Every year races get bigger, and thusly, faster. The 2012 Trans Andes proved this self evident truth today with stage 1's victory going to Bulls team rider Stefan Sahm.
I knew going into the race that a rider like Sahm would bring the level of competition up several notches, as would the history and legacy of the event, now in its fourth year.
I have a personal history of poorly adjusting to the heat of mid-winter racing in the southern hemisphere (coming from Utah), so my teammate Blake Harlan and I decided to get our heat-stroke opener out of the way on Saturday by participating in the Osorno Volcano Challenge, one of Chile's largest single day races.
It was as much a pseudo excuse to open up the legs to the first effort of the year as it was a chance to simply race our bikes and see new terrain. The fallacy of doing a three-hour opener was apparent as the course featured a 90-minute climb from the gun. Then you still have another two hours to go. That's a long opener.
The racing was highly agressive through out, and while I fell out of the front group and settled into sixth by the finish, it was quite an amazing course, and a race, as well as region, that'd I'd visit again in a heartbeat.
With the sun baking my brain on that endless pumice climb, I likened air travel to having a time machine... on Wednesday, I was deep in the heart (and mindset) of a winter cyclist. Now, suddenly, it's Saturday and effectively we are in mid-July and deep in the middle of the South American racing season. No transition, no segue into the scene... simply imagine someone un-pressing the pause button from whenever the last fierce summer race you did in the mountains was. It was like that. And just about as awesome, too.
Feeling sore, alive, sunburned, and wishing we had a few more days to rest, we hitched a ride from Osorno to Panguipulli, about two hours north. This year's Trans Andes Challenge would begin in this sleepy lakeside town with a 8km "neutral" roll out before the racing in began, proper. If you've ever raced where they speak anything other than English, you'll know that often the neutral portion of the race will cause you concern as to what's going to happen when the race actually begins! If anything, the spirited neutral portion of the event will cause a selection and slim down the group before hitting the first "live" portion of the course.
Luciano Caraccioli (Argentina), straight from the Vuelta Chile road stage race, and Javier Püschel, the recently crowned Chilean national champion, set a terrible pace after just a few kilometers and quickly sorted the race to just themselves, Stefan, and yours truly. Endless slow and heavy jeep track trails, full of ankle-high grass, loose and hidden rocks, all made damp from over night rains put me deep into the hurt locker for the first hour until finally either the soreness of the weekend's escapes faded, or I simply became reacquainted to what racing really feels like. It was back and forth with these sensations for the next four hours as our quartet shared the workload during the day's 52-mile journey.
Race promotoer Juan Pablo Santos is an experienced man and a certified sadist, adding a brutal if not beautiful final 30-minute climb before this stage's finish at the tree house-esque resort of Huilo-Huilo. Having won the Absa Cape Epic several times, Sahm really comes alive around this point in the race, and it was here he rode the wheels off my wagon. I limped in for second, with my teammate in the solo category, Blake Harlan, finishing fifth.
It was at the finish that we all had time to reflect upon why we've returned to the TAC, and what, soon, the new competitors to the race will discover - the challenges on the bike - man vs. course, are as difficult as you'll find anywhere in the world of mountain bike stage racing. The views, they are unmatched with any that I've experienced anywhere else, and the vibe - that's what we're here for. Camaraderie is the word that comes up often. Maybe it's the Chilean culture, the relaxed atmosphere of the country. Possibly its a a bunch of Euros and Americans tickled (and burned) pink to be in the sun, warm, and on their bikes. No matter what, there's an energy to this race that keeps a smile on everyone's face and us all eager to come back for more.
Tomorrow's stage is supposed to have the same amount of climbing as today (2300m) yet, is 30km shorter. I'm not sure if that's going to be better, or worse, but either way, we'll all be happy when we're chillaxin' at Huilo Huilo (which looks like the Ewok village) tomorrow afternoon. Don't forget to let me tell you guys about the Yoda forest from today's course, either.