A selfie of Logan Jones-Wilkins on his bicycle on a dirt road in Ecuador
Photograph by Logan Jones-Wilkins, '23

The bicycle diaries

January 31, 2022

Travelogue

1,489 miles, 19 days, 1 Spider in Ecuador
Story and Pictures by Logan Jones-Wilkins, '23

I like to think that my research trip in the summer of 2021 was born from some grand, overarching quest for academic enlightenment. In reality, it sprang from a cycling obsession and an indulgence in adventure.

In August, I went on a 1,500-mile cycling trip around the South American country of Ecuador. Over the two and a half weeks of riding through most corners of the country, I conducted interviews, documented my sensations, and built a story around the country’s roads and the politics surrounding them.

Regardless of the origin of initial intentions, my expedition to Ecuador became a seminal experience of my time here at the university. Academics have always operated in a separate sphere from my background as an elite cyclist. Cycling was my lonely pursuit, something tacked onto my duties as a student. Over the 18 days in this small Andean country, with only myself and fleeting strangers for company, my two paths came together.

Counting the days down [was] impossible. All that was really possible was riding, reporting, and repeating. The present was so gloriously unstoppable and the task always so simple.

The Impetus

Cycling is more than a hobby for me. Outside of school I am a funded, sponsored competitive cyclist. Over my seven-year career, I have raced in more than 30 states and in four countries. Now, I juggle school, gravel and road racing, and writing for my bike sponsor, Rodeo Adventure Labs.

People ask me whether I will ride the Tour de France. While I sure would like to, the Tour de France is a massive sporting event for the most elite of the elite athletes on the planet. I am, not for a lack of effort, not one of those athletes. Plus, the academics at Richmond would be tough to juggle with the 30-hour training weeks of a world tour cyclist. Nevertheless, the Tour is a great model for any cyclists interested in challenging themselves with their own version of the race. All you need are three weeks, an ambitious spirit, and a country worth exploring.

My research trip, at its heart, was a DIY tour of Ecuador, three weeks of riding that connected me to its far-flung peripheries. While the Tour de France peloton has massage therapists, chefs, and buses to shuttle riders to only the most delectable routes the country has to offer, I had a couple of bags on my bike and frequent convenience stores — or tiendas — to satisfy my simple carbohydrate needs. I thought of myself in the model of the classic Tour cyclists of the early 20th century, with no services in cars behind the race caravan and tubes and tires wrapped around their bodies. We were both restrained on our rides by the burdens of chores — food, laundry, a place to sleep — that the contemporary Tour pro needs no part of.

But the main difference between myself and a Tour cyclist was that for me, the cycling was just the background, not the purpose, of the trip. In a certain way, the cumbersome logistics of the project kept it manageable. The enormity and complexity of the moving parts were always present, which made counting the days down impossible. All that was really possible was riding, reporting, and repeating. The present was so gloriously unstoppable and the task always so simple.

Murals featuring birds in front of a church in an urban area of Ecuador

The Academics

Cycling was a means to an end. While the challenge was physical, the success of my experience was not in the riding. Cycling was an intentional process for reporting on larger academic issues. I sought to understand my subject — roads — by using them in the most raw way possible.

At its heart, my research, supported by Richmond Guarantee funding and a Weinstein grant through the international education office, focused on the roads of Ecuador. Roads are the fundamental lifeline in this country resplendent with the geography of three distinct “worlds.” For recent Ecuadorian governments, roads have been a central populist prop connecting the dialogue across the nation. Over the last two decades, the country’s roads have improved, but at what cost?

Even before the pandemic, Ecuador’s economic fissures caused protest and upheaval. With the pandemic leveling additional havoc for the developing country, the times have been changing. The leftist politics that brought recent road projects to fruition have been replaced by the conservative voices of bankers as the ebbs and flows of politics have swung with the tides of public perception.

I sought to answer the questions produced by the politics. Throughout my riding, politics were inescapable. Guillermo Lasso, the current president, had managed a campaign that seemed to place his face in every nook and cranny of the nation, even four months after the election. Simultaneously, the failures of his predecessor’s projects wore like scars among the accomplishments.

While I had unanswered questions after my time on the roads, my time pedaling allowed a kind of osmosis of information. Small anecdotes added details to the observations and deep conversations I found. Among the proverbial weeds were the gems that seemed to matter most but were visible only with the vulnerability of slow, intentional travel.

Roads less traveled and plenty traveled

The word “road” denotes more a category than a specific surface. As he pedaled the roads of Ecuador, Jones-Wilkins encountered everything from smooth pavement to dirt paths interrupted by streams. On rare occasions, he could relax on a protected cycle path, but mostly he rode alongside motorized traffic in whatever weather the current biome offered on that day. The politics of Ecuador’s roads were the subject of his academic research.

map of Jones-Wilkins's route through Ecuador, with statistics about his journey
map of Jones-Wilkins's route through Ecuador, with statistics about his journey

Map shows the winding loop Jones-Wilkins took through Ecuador, annotated with stages, where he took pictures of the roads, and facts about his journey.

The facts:
  • Longest segment: 148 mi.
  • Longest day: 8 hrs 29 min
  • Most elevation gain: 14,147 ft.
  • Highest Point: 12,192 ft.
  • Total Distance: 1,489 miles (i.e., from Richmond to Denver)
  • Total elevation gain: 116,935 ft (4.03 Mt. Everests)
  • Total cycling time: 101h, 25m (average ~6h per stage)
  • Fastest speed: 53.5 mph (stage 3)
  • Energy Expended: 60,851 kcal (132 sevings of D-hall's Jersey Dirt)
  • Flat tires: 1 (one in every crowd, right?)

The route

Jones-Wilkins’ journey took him the length and breadth of Ecuador, where he had the opportunity to see and feel how the government’s road-building investment affected regions differently. Over his nearly 1,500 miles of riding, he ascended and descended mountains, rode through rainforests, and crossed the equator six times.

map illustration by Katie McBride

The Good

In the United States, geography seems expanded. Across our broad nation, the landscape offers gradual, sweeping fades from one biome to another. While the forests of the Eastern Seaboard are the opposite of the dry deserts of Arizona, the space between the two is an entire continent. Our geological and ecological diversity is the product of our grand space.

Ecuador is not grand from a perspective of scale. Its greatness is in its condensed splendor, its thousands of distinct ecologies in a country just a tad smaller than Nevada. For 1,500 miles, the surroundings I passed through were a montage of equatorial diversity, every hill offering a new spectrum of natural beauty.

The fourth day of my journey, for instance, took me from the heart of the mountains in Ibarra to the low-slung forests of the coastal hinterland. Between them, I traversed a sinuous cobble pass over a classic Andean scrub forest as three worlds stretched out before me. Like a tapestry draped in front of me, the farms of the highlands, the jungles filling the sunken valleys, and the high mines of the barren yonder slopes offered panoramic hues of nature that are impossible in most places around the world.

The Bad

Cobblestones are a contradiction in the world of cycling. In the sports lore and some hipster retrospective persuasions, cobbles are emblematic of a bygone romance. Streets of tightly packed mosaics of stone look truly timeless.

They are also, simply put, the worst possible road surface to pedal a bike over.

Ecuador’s main thoroughfares are generally magnificent demonstrations of human might. However, the auxiliary routes tucked into the country’s intricacies are paved with the brutalist irregularities of stone.
These stones are beautiful at a glance. Laid in tight, steep switchbacks cutting caminos through Ecuador’s ecologies, cobblestones are the bedrock of rural transportation. But this bedrock will rattle all who pass over them, begging the traveler to slow down and stay just a little longer.

 

The Ugly

It might be just me, but in my dreams, paradise isn’t wet. I rode for days through the green flesh of Ecuador’s tropical coastal plains and coastlines wondering if that would be the day my shoes might dry.

It never was that day.

That is an ugly truth behind the beauty of the tropics: Being there is seldom comfortable. Yet that ugliness relates only to questions of comfort. Below the heavy, low-flying clouds and around the drenched, soiled streets are the colors and majesty of a nature as rich as any in the world.

Over and over, I shivered my way into another dimly lit hotel room where hot water was scarce, and I could only be happy at what had happened. In my ugly discomfort was the majesty that brought me there.

That is an ugly truth behind the beauty of the tropics: Being there is seldom comfortable.

The Takeaway

Ecuador provided a monstrous challenge of faith — not faith in a traditional sense, but faith in a broader stroke. At its origin, the experience was as exciting as it was daunting. At its precipice, when I boarded my plane to Quito, the same feeling lingered. Even as I boarded my flight home three days before the fall semester, the process was still just a terrifying exploration of a dream. Only now, after a steady digestion, do I have confidence in my own capacity to continue to find my feet in my own path of reporting.

As my future beckons, I yearn for more of that terrifying anticipation. I’ve seen that a quest into the unknown is always better than a familiar tale. After all, college isn’t where we go to find answers. It’s where we go to find the next question. Now, I am full of questions. That is how I know I did a good job.