BAJA ULTRA ENDURANCE

“Hey Kimmi, want to go race in Mexico next month?” Generally an odd question to be asked by your boss. Perhaps not quite as odd if your boss is Michael Nasco, and you work for RedMonkey Sports. But even for our standards here, it was a bit surprising. Nonetheless, when your boss hands you an awesome opportunity to travel AND race for work, you say yes, and ask questions later.

The race was the Baja Ultra Endurance 100k put on by Bajadventours, in Ensenada, Mexico. RedMonkey was sponsoring the event, so I would be heading down there with two RedMonkey Racing Team members to set up, make connections, bring awareness to our brand, educate the locals on how awesome our grips are, and of course race in their 100km mtb race (which I was told was a big deal down in Mexico). However, nothing could have prepared me for the epic adventure it truly turned out to be!

The race promoters waited until the final few days before the event to post up the course profile. Probably for the best. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, figuring it would be a good, final “shake down” race to see how training for my upcoming 25hr Frog Hollow race in November was going. I looked at the course and gulped. 10,000ft of climbing in a 66mi race meant one thing: this was one of those races where you’re either pointed straight up, or straight down. I began gearing myself up mentally for the task at hand.

My steed of choice was to be my brand new Santa Cruz Highball CC rigid, my rocket-ship dream-bike, coming in at a svelte 18.8lbs. With the new 1x12 Eagle set up on it, I figured that 50t pie plate would come in handy at this race, (little did I know just how often!)

Arriving in Ensenada just in time for the Pro Press Conference, I was shocked to see Pros from all over the world: Colombia, Italy, Costa Rica, the US, and of course Mexico. It was inspiring to listen to each one speak in their native language, not understand the words, yet still feel their passion for cycling overflow from them as they spoke.

We then headed to the staging area, Ensenada’s Main Street, where vendors, bike shops and race sponsors were busy erecting colorful tents, gear, and signage. Even before we were all finished setting up, the DJ got the sound system up and running, and the massive stage started bumping music. People were flooding in by the minute, and we were making a new host of friends very rapidly. Mountain biking is alive and well in Mexico, and their cycling culture, though different in some respects, is flourishing. I must intervene here and discuss the bike trends down there. Both Forks and Wheelsets are a big deal….a really big deal. People were stopping, ogling over my new Highball, taking pictures of it, taking my picture next to it, and asking me constantly….”no suspension?” with looks of shock on their faces, pity even. I began to wonder “are the trails THAT gnarly?” I put the nagging fear out of my head, knowing I had done as much research as I could have, scoured videos of the course, and seen that most of it entailed steep fire-road climbs and descents, where having the weight savings of a rigid was worth the potentially added discomfort to my arms, shoulders, and legs.

Time flew by that afternoon, and before we knew it, it was time for the Pre-Race Meeting. Now, we’ve all attended our share of pre-event meetings, and know that once a few words of thanks, safety precautions, feed-zone info, and start-times are shared, we all part separate ways and go about our own business, usually involving a quiet evening, filled with a good meal and an early bedtime. So imagine my shock and surprise to find that not only did each and every person stay for the entire meeting, the crowd was growing consistently as time went on, attracting more and more people to the stage! Some of the biggest TV stations in Mexico were out there getting footage of every second of the weekend via drones and ground crews. Once the final words were said, the DJ turned up the music to full blast and the real party began! Everyone’s passion was apparent, and to use the word “contagious” would be the understatement of the year. I found myself swept up in the excitement, and stayed late, enjoying the comradery and passion that this culture overflowed with.

Race morning found us riding our bikes through the (slightly sketchy) dark streets of Ensenada, to the starting line. It didn’t take long to find it, between hundreds of racers, crowds of people double that size, yelling, cheering, a circling chopper getting footage, and yes. More music. I had posed for so many pre-race pictures with strangers, that my cheeks were hurting. There were two female categories, Pro and Open Women. I lined up with my fellow Open Women in the back of the long street full of racers, as race staff handed each and every one of us own Spot Tracker. Just how rural and potentially dangerous was this race going to be?

But before I had time to think too hard about it, we were off, racing our bikes through a wash where we were (no joke) told to “avoid ANY muddy sections at all costs”. I was pleasantly surprised to be leading the women through the sandy, bumpy wash section, all the time avoiding any damp dirt of any kind, and keeping my mouth pressed shut no matter what. We turned off the Wash and began up a crowd-lined paved climb that went from pleasant to steep far too quickly for my liking. But this Highball loves to climb, and I was thrilled at how good it felt on the steeps.

If I had known that would be the last pavement I was to see until the last 100yds of the race, I may have savored it a little bit more, perhaps slowed down and enjoyed the smooth traction, perhaps laid down and given it a hug even.

We quickly began climbing up what the bulk of this racecourse wound up being: dilapidated fire roads, with rocks the size of baby-heads littered all over the “trail”. Traction was a rare commodity, as was smoothness, and I found myself relying on my SS skills of line-choosing and smooth pedal-strokes so as not to have to get off and walk, as many others were. I crested the first long climb to another cheering crowd, most with their phones out taking my picture and video, as they shouted words of encouragement in Spanish. I started gaining some confidence, as I was feeling fairly good on the steeps, able to conserve some energy, and I was still pretty sure most of the women in my class were behind me. But then again, the day was young, and I still had another 9,000ft of climbing ahead of me.

We started a steeper downhill section: more dilapidated, less traction, and some sand thrown in there just for good measure. I went slowly, picking my way down, again, saving my arms and legs for when I needed them later in the race. I got to the bottom, and a kind local racer alerted me in Spanish that I had dropped something. One of my only 2 water bottles. I made an executive decision that because turning around meant losing my place, and having to hike up what we just descended, I would conserve water until the next water area, where we were hoping some new friends we had made from ECO Bikes in Ensenada would be, with water, extra gear, and support should we need it. Problem was, I wasn’t sure exactly where that would be. 

A few more leg-grinding, steep climbs/descents later, the course flattened out into a cluster of small dirt-roads akin to the Trabuco Wash. More spectators, friends/family, and curious locals were flanking the course, more than eager to hand off fresh water, bananas, and orange slices. I had a little girl hand me a new water bottle full of cold water to replace my dropped one, then she proceeded to run along side of me, shouting words of encouragement as I crested a gentle climb. It almost moved me to tears to see the support these people were providing to each and every racer that passed by them.

Along this flatter, bumpy stretch, I was passed by two women in my class. My brain told me not to go with them, as I needed to conserve energy for more steep climbs ahead. But it crushed me slightly to have my short-lived morning in the lead group of women come to an end.

We started climbing out of the little town again, and I passed a gentleman who told me I was in 6th Place. I thanked him, we chatted for a few minutes, and off I went to check the next climb off my list. Sure enough, after that next climb, I had one of the two girls in my sights and with some renewed confidence, I mustered up the energy to pass her. She and I talked briefly, giving encouragement to each other before I passed. Further up the following climb, I saw the second girl that had passed me, and I kept my pace until I eventually caught up to her as well. She, too, was fun to talk to, and had some questions about races in the US. I have to say that the women out there, especially, warmed my heart. They cheered for you, even if you were passing them, as though you were family! They genuinely had a desire to celebrate with you! I’ve never in my life experienced anything like it.

The halfway point found me accepting more water from more support crews, and still not quite sure of my placement, as I had been given all sorts of mixed reports from both spectators and fellow racers. I put that part out of my mind, and told myself that I would know for sure at the finish line, and in the meantime, I needed to focus on the technical terrain, and more importantly, enjoy every second of the exhilarating experience of being a part of something so magical.

I could go on and on with touching interactions with both the locals and my fellow racers out there, but this report is already getting too long. I will say that there was never a moment out there, even in the mountains far away from town, where I felt alone, where I felt unsupported, and where I didn’t smile at something.

Miles 43-53 found me on some of Ensenada’s more technical singletrack; bumpy, rocky, steep, and a lot of fun, save for the pain and swelling in my arms from all of the shock they had to absorb riding sans suspension. You could tell the locals take a lot of pride in this particular system of trails, one of which called Rampage, a local favorite ridgeline descent, filled with steeps, rocks, loose switchbacks, and gorgeous views of the ocean. I particularly enjoyed that part, and I look forward to going back and riding it again (with my X-Fusion fork thrown back on, however!)

This brings us to the last 15 miles of the race. I was hurting, as was everyone else around me. This course was relentless. Just when I thought we would surely be descending back into town, another brutal climb was right in front of me. I began to think that these race directors are masochists, and intended on torturing us until the last possible mile!

That final mile was the same bumpy, sandy, “avoid any wet dirt no matter what” Wash we had started on. I wanted the torture to end. Every tiny bump was brutal on my arms, every bounce in the saddle sent pain coursing through my joints. Where was the bloody finish line, already?!

I finished into a huge crowd of people, in a time of 7:56. One of the tv crews began asking me questions right away, which I’m sure made for a laughable interview. “La Gringa Roja crosses the finish line, and can’t even formulate full sentences in her native language” However in the thick of the chaos, I was told I did finish in 2nd Place Open Female, 5th Place Overall Female. It was the icing on the cake…er, flan.

The highlight of the weekend truly was the people. The support and excitement I felt down there was inexplicable. The Mexican culture not only love mountain biking as a sport, they celebrate it! There is no cattiness, no rivalry, no cliques, no cycling politics. They seem to all see themselves as one, big family, all bonded together by the love and passion for sport, and for one weekend, I got the honor of being accepted as part of that family. It was eye-opening, very humbling, and I found myself thinking that we here in the States could learn a thing or two from this beautiful culture. I know I did.

 

Tim VanGilder

mission viejo