Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Andes Pacifico; A not-so chilly race in Chile!

One of the best things about the way I’ve chosen to live my life, is that by only planning a few months ahead at a time, when incredible sounding opportunities arise, there is nothing to stop me from taking them! 
Back in September 2013, busy helping with the race preparations for the TransProvence, and wishing I was racing instead, Emily showed me a promo video for a 4 day stage race she’d just heard about called the AndesPacifico in Chile. By the end of the video my decision was made…I was entering!

It sounded just my kind of adventure…an epic challenge involving incredible riding, long tough days, in a country that had been on my list to visit for a while. An opportunity too good to miss. From a start high in the Andes, to the finish by the Pacific Ocean, it promised to be an amazing journey. Eighty riders from all over the world, including seasoned Enduro Pro riders, and mountain bike enthusiasts keen to take on this adventure….And it didn’t disappoint!

Loading bikes onto trucks
 Day 0 saw us all congregate in Santiago with bags packed, bikes assembled, and keen to learn what was in store for us all. There was plenty of time to catch up with familiar faces from the Trans Provence, and to meet new people who we’d be sharing the experience with, as the kit was loaded into one of many pick-up trucks that’d would become our transport over the next 4 days.

All set!

We headed up out of the city and into the mountains, to the ski resort of La Parva, where registration, briefing, dinner, and a glimpse of the kind of terrain we’d be tackling awaited us, oh, and the first of many amazing sunsets :)
La Parva sunset
Despite the 5.30 am alarm, it was worth it to be able to start day 1 in the pleasant cool of early morning, with a pedal up to a chairlift then a push to the top of the first stage.

Before the start....

The scenery was stunning, it was like being on the moon, and combined with the altitude of 3600m, it took your breath away! Watching the sun come up over the huge surrounding mountains, the helicopter flying overhead, and feeling dry-mouthed with nervousness at what lay ahead, my heart was racing before I even started.

Like riding on the moon...
The first stage gave us a taste of the loose, super sketchy surface that the local riders refer to as Antigrip. It was like thousands of ball bearings lying on every surface…so hard to ride! It made you feel like a complete beginner, as every time you wanted to go faster, you couldn’t slow down for any corners, and if you made any mistakes, there was little chance of being able to correct them! 

Watching the start
I was terrified as I watched the first few riders go off, several of them sliding off on the first corner, trails of dust behind them as they sped down and out of view. All I could think of was why I was here, lining up on the start of a race amongst seasoned pro’s, when actually all I wanted to do was cruise down the trail at a pace I was comfortable I wasn’t going to hurt myself at…ie guiding pace! However, as anyone who races knows, when the clock starts ticking, all other thoughts leave your mind, and all you are focused on is getting down the trail as fast as possible! Riding blind is very different to having pre-ridden a trail and knowing where the hazards lie. You cannot go completely flat-out as you just don’t know what’s coming, and you must be prepared to react for that, but you are still riding on the very limits of control. Stage 1 showed us that…sudden chicanes after fast straight sections, a few rocky drops, super tight loose switchbacks, plenty of places to crash. I lasted about 3 minutes before my first one….a slight misread of the trail sent me a few centimetres off to the side, but even from this there was no way I could recover. I was flying over rubble and large baby-head rocks, wondering how I was going to slow down and stop to get back to the trail, when the answer came. I hit something that stopped my front wheel and sent me superman style over the bars, to land painfully on my side on some sharp rocks. I cringed as I heard my new bike crashing down behind me, hoping it wasn’t too badly scraped from its first crash. I staggered up, breathing heavily, feeling a bit sore, but not wanting to be caught by the person who was starting a minute behind me! It was a relief to get to the bottom, but having seen what the trails were like to race on, it was becoming evident this was going to be a tough test to survive intact!

Nadine Sapin finishing stage 1
Stage 2 was fun but equally tough. A fast flowy top section that encouraged you to let the brakes off, before coming into tight, loose, tree-lined singletrack with off-camber corners where it was hard to stay upright and easy to washout. Again it was a long stage, and despite me saying I was just there to ride and not race, I could see one of the other girls Nadine ahead, and felt myself getting into race mode, trying to catch her! Inevitably, this caused another crash…it was frustrating to not be able to go faster, but every time I did I’d get out of control on the loose stuff and not have the skills to correct it, and end up on the floor! Despite having put a bigger brake rotor on the rear wheel to try and stop the brake from overheating, my back brake was howling, I was literally skidding everywhere, on the limit of control…exhilarating but scary!

Photo by Gary Perkin
Stage 3 arrived after a short liason, and began with a short steep climb, where despite seeing stars at the top from oxygen deprivation, it was straight into a steep tight loose gully with sharp turns, and techy sections. I managed to maintain my average of one crash per stage!

Each day a feed station gave us a chance to refuel, find some shade from the intense heat of the sun under the gazebos, and get some help with any mechanical issues from the race support. There was also plenty of cold coke…my love in hot races like this!

Mary Anne pushing up in the 40 degree heat of the midday sun

Next up was a huge climb of 1200m in the full sun. Unfortunately Anka, MaryAnne and I decided to make it harder by missing a turn off the road and climbing up the wrong valley for 4 km, only to be caught by a motorbiker who came to correct us L Not a clever mistake… By the time we were back on track it was 40 degrees, there was no shade, and the climb was mostly pushing…several hours of it. It was grim, my heels were blistered, my skin was frying despite the factor 50 suncream, and I ran out of water before the top. To add to the torture there were multiple false summits. I felt pretty broken mentally and physically by the end, and I think the last thing any of us felt like doing at the top was racing downhill for a difficult 20+ minute stage. I thought the stage would never end…I was so tired, and that’s not a good thing to be when you’re riding as fast as you can on trails where you need to be able to concentrate and react quickly. I lost count of the number of times I crashed, but somehow I made it to the end, and headed straight to the cold river to celebrate surviving day 1, and to cool the pain of my very sunburnt arms!

Mary Anne finishing day 1
Day 2 began early again, this time with a loooong shuttle up a steep dirt road in the trucks. It was so long that by the time we arrived to start pushing, the temperature was already uncomfortably hot.

Josh checks the bikes are still ok on the long, bumpy drive to the start
Forty five minutes pushing up the hill took us straight to the start of stage 1, another long stage where we’d been warned there were 3 short climbs.

Hike-a-bike to the start of stage 1
I started fast, feeling good, skidding foot out round corners, (Jerome Clementz even commented to me afterwards that I’d been “pinning it” at the start…now that’s a compliment! ). Unfortunately, after the three climbs where I’d sprinted up out of the saddle, I rapidly started to run out of energy. There were at least another 3 climbs, and the stage took over 30 minutes, with the bottom section being the hardest most technical part, huge cacti to avoid, tight turns, dry deep ruts and rocky corners. I was completely burnt out and crashed repeatedly in the last section….pacing for long stages is maybe something I need to work on!!

Pinning it at the top of stage 1! Photo by Gary Perkin
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur….all I can remember is that it was very long, very hot, and very tiring, and we didn’t arrive back at camp until 10pm! There was a 2.5 hour push in the full sun to stage 2, which I don’t remember much about except it being loose and dusty funnily enough. Then another 2 hour push and some pedalling to stage 3. This was a crazy moto stage, like riding on the beach, deep soft sandy soil, difficult slidy corners, thorn trees to avoid, oh and a few exposed sections with some big cliffs beneath you…just what you want when you are completely exhausted and have been in the sun for hours! Anyway, I don’t often admit it but flat pedals would have been better on this section, my feet were out in all the corners for balance more than they were clipped in! All good fun though!

Giant cacti on one of the day 2 liasons
It was a long tough day for everyone, completely underestimated by the race organisers Matias and Eduardo, but this was their first time running the race and there were bound to be some things that didn’t go quite how they expected! Fortunately Eduardo’s family own a vineyard, and after a few glasses of some very nice Chilean red, I think most racers were pacified a little! Poor MaryAnne had had a really tough day…she was suffering from heatstroke from midway through the day and did amazingly to push on through to finish the day, where she needed IV fluids….that girl is tough.

The following day we were given a lie in! Some racers hadn’t got back to camp until after midnight, so one of the planned stages for day 3 was dropped as there was a chance the same thing could happen again.
A climb took us high up to the start, where a spectacular cloud inversion greeted us, and a view of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in America.

Nadine enjoying the view before the stage 1 start

The first stage of the day was crazy! A tight deep sandy gully with occasional rocks to catch derailleurs, hundreds of switchbacks, sharp spiky thorn trees either side. You ended up sliding down, back brake locked on, ricocheting the back wheel from one side of the gully to the other, terrified of catching your pedals and being spat over the bars. Unfortunately, there were a few nasty race-ending crashes for some of the guys at the front end of the field.  

Racing above the clouds. Photo by Gary Perkin
Stage 2 was similar but finished with a flowier section crossing a stream bed. The climbs today were much better though, nearly all pedalable, and the temperature was much cooler which made everything seem easier! All the girls rode together throughout the day which was fun and there was more chatter now we weren’t too exhausted to talk! It felt like we were getting fitter after 2 hard days of riding…but maybe it was just that we were no longer at altitude either?!

Ok, so maybe there was still a bit of pushing! Pauline and Anka make their way up another dusty track
But just when we were feeling more relaxed, Stage 3 brought us back to the tough reality of the race…it was one of the hardest so far. An awkward rocky top section, with an unrideable 50m where you had to jump up and over large jumbled rocks meant it was difficult to find any flow at all. It was relatively short but steep and once you were going it was almost impossible trying to scrub speed, instead you just had to negotiate your way down the rocky steps and loose rubble and hope you stayed upright. I thought I’d made it, I could see the bottom section and people waiting at the finish, and then I took a tight inside line on a corner over a rock….only to find a front wheel sinking hole right on the landing…. I crashed hard, the side of my leg hitting a sharp rock….and all I wanted to do was lie there and groan…but knowing I was so near to the finish I jumped up and got back on, shouting “ow, ow, ow, ow!” all the way down! The damage wasn’t too bad, a big black bruise and a deep cut that was going to sting a bit in the shower, but nothing that wouldn’t heal!  It was a relief to hear all the other girls say how hard they’d found it too, and we all collectively decided it was our least favourite trail so far!

Camp life
A drive up into the mist took us to the start of day 4, Eduardo and Mattias had said this was common in the morning and should clear to give us a view of our goal and the Pacific Ocean by lunchtime. It was the first time I’d needed a jacket all week, but nice to feel cool for a change rather than sweating and trying to find shade from the sun!  The trails today were more fun and fast and flowy than the rest of the week, and it seemed like there was marginally more grip…although maybe we were just more used to the terrain!?

Learning to love Foot out, Flat out corners! Photo by Gary Perkin
I had a great day, no crashes, I felt relaxed and comfortable on the bike, prepared to get a bit wilder and looser, and just really enjoyed myself. Stage 2 in particular was great. There was one part where the trail opened out into a wide rocky section where people were stood cheering, you could pick your own line down over the rocks rather than being forced in a particular direction by the tape…I just straight lined it and didn’t slow down…it felt rad and I got a big cheer so the crowd liked it!

Final day fun flowy trails! Photo by Gary Perkin

At the end of the last stage we waited for everyone to finish so we could cheer everyone in and ride to the beach together. It was a pretty special feeling to know we’d made it to the end of such a tough race in one piece, and for one guy, Juan from Venezuela, it was all too much and he couldn’t hide his tears of sheer joy and elation at reaching the finish. He told us it was the hardest thing he’d ever done, yet we’d seen him smiling all week and chatting to everyone, just enjoying the whole experience. I guess it’s easy to forget when you’ve done a few of these long stage races, just what an achievement it feels to complete your very first one, but seeing Juan’s reaction was a good reminder that we all had something to feel proud about.

We made it! Anka, Juan, me and Mary Anne at the finish
After the unofficial extra stage of the Time-Trial to the beach, all that was left was a refreshing dip in the very cold Pacific, celebratory beers, and to find out the results…

The Pacific!
I’d lost nearly a minute to Nadine in 3rd place on day 3 so had kind of resigned myself to coming fourth, and I wasn’t really bothered where I finished as I’d just wanted to be here for the experience. But I was amazed to find I’d tied for 2nd on day 4 with Pauline, come within 30 seconds of Anka (both of whom had been quite a bit faster than me the rest of the week), and sneaked back onto the podium ahead of Nadine by 2 seconds! I felt bad…if it’d been me I’d probably have been a bit disappointed to get that close to third, but at the same time I was also pretty chuffed with myself. Anka took the win, with Pauline in second, and it was awesome that all the girls finished the race.

Podium photo! Photo by Gary Perkin
I was thrilled to come third, but the race was more to me than just what position I finished. I’ll take away more from the new friends made, the incredible experience shared and challenge overcome, and the way events like this bring together world champions through to weekend warriors who just love riding bikes. It was an awesome event and I felt lucky to be a part of it. It was as hard of many of the bigger challenges I’ve done, but the great thing about these kinds of races is the support you all give each other. People cheer each other at the start and end of stages, chatter on the liaisons, and though there were only 5 of us, I felt privileged to be riding amongst a group of strong fun girls who are all absolute shredders.

Nadine, Anka, me, Pauline, Mary Anne....great to ride with such an awesome bunch of girls :)
After the race finished, it was back to Santiago for a few days of relaxing, finally getting clean and rid of all that dust (!), sleeping in a proper bed, and hanging out with the Santa Cruz crew who were staying for some photo shoots. The last day in particular was amazing. We headed back up to La Parva where the race had started, late in the afternoon.

Wild Andean trails. Photo by Gary Perkin
There was a huge storm over the Andes behind us, yet we were riding in the sun, making for some incredible light for photos. It was wild, beautiful and breathtaking, and seemed to give the place an even bigger sense of epic-ness than it had before. We stayed up with some beers until sunset, when the colours became even more spectacular, watching condors circling high above us, and just sitting taking it all in.

What an incredible place. Photo by Gary Perkin
Mary Anne reminded me it was one of those times when it was good to stop and remind yourself that you are very lucky to be in such an amazing place. She was right, it was. It made me think of Gareth and how much he would have loved the whole adventure, the riding, the people, the place, and how much I know he would have wanted to be there with us. Somewhere not too far away though, I could tell he was beaming with pride at how I’d done in the race, and I suspect he was with me all along…

My awesome bike was unbelievable throughout the trip, I feel like I’ve been riding it forever now, and as cheesy as it sounds, like it’s part of me!! It’s amazingly unscathed despite plenty of big crashes, and it also saved me more times than I can remember when I was sure I was coming off! I can’t wait for more adventures on it.
My beautiful Juliana :)
The hard part of all these trips is the anticlimax at the end, suddenly not getting up early, hearing other riders in the tents around you, riding hard each day, the nervous energy at the start of a stage before your timing chip beeps you to go, the flood of relief at another stage survived, the thrill of adrenalin as you charge down the stages on the very limit of control…suddenly all that stops, and even though you’re tired and glad it’s over, you miss it! So to counter that, I’d signed up to another race straight after this one!

The day after arriving back, I drove up to Scotland and Fort William for the first round of the Scottish Enduro Series. It probably wasn’t my most sensible idea to enter an event so soon after Chile, and as the rain lashed down and the wind howled outside the hostel on Saturday morning, the warm, dry, dusty days of Chile were feeling very far away. 

Classic Scottish winter weather!
It was actually a really fun weekend despite the conditions, riding with a great crew, and having a blast on some trails made definitely more challenging by the weather! I think the fatigue of a 24 hour return journey from Chile and a 6 hour drive to the race was maybe a bit too much to expect to be feeling on top form, and I didn’t feel like I was fully switched onto “race mode” all weekend.

Sheltering from the torrential rain before the start!
I found it hard making the switch to riding in slippery muddy conditions instead of the dry, loose trails of Chile, and having got used to 30 minute stages, everything felt a bit too short…..I was just getting warmed up when the stages ended!! I rode 2 of the stages fairly well, but the other two were a bit of a frustratingly poor effort….one of them I ran more than rode as I couldn’t stay on my bike and pedal through the deep boggy ruts of mud! So it was a nice surprise to find I’d come 4th despite feeling pretty slow, and encouraging to see I’d not been far off the pace of the top 3 even on a bad day J Next time….! 

Muddy but happy at the finish after a good day out

Toby took the win in the Masters Category, and Sam was 3rd in the Vets, so there was plenty of cheering from our group come prize-giving.

And now it’s time for a few weeks rest before more adventures! My body needs a rest from travelling and rushing about without stopping for the last 2 months, there are bags and boxes of kit to unload everywhere, and piles of washing to do! Better crack on!

A long way from the dusty days of Chile!

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