If you’re bicycle touring internationally, you may find yourself standing at the border between two countries with intent to cross from one to another. You may get lucky and your destination country uses the same money as your own. But in many cases you will need to change a little money. I’ve already written about how to arrange your travel documents to make border crossing go smoothly, but none of that does you any good if you’re using the wrong kind of currency. This article is the second of a three part series about crossing international borders on a bicycle. Money and how to exchange it…
Image: Official Ecuadorian Currency
Cash Rules the World: Duh. Cash is likely the single most important material possession that you will carry with you on tour. If you need food you will use cash to buy it. If you need bike parts, a few bucks will buy that too. If you need someone to help you, a few rupees of baksheesh might just be what you need to convince them to do so. Even if you lose your passport and travel documents, pay a few bucks to hitch to an embassy and pay a few more to have them replaced. Cash may also be the limiting reagent for your tour. For many a tourist, when the money runs out the tour is over. But if you have the wrong money at the wrong time, you might as well be using Monopoly money.
Image: Monopoly money - which is surprising useful if you’re actually playing Monopoly. And please…set yourself up for success and buy the orange properties.
FIRST! Research Research Research: If you read the piece about travel documents, you will recognize this familiar refrain. You need to know what the exchange rate is BEFORE you go to change money. Failure to know this tidbit of knowledge greatly increases your chance of getting ripped off. Where do you find this valuable information? Go to the internet of course. I like x-rates.com. And while you’re there take a look at the stability of the currency. In some countries, the currency is so unstable you may be better off sticking with US Dollars or Euros anyways.
The Black Market: There are a few ways to exchange cash during your tour. The first of these methods is a black market money changer. This could just be a smarmy guy carrying a wad of bills who touts near the border crossing. You can use these guys. I did once because I had no choice. It resulted in a hilarious situation where we both sat down in a restaurant and pulled out our calculators together much to the entertainment of the other patrons. Your results may differ and if you go this route do recognize you’re taking a risk. Remember you will want to know the exchange rate in advance as the rates will probably not be posted. I prefer to do the transaction in a semi-public place so my chance of being mugged is reduced. Opinions on this will differ greatly so assess the situation and act accordingly.
Money Changing Establishments: These are small places that specialize in changing money. You may find these in the airport or around border crossings. Some of these are affiliated with banks and some are not. The exchange rates at these houses are generally not great. But they do usually have their rates posted so that’s good. I find that the exchange houses near the borders are good to get a minimum amount of cash required until I find my way to a larger city with ATMs.
Banks: Many of the larger banks will change money for you. In my experience banks generally offer the worst rates with the highest fees. They do offer high security, a posted exchange rate, and ATMs (more about this later). Banks also offer the ability to cash advance a credit card, receive a wire transfer, or exchange traveler’s checks. Fees for these transactions may be high so watch out.
ATMs: ATMs are my preferred method of getting money in a foreign country. The exchange rate from ATMs is generally the best you can find. Bills are usually in excellent condition, but they’re also frequently of high denomination so they may not be immediately usable. Using ATM’s can also reduce the amount of cash you have on your person at any given time.
Credit Cards: Credit cards can also be used for purchases and cash advances. Just watch the fees. Credit cards charge extra for cash advances and many of them also charge a service fee for changing money – even for credit card purchases – so read your terms and conditions carefully. A great exchange rate doesn’t do you much good if they’re taking 5% off the top.
At some point in the future, I’ll write about how I like to manage my money on the road. Good luck out there.
Now go out and cross some borders!
Last week I talked about my first foray onto Mammoth Mountain. What I didn’t talk about was my encounter with perhaps the most famous mountain bike downhill run in the country. The Kamikaze.
Image: Hiking and Skid Marks to the left, instant death to the right
The Downhill Race: Downhill racing is essentially a downhill time trial style race. The timing is sort of like downhill skiing. Racers compete by being timed individually on their runs. Fastest time wins. Modern racers ride bicycles that are designed specifically for high speed, downhill trail rides. These trails are usually very rugged, and the bikes are designed specifically to handle steep drops, long jumps, and embedded rocks of varying size. The bikes are heavy and relatively inefficient for pedaling, but have loads of suspension and stability. They are designed to be literally pointed downhill for maximum effect. The riders of these machines have fast reflexes, fine balance, and nerves of steel. They typically wear protective gear to include full face helmets, pads, and plastic guards for protection in case of grief.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Mammoth Mountain Day 2: That morning started with me at Footloose Sports again only to discover that they didn’t have a full suspension bike in my size. As I started eyeballing the hard tails, the shop offered a great discount on a high end Intense Tracer 275. This bike is a 6” travel all mountain bike with 27.5” wheels. The wheel size splits the difference between the more traditional 26” and the 29” and is rumored to possess the positive attributes of both. This bike is a sweet sweet ride and I’m thankful to Footloose for letting me take her out for a spin. I rode this bike all morning, and by afternoon, I was eager to open her up on some faster terrain. Kamikaze was calling my name.
The Kamikaze: As I wrote last week, Mammoth Mountain has dozens of trails serving riders of all abilities. Many of these trails are called double black diamond which denotes a high degree of difficulty. Other trails are just plain old regular black diamond which are allegedly slightly less difficult but still scary as hell to the uninitiated. One of the most famous in the world is located right on Mammoth Mountain and is called The Kamikaze.
Image: Looking down the throat of Kamikaze. And behind me…well…Skid Marks
The interesting thing about Kamikaze is that its not even a trail. Kamikaze is just a dirt road that is used by service vehicles to access the top of mammoth mountain. According to legend, some ballsy bikers back in the 80s decided to race down this road and were able to achieve speeds of over 60 mph. Soon thereafter, pro riders including John Tomac were hauling ass down the mountain for bragging rights and glory. Even today, racers of all abilities go to Mammoth Mountain to test their courage and prowess on the slippery surfaces of Kamikaze. Note that this “road” isn’t paved or particularly well groomed. The surface is loose and washboardy. Sure its wide and there are no jumps, but going 60 mph on this road is nuts. Doing it in spandex with a regular helmet and on a 80s vintage full rigid mountain bike is…well…amazing. Watch this video to get an idea of the craziness.
My Ride Down Kamikaze: I have a habit of biting off more than I can chew, but I have almost always considered it to be worth the risk. Kamikaze is no exception. Being on the same mountain as a trophy ride such as this is something I simply could not resist. So one afternoon in late August 2013, I rode my rented Intense Tracer 275 down Kamikaze - one of the most famous downhill runs in the world. To an outside observer, it was a tentative, brisk coast down a fire road on a bike with very hot brakes. But in my world - the only world that mattered to me for those 11 minutes - it was a ride of speed, concentration, and unexpected beauty.
Thousands of riders - many of them the best in the world - had tested themselves to the limits of speed and courage on this very run. I am fortunate to have this unexpected opportunity to coast behind them and appreciate their skill and what they have accomplished.
Opportunities like this abound. When you’re out riding take a look and maybe a special or historic route is nearby that you can pedal and appreciate. You won’t regret it!
So I was in California for my wife’s family reunion, but I had a couple days to burn before I head back to PA to join them. My original plan was to cycle down the California coast from Crescent City to San Francisco but those plans were ruined when I learned that U.S. Air’s bicycle baggage fee is $200 each way. My fault for not checking in advance, but come on. That’s ridiculous. So I traveled here without my bike.
After some wishing and washing, I decided to head up to Mammoth Mountain. Mammoth is an outdoor recreation area in the Sierra Mountain range in California. In the summer, there is hiking, cycling, and paddling. In the winter its skis and snowboards. Late August is a good time to visit. At that time, they are at the leading edge of the shoulder season so the trails are not crowded and accommodations are still available.
Since I am bikeless (screw you U.S. Air!) I rented a Norco Fluid - 29 inch full suspension four inch travel cross country rig from Footloose Sports for 51 bucks. Footloose is a pretty good shop, and I think the price was fair. The bike was in good mechanical order, and they were kind enough to put my own pedals on and adjust the suspension. I’m not crazy about their you break it you buy it policy. I understand why they do it, but its pretty easy to damage a mountain bike and sometimes things just break because they are due to break, and I’m not sure its fair to have the consumer so directly cover that. But the shop did say that repairs would be at cost and they seem like straight shooters so it’s probably all fine. And some consumers are downright abusive. Some of the other shops have optional insurance you can buy for $6 that covers most things that would break from normal use on a trail. I think that approach may be better.
Image: The bike at rest in the shade.
The Bike: The Norco Fluid outfitted like this one is about a $2000 machine. It performed very well. It was quick on the climb and handled very well on descents at speed. It was my first time on a 29er and I was impressed by its ability to absorb chatter and washboard. I love my 26” Ellsworth, but I think my next buy will have 29 inch wheels.
The Norco was also equipped with the Fox Float CTD (Climb-Trail-Descend) rear shock. This shock has a lever with three positions. You move the lever to the position indicated by the type of terrain on which you are riding. In the Climb position, the rear suspension is held almost completely immobile for the maximum power transfer to the rear wheel. In Descend mode, the rear suspension is fully active to maintain control as the bike moves quickly over rough terrain. The Trail position is in between for running on moderately level terrain with a balance of pedal efficiency and shock response. I was happy to see that the CTD feature made a huge difference in the performance of the bicycle through the various types of terrain. If I get a new bicycle, I will be looking for CTD as I am already a fan of Fox. In fact I may even look to upgrade my Ellsworth.
The Trails: Mammoth has everything from family friendly bike trails to hard core double black diamond descents. My style of riding falls somewhere in the middle so that’s what I rode. My first foray was heading up from the Village and climbing up the mountain on the following trails - Uptown, Break Through, Lincoln Express, Lower Skid Marks, Juniper, and Downhill. This ride took me three hours so I coasted back down to Mammoth Lakes to relax and eat some lunch. The ride varied from about 8,000 to 9,000 feet so I was pretty winded through a lot of it.
After lunch, I decided to ride again so I took the shuttle and gondola up to the top of the mountain for a beautiful ride down. There is no way to ride to the top of the mountain, and even if there was I didn’t have the energy or time to do it. The ride down was on the back side of the mountain on Off the Top and Beach Cruiser trails. I took a 15 minute break at the Adventure Center and then rode the Downtown trail back to the Village and then onward via road to Mammoth Lakes. I really enjoyed the ride down. The trails are technical enough to be exciting but still very negotiable even if I were on a hard tail. Many of the switchbacks are banked - some even with concrete and these are a lot of fun since you can really lean in hard with speed and keep the momentum up.
Final Words: The 29 inch wheels live up to the hype at least for my style of riding. I also give the Fox CDT rear shock high marks. The trails of Mammoth Mountain and the infrastructure to support the trails and the riders is quite simply awesome. The fact that they support double black diamond riders, families with kids in trailers, and everyone in between is quite good.
I turned my rental bike back in today, but I think I’ll rent another one tomorrow and try to pedal a few more trails before heading back south.
Image: Giant eagle attacking bicycle
In the mean time, go out and find your adventure!