Last month, I rode across Bolivia and Argentina with TDA Global Cycling. Part of the full South American Epic tour, this two-week Cycling The Salt Flats section started in La Paz, Bolivia and ended in Salta, Argentina. I was super excited to join this pre-summit adventure offered as part of the Adventure Travel World Summit so I could not only cycle across the Salar de Uyuni, but also become familiar with TDA and understand what to expect when I join them again for a couple of sections of the Silk Route tour next summer.
Below are a few of the things I learned along the way that might help you figure out what to expect on a tour. If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to read the TDA Tours 101 bulletin from the company that features of wealth of information as well.
Traveling With Your Bike
As there is no room to store bike boxes or bags in the tour vehicles, you need to travel with your bike in a cardboard box. These will either be broken down and stored in the van for a short time, recycled, or given to departing section riders to box up their bikes to go home.
I highly recommend you call your airline to get confirmation on their bike policy for the specific route you will be flying. Even though American Airlines says that bikes count as sports equipment for South America, when I got to the airport it was a totally different story. The gate agent told me my bike counted as a piece of oversized luggage that I would have to pay for ($200) and that I was only allowed one duffel since Bolivia has a strict two pieces of checked luggage rule. As I wasn’t about to leave my bike nor a duffel behind, I split all the contents of one duffel between the bike box and the other duffel, and carried on what I could.
Another rider told me that his airline had some crazy rule where his bike had to be completely wrapped in bubble wrap and plastic — no cardboard boxes allowed. In short, get full confirmation from your airline on what to expect before heading to the airport, and in writing would be best as the gate agents don’t always have the correct information.
TDA allows you to bring two duffels — one is your permanent bag where you put the stuff you only need access to on rest days, and the other is your daily bag which you will have access to each night.
It took me a few days to get my bearings, but you quickly fall into a riding day routine. Wake up and break down camp (if camping). Bring duffel over to the bus. Breakfast starts around 7:00 with coffee ready by 6:45 — on some of the longer days in the saddle, we started earlier which also helped with avoiding the notorious afternoon winds of the Altiplano. Most everyone rolls out of camp by around 7:30.
Everyone generally rides at their own pace, but sometimes we rode together just to chat or to team up in a paceline to battle the unforgiving headwinds. During this section, we spent anywhere from 4 hours to over 7 hours on the bike each day, depending on terrain, distance, and elevation profile.
The lunch bus usually stops somewhere around halfway through the ride and is a great place to refill your water bottles and refuel. One of the riders tipped me off to making an extra sandwich to save and eat after you get to camp to tide you over until dinner time.
Most of time, we rolled into camp early afternoon. Master chef Yanez had soup waiting for us and we would drink some tea before setting up our tents.
At 5:00 we had the rider meeting, where Emily our tour director went through the directions and told us what to expect on the ride the next day. Dinner followed right behind. Due to the very cold nights on this section, most everyone headed straight to “organize their tent” after dinner. It was not unheard of to be asleep by 7:00 pm unless we were challenged by the locals to a soccer match.
On rest days you have the freedom to do as you please. Most of the time, laundry, internet, sleep, and eating top the list of priorities.
To preserve the health of the group, washing your hands often and washing your dishes both before and after and every meal is a must. There are always hand washing stations at lunch and at camp. You will be assigned dish duty at some point to help wash all the kitchen dishes after dinner.
Each night, turn by turn directions are presented on a whiteboard for you to either take a picture of and/or copy onto a piece of paper. I highly recommend copying it onto paper and mounting it on your bike where you can see it at all times — this saves you from having to pull your phone out of your pocket to figure out where to go. As this remote part of Bolivia is constantly changing, the team frequently drove the route the day before to get up to date information.
The team also drives out ahead of you and marks the major turns with orange flagging tape, something you get used to looking out for after a while. Don’t rely solely on the orange flagging tape, however, as some of the riders mentioned that local kids loved to play with it and the tape can easily blow away.
On this section, we had two buses and the Hilux for support vehicles. Throughout the day, the vehicles will pass you at some point and check to see that you are ok — you respond by either giving the thumbs up or thumbs down as they drive by. Every day there is also a sweep to make sure everyone makes it into camp and doesn’t get left on the road somewhere.
I would highly recommend you know basic bike maintenance such as changing a flat. There will always be someone to help you if you really need it but it keeps you from having to sit around and wait for the bus or the Hilux to come get you. All the riders are great at helping each other out on the road if and when problems occur. Flats seem to be the most common issue. For anything major, TDA also brings along a bike mechanic.
On riding days, TDA provides three meals a day, four on some of the tougher tours like the South American Epic (the fourth meal is the delicious afternoon soup). Our tour chef, Yanez, could do amazing things with local produce — quinoa, potatoes, hibiscus, llama, beets, chicken, palm hearts. According to the full tour riders, he had yet to repeat a meal in the months they had been on the road and it was the same during our two week section. He even catered to people with dietary restrictions like me and the vegan in the group. You will be well fed. I brought along a bunch of snacks with me to eat while out on the bike — you can also stock up on snacks in each of the rest day towns.
I didn’t get to train as much as I would have liked before the trip but having been on multiple long distance cycle tours and multi-day stage races, I knew what I signed up for. As some wise person once told me, “Eat for tomorrow.” I know that as long as I don’t push myself too hard one day and continue to eat and drink regularly, I can ride day after day.
In chatting with the full tour riders who were arguably cycling machines by the time I joined them, the ride is more of a mental game than a physical one. You need to find ways to push through any momentary suffering and keep yourself motivated day after day. As one of my fellow riders so eloquently put it, “You know in your head you will make it to camp, so quit worrying about how long it takes you to get there and just enjoy the ride.” Stop to take photos, grab a Coke and practice your Spanish with some locals, visit some tourist sites — you are on vacation after all. Another rider had the best mantra written on his bike to remind himself that he is traveling through South America, not cycling — the bike is just his means of transport.
It’s inevitable you will have good days and bad days but you need to remember you are part of a group. Positivity is infectious and doing little things to help other riders or the group is most appreciated. So much so that there is a yellow duck that gets passed around from one person to the next for doing a good deed. It could be as little as helping someone put up their tent to fetching water to flush the toilets.
What is EFI?
I hadn’t seen this before I left but TDA recognizes those clients who ride, as the cyclists themselves put it, “Every Fucking Inch” on one of the transcontinental tours. We had a couple EFI contenders in the South American Epic group.
There is also EFH — Every Fucking Hotel (mostly tongue in cheek). It wasn’t really an option for us in Bolivia because the route was just so remote, but in more built-up areas, you could easily choose to check yourself into a hotel instead of camp. No one’s judging. And I can imagine as a full tour rider, sometimes you need that extra bit of comfort.
TDA is the perfect company for anyone looking to do a long distance bike tour in an awesome part of the world but not quite ready or wanting to go fully unsupported. I suspect most TDA riders don’t like the full service hand-holding type tours, either. I consider a TDA tour to be more of a self-guided tour where they feed you and you know the support is there if you need it. Kind of the best of both worlds.
If anyone is considering one of the TDA Global Cycling tours and has questions, feel free to drop me a note or leave a comment below. I am more than happy to help. As I write this, the full tour South American Epic riders still have another month or so to go before finishing in Ushuaia. I miss my little TDA family!
Stay tuned for another post on the gear I brought on the tour and a full story about our adventures.