Thursday, March 15, 2012

El Reto del Quetzal race report

Having just completed the 4-day stage race down in Guatemala, it's time to share my experiences.  First of all, this was my first mtb stage race competing as a team of 2 (instead of solo).  The advantages of racing as a team of 2 that I noticed are that you always have a rider nearby to help keep you from becoming lost (more on this issue later), you have someone that will speak the same language (if racing in foreign country) as you, and in case of any mechanicals/crashes you have someone to help assist you.  I will touch on some of these again later.

Nelson Snyder and I were competing as a team.  We flew into Guatemala City, Guatemala a day before the race and we immediately greeted by warm weather upon walking out of the airport. We hung out at the airport waiting for our shuttle to arrive, but after not have confirmation from the race organizers that they were coming to get us we opted to take an alternate ride to our hotel in the city of Antigua (start of Stage 1).  We arrived in Antigua and stayed at the Hotel Soleil which was very nice.  After getting our bikes unpacked and built up we took a short ride around town to get the lactate flushed from our legs.  Riding bikes in Antigua (and in Guatemala in general) seemed to be a very popular form of transportation.  Unlike the streets in the USA, Antigua didn't have any lane divider markings, so it was almost a free-for-all on the streets.

After our ride it was time to head down for the welcome dinner and rider introduction.  Only a few other North American riders were competing while the remaining riders were all from either Guatemala or Costa Rica.  While sharing stage racing stories with the other US riders we ate some delicious food and went to bed. Our first stage was to begin the next day at 8am.  

Stage 1 consisted of a 13km TT.  Sounds easy, however, 7km of the 13 were on a steep fireroad climb...and immediately from the start.  Racers were to start in 1-minute increments, and wouldn't you know it, Nelson and I were the first to start.  With many 20% grade sections, speeds were not too high and the lack of climbing that either of us has been able to do so far began to take its toll towards the top of the climb.  After nearly 25 minutes of climbing, we finally began a 5km descent on mostly singletrack.  

Course markings were a bit sketchy in a few places but for the most part it was time to let it rip and have some fun.  Course conditions were totally ideal with dry dirt.  With about 1km before the bottom, we had to negotiate some tight switchbacks.  I took a bad line on one of the switchbacks and pulled off a sweet endo (ie: flipping over your you will see in the video).  Unfortunately, I landed on my right side on my ribs and ended up bruising them a little more than I realized during the race. Once we reached the bottom, we had another 1.5km of pavement climbing to the finish.  We finished with a time of 49 minutes, good enough for 4th place.

Stage 2 began in Antigua again which made for a somewhat relaxing morning.  Being able to spend more than 1 night in a town makes it more enjoyable than racing and transferring all your gear to the next town and repeating for several days.  Stage 2 was the "Queen" stage with over 50 miles and some of the most epic downhill riding I have ever done.  What I think makes it the most epic I've done is the fact that it was the most completely unique terrain (a mix of gnarly ridgeline singletrack, and steep/narrow riding through villages and an amazing view overlooking a beautiful lake).  Today began at 7am and an early breakfast at 5:30am.  We rolled out of Antigua with a 5k neutral start before reaching a point that marked the "official start" of the stage.  Of course it would begin with a steep climb on singletrack before reaching a gravel section.  The entire stage consisted of either gravel fireroads (somewhat rocky at times) and singletrack.  We climbed as high as 8100 ft elevation and finished the stage at an elevation of 5000 ft.  Nelson and I rode great today keeping our pace consistent.  Aid stations were approximately 30km apart, and at each one we grabbed several handfuls of freshly curt fruit.  Damn the pineapple and watermelon tasted so good.  With temperatures reaching into the 80's, it was very important for the both of us to keep our hydration monitored; and with the help of fruit in addition to our nutrition it helped to keep us even more hydrated than usual.  With a steep climb to the 3rd Aid Station at km 80, we were about to descend over 5km of some of the best riding around.  Unfortunately, my helmet camera battery had died prior to this section so I wasn't able to capture the fun on camera. Any suffering I was enduring up to this point had completely vanished and was replaced with a grin the size of the "Joker" from Batman.  I'm sure their will be a video posted on the race website to see for yourself just exactly what I am talking about. They have already posted several photos of each stage as you scroll down on their homepage.
Midway through this stage, we descended into a couple ravines and had to climb back out of them.  These were fun to descent and very technical at times, but turned out to be hike-a-bikes on the way up.  Nelson and I were in awe as we watched one rider almost climb one of them.  I am not joking when I tell you it was a 30% grade and loose.  One of the climbs out there were children there cheering us on, and even offered to push our bikes for us.  Of course I didn't refuse.  I returned the favor by giving them some of my energy bars and gels, and from what I remember other riders were doing the same. 

The stage finished on the deepest lake in Central America (Lake Atitlan) in Panajachel.  There were also 3 volcanoes surrounding the lake adding to the scenic views we enjoyed while sitting on our deck in our hotel.

There was an unfortunate incident that occurred during this stage and it happened to another fellow American rider (racing as a team from Arizona).  While riding on many of the trails there were horses as well.  At times the horse moved out of the way, however, this time the horse decided to give something back by kicking the rider.   He was kicked in the elbow and hip; doing enough damage to cut his elbow, severely injuring his hip (luckily it turned out not to be broken), and ultimately ending his race.  

Stage 3 would turn out to be the toughest day of the four.  It consisted of mostly climbing on very steep paved roads, singletrack, and gravel roads.  There were climbs that reached as steep as 30%, and completely exposed to the sun.  Right from the start we had to climb a road (open to traffic) that lasted nearly 18km.  As in previous stages, the leading Costa Rican teams took off like a rocket and were out of sight within 10 min.  Nelson and I settled into our rhythm and slowly picked off a few of the teams that were a head of us.  Considering we started at an elevation of 4500ft, at 7am with temps in the 50's, it felt as though is was 80 degrees within 10 min.  The endless amount of steep climbs today definitely began to take a toll on my legs.  Our average speed during most of the climbs on gravel/rocky roads was 4-5 mph.  Then to add insult to injury we also had some extremely technical hike-a-bike sections.  The combination of terrain certainly made for an epic day in the saddle.  Around the 50km mark, we began our final push to the highest point on the course (roughly 10,100 ft).  Unfortunately, Nelson and I missed a turn at the bottom of a descent and ended up losing about 20-30 minutes.  The course markings on today's stage were a bit sketchy at times, especially when blasting though some of the small villages.  Paying attention to the little (yes very little) red arrows was as difficult as some of the steep climbs during the day.  
After finally discovering the turn we missed, we would embark on some gnarly singletrack (BC style) descending.  All of the climbing we had done for the day was about to be forgotten again for the next 15 minutes as we leaned back off our saddles and let our brakes dictate the amount of fun we would have.  With loose dirt, large jagged rocks, and extremely steep terrain we were riding on the edge of out of control...sweeeeeeeet.  We would come to a section that was very rocky and very narrow and had to get off and walk.  I'm sure not to many could have ridden this unless you had a downhill bike with 6+ inches of travel, or had the skills of Adam Craig.  After our 15 minutes of fun, we had another 3-5km of very windy fireroads to the finish.  This was our 2nd longest day in the saddle at nearly 4 hours and 50 minutes.  We lost quite a bit of time to the leaders during this stage.  

Stage 4 was a 60km day that was going to be mostly descending.  We opted to use our camelbaks rather than rely on bottles, and decided to bypass all of the Aid Stations in an effort to save some time. During the course recon the night before, the race organizers stressed several times (at least that's what we were told considering he only spoke in Spanish) that there were many dangerous rocky roads.  It turned out he wasn't lying as the amount of riding on rocks we did seemed to never end.  Finding a line was simply impossible, you merely had to keep the weight off the front wheel and hope it keeps rolling forward (or at least in the correct direction).  Nelson was on his 29er Scott bike and seemed to have less trouble blasting through these sections than I did on my 26er.  Today's stage would be only a 3 hour day in the saddle, however, the humidity, fatigue, technical terrain and suspended bridges made it seem much longer than it was.  Yeah I said suspended bridges.  There were 2 of them and the 2nd one almost had me shitting in my bibs.  It was suspended about 200 feet above a river, and nearly 100 yards in length.  You had to walk across this bridge.  It started off easy to walk on, but once we got about half-way across it began to sway back and forth and I started to really get freaked out.  I felt as though I had vertigo.  Stepping my feet back on solid ground never felt so good.  Immediately after crossing the bridge we had another hike-a-bike and this is where I really noticed the effects of the humidity.  I looked at my StemCAPtain thermometer and it was registering 85 degrees, ugghhh.  Then amazingly after what felt like we had descended forever prior to the bridge crossing, we descended on cobble streets in a forest for another 20 or so minutes...literally without ever climbing at all.  I thought my brakes were going to wear out at some point.  My hands and forearms were burning from squeezing the brakes so much.  We crossed the finish line in a small town called IRTRA at a picturesque grounds of the Hostales del IRTRA.  I'm sure with the humidity that I lost nearly 5 lbs. 

The other fellow North American riders post-race relaxing in IRTRA at the Hostales del IRTRA.  A few Canadians, a few Arizonans and a few Oregonians.

Overall I was pretty happy with the race.  However, I am going to share my Pro's and Con's for those who may be thinking of competing in this race in the future.

     1. Warm temperatures in March
     2. Epic downhills on singletrack and gravel roads
     3. 5-Star hotels after each stage
     4. Delicious food at hotels and fresh fruit at all Aid Stations
     1. Lack of English translations 
     2. Poor course markings