Mary and I just emerged from a six-day, two-wheeled trip through some beautiful areas of the Andes, linking nightly stays at hot springs by traveling on remote roads and technical trails - some that had yet to see the tires of a mountain bike before our arrival.
The beautiful, rugged lands of Araucania, Chile's lakes district, are blessed with a landscape complete with active glacier clad volcanoes, tremendous rivers, turquoise lakes and lots of big open lands.
We spent the week far from just about everything we know, except, of course, the mountain bike, a big week of riding in which Mary and I competed together as a duo mixed team racing 260 miles with 34,000 feet of climbing. The race took 21.5 hours of riding volatile sight unseen terrain to complete, using racing tactics about as far away as you can get from those found within the confining ribbons of the cross country courses we normally compete on.
This was the third edition of the Trans Andes Challenge and as the name implies, it was no stroll in the park. Mary and I chose to take on the experience for the second year in a row and once again, we rode it with passion - meaning, tucking away the training plans and pretty much going all out. With this attitude on our sleeve, we checked into a week of competitive all consuming racing while the experience as a whole offered many amazing moments along the way.
The overall impression of the course layouts were of staggering remoteness and gave me the constant feeling that we better have some reservation in our tactical approach and go out prepared for anything. I always had that extra... extra spare tube, Clif Bar, extra bomber everything proof Mavic Creek jacket and enough cash to feel on the uphills because it felt like there was some possibility that it might be up to us to figure a way out of any issue that could arise.
Although this fails to give full credit to this year's course marking improvements and updated race security, which included a full time mobile medical staff and follow group. It was a bit unnerving ripping countless open to traffic roads and skittering down unfamiliar descents riddled with potential disaster, though in some ways this is mountain biking at it's greatest and what makes it attractive to ride in new places away from the backyard loop.
A general race profile would hardly mention the short strips of pavement through the small curious villages. The majority of the time we seemed to be crawling up a burly gravel road up the side of one massive mountain or another. Exposed stair stepped climbs continued up rudely cut technical jeep tracks often topping 20 percent for LONG minutes.
Then to the singletrack where things really got steep and where we often slogged on foot for agonizing sections, huffing pounds of powdery disintegrated volcanic ash into our lungs as we struggled to advance in the marbly duff mixed with the shit from thousands of cattle and horses. Then into descents long enough to forget you had ever pedaled or been hot and sweaty, technical and fast enough to barely allow a glance at awe inspiring sights that shrouded the tracks like wallpaper.
Premiere singletrack experiences were sprinkled in throughout the carnage enough to make the leg quivering pedal strokes and stumble up hike-a-bikes worth the effort. Though the majority of the good feelings we have from the ride came from the sheer bigness of the stages and the ground we were able to cover, over the type of terrain that made you feel smart for bring along the bike.
Each day brought its own challenges and triumphs, memorably. The opening stage was so hot that some veteran pros needed saline IVs. Stage 4, with 50 or more miles and over 7100 feet of climbing, brought most in attendance to a new level of suffering and Mary and I to our proudest finish as we were able to claim a hard earned second place overall after four and a half hours on the bike, finishing the day on the winning end of a unique two-up, two person team sprint finish.
On day five, we struggled with the accumulated miles and the course profile, another with around 50 miles and over 7000 feet of climbing compete with a hike-a-bike that if not for the clearly marked course would have the sane turning around convinced it was just not a suitable place to bring a bike. The final stage was the fastest and required solid effort to preserve the week's hard earned time, too bad this meant sucking wheels in dust thick enough to feel it settling in your lungs and grinding down the teeth like a pumice stone!
Mary and I called upon many unique aspects of our personal relationship by competing together, and we both feel that mixed duo pro stage racing format is an equally hard and amazing thing to do with your loved one. Overall we worked together incredibly well, though I won't hesitate to say that it was a big effort for both of us in many ways to win our second Trans Andes and finish third in the overall classification.
Knowing what to expect from last year's race gave Mary and I a distinct advantage in coming to Chile prepared for this grueling event. Two solid months of strength training and a regime of often devistating hikes, as much surf punishment as time allowed in addition to a lot of mountain bike miles gave us an edge in our assisted riding techniques and the lengthy decisive hike-a-bike sections.
I'm happy to report no negative issues whatsoever with the bikes or any of our technical gear! With the type of abuse this race dished out, this was not the norm for sure. Back-to-back days of mountain bike stage racing requires some burly equipment and it is a testament to our various sponsor's gear to make it through such an event without issues.
Having to tune, lube and/or fix your bike yourself between stages is also part of the energy expense of the day, meaning you want gear that almost takes care of itself, like ours. The bikes are incredible - check them out!
This edition of the Trans Andes Challenge was a big step up for the riders and according to host and promoter, Juan Pablo Santiagos, it is only going to improve in the upcoming editions. The Trans Andes staff was competent and able to offer the international field an amazing experience. They had clearly taken into account much of our input from the previous edition as they served up a unique mountain bike stage race, one not to miss for people who like to ride big days, don't mind suffering, and prefer an extra helping of challenge with their riding experience .
Camping in the municipal park in the world famous tourist town of Pucon, alongside an international, race bike-toting crowd of 150 is clearly not the safest place to store your valuables. Looking back, it is a pretty obvious place to get robbed as Mary and I along with several other racers were. Cold that it went down while we were attending the final awards ceremony, but we remain thankful for a non-confrontational theft rather than the alternative. Our wallets, documents, computer, and helmet cam, which contained some pretty sweet memory reinforcing images, were gone leaving us feeling even more jagged than we had been from the racing alone.
After some fruitless time spent at the Pucon police headquarters we split for the north, the impact of the racing and the theft fresh on our minds. Thinking only to put as much time as possible between us and the race venue we drove half the day until our bodies demanded that we pull over for a break. We found a flat, shady place and began to throw down some anti-rigomortis yoga moves when a cracking sound from the massive white pine directly overhead got my attention. Suddenly for no apparent reason a tremendous "snap" and a ton of tree branch was embedded into the hard clay soil within spitting distance of my head.
At that point, everything clicked into prespective and I realized clearly and without a doubt just how lucky we are and have been all along. There is a lot left up to chance even with the best laid intentions and to have things work out well in your favor, like winning a race is really something special. The inevitable little issues along the way - even when significant - should not detract from the greater experience. Keeping a perspective that it is ok to peacefully let some things go wrong in the name of accomplishing something bigger seems very key.
The whole experience of the Trans Andes reinforced our feelings that cyclists around the world are in effect a community and a fantastic one at that! The bonds we made while suffering and racing together over these six days are ones in some cases that will last a life-time.
Throw in a little adversity - like being robbed - and the community responds with friends stepping up to make sure we had all that we needed to get back on our feet.
Special thanks also to the talented photojournalists in attendance who provided us with some great images that we can share with all of you.
Heres to keeping it all in perspective,
Mike and Mary