Aug 10, 2014.
This race was intent on bruising us, pummeling us, then it patted us on the back and told us to go climb the last 600m.
The alpacas we keep passing, they’re solo or sometimes in pairs grazing on the hillsides, they look up with faces incredulous that anyone would come up to their land clad only in this Lycra and not the warmest wool. The sheep though, they’re much more nonplussed.
So. Yesterday Paul and I had a long day ahead of us, woke up at 2600m and due to climb first to the next town at 3200m, then immediately up over a 4250m pass en route to Chimborazo. Chimborazo invokes fame for being the highest volcano in a country chocked full of them, and what’s more, its peak is the farthest point from the center of the Earth. Great destination if you’re a mountain person. But Paul and I got sidetracked. In that 3200m town, we beelined for the local store and stocked up on Coke, cookies, cheese, bread. While eating, a woman came up and asked if we had heard of the “giro” happening tomorrow? Nearby in Salinas, the next town over! No, we hadn’t, but Ecuador claims to be the South American country for mountain bikers (road cyclists see Colombia), and we’ve both been on the road for a year and figured we’d have a shot at representing well. So off we go to Salinas, meaning we get to avoid that 4250m pass and only have to go over a 4000m one instead. It’s important to rest that day before a race, right?
Arrival in Salinas mid-afternoon, it’s another small town and immediately we’re whisked off to the race organizers. Only 1 problem to solve before registering: Paul’s rear shifter cable rusted and snapped a few days ago, he’s been limping since then with really only the gears of his two lowest chainrings. Race singlespeed? Not a category here. There’s no bike shop in Salinas, but the organizers say come back in two hours, someone will bring one. So we find a place to stay and strip the gear from the bikes, rub off the worst of the accumulated dirt and dust and clean chains. This is as much as we’ll clean the bikes, they’re mountain bikes, we’re going to get dirty tomorrow. At the race start, everyone else shows up on bikes so spotlessly cleaned they might as well have come directly from a shop floor. Category-wise, we’re put into the Elites, anyone under 30 who’ve ridden bikes for more than a year. The other category options were ages 30-39, ages 40+, women, and novices. Short course doesn’t exist here. The novices got to skip the first 900m climb, everyone else had to ride the full 63kms.
Race morning, breakfast fueling up of oatmeal, 2 eggs each, coffee. Show up at the start line at 7:15 for the 7:30 start, but no, the race actually starts at 8:00. Somewhere around 40 people start out- Paul and I the only riders on steel frames, Paul the only person riding a fully rigid bike with drop bars, me the only person riding flat pedals with toe clips improvised from zip ties and duct tape. These clips not only provide an efficiency bonus, but also extra motivation to avoid crashing, because emergency bailing out is not an option.
Photo credit Paul.
We start out at 3400m, everyone jostling for position along an animal/cart path. Climb on this to the gravel road at 4000m, continue then for another 300m up. Like California, summer in Ecuador means sunshine and no rain every day, but the tradeoff is constant wind. Especially at altitude. And here, near the edge of the mountain range, heavy cloud cover settles among the mountaintops. So while you’re considering yourself glad to have made it to the top of the first climb (and the first feedzone where race guys chase after you stuffing opened bananas into your jersey pockets, win win win) you’ve really now made it into the cloud layer. You can’t see more than 10-15m in front of you, plus you’re at the turnoff from that nice gravel road and now heading onto a section of 4WD double track. Take your pick which track you’d like to ride: the right one is full of loose sand you can slide your way down, the left comprised of hard parched cracked arm pummeling dirt. Luckily it’s cold enough at this point that if you choose the left path, your arms are maybe starting to go a little numb.
If you’ve made it this far, the lack of visibility helps hide how much farther you have to go. Bounce up and down this undulating section, past the sheep and alpacas and farmer spectators who look bundled up all nice and warm as they cheer you on. This generally vehicular track is straightforward riding; then it turns left for an abrupt final climb through the barren grazing land. Now you’re in among ruts and fissures cut between clumps of raised ground. Fear not, this path spits you out onto an Ecuadorian cobblestone road for another little climb. Cobblestones are a staple of Ecuadorian backcountry roadworks, though most don’t seem to have been maintained since they were built. Are rough “roads” a general feature of mountain biking here on Ecuador? Yes. 100% yes.
At the end of the cobbles, you come pass a shrine and a big cross on your right. I sent up a prayer for some sun (pro tip for next race: long-fingered gloves instead of short-fingered mitts). Someone must have been listening, 5 minutes later the sun came out in force, illuminating the 500m switchback descent. With front suspension fully engaged, at race speed this was one of the most bone-rattling descents I’ve ridden. Paul managed this somehow on a rigid bike, major props. From the switchbacks you bottom out on a valley floor and navigate the rocks littering your way until the start of the final 300m climb to your last pass before descending back to the race start in Salinas. Two last feed zones on this climb and a motorcycle rushing around delivering water ensure you’ll have something left to propel you to the finish, as long as your legs have something anything left in them.
Timewise, I finished in just under 5 hours. Paul around 4hrs 40min. Fastest finisher was just over 4 hours. Course length: 63km, somewhere around 1600m of climbing overall. This would be a great loop to ride from Salinas as a casual unladen mountain bike ride, but be prepared for a rough route. To follow the loop just look for the arrows painted on rocks along the way. Maybe this is a common tourer’s delusion/desire/interest, to see how your fitness compares to racers, and it was definitely a fun event to do and meet some local cyclists, but probably would have been a good idea to factor in a rest day after the race. We left town back on fully loaded bikes the next day, and after half a day of regular riding were exhausted. Great fun to ride unloaded for a time, regardless.
Post race nourishment: Paul tucking into some fried empanadas topped with sugar. There were also free plates of corn, beans, cheese, potatoes with juice waiting for all the racers as they finished. This free food idea definitely one that should be adopted at US collegiate races.