Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sorata: Quite Possibly the Best Weekend Ever

On Friday I didn’t have to work so I took the opportunity to sleep in… until 8 AM. When I got up I went to the workshop to replace my severely worn bottom bracket. Next I hastily packed; or more like threw riding gear, clothes, camera, iPod, and a sleeping bag into my pack. Then it was off to Sorata, a small town about 3 hours from La Paz.
Me. I handed my camera over so I could get a hero shot.

The mission? Tag along with some Gravity Bolivia guys (such as the owner) and Marco Toniolo, a professional photographer; all this while riding with Joe Schwartz, René Wildhaber, and Rob Jauch. Three sick professional mountain bikers, just google them, you’ll see.

Top of the mountain on Friday.

Sorata by far has my favorite type of riding; long, fast, steep, and for the most part “flowy” downhill with a great mix of single-track (some super exposed on the edge of 600 m. cliffs) and a few open grassy bowl type sections. On day two there were also some jumps, drops, and a steep section of scree that sent me tumbling the second time around when I tried to carve too much.

Single-track that flows.

However, the highlight, by far, was getting to see professional mountain bikers at work (riding) and being able to shoot photos over the shoulder of a pro mountain bike photographer. I don’t claim to be an expert mountain biker, although I’m definitely not a punter; however it was remarkable to ride with guys like Joe, Rob, and René. And by ride I mean ride with them for about 20 seconds before they blew me away and then catch up a few minutes later at the next stop. Coupled with the most fun terrain I’ve ridden in Bolivia so far, this weekend may go down as one of the best ever.

Rob airing it out.

Joe making the most of the approaching darkness.

René + air = magic.

Not to be outdone Joe stepped up and hit a home run.

I'm pretty sure Marco's version of this shot is going to end up in a magazine.

On Friday we rode an upper section called Loma Loma that yielded great photos with a rising moon and alpenglow hitting the mountains in the background. The general plan for the rides seemed to be go down once, figure out where the good shots are, then make it back to the top in time to ride down during magic hour. After the sun had just set, we were still on the trail trying to make it to the road in the dusk and moonlight. It was one of those surreal moments that are really hard to put into words. Riding an amazing trail during twilight with professionals who were as stoked as I was about the riding and atmosphere; simply amazing.

René pulling a sick manual because he can.

We made it to the road and decided to ride to our destination in the moonlight; this mainly consisted of us bombing down a winding ribbon of asphalt (and a bit of gravel). It was a high-speed thrill with the mountain, lit by moonlight, shining brightly down on Sorata.


That night we stayed at Altai Hostel, a funky little place a few minutes outside of downtown. They have a laid back feel, great food, and the best wine I’ve had since getting to Bolivia. (Note: When you can, order a bottle of 2007 Casillero del Diablo, it’s an extremely tasty Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and at just over $9 US it may be the best deal ever). Couple that with the biggest t-bone steak I’ve ever seen and you too may be in heaven. Plus, Altai has everything from camping (by a rushing stream) to a nice little cottage for couples. And, they have an assortment of animals, including a very friendly horse that just wanders around the grounds.

Saturday morning we headed up to another trail called Choo Choo that begins at about 4,200 m. A quick breakdown: single-track, a huge scree slope, some more single-track, a rock playground, dirt road, and then a short but steep and exhausting hike up to my favorite riding of the weekend. It followed a grassy ridge for a short way and then led to several open bowls that were covered in grass. Good traction (I’m not an expert, remember?) led into little hips and drops that were super fun. This went on for a while before we hit tight and narrow single-track that wound down through dense trees and then over roads and past small farms, houses, and enclaves of residences.
The guys slashing scree.

A better perspective on the steepness of the scree.

Once at the bottom we headed back up to do it all over again. Unfortunately for Marco, someone had set a small part of the mountain on fire and the smoke interfered with the light. Then a large cloud rolled in from nowhere and effectively ended the photography. However, in between the smoke and the cloud I had a couple crashes within the span of about 15 minutes that had me scratching my head. The first happened when I was trying to carve the scree back and forth, somewhat like skiing. Riding extremely loose and steep terrain like scree can be rather unnerving. The technique used is lock your rear wheel and literally plow down the mountain with almost all your weight on your back tire. I was getting a little too comfortable and instead of going straight with a few shallow turns (executed by shifting your weight) I was trying to make more pronounced slashes. On one of these I was going too slow and buried my front end; somehow I came off the bike upright and facing the slope. When I landed my momentum carried me ass over teakettle and I effectively did a back somersault, and came up on my feet again. No big deal; all the pros saw me, but hey, I’m not a professional!

Marco in action.

A little bit farther on I came off a small jump too fast and landed just right of the single-track that I needed to be in. I got on the brakes hard and tried to crank the bike left to no avail. The bike went down and I went over the handlebars. I was beginning to think I must be suffering from exhaustion and loosing my focus.

René, not just a downhill champion.

Another little downhill section, past the rock playground (where I thought about hitting that rock René is coming off of), and I was out on the road. As the group came together I looked down at my handlebars and noticed they were cocked off to the right. I thought my stem or headset must have come loose in one of the crashes so I got off and cranked on the bars while holding the tire. There was a loud pop and then everything lined up and the bars felt stable again. I thought that was weird so I took a closer look at the fork; sure enough, I had broken the fork arch clear through sometime during the last 20 minutes. Did it happen during one of the crashes? The jumps? Whatever it was, much to my chagrin, it effectively ended my riding for the weekend.

The upper short section of scree. Way steeper than it looks.

Sadly, I missed my favorite grassy section. But a large plate of alfredo with mushrooms and a couple glasses of Casillero del Diablo cheered me up. I can’t complain about such an amazing experience; even though it was cut short.

21,000 ft. Illampu and Janq'uma peaks.

This morning I caught an early morning ride into Sorata with the guys. I said goodbye to René, Rob, Marco, and Joe; instead of riding I took a microbus back to La Paz. Which is an experience quite unlike any other as well.

On the way to (or from) Sorata you pass within sight of Lake Titicaca.

At first I had an Aymara woman sitting next to me with her little girl strapped to her back. After about half an hour she took off her wrap, slung the baby around, and set the child down in her lap. The little girl was quite shy and spent most of her time under the blanket, but occasionally she would doze off and part of the time she was resting her head on my leg. Sorata, being mainly a country town, naturally has mostly country folk and everyone in the bus had the slight stench of animals on them. Yet it didn’t really bother me; and it was interesting to see people come in and out of the bus. Some rode to another town, some got on along the road; it was a free-flow of bodies coming and going.

The farms surrounding Sorata.

Sunday traffic was quite heavy in La Paz this morning. I caught a taxi from the microbus drop-off point, and nearly 4 hours from the beginning of my journey I arrived back at mi casa. Looks like I’ll be learning how to rebuild a fork (this time with brand new sliders) sooner then I thought. However, I couldn’t really ask for a better weekend. So many new sights and experiences!


  1. Moderation man, moderation. How is the summer ever going to get better?? Nice photos. Keep 'em coming.

  2. Mmmm... it all sounds so amazing. Well, with exception of banging up your fork. I hear those are kind of a big deal. But, I wouldn't know... road bikers don't tend to break shit in half unless hit by a car. ;)

    Wine recommendation, noted.
    Cottage for couples, duly noted for future trips.