Going far South

South America, April 8, 2007

Hola! Greetings from Chile.

Here is a recap of our 20-day trip to South America for our official season opener, the Pan American Championships. We flew into Santiago, Chile, rented a dated four-door, short bed truck and drove it over 3,000km to the Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina. Our main priority was going well at this critical race, but after a little research, we decided that this was a great opportunity for some epic travels.

March 1 - Getting there

We arrived in Santiago, pretty worked over from 25 hours of buses, planes, and layovers. Still we felt as if this were more of a chance to rest when compared to the previous weeks of careful outlining, planning, and logistics. We were committing to packing everything necessary for our three weeks in South America followed by a week in Puerto Rico for an C1 race and finally a week in Arizona for the first NORBA (Technically speaking, this was NMBS #1 - ed.) national. We are not super picky with foods, so we didn't have to haul five weeks of soy milk or anything, but it is amazing how much equipment and supplies are necessary for training and racing abroad the "right way." Even though Mike brought nylon strapping to substitute for a bike stand and a sturdy road frame pump in place of the heavier but oh so much nicer floor pump, it still cost us around $200 in excess baggage charges just to get it all on the plane.

Communicating in Espanol, just off the red-eye was a colorful experience. I pried my tired brain for vocabulary. Getting directions out of the city from the rental car agent with charades brought the humbling realization that I was going to have to study my Spanish dictionary more. We got it all worked out after a few wrong turns that offered us an unplanned tour of this hectic city. It was just enough of a peek to make us feel really good about deciding to drive on rather than follow our cravings to go the nearest hotel and to sleep.

We had done enough preliminary research to find a quiet town that would be the perfect place to rest, build the bikes, and get in some all important training in the week leading up to the race. Pichilemu, a small town on the coast known for it’s epic surf and quiet back country feel did not disappoint. Although it is only about 300 km away from Santiago, a bit of being lost, overtired, and driving on back roads made our trip a long seven hours. We were both pushing our limits to be cheerful by this point, but happily made it to "Pichi" just before dark.

We ended up finding a small shack to rent in the barrio--sort of rustic, but more importantly inexpensive and right near the ocean, in fact one of the premier surf breaks in the area. Here we had little more than kitchen facilities, a shower, and a bed. Still we were more than happy to unpack and unwind here. Mosquitos aside, sleep never felt so good.

The dusty town of Pichilemu has a carnival flavor with open fruit markets and vendors selling local crafts along its ruged coastline. The majority of the streets in town are unpaved and frequented by horse-drawn carts, both touristy and legitimate, giving this place a comfortable feeling of being left in the past. There is definitely a sense of people just getting by day-to-day and living a slower pace of life than we are accustomed to. The majority of the local people here seemed mildly surprised to see us riding in our team kits (especially out of place were the helmets) and most stared shamelessly, but even those that heckled us seemed to do so in a harmless sort of way . Just after finishing our bike assembly Mike found a board and wet suit and was off to get some of the solid waves that are (for good reason) this town's main attraction. Over the next few days we managed to slip in a little beach time while we figured out some good training loops, caught up on our sleep, and tried our best to explore and experience this new and interesting culture that was all around us.

The drive south

There is one main highway, route 5 , running from north to south thru Chile--though it is the major connector for the country, there is surprisingly little traffic. The majority of vehicles are transport trucks belching sooty black smoke, and giant double decker passenger busses. Bikes and feet seemed to be the #1 option for most commuters and people around the small villages. people rode fearlessly on highway shoulders and frequently crossed the median through holes in the fence to get from town to town.

We appreciated seeing a bit of Chile and made sure to take lots of gnarly dusty back roads as we drove around 1,500 km south over the next few days. Though off road travel may not have been covered in our vehicular insurance policy, Mike clearly lost this point in translation.

The countryside in central Chile is wide open with unobstructed (except for lots of dust and smoke) views of the Andes to the east and smaller coastal range to the west. There was a refreshing lack of fast food chains and high rises, mostly countryside, ramshackle towns, and roadside fruit and food stands. We passed through some beautiful wine country and saw the landscape change from dry desert like to lush green hills as we made it further south.

It was a bit depressing to see some of the natural resource management practices that are so apparent. Non-sustainable tree farming has scarred most every landscape we passed, and a staggering use of pest and herbicides seems to be the norm of the agricultural set . The most clearly offensive practice was the seemingly standard procedure of field burning--on a massive scale.

We made our way east over the Andes into Argentina on a small winding road that passed through dense rain forests and bamboo that narrowed the road almost to a path. The road was beautiful but the going was not all that quick as we had to pass through three lengthy border stops and several random police checkpoints, definitely surprised by the absurdly extensive customs procedure for crossing into Argentina: lines to wait in, papers, multiple stamps, forms, and about ten people to report to--of course, all and only in Spanish.

March 8 - Villa la Angostura & the race

We arrived to the host town Villa la Angostura, four days before the race. This is a beautiful and quite well-off Patagonian town more akin to quaint ski village in the Swiss Alps than the dusty beach towns we had visited so far in Chile.

Mike and I got out on the race course that afternoon and were pleasantly surprised by a well designed, flowing course. Almost all fun, twisting single with a good mix of climbs and descents. water crossings, some sketchy looking (but somehow safe) hand made stick bridges. all this throughout a gorgeous forest with clear running streams, some huge trees, and abundant with wildlife.

Over the next few days, the rest of the national team arrived, and it felt as if the race season had officially started. It was great to see our friends who came from all over the States and to hear their colorful stories from the off-season.

Race day ... The women's field was stacked with the top four American women; Georgia Gould (2006 US National Champion of Luna) took the lead from the start. I was hoping to go with her but was trapped back behind riders who were letting a gap form on the initial singlerack climb. I spent a good deal of energy trying to get around them, which I eventually did, but immediately after, felt my hard effort-- and the hills seemed steeper than I remember in training... and Georgia was out of sight. After four laps (two hours) of suffering, I gave what I had, riding strong and pulling away from the rest of the field but never closing the gap on Georgia. I could definitely feel that it was early season, and that my training has not brought me to a racing peak. I am looking forward to this changing as the season progresses. This race was another good learning experience, especially remembering how important the start is.

Mike had a solid race and was riding for most of the day just off the lead pack in seventh to 10th position. He was able to put his skills to good use on the tight and tricky course, but in his words, suffered a bit on the extended climbs. Mike was stoked to finish in 10th place and as fourth American--definitely some solid UCI points and a good start to the season. Todd Wells was winning the race until the final minutes when he had a mechanical problem and two Canadian men came around him for the top podium spots.

It seemed as if some of the South American racers were reaping the benefits of being near the end of their summer race season and having competed in lots of races so recently. Many seemed to be in good or better form than expected. Typically, we find ourselves at our strongest at the end of a long season and here we, the North Americans, were coming out of winter training.

The day after the race, we drove north of the race venue to a small city rumored to have hills riddled with tight singletrack, San Martin de los Andes did not disappoint . Here we had theopportunity to get in some big rides and get at least a glimpse of the unique deeply worn dusty singletrack riding that was seemingly everywhere. Luckily the weather was good and we were able to stumble upon more beautiful singletrack than we could have thought possible without a guide, map or even a clue. The high point of the trip was an incredible 40m trip through dense bamboo forests out to some remote hot spring, and a swim in a nearby crystal clear stream all while out on a training ride.

Mike and I have been relying on many previously learned travel lessons that have made for a smooth transition into the South American travel. With the help of our ever-improving Spanish and the kindness of the majority of the people we have come across throughout Chile and Argentina, we have been making out quite well. It has been an amazing three weeks of travel, racing and training.

The adventure continues... Next stop, Puerto Rico...

Mary and Mike

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