Take a swig of this, te va a rehidratar!
The day is over, we’re in a rusty carcass on wheels sucking diesel. Through the dusty windshield ahead another miracle of engineering running on black smoke and buena suerte is transporting the bikes. I’m looking through the Gatorade bottle that’s being handed down to me, at the slow waves of a pale yellow medicine with an odour to wake the dead.
No way Jose!
And it’s no figure of speech: his name was actually Jose! Next up, an apple comes down the aisle. “Now we’re talking”, I think to myself. That is until I realize that it isn’t the Vitamin C that they’re after, unless, you know, it somehow gets absorbed through the lungs! There’s about 60 of us on the bus from 8 different countries. Racers, photographers, organizers and me, with my muddy runners and shorts and most notably without a set of wheels. This is the TranSierra Norte, a 4-day international mountain bike race with a thoroughly Mexican heart.
Ceci! Ceci! Come on, give me a good really Mexican song.
Ceci smiles & I shout back:
We’re eating Cochinito that spent the day slowly roasting on the fire at camp, and Beatriz “Two-Flats” Ferragi from Brasil is putting the final touches on her playlist for Day 4. Radio TranSierra she calls it! Out there on the trails, Bia is the life of the party, and the tiny speaker in her backpack plays special requests all day. All the better because some of the stages have up to 4-5 hours of strenuous uphill to reach the various downhill tracks. The mountains surrounding Oaxaca have some of the finest riding in all of Mexico, and when we saw that the organizers had timed the event with Dia de los Muertos, Ceci & I jumped on the opportunity to participate. Yet, as the event unfolded, it became clear what the true heart of the race really was! And that is the wild & rowdy community that forms when you isolate people from all over the world in cabins in the woods at 3,000m+ above sea level, and you make them travel the far reaches of the Sierra Norte by mountain bike for 11 hours every day. From yoga competitions in the bus to impromptu dance sessions, from broken frames & falling pedals to flying shoes & double-flats, from jammed fingers & altitude sickness to stitches & swollen wasp stings, we’ve seen it all!
It’s 7:45am. Diego & I are in the medic van speeding down windy mountain roads. We’re booking it to meet the racers at the end of the first downhill of Stage 4. Every morning of the race we hustle to find a ride to go photograph the racers. And there is a rush to it that contrasts heavily with the actual nature of the job. We usually manage to find a ride last minute, to get lost a few times on the way to the trail, either run/bike down just before the racers or climb the trail at reverse, almost like an orienteering race, and all the while scanning for a sweet spot to capture all the action. Then suddenly everything falls silent. As we wait for the first riders to fly by & the blackflies to find us, the full weight of the wilderness falls upon us. Very much as though you were to suddenly mute a waterfall. We rely entirely on our ears to notify us of upcoming action which gives us only a few seconds to turn the camera on and settle for the shot. And from our vantage points, we get to witness every fall & mechanical failures (which, if not easily resolves, results in the racer running with a broken bike to the finish line of the downhill), but also we get to see riders at their best in full concentration or riders simply making the most of an incredible day in the mountains.
And then the rush begins again. We chase after the racers, camera in hand to catch up & see how it went and negotiate our way to the next downhill. On some days the rides were fewer than others, mostly I would end up running alongside Diego or Ceci for something like 15-30k every day.
Wait, what? I know this guy!
(Pause for laughter.)
Back at camp in the evenings, while Ceci showered & changed, I would wash the bike & find solutions to the many little mechanical problems that occur during these longer events. And over dinner, I’m telling the story of how I randomly browsed the list of participants before the race & found a friend of mine from Canada, Kevin Little, registered for the race.
For us, having Kevin & his girlfriend Candice here in Mexico added a completely new dimension to the experience. Not only are they both very talented mountain bikers (in fact, Candice & Ceci ended up swapping 2ᶮᵈ & 3ʳᵈ place between them several times during the race), but they allowed me an insight into how deep I am in my own Mexican experience. To be able to share our enthusiasm for the trails, the food, the culture, the people.. and see them react to it all with an open mind, was a very gratifying experience. In very much the same way as showing someone a picture of themselves repairing their bikes or flowing down a trail, makes them jump out of themselves for a second & appreciate the significance or the intensity of what they are doing; the two of them allowed me to jump out of myself & consider just how wild the life I’m living is & how truly fortunate I am. Coincidently there was no more satisfying a moment during the race than to sit around the table after a long day in the mountains and share stories & photographs with my friends over dinner.
Walking in the streets of Oaxaca one or two nights after the event, we stumbled upon a minuscule one-room bar, about the size of a twin bed, where a few riders were still partying. Which if you stop to think about it, is no doubt a laudable athletic feat in & of itself considering the 135km+ with 10,000m of positive elevation gain they had just accomplished. There was odd eclectic art adorning the shelves and a stuffed goat head over the door, a lot of mezcal to go around & a very popular older gentleman with missing teeth signing songs, playing his worn guitar in the door sill while a few well-drunk women yelping perfect high-pitched Mexican hoy-hoy-hoys & hay-hay-hays! I bet if you looked closely you could still see the marks where they had carved this ornate little hole in the wall into existence.
And as we carried on walking into the night, reflecting back on the intense event that had taken place, we found ourselves returning again & again to the fact that everything came together perfectly to provide a once in a lifetime adventure. To have been there, with Yuri & Bia from Brasil, with Jaime & Fer my first Panamanians, with Kevin & Candice from Canada, with Olaf, Vincente & Diego from Mexico, with Beto & Jess who build the trails, with the medics on bikes from the USA & that’s just to name a few; was to be at a very brief and unique crossroads in time destined to influence the rest of our respective lives.
One thing certainly never stops for a second to amaze me and that’s the way in which this wild child of a partner that I have, Cecilia, transforms & grows as an athlete with every competition. Something about her presence, although she’ll deny it to death, is a source of inspiration to me and everyone around her. Her role in promoting the growth of mountain biking amongst girls here in Mexico is, in my opinion, something that can be at times overlooked but is a goal of true significance that I wholeheartedly support in whichever way that I can.
Despite being stuck on the ground mid-downhill with a cleat that wouldn’t unclip (which she ended up tearing out of the shoe), despite getting an unrepairable flat on the last downhill, and despite her rear derailleur almost falling off, Ceci came away smiling and on the podium, surrounded by people she admires.
As a last word, we would like to thank the organization for putting on a truly unique event where safety was always a priority and where the emphasis was put first & foremost on the experience. And Diego Sebastian, an official event photographer & friend, for showing me the ropes as I fumbled with the many buttons & dials of my first real camera.
The moments before the last downhill of the race!