As I prepared to move myself to Santiago Chile, I frequently told people that I planned to “inject myself” into the cycling scene and eventually “dominate.” Well after almost two months, six trips to various bike shops, and countless kilometers, I finally injected the scene. However, I think in the end, the scene did not like me sticking it with sharp objects and turned around and bitch slapped me to the other side of the road. Here’s how it went down.
“Santiago is surrounded in huge mountains. It’s in the freakin’ Andes!” I knew I was going to find the best cycling of my life. I anticipated people giving me a hard time since it would appear I was sitting on top of two adolescent children, which were really my new enormous legs. My lungs would frequently pull in birds flying at 1000 feet. However, with great sadness, this did not come to pass. Santiago truly is surrounded by the Andes, however these very gnarly agro-crags are not for riding and in fact the very intelligent Chilenos decided they would only construct a few carefully selected routes out of the valley that is Santiago. The air quality is atrocious and you are lucky to see the stars, let alone the person you are walking next to.
Not to be discouraged, I persisted and took the bike outside, picked a direction that appeared not to have a giant mountain too close to me, and rode. On that first ride, my bike went from tolerably useable to unpleasantly annoying and crippled. If you need to get your bike repaired in Santiago, you will be told to go to San Diego, a street absolutely filled with bike shops, one after another. For the most part you will be screwed if you are a gringo like me. You will get the usual “used car sales man” treatment where one thing that they fix will lead to another thing that they will need to fix to another and another. I can tell you, do not go to Esper Bicycles. Rip off. I hope this blog puts them out of business. For all your bike solutions, you need to use a combination of three places. For standard tweaks and fixes, go talk to Lopez in front of Cerro San Cristobal at the end of Bellavista. For much more complicated and tricky fixes, go to Dr. Bike, real name is Luis, on the 900 block of San Diego. For your bike parts, go to Rafael Vargas across the street from Dr. Bike. No need to experiment, believe me, they will get you sorted.
So after a new headset, a new big chain ring, trued wheels, welded bottom bracket, greased up wheels to avoid the absolutely atrocious noise these horrible wheels make, and many hours wasted, my bike was back in action ready to be tormented.
My search for the races prior to this adventure of bike fixing proved futile but after befriending the gentleman in these bike shops I can help you cut to the chase. You can view www.ciclismo.cl to see some options with a calendar of events coming up through the year. They have all your varieties of racing although the page functions poorly and everything but the road race (ruta) section is out of date. But if you are looking for “the dogs balls” (english saying) of races you need to go to http://ciclismolaboral.cl and you will not be disappointed. This year long racing “group” is as serious as it gets as I will get to in a moment.
So lets get to the point. My training was sparse. Maybe 4 days a week and no more than two hours at a time and mostly going up and down San Cristobal, a 6km climb in the middle of Santiago. Finally Lopez told me about a ride that starts on Saturday’s at 9am on Ruta San Martin right before the first peaje in the McDonald’s parking lot. I ride the 20km to get there and find about 60 older looking men and a few woman. Ultimately the ride was fantastic and we rode 100km through the foothills of the Andes at a very fast pace and averaged a solid 35km/h over four hours. I then rode back to my house to make the days total around 140km. The most I had ridden since my time in England riding with Johnny in Manchester several months earlier. All that knowing that I had a race the next day.
I woke at 7:45 am on race day for the 10am race start time. I knew I had to ride to the race start. All I knew was that it was in San Bernardo and Los Morros and I should ask the people when I get close. I looked up a place that seemed to be San Bernardo on Google maps and was ready for what appeared to be the 20km ride to the race. I figured that as I got close, I would see other bikes and cars with bikes so I was not worried that I did not have the exact location. I set off in the morning, and encountered two guys who were going to the race. After 15 minutes they pulled over and said they were meeting a friend with a car at that spot but told me to just continue down the road for a little bit and I would be at the race. Ya right. From my house the race was a little more than 30km in the end. Thanks chicos. And I rode that 30km with pace once I realized I had a long way to go and I did not want to miss the race start.
Now, on the ride with the old men on Saturday, they made me feel that the race I was going to on Sunday was not very serious and was more of a galavant and everyone was there to have fun. They could not have been further from the truth. I arrived into the cycling world I had dreamed about and immediately I wished I was more prepared and had not ridden 140km the day before and 30km to the race. I was surrounded by hard core looking and very fit looking cyclists with the legs I had thought about before my arrival in South America. I signed up and was told I must race in Category A which is the top category. Not sure if this is because I am only 26 or look strong or what, but I begged to be put in B and they were not having it. The Masters groups went, the youths went, and finally our group of roughly 50 went last.
The race was 80km and all I was able to gather from others was that it was rolling ups and downs. One kilometer in to the race my bike computer ran out of battery so distance was only ascertained by using my mysterious sounding Spanish while we charged on at 40km+. Despite my large amount of recent kilometers, I was feeling good and stayed active in the front of the pack taking my turn to pull us along at unhealthy speeds over the rolling hills of the Andes approaching a majestic area of the world called Cajon del Maipo. After 50km and a few brutal short inclines, I found myself in the lead group with about 15 riders including one girl. The pace was break neck the entire time and as we peaked each crest, it was a sprint to try and smear mud in the eyes of the weakening riders. 65km and I was starting to think that I had a chance. I was doing my fair share of the work in our group and was feeling good, all though I struggled to say anything in Spanish at this point. Then at 70km, only 10 more to go and without warning, it happened, I hit the wall.
I played soccer my whole life. I trained often and with vigor. In university we would train five hours a day, every day, and with more vigor than I knew I had in me. But only in an individual sport like cycling or swimming or running do you have the concept of hitting the wall. I did not literally hit a wall in this race, but all the physiological workings in my body basically said to each other “Fuck this. He thinks he can work us this hard? I am going for a break, see you in an hour.” We were scaling a very slight incline and despite my mental capacity to keep going, the body just would or could not keep going. I looked down and saw my legs literally melting off the bone as if I was on some mushroom trip in a Hunter S. Thompson book. Each push of the pedals would emit a splash of lactic acid that would burn away the surrounding foliage. My arms struggled to support my weight on the handle bars and my vision would blur and then focus and then blur again. I watched with desperation as I saw the lead group cycle away and what is worse is that they were leaving me in a place you never want to be. No mans land.
The loneliness in no mans land cannot be found in many places on earth. Maybe on the antarctic plains or at the high school prom during the slow dance when you do not have a girl on your arm. No mans land, in cycling, is the space between the various groups of cyclists that form during a race. You, the road, the wind, and no one to help you or give you a break. I worked my ass off for that lead group and their pay back was to kick me in the balls, spit in my face, and push me in to no mans land. As the chase vehicles passed me with shaking heads inside, I gazed around the fabulous landscape I was riding in with the towering Andes and lush rivers and greenery, and realized I was fucked. I had 10km to go and I might as well have gotten off and ran with my bicycle at the pace I was riding.
Ultimately I finished ahead of the main pack but by only seconds. I immediately ate three bananas, a pack of cookies, a coffee, a coca cola, and a chocolate bar. I was chatting with my new friends who seemed impressed with by abilities up until the point of my spectacular body explosion. I was told that the girl we were riding with was 5th in the nation. Also that we were missing five guys who were racing in Europe in some epic races. We had a former national champion in our group. The guy I was talking to and pulling along for a bit was currently some sort of Spanish junior champion. I had no idea that I was surrounded by bullies and pros of the road. This made me feel slightly better about getting dropped.
Then I was informed that where we finished was now 50km from Santiago and at that point I think my heart bounced off the shoes of my new cycling friend Jaime who told me this. I ate two more bananas, put my jacket on as we had climbed to a cold altitude and set off to complete my weekend of riding with a final 50km. Jaime and I took turns battling the constant head wind that funneled up the Cajon del Maipo valley. Brutal.
Eventually I arrived at my house to the open and very inviting arms of my girlfriend who seemed to have no problem embracing me when I was covered in salt crystals and wearing my cycling outfit that smelled like it had just received 300km of sweat in two days. She also seemed to recognize that I needed an extra large lunch and a fresh fruit shake with yoghurt and oatmeal. Gracias mi amor. You have no idea how much better I felt after that.
Next Sunday is race day, in fact every Sunday is race day from now on. I have new training partners now and I will be sure not to ride 140km the day before and make sure my new cycling friends drive us to the race and back home from the race. Medals coming soon!