Colombia is all about road racing, with pint-sized riders famed for nailing it up climbs faster than anyone else in the business. Across the border though, whilst Ecuadorian’s have a similar penchant for slogging up hills, it’s the mountain bike that reigns supreme. And, as I’ve been discovering in my recent off-road quests, it’s easy to see why.
In the Quilotoa to Chimborazo Chapter I touched on the fact that we unwittingly signed ourselves up to a mountain bike race upon arriving in the town of Salinas; ‘Reto Salinas’. It was a bold move; frankly we were spent from the previous days exertions, but the inner competitive cyclist in each of us prevailed and soon we were unbolting pannier racks and fixing race numbers to our trusty steeds. Partly a race against each other, both being remarkably similar in pace, and partly a show of defiance against the $5,000 polished to perfection carbon race machines that all other participants seemed to possess. A final motivational delivery came in the form of one of the race organizers taking one look at our scruffy appearances and muddy bikes, and trying to convince us to ride in the lesser distance ‘sport’ category; “There’s a big climb at the start you know” “it’s only for strong riders” “…and there’s a six hour cut off” “this joker hasn’t even got suspension”. Already aware we’d spent the last year pedaling from Alaska and recent weeks scaling countless Andean passes, this was all slightly exasperating, and I tried to assure him as politely as I could that we were pretty reasonable cyclists.
And so at 8am the following day we found ourselves lined up in the ‘Elite’ category amongst a sea of shaved legs and fancy bikes. It would seem the racing scene here is rather dominated by those with money (or sponsorship). At 63km with a ton of climbing this was more of an endurance event than all out sprint, so when the gun fired I was slightly taken aback by the feisty pace. Having never been much good at moderating efforts I instinctively jumped into the lead group and almost immediately we were onto singletrack. Along with the usual testosterone charged race chaos, with a crash after the first km, there were some uniquely Ecuadorian features, such as farmer leading his herd of cattle down the same track.
They weren’t joking about the tough initial climb, at 18km and reaching an altitude of 4400m, it was brutal and if you weren’t acclimatized you had no chance. Fortunately this is basically what I’d been doing for the past couple of weeks and when we eventually topped out I wasn’t far off the leaders. Things went less well as we started the rocky descent though and I’m blaming a combination of no suspension, drop bars and over-inflated tyres for the fact I lost a load of places here. I could barely hold on. For some reason I’d assumed everyone would be crap at descending. I was wrong.
By this point the field had spread out so much that I was mainly riding completely alone, passing the odd shack with bemused indigenous farmers staring at me as I struggled past. Drooling through my chocolate covered beard, with hint of banana debris, I was barely able to muster an exhausted smile, let alone a ‘Buenos Dias’.
The next big climb featured the dreaded Ecuadorian cobblestone, but surprisingly I was able to claw back two places and even managed to hold them off on the subsequent decent. Things were looking good until near the top of the final climb when I glanced back in surprise to see that the same pair were reeling me in and now only 50m or so back. Panicking I used what little energy there was left to drag myself over the summit knowing they were right on me. All that remained now was a 5km dirt road descent back to Salinas, the same route we’d taken into town the day before. This recon proved invaluable; I knew you didn’t need to brake for the wide corners, so without looking back I was finally able capitalize on the drop bars; getting low and bombing it. It was a fitting finale to an epic race and I managed to put a fair gap into them, screeching into town and across the finish line in 6th place. Not a bad result given the circumstances and a definite ‘up yours’ to the doubters.
It wasn’t a win, it was nowhere near it, in fact the winner had already changed by the time I finished, but it caught people’s attention. Who was this scruffy gringo? And why on earth is he riding with drop bars and no suspension? Word soon got round about the trip and before long I felt like a minor celebrity, summoned for an awkward TV interview and photographed with countless different people. Sam rolled in a respectable 20 minutes or so back and received a similar hero’s reception.
All in all a brilliantly impromptu day of racing and unique insight into the booming mountain bike scene out here.