The big two

Just west of Chengdu lays a veritable cornucopia of insanely nice riding. Within 75 km of the city limits you’ll find yourself at the leading edge of an enormous mountain range, the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau. This means relatively close, world-class, tall climbs.

For an avid cyclist, this lesser known corner of the world is an unsung Eden. Gradients that keep on for over 100kms, and readily carry you above 4000m. Long-winded descents that skew your senses. The mountains also offer an unexpected trot through the wilderness, a timeless place cohabited by Tibetans and Qiangs, masters of the barren peaks and roaring canyon rivers that domineer their world.

Anyone who’s tackled a climb that reaches these heights knows the turmoil of dealing with altitude: the nausea, lightheadedness, emotional capitulation, and brutal, relentless feeling of lethargy. Fomented by a gradual process of replacement, from forest to high-altitude moonscapes, your surroundings aid in dwarfing your effort, a firm reminder that you are nothing against your environment, or, you are what you make of yourself.

I love these climbs. The pair, Balangshan and Jiajinshan, both reach above 4000m. The roads leading up to these heights make for an immaculate ride. At altitude their broken, shifted surfaces act as a constant reminder that no matter its size, a mountain doesn’t stand idle. Conjoining the efforts, of summiting one before the other, is an accessible challenge. You can knock them both out in two days, back to back, before returning to the grey cubist environment of the city.

The first time I summited Balangshan, I’d misread the pass, having sprinted against my friend to reach a very large stone marker. Set at the edge of a ridge line, the marker only indicated the final view of the pass which lay a few kilometers onward, above a twisty set of switchbacks. This sight made me mad as hell, exacerbated by the odd effects of low oxygen. I got blinding mad, then was elated at my impending achievement. I promptly cried, belittled by the whole mess, before laughing in short bursts (where I could catch my breath) at myself, confused and entertained with the whole experience. I wrapped up the climb, drank a beer and, woozy, made a clean descent down the opposite end to town.

This time round, the weather was against us, and a rainy start led to a foggy, damp climb then frigid temperatures and snow. At the 4000m mark the support driver rolled up beside me, trembling, with a hose in his nose, unable to tolerate the altitude and asking me to take over driving. Still feeling fresh, my chagrin ballooned. No summit this time, it appeared.

Between the two peaks, you’ve little choice but to sleep at altitude. This translates into different things for different people, but for me, usually means violently colorful dreams. I usually wake up several times, confusing my fast, heavy heart-beat for anxiety. My anxiety is at the prospect of another hard-hitting climb into the thin air from whence I’d just bombed down.

The second day always proves a treat. The first of the two climbs (Balangshan, at 4487m) seems like the main course, but really it’s an aperitif, opening up your legs and lungs to the second day of riding. It’s little sister, Jiajinshan at 4114m, makes for a great day in the saddle. When riding it from the backside, you can anticipate a start of around 2800m before going up up up. Again, the roads are beautiful and wrap around every face in a star-shaped basin, leading from one canyon to the next, carrying you up and over. It’s pretty great.

This time round, the driver feeling altitude sick asked me to take over and I didn’t have a chance to ride it at all. All I had was the consolation of capturing the experience of the other riders, who despite the weather being even colder than the day before, were able to bow at the majesty of summiting such a pass during a heavy snowfall. It made for a short day of riding. We only made the climb, but the intensity of the environment, of riding in a white world with nothing to guide your sense of direction but a black strip of tarmac, made it one of those unforgettables.

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