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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

Death Road Bolivia Cycle. Overcoming The Fear Of Cycling

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Once upon a time:

There was a cocky 19-year-old who was invincible in her mind, even when it came to cycling. I have never been someone who rides a bike all the time but cycling was sometimes a fun pass time whilst travelling. Whilst doing the generic South America "gap year" I did plenty of cycling up until the point of Death Road in Bolivia. My friend and I had been hiring bikes on holiday beforehand and despite a few minor blips of crashing into parked cars, we had had a minimal fuss. However, that was all to change.

Death Road cycle in Bolivia.
Death Road cycle in Bolivia.
Death Road, the lead-up:

Death Road is one of the tourist attractions Bolivia is renowned for. It is very much like going to New York to see Central Park. Therefore, when presented with the opportunity to cycle the infamous road I jumped at the chance. My friend Tom, who was travelling with me, did ask if it was a good idea, as I was unsteady on the roads in Peru the week before. I dismissed his worries and we signed up, no worries right? Death Road was surely just a name to drag in the punters.

The Day of Death Road:

We arrived at the tour company early the next morning eager to see what the day held. It was a large group, maybe 12 people in total, with varying cycling abilities, I was by no means the worst. The tour company drove us and the bikes to the top of Salla Jipiña, a 4,944-metre-high mountain located at the Cordillera Real in the Bolivian Andes.

Death road Bolivia cycle start

Once all suited and booted one of the tour guides explained that the first stretch of road was a highway, meaning traffic, lots of it. Death Road itself would be quieter but more treacherous terrain. With everyone too eager to get going a lot of people were not really listening, myself included. We set off, I was cautious at first. Tom and some of the other boys sped off being the experienced cyclists that they were, I held back for the first few Kilometers, absorbing the breathtaking views.

After plodding along for a time I became a bit fed up with waiting behind the other slow cyclists and I began to get confident...and cocky. The roads were fairly smooth and steep so holding back seemed like a waste of time. I was after all here to enjoy myself!

Death Road Bolivia cycle beginning portion
Everyone hurtling down the main roads to get to the trail ride.

Losing control:

Trying to recall this moment is a little hazy, I suspect it shall be a blur for life. Throughout the highway portion of the ride, the guides would stop every 5k or so to regroup and make sure everyone was okay. Each time we stopped the cockier I got and the more my speed increased. Eventually, I was keeping up with the boys and having a great time. Tom had slowed down to chat with people behind so I carried on with the people up front. Speeding down these steep, bending roads, I felt like I was on an episode of Top Gear minus the Jag.

Bolivia views

On the final re-group stop, the guide explained that this was the last stretch until Death Road and the last place we could pick up decent speeds. He instructed any front runners to wait by the hut at the bottom of the road. Taking off, we all raced down the final stretch ducking and diving around potholes and each other. The roads began to narrow and become rougher. The speeds were also getting far too quick for my ability. I do not know what caused me to suddenly have an epiphany about how dangerous this was, but I did.

As I began to actually think about what I was doing rather than letting the autopilot carry on I stopped focusing. I was suddenly aware of stones and boulders on the road and worried about hitting them. This caused me to try and slow down, any sudden brake pressure at this point would make things a little hairy. I slammed the brakes on, not thinking about this at the time. The bike began to swerve and in doing so hit a pothole in the road. I recall thinking "Oh God this is going to hurt" and it did.

Lorries trump bike:

I flew over the handles bars of the bike which ended up a few yards up the road from me. Tom came around the corner, shouting at me to get out of the road. This was not clear as I was dazed and sat in the road unaware of where I really was and of the lorry coming down the road. Important note: driving in Bolivia in a car is scary, you do not want to be in the middle of any road waiting for a lorry to run you over.

Death Road Bolivia

From what I recall I began to realise I was in a sticky situation, so I crawled to my bike up the road. I could feel blood running down my back, could not walk straight, was in shock and could hardly see from blurred vision and black flashing spots. As I picked up the bike Tom was shouting up the road to me as the impending lorry sped past barely a meter away from me. As I unsteadily sat down the cliff edge loomed next to my bottom and it became apparent how narrow the roads had become and how fast traffic was moving down the mountains. There is no way the lorry would have stopped if I had not got up in time. The tour guide looked white as I staggered down the last hundred or so yards to the hut, Tom looked concerned but had a smug grin on his face as if to say "told you not to get carried away" and I was in all sorts of pain. I had torn all my arms and legs up, my head was pounding and my back was drenched in blood. All I could think was "thank God I had a helmet on or I would be dead".

The tour guide advised against carrying on, but I refused to be wiped out by the none Death part of the tour!

Dents in the Ego:

After this, I lied and told everyone I was fine. Needless to say, I was not. I was dizzy and could not see straight for most of the remainder of the ride, I was in a huge amount of pain where the skin had left my body and my ego had a large cycling dint in it. However, the worse thing was thinking what if? What if I had not gotten up in time? I would be road kill. What if I had fallen another way? Would I be paralysed? I was not a fan of cycling anymore, this had totally ruined my confidence. However, I carried on thinking that it must be like getting back on a horse after falling off. To a degree it was, I cycled along Death Road with no problems until we picked up any sort of speed and then I would shut down, trundling along at snail's pace, worrying about the what-ifs and thinking I had just been lucky that morning. This continued throughout the day and has done so ever since.

After the crash
After the crash

*Change of clothes, mopping up of blood, Red Bull to calm nerves and having a breather after the cycling accident*

Get over it:

So when I say I can not cycle, that is to an extent a lie. I can and I am okay at it as long as I am moving at a glacial pace. Any sort of speed, distractions, traffic or objects to dodge on the road send the fear of God into me. I just have flashbacks of Bolivia and what could have happened and how lucky I was not to be hit by a truck. It was not only an ego dint at the time but also a huge eye-opener into how dangerous cycling can be. People may laugh at me for that, and I would have done it before Bolivia, but now I am far too aware of what can go wrong and the implications of this.

Death Road Bolivia
Un -confident bringing up the rear of the pack

I am hoping that Iron Man will teach me to get over this fear of cycling. After all, in at the deep end is sometimes the only way to go.


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