#121: The Apprentice

PERU, 3rd-7th November 2019

“You’re very tall,” I said to Max as I welcomed him off his bus from Lima onto the busy streets of Churin. His was very tall, surprisingly so (that’s why I said it), but I hoped he didn’t take it the wrong way. It was, after all, the way I greeted beautiful blonde girls that I wanted to seduce, something Max would know very well as someone who had read my books and even proclaimed them a motivation for him to pursue his own journey around the world by bicycle. It was a journey that had already had one false start: earlier in the year he’d ridden from his home in Maine to Halifax, Canada, then flown to England and continued briefly east across Europe until an injury to his ribs had forced him off the bike for a while and back home to recover. With winter setting in in the Northern Hemisphere he’d been looking to restart somewhere different and I’d suggested to him that South America was pretty nice, and he’d suggested he liked the sound of Peru, and I’d suggested if he did come to Peru he could ride with us for a bit if he wanted, and he’d suggested that would be a great idea, and I’d suggested he bring us a new tent.

I helped Max carry his stuff to the hotel I’d organised for us, which was fair enough because half of it was my stuff. As well as the new tent, Max had delivered waterproofs for both myself and Dea, brake pads, spokes, bike shorts, stroopwaffels (delicious snacks from the Netherlands which are also available in Maine), and even a set of handlebars. Mine had of course snapped on the descent to Oyon and upon hearing of this misfortune Max had offered to bring me his from the bike he’d been riding during his first round the world attempt. He’d originally been on a heavy touring bike but hadn’t liked the set-up too much, and had now switched to a lighter bikepacking style. He no longer required the parts from his old bike and the drop handlebars were just exactly what I needed, except for the fact that they now proved sadly too wide of girth to fit in my stem. While I thought of a solution to that little problem, I offered to take Max out for lunch to thank him for all his help.

It was an interesting situation to be in the company of someone who knew me so well from my books, and I felt there was no way I could possibly live up to Max’s expectations. I was no longer the fun young traveller he knew from No Wrong Turns, that was for sure. I was now a bitter old man, frankly quite sick of travelling, counting the days to my retirement in Denmark, and only wishing I could get something other than rice and eggs for lunch. But as I tucked into my rice and eggs next to the twenty-year-old Max, a man fifteen years my junior, I had an epiphany. Here was an opportunity for me to find my replacement, a novice to train up to continue my work. Here was my chance to find The Apprentice. Yes, yes, what a super idea. It might even make for a great TV show someday, with me as the gnarly old experienced one. Of course I’d have to pass on all of my great cycle touring insights, including the benefit of eating lots of biscuits, and with my notoriously sweet tooth I could be known simply as Lord Sugar. My search for The Apprentice had begun. I really do have the best, and most original, ideas.

The first task for my new apprentice was to play me at Fifa. I’d noticed a little place where we could play and dragged the jet-lagged Max in for a game of what he might refer to as soccer. The young American had never played Fifa before and it showed, with me running out the comfortable winner. He was clearly feeling quite tired, and wanted to leave after half an hour, but we’d paid for an hour, and I thought it was important that I teach Max a thing or two about not quitting early on things, so I forced him to sit back down and take another 5-0 beating.

With that first lesson dealt with I next led Max back to our hotel room for a tutorial in bike maintenance. I had by now come up with a cunning plan as to how to get my handlebars to function. To be honest, my handlebars were one of the very few original parts left from the bike I set out on back in 2010, and I didn’t really want to have to replace them. My cunning plan was therefore especially brilliant, as it also meant that I could keep them, or what was left of them. With Max lying down exhausted on his bed, I set my own bed up as a workbench, and got out the new handlebars he had brought me, as well as a cheap steak knife I had for spreading peanut butter and such things.

“Do you have a problem with me doing this?” I asked, as much to make sure the half-asleep Max was paying attention to the lesson as anything else.

“No, no,” he said, obviously aware of my superior bike maintenance brilliance, and I began to saw.

The cheap steak knife was no hacksaw, but it had a serrated edge, and it cut through the handlebars like a knife through, well, handlebars. It took the best part of an hour for me to get through it, but I didn’t mind; as well as bike maintenance Max was also getting a good lesson in perseverance. Double whammy. I gave a good loud cheer when the knife finally cleared the bars, partly to see I’d avoided tearing the bedsheets, and partly to make sure Max hadn’t dozed off. I then slid the third of the handlebars I’d cut off over the broken end of my old handlebars like a sleeve. Unfortunately there was still a slight bend in the corner of the old bars and therefore they didn’t quite fit inside. I had to get the cheap steak knife back out and cut through the old bars too. This took an equally long time. But I didn’t cut quite enough off and I had to cut again. I consoled myself with what a thoroughly good lesson in perseverance Max was getting, or would be getting if he wasn’t snoring. But eventually I got both of the handlebars to the right length and they fitted together very nicely. I then woke Max up to give the first of many lessons on the incredible usefulness of electrical tape, and fitted my new two-tone handlebars to my bike, good as new.

Early the next morning Max and I went to the hot springs in Churin. The previous two days, a holiday weekend, they had been packed with tourists from Lima and elsewhere, but this Monday morning we had them all to ourselves. Why they’re so popular with tourists, I’m not sure, for they were pretty cold hot springs. The only place we found that was nice and warm was in a hidden grotto, which is apparently where couples like to go for some private time. “Don’t get any ideas,” I said, just in case Max really had taken the “You’re very tall” comment the wrong way, but luckily young Max respected rule number one of The Apprentice: Don’t go making moves on Lord Sugar.

We then walked back to our hotel and got our things together, and it was time for Max’s big moment. Here he was restarting his world tour at a random point in a random town in a random country, and remembering my triumphant return to Mori I said, “Maybe you’ll be back here one day, completing your journey.”

“Maybe,” Max said, sounding worryingly unconvinced, and we began pedalling.

Before we were even out of town I realised that my handlebars were a bit ‘twisty’, but there wasn’t much to do about that now. I decided I just wouldn’t put too much pressure on my left side for a while, and on we went with a climb up through a beautiful valley in the direction of Oyon. I knew it was a beautiful valley because I’d ridden down it a few days earlier. Originally I’d been planning to wait for Max in Oyon, but it hadn’t turned out to be the most pleasant place to stay, with the only hotel willing to accept me placing me in a room next to the communal bathroom, which had a habit of overflowing and, well, the less said about that the better. I’d escaped the next morning down to Churin, which being a tourist town had much nicer hotels, and at 2,200 metres above sea level was a better place for Max to begin his acclimatisation from anyway. And it meant he could ease into cycling around the world on a nice, quiet, well-paved road that climbed steadily back up towards the high Andes.

Along the way I challenged Max to name the ten countries in the world that are made up of just four letters. This wasn’t a task exactly, but perhaps a test into his willingness to engage in fun and games while riding around the world. To my delight, Max threw himself into it with gusto, a promising sign for the young apprentice, although it took him a worryingly long time to come up with the first country, Peru. And as the afternoon wore on and we made our way higher up the valley he gradually ticked off most of the other countries. I won’t tell you what they are, in case you want to play yourself. It was obviously a very fun time had by all, but towards the end of the day Max began to tire, and I saw him behind me as he stepped off and began to walk his bike up a set of switchbacks. It was another worrying development.I stopped to take a photo.

“Don’t worry, I won’t show it to anyone,” I lied.

“You just want it for blackmail?”

“Exactly. And I might not even write about it in a book or anything.”

Jokes aside, it was a slightly concerning moment. This road was not particularly steep, nor gravel, nor at particularly high altitude, all things that lay ahead of us on a road that over the coming days would continue to climb to a peak of over 4,700 metres. Was Max up to the challenge? Only time would tell, but for now it was time to make camp. I found us a nice spot in a patch of forest and we set up our tents. It was the first time Max had really wild camped, and we had a nice evening together making dinner and chatting about the life of the bike traveller. Overall it had been a pretty good first day – we’d climbed up to 3,300 metres, and Max had got nine out of the ten countries with four letters in their name. Not a bad start. We said goodnight, and as I lay down in my tent I heard a shout pierce the silence of the forest. “MALI!” Yeah, he had a chance, this kid.

It was seven and a half kilometres in the morning until we reached Oyon, which looked a bit nicer in the sunshine than it had in the rain of my first visit. I was after a welder to fix the two parts of my handlebars together with something more durable than electrical tape, and after a bit of being pointed around by locals we found just the place. It was an outdoor metal workshop with several men busy welding, hammering, and generally doing manly things with metal. I unattached my handlebars (from the frame, not from each other) and took them in to show what it was I wanted doing. Alas, the man I asked shook his head and said welding them together wasn’t possible, due to the fact that one set was aluminium and the other steel. I was sure that couldn’t really matter that much, but he refused to do it, and I cursed my luck at having found such a competent welder. I looked outside at my apprentice, worried he was losing faith in my ingenuity now I was stuck with such twisty handlebars. He might have been thinking my ingenuity had failed, but I knew what was actually needed now was a little more ingenuity, so I approached the man with the hammer. He was fitting two pieces of pipes together, one inside of the other, and hammering them tight, and clearly this was just exactly what needed to be done to my handlebars too. I asked him to do it, and he showed even more ingenuity by squeezing an extra piece of thin metal in between the two sections of handlebar to make things tighter, and then hammering it all together. I thanked him for his efforts and refitted my now ever-so-slightly-less-twisty-than-before handlebars back to my bike, good as new. I was sure Max was impressed with everything he was learning.

Beyond Oyon the road turned to gravel as we continued on up towards the 4,700 metre pass. That was too much altitude to gain in one day though, so I’d planned for us to make camp at a lake I knew of on the way up, at around 4,100 metres. There were quite a few trucks along the way that covered us in dust, but overall it was pretty nice cycling with some beautiful bare mountains to look at. Max once again grew tired and had to walk a few sections, but he did okay really, and we reached the lake by mid-afternoon. It really was a stunning place, as you can see by the photos. Unfortunately Max was exhausted and retired to his tent early, before we had time for a game of High-Altitude-Eureka-Ball, which was certainly a black mark against him.

The next morning I thought it important we get The Apprentice back on track, and I gave a lesson to my young pupil on how to maintain at least a notional attempt at good hygiene. The lake was looking especially beautiful with the mountains reflecting off its surface, and I celebrated by jumping in it. It was certainly very ‘refreshing’ and I got out again as quickly as I possibly could, much colder and marginally cleaner than before. To my disappointment Max failed to follow suit, preferring to remain warm and smelly. I was a little disappointed, and to be honest I was now beginning to wonder if he was really going to earn my £250,000 investment.

The previous night we’d seen trucks backed up on the opposite side of the lake where the road had been temporarily closed, and, keen not to be held up by another road closure, I suggested we get through that section before breakfast. Max agreed, and we began. I was hoping not to be held up, because we had a long and tough day ahead of us. We had to ride up and over the 4,700 metre pass, but not only that, we had to then make a slight descent down to 4,500 metres, then climb again over 4,600 metres before finally descending down to 4,000 metres again. If we didn’t make it through to that descent we’d be in trouble, because spending the night at 4,500 metres or higher would be quite likely to lead to altitude sickness, especially in the less-acclimatised Max.

After we made it around the lake, the dirt road began to climb quite steeply and Max was struggling with it almost straight away. The construction work continued, and one of the workers told us that the road would be closed sometime after midday, making it even more urgent for us to press on in order to make it back to a safe altitude. It was going to be a tough ask, especially as the exhausted-looking Max was already walking it all. He was suffering with the altitude and the difficulty of the unpaved road, which was fair enough. He’d not done much cycling in the past couple of months, and now here he was taking on a challenging Andean mountain pass at high altitude. Anybody would find that extremely difficult.It could certainly be considered a worthy first week task for The Apprentice. If he could do this, he could surely do anything.

“Do you think you can do this?” I asked, “Or do you need to go back down to Oyon?”

“Well, I’ve got two choices,” Max said, sitting down on a rock, “take a ride to Cerro de Pasco, or go back down to Oyon.”

Cerro de Pasco was the city we were hoping to reach the following day on the other side of the pass. I was disappointed to hear that Max no longer believed he was going to be able to cycle there. I mean, he wasn’t going to be able to cycle there, he was walking, but I didn’t think he should give up on making it there under his own power just yet. I told him that it was still early in the day, that his walking pace wasn’t much slower than my cycling pace, and that he could still do this. I also pointed out that if he could do this, he could do anything, and I really meant that. I hoped that if he could just get over this incredibly challenging first hurdle, he would find it easier to do whatever else would come his way on his bicycle travels. Max agreed to continue.

We struggled on. The roadworks continued. At one point I saw a sign that said the road would be closed after 12:30 from Kilometre 66, which was the top of the pass. I began to get worried that we weren’t going to be able to make it in time, and the thought struck me that if we were in the middle of all the construction when they needed to close the road, they might well try and force us to take a lift out of the area in a motor vehicle. This was obviously an awful thought to me, and, I hoped, to any potential apprentice. I explained my concerns to Max. “If they do that, I’ll just take a ride,” he said.

I resisted the temptation to say “You’re fired,” and instead told Max I would wait for him at the top of the pass, and rode on ahead of him alone. It was a really tough climb at such altitude, with the road not only being steep, but also muddy and rocky in places. The road switchbacked up the mountain, and I could see Max below me, still steadily plugging away, walking his bike. I kept on pedalling hard to get to the summit before the deadline, but I was forced to stop for fifteen minutes by a construction crew. I found a temporary road closure minutes before a more permanent road closure to be a very frustrating thing indeed, but I waited patiently and was eventually allowed to continue. I pressed on through my own growing exhaustion, and finally made it to the summit at 12:20. A little over ten minutes later Max joined me, having apparently been told to hurry on the final section before the road closed. We had both made it just in time and I gave Max a congratulatory hug. I was genuinely very impressed he’d made it. He’d shown the guts and character necessary to cycle around the world, and I reminded him again that he’d probably never have to do anything harder than this.

But we still had a long way to go to get to a safe altitude for camping. We descended down to some flat plains, then had another climb on the other side of them. The road was in better shape here and less steep, but Max still walked most of it. He really was looking rather tired, but I had to keep us moving, knowing that a night spent at such altitude would do him no good at all. The road began to descend, only to go back up again. Another section of construction work held us up for twenty minutes, at which point it began to hail. Max confirmed that this was probably the toughest day of his life.

Finally we made it to the last true summit, and the long descent to safety began. Here Max found his true calling, and raced down ahead of me. It was a gloriously long descent that took us back down to 4,000 metres. The hail had passed and things were looking good as we reached the area I’d intended for us to sleep, and there appeared to be a good spot down by a little stream. But as I pointed it out to Max he informed me that he’d rather not wild camp as his sleeping bag was wet. I was a little taken aback. I’d been talking about camping here all day and I wasn’t sure how he’d failed to mention this until now. I was tired and hungry and a grumpy old man, and I just wanted to put my tent up and get some dinner and sleep, but Max wanted to go to a nearby village and try and find a building to sleep in. I knew that was going to be a big hassle at the end of a long day, but I figured I’d let Max find that out for himself.

We rode to the village where I was surprised to find there actually was a hospedaje. What I wasn’t surprised by was that it was all locked up and no one knew how to get in, not even the guy who lived there. We pressed on. There was another village in three and a half kilometres. It as a little bigger, but there were no accommodation options. To his credit, Max persevered and showed great ingenuity (it seemed the lessons were paying off) and found a local man to help. After an awfully long phone call the man said we could sleep above the dental surgery, and found us a key. He led us up a set of wooden stairs into a room with a couple of beds. The mattresses had certainly seen better days and the air inside the room was thick and musty. Once the man was gone Max turned to me and said that he couldn’t sleep in here, and he would just put his tent up outside. I had to agree that was a good idea, for there was surely less oxygen in this stuffy room than there had been at the top of the mountain pass. So we ended up sleeping in our tents, outside of a dental surgery, a couple of hours after we could have been sleeping in our tents next to a nice little stream.

We were on our way early the next morning, hoping to make it to Cerro de Pasco. There was a big climb out of town that we hadn’t anticipated, back up to 4,500 metres. It was tough on Max, who was looking like he was regretting ever having applied for The Apprentice. His fair skin had been turned lobster red by the high-altitude sun and he’d woken up with a mysteriously puffy eye. He’d also picked up a stomach bug and his ribs were beginning to hurt again. I’ve always been of the opinion that the first days of a big trip are the best, when everything is new and exciting and all the world is ahead. Max was on the morning of day four and he looked like this was the worst experience of his life. He looked like a broken man.

The top of the climb brought some respite, and the rest of the day was spent riding across a fairly flat plateau. The road was all ours, the grassy plains dotted with herds of llamas and alpacas. This was the real Peru, this was what we’d come here for. Max’s bike found its element on the dirt road and it seemed like he actually enjoyed this ride as we counted down the kilometres towards Cerro de Pasco.

By early afternoon we were on the edge of what is sometimes referred to as the highest city in the world. Max had a map on his phone and as I didn’t (we usually use the map on Dea’s phone) I decided I would just follow him. He had an app that was guiding him on a bicycling route, which took us on some very quiet roads. That would be a wonderful way to navigate through a Western city, but in our present location I was a bit concerned it was going to lead us into a dangerous neighbourhood. Certainly it was leading us on some incredibly steep streets, and we also seemed to be going around in circles through the narrow alleys and avenues. I asked him how much further it was to the hotel we were aiming for, thinking it might be a better idea to take a more direct road. “Two kilometres,” Max said, and rode onwards following his phone. Unfortunately, his phone told him to make a turn the wrong way down a one-way street.

“This is a one-way street!” I shouted, but Max had already made the turn. I followed him, hoping it wouldn’t be too busy and we could soon get off it. But the road was busy, very busy, and we were both forced to a stop, pinned against the side of the narrow road as a stream of traffic came down the hill towards us. Max was ahead of me, at a pinch point where two roads converged into this one, both of them one-way streets the worng way. This was a very dangerous situation, and I wasn’t willing to proceed any further. As the road cleared momentarily I shouted up to Max, “This is a one-way street, we need to go back.”

Max’s reaction was to take advantage of the gap in the traffic to continue off up the hill, leaving me behind. I was shocked and not a little annoyed. He would later pass the whole thing off as a misunderstanding, but my impression at the time was that he’d heard what I’d said, thought my concerns about the one-way street were unwarranted, and that I would just follow him. Well, he was wrong about that. Lord Sugar doesn’t follow anyone the wrong way up dangerous one-way streets, and that’s a sure fact. I was beginning to tire of this apprentice thing anyway, and this latest development certainly hadn’t improved Max’s chances.

I turned around and cycled the correct way down the one-way street. Suddenly I was all alone in a big city without a map, and I had to call on all my ingenuity to find my way. This involved heading for a bigger road and then asking for directions, just like the good old days. After a good fifteen minutes or so I found myself back at the one-way street I’d come down, having gone around in a complete circle, but that was alright, because it gave me a chance to take a photo of the one-way street so you can see what it looked like.

After another twenty minutes or so I blundered upon the centre, just as it started to rain. There was a hotel that would take me, though it wasn’t the one Max had ended up at. We reconnected online and I was still pretty annoyed at the way he’d ridden off. He passed it off as a misunderstanding and we made up, but I was still a little frustrated at the way this whole apprentice thing was turning out. Then I had another epiphany. I had the format of the show all wrong. I wasn’t supposed to go with the apprentice, give him lessons, show him how I thought it should be done. I was supposed to set him a task and let him get on with it, then meet up with him later on and see how he got on. And decide whether or not to fire him based on the observations of Karen Brady.

“I think I’d like to spend some time cycling with Dea for a bit,” I wrote to Max (Dea was making her own way towards Cerro de Pasco on the paved roads and we were due to meet the following day.) “Maybe it’ll be good for you to go it alone for a bit, and then we can maybe meet up somewhere further south.”

Yes, this was perfect. I’d done my best to teach Max a few things about cycling the world, and now here was his chance to show what he could do by himself. He could go it alone for a while and then we could meet up later in Peru, and I’d be able to assess his true suitability for the role as The Apprentice. Great!

It was a few days before I heard from Max again, and I was keen to find out how he was getting on. Well, he’d taken a bus from Cerro de Pasco to Lima, flown to London, declared that he was officially no longer cycling around the world, and was presently recovering from his ordeal at an airBnb in Slough.

Lord Sugar’s search for his next apprentice goes on.


8 thoughts on “#121: The Apprentice

  1. Hi Chris, I’m a bit worried your amazing new handlebars might succumb to galvanic corrosion before too long. Steel and aluminum don’t go together, welded or otherwise.

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    1. Hi Peter

      Thanks for the feedback. Not sure if you got the joke about The Apprentice – I was just parodying the British version of the TV show in this blogpost. It wasn’t actually how things were in real life, not like I was actually judging Max in reality, or even setting him tasks. In the blog I was trying to create a story, put an interesting angle on things, make fun of myself as a pretty useless old teacher to be honest, and just make some fun out of it. I don’t know if you know the TV show, maybe you didn’t get it because of that, I’m not sure?

      Anyway, Max certainly had the idea that he wanted to cycle around the world, but he pretty quickly realised that it wasn’t really for him and he’s now travelling in other ways, which is great, and is probably the best thing for him. I never made him do anything, he wanted to come out to Peru and cycle, and when he did I did my best to help him all that I could. If I pushed him to keep going at times it was to make sure we got to a safe elevation and he didn’t get altitude sickness. I was never actually setting him tasks or demanding anything of him (except maybe to finish the Fifa games). I certainly never set myself up as responsible for making his dreams come true. He wanted to try cycling around the world. He tried it. He realised it wasn’t for him. Now he’s doing something else. Not sure if you think I pushed him too much or didn’t push him enough, but either way it’s not really up to me – the reality is he’s a grown man who made his own choices.

      Thanks again for the feedback,
      Chris

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