Update: April 22, 2008 — US cyclist dies on highway of death
Where would you go to bike the world's most dangerous road?
You might have your own local candidates for the distinction, but on a global basis it's the Unduavi-Yolosa Highway in the mountains near La Paz, Bolivia.
That's not me saying so. The Inter-American Development Bank judged this the World's Most Dangerous Road in 1995 based on the number of deaths per mile.
And the designation doesn't mean bicyclists avoid it. In fact, at least two La Paz-based bike touring companies — Downhill Madness Mountain Biking and Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking — specialize in busing bicycle tourists to the summit for the breath-taking 30-some-mile ride to the valley below.
Calling this a bike ride is a misnomer. Sure, it takes skills to coast downhill and navigate the narrow road, but downhills are a reward for struggling uphill. Coasting the entire route misses half the fun.
The ride starts in the high Andean plains of the La Cumbre at 15,400 feet. From there, groups of cyclists coast into the jungle 11,800 feet below.
A photographer for the Globe and Mail wrote in 2003 that the bike ride (let's call it a bike coast) starts with a downhill on pavement to a drug checkpoint. From there, the road turns to a dirt track and hugs the side of a mountain with 3,000-foot drops to the valley.
“Suddenly, the road turns nasty. Wide tracks narrow into three-metre-wide hairpin turns. But, as far as local traffic is concerned, this is still considered a two-way road.
“In parts the sun rarely shines, blocked by overhanging cliffs and the waterfalls that run off them. The omnipresent drizzle turns puddles into rivers. The only “guardrails” are crosses placed by grieving relatives.”
The road was built in the early 1930s with POW labor from the war between Bolivia and Paraguay. It was designed to link northern Bolivia to the capital. Until the recent opening of an alternative route, it has been used by thousands of farmers seeking a way to better markets.
Travel website Liebreich.com reports that up to 200 people a year have died on this road. On his trip, Michael Liebreich reads the crosses and memorials, including one for a bus overloaded with 100 passengers that careened over the side. Amid this evidence of carnage:
“All pleasure in our ride evaporated. This was no place for mountain biking and I was ashamed to be there in my reflective vest.”
Later, his group grounds to a halt. A cyclist in a group just in front had rolled her bike to the outside edge of the road, and failing to notice a hole, had fallen 150 feet over the edge. Liebreich writes about he valiant efforts to save her to no avail. He concludes:
“Adrenalin will remain my drug of choice, but the next time I'm offered adventure, I will ask myself two questions: Is it respectful of the local community? And is the level of risk acceptable?
“Mountain-biking the Yungas Road fails both tests. It is entirely unacceptable for groups of wealthy tourists to treat a road with such a terrible death toll as a recreational experience. Some locals have no choice but to take it – the last thing they need is to be overtaken by whooping mountain-bikers.”
An alternative route has been opened to La Paz from northern Bolivia that avoids this trecherous route. But many Bolivians still use this for a shortcut, as do the thrill-seeking tourists.
Watch the History Channel for its show on the Death Road.
Picture above from Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking website