Vanquished or Vacation? A Riding Holiday in Argentina

With a Christmas trip to visit family in Argentina on the calendar, Fernando and Mica decided they couldn’t not bring bikes. After getting over the hurdles of traveling to another hemisphere with gear in tow, the couple found more challenges in the riding than they’d expected. In fact many of their highlights of the trip—including being amongst the celebratory crowds that flooded the streets of Rosario when Argentina won the World Cup—came from their time off the bike. So, was it worth hauling their gravel rigs all the way down there? Read on to find out…

My girlfriend Mica (pronounced “mee-kah” and short for Micaela), is from Victoria, Argentina, a town around four hours northwest of Buenos Aires. A city of 30,000, its economy is mostly driven by cattle and grain production, and, to my cyclist ears, this means dirt roads ripe for riding. So, when Mica and I decided to spend the holidays with her family, we packed as much for a cycling trip as a Christmas vacation.

A quick look at Strava showed a dim heatmap, and while there seemed to be only a couple of active cyclists, the faint heat revealed a network of country dirt roads. Mica warned me not to expect any well-stocked bike shops so I packed as many spare parts and tools as I could fit in my bag: brake pads, derailleur hanger, tires, cleats, pump, sealant, torque-wrench, lube, valve cores, extra bottles and cages, spare batteries, chargers, head units, In-Reach, back-up lights, chain links, zip ties, bacon strips, duct tape, chamois cream, bandanas, snack bags, and a mini first-aid kit. The ratio of time spent making the spreadsheet with all the gear we would take versus time spent planning our outfits for the Christmas dinner party with Mica’s grandparents was around 10:1. Needless to say, we were excited about the pedaling prospects to come with a holiday full of long southern hemisphere summer days, good food (Mica’s family is Argentinian with Italian heritage, so they pride themselves on their perfectly grilled steaks and homemade pasta), and a bunch of new-to-us dirt roads!

This was the first time either of us had traveled internationally with bikes, and the impending headache of having to deal with connecting flights, customs, and six bags was far less exciting. Still, after two delayed flights and ~28 hours of travel we made it to Victoria with all our luggage, absolutely exhausted, but excited for the next couple of weeks. We wasted no time putting our bikes back together in Mica’s backyard and plotted a route for the very next morning. The plan was to visit General Ramirez, a small town northwest of Victoria, as a way to say hi to Mica’s great aunt, Norma. Then, we’d loop back through a bunch of farm roads and finish the day at around 100 miles of riding. We set off at 5am the next morning, very jet-lagged but happy to finally be on bikes. We were met with perfect temps and a beautiful sunrise. As the sun climbed higher, we rode north and got to see what Victoria was all about: rolling fields of corn, wheat, and cattle. We also noted the dryness: the region has been affected by droughts for the past three years, stunting crops and making the lives of farmers (like Mica’s grandparents) very stressful.

A couple hours later we arrived at General Ramirez, a German community where Norma welcomed us with bierocks, delicious meat-filled soft pastries, and rivel kuchen, a type of German coffee cake. We had to be back home around noon for lunch with Mica’s family, so after assuring Norma that riding bikes on the dirt roads of Victoria is something that can, in fact, be done, we set off to ride the second half of the planned loop.

We’d come to question our own words as, unfortunately, the lack of humidity turned the top-most layer of many of the roads into a pillow of chalk-like dirt that was completely unrideable on the 40c gravel tires we were running. I’ve never before encountered that kind of sinkage on a dry surface, save for deep sand, and it also made our bikes sound like a tortilla factory (as we like to say in Mexico).

At this point in the day, the summer heat was cranking, and our frequent stops to dismount and wade through the loose dirt deprived us of any of the nice convective cooling that happens when riding a bike. Snacks, water, and morale began running low, and after a couple hours, we knew we’d most likely be late for lunch. It was at this point when the first shadow of doubt began creeping into our minds…was it really worth bringing our bikes halfway across the world for this? Surely there must be a better way of spending one’s holidays than roasting in the midday heat on a dusty backroad, right? We decided to just set our minds on autopilot and a couple hours later we got back to Victoria and went straight to Mica’s grandparent’s for lunch. They had started to worry our ride was taking so long, but they were really happy to have us and immediately provided us with a tasty homemade meal and cool drinks.

Over the next couple of days, the riding was much of the same: hot, muggy, and exceptionally dusty. We also found ourselves burning the candle on both ends while trying to balance family time with riding. The idea of an early bedtime for a morning ride the next day was almost completely incompatible with social/family gatherings that didn’t even get going until well past midnight, and then stretched merrily into the early hours of the morning. Back home, Mica and I typically try to be in bed around 8-9pm so that we can get out for an early ride or run before work or school. In Victoria, dinner preparations began at 9pm. I grew up in Mexico, so I know that Latin cultures tend to shift their schedule towards the later part of the day, and I’m used to reverting to that time table every time I go back home. However, this time it felt a bit harder to manage, mostly because we spent so much time, money, and effort getting the bikes to Victoria, and every late night meant another late start to the next day’s ride, in which the midday sun would invariably wear us down. After a week or so of pushing our physical and socializing limits, both Mica and I were knocked out with a nasty cold, so we decided to chill out a bit and just shift our focus to the real purpose of the trip: to enjoy our time with her family.

Lucky for us, we were among the crowds who celebrated Argentina’s win in the World Cup final, in Rosario, Lionel Messi’s hometown. Seeing literally hundreds of thousands of people spill out into the streets to celebrate was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Argentina is going through some rough political times, and the way the victory brought everyone together was as cathartic as it gets. Thinking about all the raw happiness and emotions I saw that day still gives me goosebumps.

On another one of our off days, we paid an early morning visit to La Yunta, a cattle and grain farm, where I got to see a day-in-the-life of Mica’s uncle, Andres. We learned all about caring for cows and drought mitigation techniques. This visit also served as a humbling reminder of how privileged we are to have the time and energy to ride bikes for fun. If you want to see what real hard work looks like, go hangout with an Argentinian gaucho that’s wrangling cows 12 hours a day in the summer heat.

A less tangible highlight of our hiatus from the bikes was experiencing for myself a place that was so formative to Mica, through meeting her friends, extended family, and understanding where she came from. It’s interesting how learning about the context someone grew up in supercharges you with an appreciation for the person they’ve become. I was also surprised to find how similar Mica’s upbringing was to mine. I grew up in Mexico City, but much of my time was spent with my family in Amecameca (commonly referred to as Ameca), a town two hours from the City. During my time in Argentina, I discovered all sorts of similarities and coincidences between Victoria and Ameca (a funny one: my grandparent’s street in Ameca is named Victoria), and I imagine that this is part of the reason Mica and I understand each other so well.

Recovered from our colds and mentally refreshed, we began scheming what our next adventure would be. For extra motivation, we hopped on the Rapha Festive 500 challenge. We had some catching up to do, so we plotted out a 130-mile loop that would knock out almost half the distance in a single ride. The plan was to start the ride by heading east towards the town of General Galarza. On the way there we’d get to ride a 60mi “ripio” road, which was covered with a layer of gravel supposed to reduce the dust and loose dirt. We’d resupply there and then turn north, passing through Governador Mansilla, and then turn west at Lucas González. Finally we’d hit Nogoyá and turn south to loop back towards Victoria.

Spirits were high as we set off the next morning, but we were soon met with the ripio: a 3-inch layer of deep gravel that had us fish-tailing for five hours all the way to Galarza. No dust though! No matter, we powered on and got to Galarza around 10am. Our progress was slower than expected so we adjusted our expectations and tweaked the route to include more paved (and hopefully faster) miles. A tailwind had us moving fast and we got to Mansilla, the halfway point at around 65 miles, in under an hour. However, the two-hour stretch from Mansilla to Lucas Gonzales proved to be extremely challenging. Something about high-noon sun is always just so effective at sapping my energy. Any interesting shadows are gone, the temps are generally higher, and the landscape takes on a barren quality that is thoroughly uninspiring. By the time we got to Lucas Gonzales, my head unit was reading around 105F, our bottles were completely empty, and heat exhaustion was starting to set in. Slumped in the shade next to a food truck we decided to play it safe, phoned home for a ride, and ordered a milanesa sandwich. Sad.

Munching on the sandwich a pair of curious truck drivers approached me to ask about what we were doing. I explained how we rode our bikes through 90mi of dirt roads all the way from Victoria. Their only response was a simple: “why?” And at that moment, I couldn’t really find a good answer. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that question, Norma (Mica’s great aunt) had asked it too, and so had most of Mica’s family. But here we were, heat-exhausted on the side of a highway all because we wanted to go on a bike ride, and it just felt so absurd. An hour later Mica’s mom and her sister arrived, and as we put our bikes on the cheap roof rack we had somehow acquired the day before (which incidentally also rubbed off a good chunk of paint off my frame), I felt like I was being a terrible guest. Mica’s family was graciously hosting me and yet I continued to insist, against everything that people did here, on doing this thing that took time away from visiting with family and, arguably, wasn’t bringing us much enjoyment. Laying in bed that night, I contemplated selling my bike and just doing something else for fun. I’m an aerospace engineer, and I pride myself on solving problems in the most efficient way. Yet, if the problem to be solved is that of exercising, riding bikes is the opposite of an efficient solution, especially when traveling: it takes longer to get anywhere, and it requires a lot of gear. But the real crux of my discontent was that now, I was making other people’s lives harder. And I hated that.

The next morning we all set off for Punta del Este, Uruguay where we would spend the New Year’s celebrations. Although we did take our bikes, we had no major expectations. Fortunately, the next couple of days completely turned things around as we explored a new zone and finished the Festive 500. I could write an entire essay about how good the riding was out there, but suffice to say that Uruguay is home to some proper champagne gravel. And on a particularly hard and long solo ride, sitting under the shade of a tree, looking over the rolling hills covered in patches of eucalyptus forests, it all clicked: bikes are fucking cool and I don’t care how “inefficient” they are. We are deeply social creatures and the tide of social context can sometimes swing our perceptions and opinions wildly, but we mustn’t forget how special it is to explore a new place, self-powered and on a bike. Riding bikes is not just about exercising, or even about getting from point A to B, but about the ensuing mental and physical exploration. The expansion of the senses; of the soul.

So was it worth hauling our bikes halfway across the world? Yep. Absolutely, and I’d do it again no problem.