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Downhill to La Paz

"Imagine biking from the top of Mount Blanc, down to sea level - that is what I am offering customers in terms of vertical descents.

"Imagine biking from the top of Mount Blanc, down to sea level - that is what I am offering customers in terms of vertical descents."

New Zealand entrepreneur Alistair Matthew seems to have hit the nail on the head in terms of appealing to peoples' desire to show off a little. All of the mountain bike rides he offers from his company base in La Paz, Bolivia have hair-raising or at least "braggable" value. His rationale is that successful adventure tourism creates conversation.

"People want stories they can tell in the pub when they are back home such as, 'I went to Bolivia and saw the world's largest salt lake and biked down the world's most dangerousroad and dropped 4,300 metres in one ride in one day'."

It's a formula that seems to be working. Since arriving in Bolivia in March 1997 equipped with "10 words of Spanish, a backpack and a bicycle," Matthew has established a steadily growing operation. With an arsenal of 40 imported bikes and a team of six staff, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking now offers punters a variety of thrills. Aside from the "most dangerous road" option, clients can ride down from "the world's highest developed ski slope – Chacaltaya," coast along ancient Inca trails or undertake highly technical mountain to jungle descents.

Last year GAMB sold 1,400 trips and Matthew is confident that number will increase more than 50 per cent this year. GAMB has the lion's share of the mountain bike ride business in La Paz and has by far the biggest selection of trail options. GAMB's marketing is intensive, pushing the quality of the bikes plus the guide and vehicle support backup.

Even better is the location. La Paz provides a virtual springboard into a myriad of existing and untapped trails into the heart of the Andes.

But it has not all been smooth sailing. Alistair said a good Bolivian partnership initially proved elusive, due to potential partners' unrealistic financial expectations and one’s emerging cocaine addiction. After several months of fruitless trial work, a British moutaineering friend, Yossi Brain, directed Alistair to Jasmine Miranda, the Bolivian owner of America Tours in La Paz. The partnership gelled, with each business generating customers for the other.

A contract with Trek Bicycle Corporation USA also secured the importation of quality mountain bikes at factory cost.

Matthew said his four years experience working as a business consultant helped overcome many of the frustrations of setting up.

"To get people talking about the business I stole a marketing idea from when I was at university. This bungee jump outfit was offering free naked jumps and I remember the huge line of naked jumpers that accrued down the streets."

GAMB's successful naked ride promotion is now over, but the tattoo offer is still up for grabs.

"No one has taken me up on it but anyone can get a free tattoo of our company logo," he grinned.

Of course, the question was raised: why choose Bolivia, a country long associated with political troubles and consistently off the main tourist route? Matthew's answer revealed both an entrepreneurial leap in the dark and calculated good luck. Even more so, when you find out he had never set foot in South America before March 1997.

"Most western travellers have done parts of Asia and Europe but hardly any have been to South America. This is changing and five years from now, everyone will know about Bolivia," he says.

Bolivia's political problems, he believes, are exaggerated.

"People know Bolivia as a source of cocaine and the source of political coups, when it is in fact incredibly stable."

However he admits there are still downsides.

"I charge all my trips in US dollars because of fluctuations in the Bolivian

currency and I expect to cancel at least four trips a year because of the road strikes that are so common here."

As it happened, this very situation directly affected my trip out with GAMB. A "72 hour strike" by truckers over the condition of the Yungas Road (GAMB's "most dangerous road in the world" ride), stretched into 10 days as road workers, coca farmers and other locals joined the blockade. As a result, business was lost.

"You have to adopt a philosophical attitude towards it," shrugged Matthew. "It is just the way of South America."

Sure enough, the unique challenges of South America arose again when I opted for the Zongo jungle ride instead. As instructed, 11 clients and I were waiting for our pickup at 8:30 a.m. sharp – "Gringo time, not Bolivian time." Forty minutes later, our hired bus heaved into view – held up by an unexpected military parade through La Paz. Undeterred, our guides Beverly Barnes and Paul MacMillan hustled our group into action and onward to our starting point, the 4,780 metre pass at the base of Mount Huayna Potosi.

After a vigorous safety talk we were allotted our bikes according to our weight, height and experience. My steed for the day was called Odie, alongside other exotic machines called Pink Teletubby, Mystery and Bugs Bunny.

What followed was an amazing road descent through granite mountainsides bursting with llamas, down to the warm jungle below. Extra drama loomed when a runaway bovine charged through our group and when local farm dogs lay in wait for us.

"Just yell and blast through ’em," advised Beverly Barnes, leading the way.

A few spills added to the excitement along with a landslide we helped locals to clear so our support bus could get through. Great stuff!

However the ride also revealed a problem that all adventure tour operators must face: differing abilities. One group member's inexperience and lack of confidence resulted in several waits of up to 45 minutes. People were getting cold. Eventually she got back on the bus but time was too short to complete the ride to Zongo village.

Matthew said differing abilities can pose problems but the main concern was safety.

"The worst of our accidents are testosterone exceeding ability and as such we generally have a guide in the front who sets the pace on the ride," he says. While this does not suit all clients, there is good reason for such caution.

"If the front guide is going slower there may be a 1,000 metre drop off one side, which means a little mistake can have someone falling to their death and we are not happy with that idea."

Injuries to date have been no more serious than broken noses or collarbones. However, liability waivers are a precursor to every trip and personal insurance is encouraged.

As for the future, the sky's the limit. Matthew plans to open an adventure cafe to provide pre-trip breakfasts for clients and, according to his staff, to satisfy his own coffee addiction. Looking 15 years ahead, Alistair has big dreams if all goes well.

"The GAMB concept is good enough and once we have the system developed, I'd like to transplant the idea into other South or Central American countries and start marketing it. The opportunities are endless here!"

Fact File.

Commercial rides with GAMB range from $49 US to $70 US a day, depending on the number of clients and destination. Snacks but not lunch is included.

Multi-day and private trips range from $80 US to $120 US a day.

To contact GAMB in La Paz: