Slippery slope

Al Sever, of Montoursville, was the only American among a group of Russians, Swiss and Bolivians who hit the road in May for a 40-mile downhill journey on mountain bikes. It started on the Andean Mountain, at about 16,100 feet.

The journey traversed Bolivia’s infamous Road of Death, which is called “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.”

The road only is 9 feet wide. Instead of guiderails there are cliffs around every corner. Sever said that some of the cliffs drop almost 2,000 feet into narrow valleys below.

The ride began in the snow in La Paz, but the group didn’t leave until an offering was given to the local god.

“First we all had to raise our right hands and swear that we would not be stupid. They told us that we must either give whiskey or blood to the local mountain god. Everyone took a drink, poured whiskey on the ground and bikes. If you don’t offer a drink to the local god, you don’t ride,” Sever said.

The night before the ride began, he said he contemplated the future much like a soldier would just before going into combat.

“I wondered how I would do, as there are a lot of scary stories about the road. A lot of people almost die (on it), and some do,” he said.

Prior to the building of a new road to take truck and bus traffic off the Road of Death in 2006, 300 to 400 people died on it each year, he said.

“Some trucks still use the road as a shortcut to La Paz, however, and they all hug the inside of the road, forcing bikers to ride the edge of the cliff,” Sever said. “Usually, you can see the truck coming and can slow down or stop until it passes, but I had two occasions on tight turns where a truck just appeared in front of me and forced me to the edge of a 2,000-foot dropoff.”

The ride was cold and wet, and Sever said he isn’t a bicyclist, so he had to be very careful.

He scheduled the mountain bike ride during the dry season to ensure a dry road, but that didn’t happen.

“It poured rain all day,” he said. “Rain and fog severely hampered our visibility and water runoff made the tight turns muddy and extremely slippery. I doubt if guardrails would have made much difference, if one started to slide toward the edge.”

The group found themselves riding for a few hours and then it would start snowing. He said they would be surrounded by llamas, but when the ride ended, it was in the jungle, full of monkeys and parrots.

“While the ride is interesting, you have to concentrate so much on what you are doing that you cannot enjoy the scenery,” he said.

He said only about three to four bikers go off the cliff per year.

A Canadian group that had done the ride with his group had seven out of 12 riders quit after three of them were hurt and knocked unconscious.

Sever rode a Kona bike that had hydraulic brakes. The company claims its bikes are the best in the world, he said, and cost $3,000 each.

“While La Paz has more than 20 outfitters offering bike rides, I choose the slightly more expensive Gravity Assisted company because, after a dozen years, they have not yet lost a rider over the cliffs,” he said.

His English-speaking guide, David, was a veteran mountain bicyclist who joked that he had biked “the steep mountains in New Orleans.”

“He was not what I expected to have as a guide in the Andes of Bolivia. He had blue hair. After he explained why his hair was blue, you knew you could depend on him. He had lost a bet and had to dye his hair blue. But since he had black hair, blue dye would hardly show, so he purposely dyed his hair blonde and then dyed it blue. He went out of his way to indicate he lost the bet, and I thought it showed he was a person you could trust,” Sever said.

At 65 in May, Sever was much older than anyone else in the group but said he would do the ride again.

“As a senior citizen, it really doesn’t matter if I ride a bike over a cliff, so I would probably do the ride again. I was twice the age of anyone else doing the ride on the day I did it,” he said.

The ride took about four hours to complete, and local bikers Sever knows were a bit jealous, he said.

“Every local biker I have talked to wished they had done the ride with me. Everyone has heard about it, but very few do it,” he said.