Friday, 5 August 2016

The Real Rio Road Race

It isn’t often that you can say that the Olympic Road Race competitors have it easier than ordinary cyclists on a hilly 250km course, but Rio is no ordinary city for cycling. The regular roleur has far more obstacles to deal with on their way around the course.

Beginning in Copacabana, you can take it as read that any cycling on roads filled with horrendous traffic and Rio’s notoriously terrible drivers is best done where possible on the beach paths that run alongside them, for your own safety. These provide their own fun too, especially at weekends, with people crossing the path on their way to the beach while texting phones, carrying deckchairs and iceboxes, plus the workers with their supplies for the day. It gets even worse later in the afternoon when all this happens again, but with added drunkenness. Not one of them looks one way, never mind both. The beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, Sao Conrado and Barra da Tijuca all have wonderful scenery to distract you before you reach the Reserva, with the Marapendi Lagoon on one side and the beach on the other, although a couple of Frogger crossings of the highway are necessary.

Passing through the time-trial start-line in Recreio, you start the rolling Grumari Circuit. Here, the ‘cycle-path’ is a few painted signs on the road, and impatient drivers completely ignoring it as they brush past to save themselves valuable seconds on the journey. There are regular road signs too, the old ones full of bullet holes were replaced before the World Cup. There was a sign with a bike on it once, but one afternoon of New Year’s Eve, a car coming down the hill managed to leave the road, took down the new sign, and rolled to a stop by the canal, upside down, smashed to pieces and with blood on the inner roof. Happy New Year.

A quick stop at Praia do Secreto, the secret beach hidden in the rocks, is possible here, with stunning views back the way you just came. The next bend brings the beautiful little Prainha into view, a surf beach corralled by mountains covered in Atlantic Rainforest. Here you can spot the scarlet Brazilian tanager, various monkeys, collared anteaters (even in the surf!), and maybe even a constrictor or two curled up in the trees. A short, sharp climb takes you over to Grumari if the road hasn’t been blocked by falling rocks at this point, as it was a few years ago. You can see rocks propped up with concrete on your right, a common sight in Rio.

Grumari is another wild, surf beach and the descent down there can be taken quickly but the pave that began on the flat was a chain-banger, supplemented by cars reversing out of blind parking spots into your way. You can always slow down, and even stop to take a look at Abricó, the nudest beach hidden amongst the rocks at this end of Grumari. The pavé used to run the whole 3km of the beach but now most has at least some asphalt behind the dunes and tatty beach bars. The sharpest climb of the route begins as you head over to Barra da Guaratiba, up to 18% and a couple of hairpins. Keep an eye and an ear out for the amphibian-like bark of toucans at the top, and also for the beautiful views from a remarkably ugly restaurant. Point de Grumari has fabulous panoramas to distract you from its new warehouse extension, looking out over the mangrove islands and curving beach of Restinga da Marambaia, and over a large section of the Costa Verde, Brazil’s spectacular emerald coast, including Ilha Grande in the distance. The steep descent here has added difficulty with drivers screeching their way up as they occupy most of the corners, although at least the collection of pot-holes connected by short strips have been replaced by almost smooth tarmac.

The flat straight between the mangroves is known as ‘The Anglo-Saxon Section’ but only by me. This is where there are more language and sign-language lessons for careless Brazilian drivers than any other part of the route. The buses racing each other to the next speed-bump on a road with no space regularly try to shave your left handlebar. You can always duck into the Sitio Burle Marx gardens for some respite, or stop to eat oysters and marvel or pity at the clicking crabs suspended from the roadside stalls.

The smooth climb of Grota Funda, the deep cave that is now a road tunnel comes next, a nice roll for a few km. The tunnel was only opened a few years ago, yet trucks are prohibited from using it, so they will always be your company on the way up, and to overtake on the way down. Truck drivers tend to be more cyclist-friendly than any other type of Brazilian driver though, and try to get you plenty of room on the road. Winding back to the beach road, the brand new asphalt makes a massive difference here, although the edges of the tight road still have grates at the old level, which are definitely best avoided. I also once had an open-backed truck full to the brim with shit spilling a little of its load on me down here.

Back on the beach road, and a little detour off it takes you to the urban caiman, the hardest animals in Rio and possibly the world, including Brutus, the toughest of them all and who we feed regularly with meat and fish leftovers. He comes when called now, our very own pet caiman. Look out for his missing back left foot, but do it with your nose closed. The lack of proper sanitation in Rio is very noticeable here in the Corredor Verde, the sarcastically-named (I presume) Green Corridor. The caiman in the oily waters of the Corredor Merde are probably the least dangerous creatures you and your bike will meet all day. Even the cute and harmless capybara of the Reserva can cause trouble if a family of them appears from the brush in the late afternoon, as has happened to me before. Running into the pig-sized daddy would cause more damage than the legendary Tour de France Labrador.

Back through to Sao Conrado and then another climb up the side of Pedra Bonita, with the imposing Pedra da Gavea monolith behind, and colourful hang-gliding wings overhead, you enter the Tijuca Forest National Park. Monkeys running on two legs while carrying arms-full of fruit are a possible hazard here. Around to the Vista Chinesa, then an adrenaline-inducing 4km winding 10% descent through the forest and down to the Botanical Gardens, with traffic to overtake during the week, and hikers to impress or to avoid as the road closes on weekends. As long as nobody taking photos gets in your way, this is definitely the most fun part of the route, and built for a top-tuber for anybody who thinks they could stay ahead for the final flat 12km along the beaches and back to Copacabana.

This being Rio, there are added obstacles for the regular cyclist that the professionals shouldn’t have (although you never know!). Luckily for the professionals, they don’t have to confront the Avenida Niemeyer coast road, with Keanu Reeves seemingly skidding buses around the corners. It was actually safer to cycle on for four months earlier this year, until the first big wave took down the criminally flimsy ‘most beautiful cycle path in the world’ and killed two cyclists.
Getting pushed off your bike and watching a group of local kids walk away with it is about the lightest possible outcome of a bike robbery in Rio, and there has been a spate of them recently. Sometimes in this city, the fastest road bike is not always the best one to ride. A rusty Mary Poppins might get you there in a far safer way.

So if you’ve managed to survive all of this intact, with your bike still rolling, and with most of it still between your legs, you definitely deserve some kind of medal!          

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