The alarm sounds, 3.30am. The first of many early starts to come. The team wakes up one at a time eating little and talking even less. We gather some last items and pile into the jam-packed car, sharing three seats between the four of us, and head to the airport. After a swift 3 hour flight, the mountains and oceans of beautiful Baja California come into view. The reality of what’s to come slowly sinks in. The Baja Epic is a four-day event: a short 4km Prologue on a fast technical course, followed by a 3 day Stage Race which takes competitors through 300km+ of desert heat & rugged mountains terrain with a total vertical gain of ~9,000m. Cecilia & Daniela Campuzano have spent endless hours on the bike training for this gruesome event and have come to compete as a team. Cetto & I have come to support this ambitious project and provide our assistance in any way possible.
After a quick & scenic transit from the Tijuana Airport we finally arrive at the front gate of our hotel in Ensenada. Each team member falls immediately into her or his respective roles. While the girls revise their kits & nutrition plan for every day of the competition, Cetto & I build and ready the bikes. In the afternoon, once our chores completed, we set out for some tasty seafood tacos, and to meet with the organizers of the race at the local bike shop & lounge. There we gather a few missing items and ask for directions to the Prologue course. Later that evening, we set off: Cetto, Dani & Ceci riding their bikes, and I, running. As we traverse Ensenada, riders join us from every direction. Soon our little team of four is surrounded by a peloton of ten or more Baja Epic competitors and we chat away as we exit the city into the neighboring mountains. The course is pretty sandy with wide cracks crisscrossing the trail, and as the girls discuss with Cetto how to best attack a curve or a technical portion, I practice documenting the process with my tiny GoPro Session 5.
Day one was a prologue in every way. If a 17min race seems little in the face of the 5-7 hour days that would follow, at least it gave us a worthy challenge to test our mettle as a team. From breakfast to kit pick-up to selfies with admirers; from filling the cooler to finding filming locations to competing; from washing bikes to stretching to finding our way about town: we fine-tuned it all. We even got to make special requests to the lovely ladies who cooked for us during our entire stay. And boy did they treat us to some delicious dishes!
The race itself went very well. The girls felt strong, happy to have finally broken the ice of the Baja Epic, yet a little anxious of what was still to come. Their time of 17min 36sec put them in 15th place of all 31 Teams and 1st place of Women Teams and Mixed Teams.
Cetto & I are riding at full speed off-road across the desert in a Subaru Outback. I can feel the dry branches of the shrubs we mow scraping the floor under my feet. The organization hooked us up with Jezer (the skillful driver) in the morning and he gracefully volunteered to drive us to the far reaches of the course to support Ceci & Dani. The first stage of the race consists of 90km with a cumulative of 2,600m+ of elevation gain and was according to many the hardest stage of them all. A combination of rocky technical downhills, and endless uphills with many sections too loose, technical or steep to ride, made it very difficult for riders to settle into rhythm and ride. Dani & Ceci delivered a very strong performance nevertheless, moving from 15th to 12th general, in a time of 5:25, and extending their lead on the Women & Mixed Teams.
Back at the hotel, while the girls showered and relaxed, Cetto and I went to work, washing bikes, bottles, cooler, jerseys, bib shorts… The whole team hadn’t stopped all day, we had barely eaten since our 5am breakfast, we were all dehydrated, but there was still much to do. While we ate a late lunch I edited the video of the day and we published it to keep our families and friends posted on the race. While the girls napped, Cetto and I went to buy fruits, water, and provisions for the next day. We then stretched, bathed our legs in the cold water of the pool and went to a meeting of competitors where we learned about the next day. After a quick dinner, we were more than happy to finally find our beds for a short night’s sleep.
It’s 6am, the race has just started, Cetto and I are at a corner store down the road buying ice. The organization has lent us one of those windowless off-road desert racing vehicles which we really should have filled with gas, but didn’t since we were running out of time. What’s more, the gear shift is broken so we have to push to reverse it out of the parking lot. Despite some decent speeding, we end up behind the competitors and have to troubleshoot our way through neighborhoods and through desert to get ahead and meet up with the girls. At about kilometer 25 we arrive just in time to see the girls head off down a trail where we couldn’t follow. The day was heating up to a broil and we were getting dustier by the minute. We began to worry we wouldn’t catch up in time to offer them support, cold water, electrolytes, and chain lube, or worse yet, that we’d run out of gas somewhere in the middle of the desert.
Stage 2 of the Baja Epic consists of 100k with full sun exposure and 2,800 of cumulative vertical gain. Although it has the biggest uphill of all 3 stages, the course is much faster and ride-able, and the girls seemed relieved to be able to settle into a steady rhythm. When we finally managed to catch up with them, they were riding through a vast burnt forest. Dani was having some trouble keeping up with nutrition, but both seemed strong and were hydrating very well. By kilometer 60 most of the uphill was behind them and the fun began. We were able to settle and drive behind them, capturing some amazing footage of the race and encouraging them on.
Team Ceci & Dani finished the day with a time of 5:46 keeping their 12th position in general and 1st in Women and Mixed teams. Cetto and I had to run to catch them and film the finish. We were dusty and dry-eyed, yet happy not to have run out of gas in the middle of nowhere!
By then the evening rituals became mechanical. Washing bikes/bottles/jerseys, showering, eating, editing, meeting, filling & labeling bottles, and finally, sleeping. Everything became a chore and was meticulously timed and executed for success.
Day 4. Stage 3 is a cruel one. The course consists of 110km with 3,300m, and the sun was bringing the temperatures up to 36°c+. Cetto & I are sipping coconuts in the shade at kilometer 60, except his coconut has a bunch of stuff like mango, shrimps and hot sauce in it. Mium! Meanwhile in the Baja Epic, Ceci & Dani are on their way down from the highest point in the entire race. They have been working steadily throughout the day, working through the pain and exhaustion. Waking up at 4.30am this morning had been especially rough. Despite trying to do everything right, the miles were taking their toll.
In the morning Cetto & I had the opportunity to catch and film the start line for the first time since the prologue. We then hooked up with race director Jorge Trujillo’s brother Marco & his son Derek who sacrificed their entire day to drive us to pretty much every aid station on the course. Since the last stage of the Baja Epic is available for competitors to ride as a single event, there were many more riders on the course than the previous days. Every time we met up with Dani & Ceci, they were accompanied by different riders. Dani was barely drinking and Ceci was always hungry, yet both were pedaling at an impressive speed, motivated by getting. it. done! In the entire 4 days of competition, they hadn’t stopped once at an aid station, preferring rather to throw out empty bottles and grabbing more fresh ones on the go. I would always run ahead to yell to Cetto what the girls needed and ran after them with food and bottles full of assorted fluids. From which I earned my race nickname of Forest Gump or Bosque Chiclep.
The highlight of the last stage, if not the entire event, is an incredibly scenic trail called ‘Rampage’, a technical downhill cut on the side of a cliff with a sweeping view of the ocean and the surrounding mountains. The girls (especially Ceci) were particularly excited at the prospect of so much downhill and went into it faster than anyone I had seen all day. Team Dani & Ceci brought it home in 7:03 moving up to an 11th place overall in the 3rd stage and 1st in Women and Mixed Teams.
And, if a cumulative time of 18 hours 33 minutes, a 1st place in Women & Mixed teams, and a 10th place overall, in a 300k+ stage race with ~9,000m of cumulative ascension, is not impressive enough, there is always this: they did it all a ciegas, blindly. They never once read how many kilometers they were about to ride, nor even the elevation profile. They took it all one pedal stroke at a time and that is a huge testament to their courage and strength! Muchas Felicidades Ceci & Dani!
Apart from organizing a first-rate event, the team behind the Baja Epic have supported us through the entire event with lodging, food, transport and to crown it all, a tour of the L.A. Cetto winery. I could not recommend enough participating in this event, for much more than an incredible stage race, it is an unforgettable cultural adventure of quite epic proportions. Thank you Jorge Trujillo & the Baja Epic Team!