Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Fleeing Down the Federal Highway

Last time I found myself tripping down pyramids in Tula de Allende. This time I saddle up to get back on the road again—but not if the highway patrol has anything to say about it.

Other cyclists getting a friendly police escort on the toll highway. Photo via Ginger Ninjas.

Wednesday, December 17 (Day 894 of the Great Adventure)—To Sahagun City

Before departing there had to be a photo shoot. Roberto, the friendly hotel owner, didn’t think it was enough to just give me a free breakfast and a free extra night’s stay; now that I was finally going he also wanted my picture for his personal hall of fame. (Ezra had requested the same thing at the Brazilian restaurant. I was starting to feel like a bona fide celebrity.)

For a true Mexican marketing shot there had to be ladies. He recruited two of his female employees and soon they were posed to either side of me, my arms around them. I don’t envy them: I had just slipped into my bicycling shirt with all the pit stains and B.O. that implies. If they caught a whiff, however, they didn’t show it. After the last photo Roberto and I shook hands and I mounted up. I raised my fist in a final salute and whooshed off from the Cuellar for the last time.

Straightaway I turned against traffic on the main one-way road, plowing past vehicles and singing Vodou songs as I went. The policía noticed me but didn’t care: like posing with adoring women, breaking traffic rules is simply part of the Mexican way.

Gate Crashin’

Thanks to my trip to the pyramids, I knew that the way ahead included a giant hill—basically climbing out of the river gorge the downtown is in—and I didn’t even try to bike it. Pushing the giant up the slope added a fresh layer of sweat to my bike shirt, but once at the top I figured it’d be smooth sailing. (This was also when I saw the Mastur-Bar.)

Smooth sailing it was not. Not far out of town I turned to get back on the Arco Norte, the cuota (federal toll road) that would take me east out of the highlands. You may recall that when I arrived in Tula, the guard at the toll gate made a show of waving me through (and that I was a touch ungrateful). Apparently they put all the nice guys on the night shift, however, because the cabrón at the gate was not there to welcome me.

“Buenos dias,” I called as I moved to bike around him.

“(Bunch of stuff in Spanish!)” he said. He waved for me to pull over. Aw hell.

He explained to me that bikes aren’t allowed on the toll road, a fact of which I was well aware—though this is rarely enforced. I pretended I didn’t understand; sometimes that helps.

Not this time.

He repeated his point with detestable patience.

I adopted a mournful look. “But… I need to get to Tepeapulco.”

This was the pragmatic approach. Tepeapulco is a day’s ride away, with no other roads heading there besides the cuota. Perhaps if it seemed like the only way—

“Too bad,” he said. “You’ll have to apply for permission.”

What?

“Head over to the main office and request permission. If you get a pass, you can use the cuota.”

Oh shit. This was worse than being turned away. Worse than being arrested. He was using bureaucracy.

I considered my options: try to bribe him, or look for another way. I got the sense that he was just the sort of jerk who wouldn’t accept a bribe. He was doing things by the book. No, this is the kind of guy who wears tighty whiteys.

Another plan took form, however. “Where’s the office?” I asked.

He pointed across the freeway. Basically, the situation was this:

Biking on Cuota Problem

I thanked him and turned the bike around, never directly saying I’d head to the office. I had no intention of doing so. If you understand how Mexican bureaucracy works, you know I have a better chance of being elected presidente than getting approved for a cuota pass. Even if I did get approved—which would hinge entirely on some official taking a shine to me—I’d be there for hours. More likely it’d be a waste of a whole day.

Under the overpass I went. The office and its turnoff loomed on my left. I passed them both. A glance over my shoulder confirmed it: I was now out of view of the toll goat.

And here, on the other side of the freeway, was the other on-ramp.

I went up the ramp and slowed my pace. There was, of course, another toll gate. I had no idea if the various gate guards were in radio contact, or if a rogue bicyclist was the kind of thing they’d report to one another. But I wasn’t taking chances. This time, I needed subterfuge.

It didn’t take long. A semi chugged up the ramp behind me. As soon as he passed I fell in behind him, veering over on his left side away from the gatehouse. He slowed for the toll and I had no trouble keeping up.

Thus hidden on the blind side of the truck, the gate agents never saw me coming. But they sure would see me crossing. As the semi braked, I hit the pedals with all the muscles the mountains had given me. Third gear… fourth gear… get those sinews firing.

Vrap-ap-ap-ap! I hit the first vibration strip approaching the gate house. The semi stopped. Vrap-ap-ap-ap! A water bottle leapt out of the front basket. Intimate parts of me begged for mercy.

Head down, eyes forward, crank those legs. And… whoosh! I popped out from beside the semi, cannonballing the gate.

In my peripheral I saw the person inside the gatehouse. They didn’t immediately charge out at me, and I didn’t acknowledge them in any way. Somebody yelled something. It might have been an angry halt! or a friendly adios! or just whoa! in surprise. I told myself there was no way a gate guard was gonna come running after a cyclist, and plunged forward.

I swerved around the gate arm and careened past. Never even slowed. Then I was through and up the on-ramp I chugged. There was no more yelling (and no gunshots), but I kept cranking those pedals like the devil was on me.

One problem: I needed to go east, and this onramp was for westbound traffic. At the top I sliced left. Soon I was barreling down the freeway shoulder… going the wrong way.

Wrong-way cycling isn’t unusual. Some readers have suggested it’s actually safer, and most of the Mexican cyclists I pass seem to agree. But it was my first time, and seeing that first 75 mph semi coming at me was a thrill.

Of course, now that I was up on the freeway there was a chance the original cabrón would spot me as I passed his on-ramp. But I figured, (a) there was a lot of stuff between us, (b) he was probably looking the other way, at traffic pulling into his gate, and (c) bite me.

Basically I’d pulled one of these numbers:

Biking on Cuota Solution

I kept up the speed for the first half mile or so. No squad of motorcycle cops appeared in my mirror. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked to the road ahead.

Traffic was light, and after a couple miles I crossed to the grassy median, then over to the proper side where I normally ride. I was pretty pleased to have crashed the gate, but there was no guarantee I was in the clear. If the guards really cared they could call the policía. It could be 20 minutes or three hours before they picked me up; I wasn’t hard to miss.

But there was nothing for it. I had rogued my way onto this freeway and if need be I’d just rogue my way off of it.

[André’s note: I don’t field the slightest bit bad about this maneuver, and will try to explain a little more of how road rules work in Mexico in a future post.]

The scenery was pleasant. It seemed flat to me, even though it was hilly terrain that passed over occasional mountain ridges. It was certainly nothing compared to the 9,000 foot monster I’d struggled over previously.

A couple hours later there was an exit/entrance with a gatehouse. I wasn’t exiting, so I didn’t need to go through. But as I went past one of the  guards turned toward me.

I did what I always do with authority figures in Mexico, which is say hi and act friendly. I threw him a wave and a buenas tardes, hoping to cruise past. But that wasn’t enough. He waved for me to stop.

My Spanish had come a long way, but there are a lot of accents and dialects in Mexico. I had a hard time understanding this guy. Whatever the first thing was that he said, I legitimately didn’t understand it. He pointed at the freeway and repeated it, saying something about safety. So, maybe: you can’t ride out there, it isn’t safe?

I begged to differ. “No, it’s very safe,” I insisted. “There’s a big shoulder.”

He then said something about the gate and exit beside him. Perhaps telling me to exit and get the heck off this freeway. I asked him to repeat this too. He did, but simply said something else about my safety.

He didn’t seem angry and wasn’t giving me an order. I decided to thank him for being concerned about my safety. This seemed to satisfy him. I thanked him again, waved and got on the bike.

He didn’t move to stop me.

So, more confused than ever, I bicycled away. The gate guard watched me go.

This whole thing is still a mystery to me. I suppose the most likely story is he got a call over the radio about a bicyclist on the freeway and he figured he’d give me a little lecture. But this is so strange. For one thing, no one ever cared before when I biked on the cuotas—I’d stopped and talked with police on them. And if he got a call about me, you’d think he’d detain me or order me off. My main takeaway from the whole affair was a fleeting nostalgia for the “good old days” in the border zone where my only worry was being murdered.

Hotels By the Hour

My destination for the night was either Sahagun City or Tepeapulco, depending on which map you consulted. They’re actually two small cities that smashed together as they grew. Sahagun City was slightly closer, and after 60 miles I figured that was the best choice.

What’s interesting is that it’s called Sahagun City on all the maps, with the English word city. I’m not sure if this is a translation issue (like how we translate Mexico City) or has a historical reason. But I’ve only once seen it called Ciudad Sahagún.

The exit for Sahagun City didn’t look like an exit at all. It was rolling green and gold land all around, with no signs of a city. Mountains hemmed the highway on both sides, and from my phone it looked like Sahagun must lie beyond them. The valley itself was completely abandoned.

But there was a gate house at the exit, of course. This time I neither greeted nor waved, just barreled through. I did get a glimpse of some surprised looking gate guards but they didn’t come out of the booth. I was back on free roads again—where bicycles are as welcome as the tourist dollars they bear—and headed toward the invisible city.

That last jaunt in the countryside was pleasant. It reminded me of rural Wisconsin (except not flat). Soon it became industrial, however; turns out Sahagun City is built on gravel pits, fabrication plants and other large industry. As the green-gold disappeared behind me, clouds of dust and diesel exhaust hemmed in.

The place didn’t look too happy. The ride in showed a lot of unhappy faces coming to or from a lot of low paying jobs. I followed the signs for a hotel, located on a side street of gated condos. While more upscale, this didn’t make me feel any more at home, and neither did the hotel prices: $1,300 pesos a night, three to four times what I normally pay. I laughed when the woman told me the number, and she smiled good naturedly—not a hint of disdain for this filthy bicyclist before her. I really appreciated that.

The search continued. I went through a truly depressing park and finally found a street with food stalls, shops and foot and car traffic. It also had two hotels. At the first, I rolled the Giant into the parking garage (completely empty except for a couple old box springs), timing my entrance carefully between the bottle rockets local kids were shooting into it. In the lobby, I found a 16 year old girl behind a plate glass window.

“Can I see a room?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

Wow.

After some back and forth I understood the reason. She was the only one there. I can’t fault her for not going upstairs with a man she doesn’t know, though it seems like bad hotel policy. I kept my money and walked back out the door (and back out of the parking garage, still under barrage.)

The next hotel was more promising, situated right next to a pleasant pedestrians-only alley with a restaurant and shops. But the door, semi-hidden, was crowned with a big sign:

Special! $100/hour

I left.

At this point the sun was setting. I was hungry and tired. I turned onto another major street, starting to wonder if I’d need to go up the hill to Tepeapulco after all.

That’s when I passed a hotel named Tulipanes (Tulips) painted in bright, pretty colors. I nearly screeched to a halt and did a U-turn to dive into its parking area.

Neither the parking area nor the stairway up into the building were much to look at. Inside, there was no lobby; the owner’s office was in one of the hotel rooms, and he led me up to the third floor to show me a room.

“It’s only you?” he asked.

“Just me.”

“I only have rooms with two beds.”

“Is the price the same?”

“Yes, but you have to promise to only use one bed.”

Wow.

“I promise,” I said.

He showed me to a very clean room with a brand new bathroom and big, sunny windows. It was perfect.

“I’ll take it.”

“Okay, but it’s not available until 7:00.”

I thought I didn’t hear him right, but he repeated himself.

I looked around.

“Why not?”

“Someone else has it rented but it will be available in a few hours.”

I looked around the spotless, uninhabited room. “But there are no suitcases,” I said. I felt like I was being conned.

He could sense my frustration and reassured me. “Don’t worry, I have a different room.”

“And it’s available now?”

“Yes!”

I mentally translated Well why didn’t you show me that one first? but let it pass. The other room was similar, spotless and new, a little less sunny. “I’ll take it.”

We went through a seemingly interminable process in his office/bedroom until, eventually, I had the key. I brought my bags up, but not the Giant (third floor, remember?) which I locked to a cement mixer in the parking area. The manager returned to my door several times with more information for me (the water heater is new, here’s the remote for your TV, etc.). At first I thought he was looking over my shoulder but, in retrospect, I think he was nervous about whether or not I would like the place. It was obviously a fairly new hotel.

And I made full use of that fairly new shower. I kept thinking about how he said to use just one bed: was he going to double up a second guest in my room? Putting the thought out of my mind, I went out for a dinner of pozole, picked up some water and hurried back. The freezing highland night had set in.

Exhausted, I snuggled under the covers and read till I fell asleep. Rocky first impression notwithstanding, the Tulipanes kept me warm and I slept with joy.

63.2 miles

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 63.2

Total traveled since Day 1: 3847.6

Next time I make an unplanned stop at one of Mexico’s “Magic Cities.” Until then you can check out all my road logs.

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