Three Days. 290 Miles. 10,000 Feet. No Brakes.
By Ashley King
2017 was a big year of competitive cycling firsts for me. I had never been out to the Kissena Velodrome, but joined Formula Femme and participated in as many track races as I could. I had never before raced a crit, but made the choice to jump right into Red Hook Crit Brooklyn. I had never participated in a stage race, but decided to fly down to Mexico for a 3-day, 290-mile-with-10,000-ft-of-elevation-gain competition around a volcano on my track bike. Self-navigated. Without a brake.
This race is known as La Nueva Vuelta Antigua.
In the weeks leading up to my flight into DF (Mexico Distrito Federal), I started my planning. Which gear ratios might I want? I’d need the ability to climb 10-20 mile stretches with 8-12% grades (and descend them as well) on Day One + Day Three, but also be able to keep up with the sprints on Day Two.
What would the climate be like and what clothing should I bring? I was allowed one small backpack and anything I could carry while riding. After climbing 3,000 feet, how much colder would it be? Are we talking a 5-degree drop or a 15-degree? Is it likely to rain? How much stronger IS the sun when you’re that close to the equator? Would I be able to easily find vegetarian food during our stage stops? How was I going to fuel? I quickly contacted my teammate Kelly to ask, “Do we have any more CLIF bars and those energy blocks?”
I continued my planning by writing out my goals and strategies, started to assemble my gear, components, and fuel, and asked friends on recommendations for Mexico City. I was excited to get out of NYC with my bike and my beau; I was excited to explore a new place; I was excited for adventure.
It was only when I was seated comfortably on my flight out of Newark that I began to panic. Mexico City sits at over 7,000 feet in elevation — can I breathe okay up there? Are the other women riding brakeless, or am I the only one? Did I choose adequate gearing? Wait, did I remember to pack my 20T cog? What if I don't finish all three days? What if I can’t even complete the first climb? What if I get lost and the support vehicle can’t find me? My brain wouldn’t shut up and the panic must have moved from inside my head to my face because my partner, who was seated next to me, took my hand and said, “You’re going to have a lot of fun.” Looking back a month later, I can say that they had never been so right and so wrong before.
Very quickly after the start of the race I realized that everything I had wasn’t going to be enough. Less than a mile into the first climb, I found myself alone — very, very alone. Once the frustration and anger subsided, I decided I was going to be okay with being the back of the pack and just pedaled along at my own pace, taking a lot of water and electrolyte breaks, soaking in the scenery, and enjoying myself and my solitude.
A little over four hours into my ride, I got a message from my partner, “Wow. Finished. How are you doing?” I broke down. I was okay with being last, but was I really THAT far behind? “Oh my god. I’m 2 hours away. Maybe more.” I started crying and stuffing more CLIF bar in my mouth. It was hot, there was a strong headwind, I was tired and needed more fuel, and I couldn’t believe I still had two more hours to go. “I can’t do this,” I said to myself. “I can’t do this!” I yelled at the dog running next to me. But I did do it.
But I did do it. I rolled across the finish line on Day Three and even tied for second on Day Two.
To describe the race as strenuous would be The Understatement of 2017; it was severe, it was intense, it was arduous. Sometimes I hated it, sometimes I cried, and sometimes I caught myself smiling like an idiot at the wondrous landscape I was carving through and the ludicrousness of what I was doing — what all of us cyclists were doing — a majority for no reason other than to just do it. Skidding down 12% grades on forested roads, skillfully careening through villages trying to avoid the humans, cars, motorcycles, and big buses that darted about -- nudging up against the side of you, stopping short in front of you -- as best you could. Riding through long flat stretches with nothing but the beat-up road, your thoughts, and the wild dogs to keep you company. No chance for a podium or prizes or money. We were doing it to experience this part of the world on two wheels with strangers-becoming-friends.
More than once I was overcome with waves of strength fed by the women’s field -- so small, but so powerful, with 100% of us completing the course. My thoughts and feelings flowed on the bike, with the big, toothy grins and sobs coming and going, but the experience didn’t end each day after crossing the finish line, “¿Como le fue? ¿Estas bien?” It continued with meals, drinks and space and time shared with one another off the bike. We were 50 weirdos out in the Mexican countryside riding our track bikes in a giant circle through the mountains, around a volcano, for multiple days. Who does that?!
WE did that. And I’ll do it again.