demoralisation. It was time to reassess my situation.
I’d had the odd bout of Delhi-Belly, the cause of which I wasn’t able to pinpoint after a couple days. I guess it was a mix of everything: the sleepless nights on the Altiplano, the funny soup I had in the “posada” (inn or hostel) down the road, and probably my body just saying “No!” to another day of cycling alongside lamas above 13,000 ft (3,900m).
The frustration of losing that virtual wheel again started to build up. I thought about just pitching the tent. I was empty. But there was something else. Something greater than physical weariness.
Every morning I would get on my bike, turn on the Garmin, and start riding. But on that particular day the magical beeping sound that usually gets me going wouldn’t ignite my engine. It wouldn’t click anymore.
I had always looked at my Pan American Rouleur project as an experience that was mostly about fun, travel and of course cycling. Ever since I headed out of Ushuaia my primary goal was to move forward, get those elusive 100km per day and set new personal goals.
Sometimes in life we walk down a path that seems entirely dedicated to our own wellbeing.
In that moment on the Altiplano, sitting by the side of the road shivering from exhaustion and dehydration, I realised what was missing. My genuine passion for this project had been lost somewhere along the way. I decided it was time to write a new chapter.
Two weeks after that moment I reached out to Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (Spanish for “Our little brothers and sisters”), an international aid organisation that cares for orphans and children in need from nine Latin American countries. And that’s when everything changed. What started out as a crisis on the bike turned into teaching in Honduras.
Today, months after shelving my travel plans on the Altiplano roadside, I can honestly say that “giving back” isn’t just a noble phrase. For me it’s a non-stop rollercoaster ride with incredible highs but also huge disappointments and personal setbacks. But on that very ride, the feelings of joy and gratitude I was starting to lack on my months-long voyage have started to return.
At this point in my Pan American Highway project I am able to make a choice . Do I want to continue cycling along the coolest road on earth? Or do I want to dedicate another couple weeks to the wellbeing of others? Having that choice has certainly lifted my spirits.
I guess at some point in our lives we all have to make that choice. We don’t have to cycle across two continents and work in an orphanage — we only have to take a look around us. Taking into account how much has been going on for me in 2016 — from the sheer excitement of setting off in Patagonia, through the desperation of the Atacama Desert, all the way to the ill-fated stories I come across here in Honduras — I keep asking myself how much can one really “give back” until it is enough.
The more I keep asking myself this question the more I admire people who have done this their entire life without even looking back once. And in the end they have paved the way for us who are seeking to find an answer to this question.
In mid-November I will return to the Peruvian city of Ica, my last stop on the Pan American Highway. From there I will continue my journey north.
The adventure continues, both on and off the bike.