In November of 1990, I cycled through Nicaragua. I rode a stock mountain bike loaded with 70 lbs. of gear in its panniers. I mounted this cheap steed after checking through customs at the Honduran/Nicaraguan border. It was mostly smooth sailing after that.
When I tell most people that I bicycled through Nicaragua, it seems to conjure images of rutted, muddy paths through thick tropical rainforest. Most people are shocked, shocked I tell you, when they learn that I pedaled upon bitumen—blacktop—south through the country until I reached Costa Rica.
Okay, but this blacktop, surely it must have been rugged—bombed out from years of armed conflict between the Sandinistas and the Contras?
There were bullet holes everywhere. Not a structure escaped, it seemed, without taking automatic weapons fire. Every little tienda in every town—Condega, Ciudad Darío, Estelí—was pockmarked, but the roads were incredibly sound.
Of course, memory is a funny thing. It could be that the roads were much worse than I remember, and that there was simply so much stimuli that I did not focus on the quality of the pavement. All I know is that such discomforts as I both recorded in my travel journal and remember concerned the sweltering heat or the torrential rain, the pain in my legs or the numbness in my hands.
I can’t help thinking about road conditions, today, after a 32-mile out and back from Longfellow, along River Road in St. Paul, through downtown, then out through Battle Creek Regional Park, and then finally tackling that long ascent of Lower Afton Road until Century Avenue.
Road conditions varied greatly. The parkway pavement was fairly smooth, both on the roads and on the paths, although there is a rather tumulus section of the parkway path along Shepherd Road between 35E and S. Smith Avenue. Tree roots had snaked themselves just under the surface like so many anacondas, and this required some tricky bike handling. I could either try to weave a serpentine path of my own around the bigger bumps, or I could get down into the drops and power my way over them.
Then there was that treacherous section of gravel directly beneath the Lafayette Bridge, which was like biking through sand almost. One nervous jerk of the handlebars and I would have jackknifed and flipped my Fuji. Thankfully, I was not traveling fast and this segment was short, so I was soon back onto the clean, parkway pavement that runs between the river and Warner Road.
Down in the wetlands of Battle Creek Regional Park, the boggy conditions had undermined the bike path over the years, which made for a sort of wavy ride until I came out on the south side and joined up with the Great River Road.
I am happy to report that I navigated the various road conditions without incident. Had I been outfitted today like I was when I cycled across Nicaragua, I don’t know how I would have fared. Would I have been able to labor over those roots on Shepherd Road? Would I have slogged successfully through that loose gravel under the Lafayette Bridge hauling 70 lbs. of gear in my panniers? Would I have navigated that wavy pavement in Battle Creek Regional Park?
Whatever the result, I do know one thing: I am glad that I was wearing a helmet today and not the baseball cap I wore across all that smooth pavement in Nicaragua.