Big job, small tools. An average riders Andes Pacifico.
Recently, Tweed Bike Box customers Cat and Paul undertook an incredible adventure. The Andes Pacifico Enduro in Chile. Here is story in their own words. Sit back, grab a beer or two and enjoy. By the end you will be on the internet checking flights for Santiago! All photos belong to Cat Topham.
The timing was perfect. A busy, unrewarding few months followed by one of my attempts to distract myself staring at bike porn on Pinkbike. Andes Pacifico 2019 has entries available. I decided to share this with my husband, sat offshore in his windowless office in the North Sea. His reaction was fairly obvious, YES. A quick glance at the savings account and a text message to our parents to see if they would cover the babysitting and the deed was done, all in about half an hour.
Fast forward 5 months and I’m half way up the climb out of Santiago on the welcome ride the day before the race, absolutely dying. We had met up with some other folk at the Hotel Kennedy, where a lot of the racers were staying pre race, Tabby an old friend from Yorkshire and his mates fellow Yorkshireman ‘Mulldog’ and ‘Smithy’ a New Zealander. We took the hours ride down to Mall Sport, very gently uphill the whole way. I wasn’t exactly feeling on top form but OK considering all the travel, Peebles to Santiago is a fair way after all. A little apprehensive about getting wheels in the anti-grip and now surrounded by a host of top level riders I rode out of the city up a near vertical road climb a little intimidated.
Now I’m not a bad mountain biker. I can hold my own, I have a decent amount of race experience at home and abroad, including the Trans Provence, but I was painfully aware that I had tackled that challenge when I was much fitter, probably much braver and with a whole let less responsibility to think about. But even with that said I was at the bottom of the pack there, just about holding my own, very much in it to finish. So after 20 mins of climbing in the heat, dust and alien environment of the Santiago trails, I was seriously struggling, out of breath, dizzy and to coin a phrase ‘blowing out me hoop’ and seriously worried if I had done the right thing even entering.
Looking back I can see that after the travel, lack of sleep and probable dehydration I could have cut myself some slack, or perhaps just not done the ride at all! Thankfully one of the race organisers Mathias recognised the symptoms and offered to take Paul and I on a slightly shorter route, a good job because the main pack going at the pace of multiple EWS professionals was a distant speck on the hillside. I was falling all over the place, probably making crap excuses about my state of affairs, trying to cover the fact that I was panicking about my fitness levels. So thanks Mathias and apologies for my general lack of enthusiasm at that point! This was also my first introduction to a theme that would flow through a lot of the race, The billed 2 hour welcome ride, took the rest of the group about 4 hours. We rode home in the dark, through the streets of Santiago and got to bed late after a slap up meal. Standard Andes Pacifico I was to discover. Travelling to the first camp the next day was our first taste of the pick up trucks which are such a key feature of the race logistics. I can say now, if you're not a fan of a truck ride or in anyway a nervous passenger or just generally unable to relax and go with the flow, close this blog and forget the Andes Pacifico. It’s not for you. We loaded up with bikes and bags, strapped down all higgledy piggidly in the pick ups we headed to the Mall Sport for our final panic pre race purchases. I’ve never seen anything like the Mall Sport anywhere else and it is very cool. A shopping centre, like any other in any other city, but exclusively for sports. A shopping centre I could get enthusiastic for visiting and a real nod to the strong sporting community in Santiago. Armed with electrolyte tablets, gear cables and other random spares the convoy headed out to base camp where we would spend the first two nights.
Arriving at camp, settling into my tent, I was met with a familiar sight. A green canvas camp cot. Now a lot of people kicked these straight out of the tent and opted for cardboard or just sleeping on the floor, I settled into mine a bit like an old friend. If I added it up I’ve probably spent years in total sleeping on these things in my Army days so I was pretty comfy. However, if you are tall or large of stature or a real seeker of home comforts put a blow up mattress (and earplugs if your in the boys section, sorry but girls just don’t snore so much) on your packing list. With the world’s biggest BBQ on the go we sat and chatted to friends new and old, staring up at the huge map which laid out our destiny for the next 5 days and waited on the first rider briefing.
I will take a brief moment to mention the food, it’s good. There’s none of your typical ‘pasta party’ fodder here. There was a ‘pre’ dinner every day, pizza, hot dogs, empanadas or similar on the go when you get back to camp to fill you up post ride and then a main meal you’d be pretty happy to pay for in most restaurants to come later on.
Breakfast and Lunch were also pretty decent. I’m 95% vegan, and the options for me were also damn good. If you're a confirmed Carnivore your in for a treat. It was always pretty late in the day or night, but you just need to suck that up and relax a bit if your going to enjoy yourself, pack snacks you will be fine. Beer, wine and Coke also flowed free.
So day one and our first truck uplift, they broke us in with a tame one. No bum squeakers here, that was to come don’t worry. After a ride up the chair lift at La Parva, which in my own unique style I managed to cause myself probably my worst injury of the week, trapping my leg under the chair by not getting on it quick enough and bruising my calf. Good start, haven’t even been on the bike yet! An introduction to the hike a bikes to come with a short but steep one to get to the very top and we were all corralled at the start of stage one. After lining up for the group shot you will see on all the previous and no doubt future race videos we lined up ready to go. Girls first, they set us off in number order so I was last being number 9 of 9 girls competing. Weirdly, I wasn’t quite as nervous as I thought I would be, I had resigned myself to take it steady and stay on my bike, the opening trail set the stage for what was to face us most of the week. Open, fast, rocky and loose. This is not my comfort zone, it’s probably not many peoples comfort zone to be fair but the trails here in the Tweed Valley are comparatively low speed, tight and enclosed. I did as I had promised myself I would and stayed well within my comfort zone, trying to find where the grip was, if there was in fact any to be had. After tackling a big drop off with almost zero style, having noted the red flags and killed way too much speed I started to settle in and relax a little. I promptly ate dirt. No idea why, the front wheel just slipped away and deposited me face first in the dust. A pretty common occurrence for most riders multiple times most stages. In a way it was good to get it out the way though, you know in the back of your mind at an event like this that it’s not if but when you crash. It will happen, so to get the first one out the way and jump up and carry on no dramas was perhaps more positive than negative.
So another little aside, this time about results. I’ve always been a competitive person. I care about my final results, being a women in a small field of riders only amplifies that more, because you stand out in that short list of names. For a while I was a real podium contender at UK races, perhaps not at a big international race like this but I’d manage to be respectable. I started this race, knowing I was almost certainly going to lose it. Mentally quite a tough thing for someone who is quite competitive, so I resolved to not care. I genuinely didn’t look at my results all week, I never compared my timing slip to anyone else. I had these aims, to finish, to enjoy myself and to not get hurt. Unbelievably I managed to stick to them, more on this later. Oh and guess what…I came last! Day 1 then further upped the anti with the EWS trail of the year 2018. Fast, loose, rocky and arm pump inducing 20 mins finishing on a super steep and tight rock garden covered in a fine sand. Grippy? No not in any way. I made the first few turns, ran out of strength, skill and finally any motivation to ride the final 20ms of the stage with spectators shouting “welcome to Chile” at me as I struggled just to stand up never mind actually ride a bike! Still up until then, what a stage. Finishing the day on the ‘festival de curva’ wasn’t any easier. After 20 solid minutes of incredibly loose and steep turns I found myself stopping after pretty much every other switchback, firstly to let the faster riders stacked up behind me through and also to reset my body and brain which by the bottom could really only handle two turns before falling apart on me. This trail, challenging on any day but at the end of the first long day of this race was even harder. I also made the decision to start at the back of the pack for the rest of the race following this stage. The trouble with being one of the slowest on the hill is that all the fast people catch you up, each time this happens you have to slow down even more to get out the way. It’s fine if it happens once, but if it keeps happening the whole thing just compounds itself and the slower and slower you go. No I wasn’t out for a result but I at least wanted to ride all the stages so I waited til the back of the stages for the rest of the week. A wise decision. Back at camp we were treated to a festival of pizza whilst what must be the biggest BBQ I’d ever seen was cooked up. Food, chat and friendship filled a few hours before the race briefing for the next day and bed. The first of 5 late nights was done. Day 2 was all about the Moto cross, well the motocross tracks anyway. Like every day we spent a fair amount of time in the trucks. the logistics of the whole thing is pretty impressive. I’d actually go as far as to call the AP a 4x4 truck safari with occasional walk and Downhill Mountain Biking thrown in. The biggest uplift on this day, was at times pretty sketchy. Hat’s off to the team of drivers because I’m not sure how confident I would be driving those tracks, it’s safe to say you didn’t want to be looking down at some points on the Mountain traverses. After those slightly bum twitching few hours being chauffeured uphill the decent at ‘Full Braap’ across old Motor Cross tracks began. Weaving our way back down the Mountain across huge open plains at full speed and full tuck if you were brave enough. I will confess to holding back a little, the anti-grip is not only tricky in the corners it makes for a fast rolling surface and the speeds you could reach were probably the fasted I’ve ever been off tarmac and certainly the fastest I’ve been since moving to Scotland the land of forests that’s for sure. I also found my shock bottoming out in the bottom of the whoops. I struggled with getting my suspension right all week, what felt good at one altitude was pretty bad at another so I had to take it a bit steady to stop myself from ripping my chain ring to bits. Probably not a bad thing because a crash here would have been pretty emotional. I didn’t manage the rest of the day without a crash though, stage 2 started with what felt like hub deep sandy shoots which were a little beyond my mental ability, I knew what I needed to do was let the bike run and brake when the grip came at the bottom of the chutes, but knowing that and having the strength of mind to actually do it are two different things. Needless to say I buried my front wheel and then my face in the dirt. Up in one piece and on my way though. The rest of that day was a pretty steady affair for me, I probably went a bit too far into preserve mode, I most certainly could have ridden a bit faster and I think I probably had some stops and offs because I was holding back too much, you can’t mince down gnarly rocks it just doesn’t work. Not my best day on the bike, skill wise anyway. Finishing day two we spent our first night in the new camp, slightly more tired than the night before and retiring after the usual twilight meal and briefing with the thought of the infamous day 3 to follow.
Day 3. A bloody big day. It doesn’t take you long to work out that the Chileans tend to underplay most things. It’s a ‘short’ walk, hum. ‘It’s a bit steeper’, holy hell that’s gnarly, and so on. So when they describe something as a long and challenging hike you know you're in for a big one. Just looking at the race map doesn’t really do the first liaison of day 3 any justice. It’s notoriously hard to decipher a race map I think anyway, they just look like pretty coloured lines across a satellite image generally and rarely give you any real clue as to what lies in store. All I could really tell about this day was that it was a long one. Setting out form camp at 9.30ish we were uplifted to as far as trucks could possibly take you up the mountain, about 3 hours in the trucks again, we were deposited and pointed towards even more up.
We had landed pretty much the last truck up the hill and so I could already see a long line of riders, bikes shouldered trudging up the rocky mountain pass, slowly but surely. We started somewhere around 2000m, already pretty high and were due to head up to over 3000, joyfully dropping a load of height we would need to regain again about half way to the start of stage 1. I found the altitude a lot easier to manage than I thought I would, no wasn’t going to be sprinting anywhere fast but so long as I just kept a steady forward pace I was OK. One foot in front of the other we made our way up. About a third of the way up we passed the horses, donkeys and associated Gringos who had carried the media, medics and race support team up to the top already. It was one of those scrabble for the camera moments. Cowboys in what felt like the wild west, it’s probably my favourite photo of the race. The small mountain biker in the bottom right and the horses disappearing over the horizon. It’s a sense of scale, the country and by far the most bonkers bit about the event. Not too long after that we passed the first summit which led to what was for me one of the scariest descents of the week and it wasn’t even in a stage. It was a long traverse across a scree slope followed by a kamikaze style verticalI know it’s all in my head but I really dislike things like that. It’s the feeling that you have no control at all over the bike, freaks me out a little. Still I lived to tell the tale and lost about half the height we gained so far that morning. Winner! A rare bit of peddling, punctured by super steep pushes and hikes obviously, was the feature of the rest of the climb. I may sound like a broken record here but the tracks and traverses just seemed to stretch out for forever. Predictably, despite our fairly steady uphill pace the stage still hadn’t started when we reached the top. I think a fair few of the pros had given it the beans on the way up to try and get down the mountain and into camp quicker. Unfortunately that didn’t pay off and I’m glad we adopted the opposite strategy. We still waited a good 45 mins at the top for the stage to start and then a while longer to join the back of the line! No rush for anything in Chile. It was on this stage that I had my ‘This is why I’m here’ moment. Burning across the plain at the top the sun was firing that golden yellow (it was early evening after all) and the dust was flying up in the distance from the rider in front. I felt like I was in one of those epic Pinkbike photos. I guess I was. To hand the team at the Andes Pacifico there due my somewhat sceptical feelings about wether the hike up to the top would be worth it was dispelled on the way back down. The stages were by far my favourite of the week. Yes long, yes tiring but oh so much fun. I didn’t have any moments of fear, just enjoyment. Winner. They mixed flat out full tuck speed with turns that just felt like they were meant to be for a bike and the enough gnar to keep you on your toes. Would it have been possible to achieve that without the crazy hike and 4.30 start to the first of the days 3 stages, ‘lunch’ sometime after who knows and the final rockiest gnarliest stage at sunset? Possibly I don’t know, but its what makes an event like this. You don’t do that sort of thing in a normal Enduro, it actually is an experience.
Day 4, whilst waiting for the stragglers to load up their bikes we decide to make a quick call home. Although I suspected our 3yo son would be more interested in whatever he was up to than speaking to us it seemed like we ought to do the parenting duty! Unfortunately this led to us getting the news that Rowan was in hospital after deciding to chow down on some batteries. I’m pretty level headed in most situations and I’m not an overprotective parent but I can be honest and say I struggled a little to keep my head in the game. Apologies to Nuno and Chris who took the uplift with us that morning. I wasn’t great company. I made the decision not to ride, I was right on the edge of my skill limit on a good day in these mountains so riding with my head at home and worried was not going to be a wise decision. I stuck with the trucks and close to a phone for the rest of the day. I did get a glimpse into the logistics of the race a bit more though. Hat’s off to those drivers, the uplifts were pretty sketchy in place but the downhill returns were just as bad. You don’t really think about what the trucks and staff are doing while you are riding the stages, they just appear by magic when you hit the bottom again. Well they are working hard all the time a day driving those trucks must be knackering. Cheers to Rodriguez my driver for the day, he spoke no English and me no Spanish but thanks to a translate app and a mutual understanding of the ‘that was a bit sketchy face’ we made it through the day OK.
Day 5, last day. Batteries excreted I was back in the game. The organisers made the decision to shorten the day from 4 to 2 stages although the second was to be the planned 3rd and 4th combined so I’m not sure that counts as making things easier. There was a real change of terrain today for me, had I done Day 4 I would have been more in the groove. It was hotter, we were at a lower altitude and the open loose terrain was replaced with more enclosed, marginally grippier, woodland and scrub. The speed hadn’t dropped any though, to make it through stage one without any navigational errors you needed to be on the ball, or if your me, just going a bit slow. The colours of the scrub and the ground all sort of blended into one so it was very hard to pick your line through the spiky bushes and the taping was relatively sparse. I’m not sure if I followed it all the way correctly but I made it to the end. Great stage, fun fast and just a little more predictable. Ironically now it was coming to the end of the week I was starting to feel like I could actually open the taps a little and let the bike run. The week would not have been complete without one final hike a bike. And what a hike a bike it was. It was steep. I genuinely thought I wasn’t going to get the bike up some bits of it without falling over, although I wouldn’t have had far to go because I felt like the ground was pretty close to my face. I’m sure my mind was making it worse that it actually was but still. After about 15 minutes of it, sweat in my eyes with the bike out at the end of my arms and staring at dust I remembered the briefing from the night before. You can do the final transition in about an hour if you go for it. Hum a Chilean hour….I’ve no idea how long it actually took but it felt like a very long time. A good long sit down at the top and dropped in pretty much last down the last stage of the day. Long fast traverses with big drop offs left a right certainly kept you concentrating. Bus stops and hops over little stream beds and rock gardens made for a fast, poppy final stage. We cruised back down to the beach to hit the cold salty water for a refreshing dip in the Ocean.
To sum up the Andes Pacifico was never about a race for me. It was purely to prove myself I could still do it, put myself through a big challenge and come out the other side. I took it very very steady all week, sized up the tricky bits and avoided any I thought I wasn’t up for. It’s perhaps not the story people want to hear with these things, it’s much more glamorous to hear tails of pushing the extremes and glory lost in the dust of the Andes, but sorry folks this was in a way my own personal triumph. No I didn’t go that fast, even by my own standards, but I did come out the other end in one piece. Given the pretty awful, in fact total lack of training, I’m pretty happy with that. I have only myself to look at for the prep leading up to the event. I had more on my plate than I could stomach in those few months and something had to give. Still I hope it can be a bit of a inspiration to some, you don’t need to be a superhuman to do these things, clearly. As an event in it’s own right the Andes Pacifico is definitely unique. It’s as much a 4x4 safari as it is a mountain bike race. But if you want to go somewhere you have never been, ride amazing trails, meet amazing people then it should most definitely be on your list. You need to go in with a relaxed attitude to absolutely everything, except the stages if your planning on being competitive I guess, the real heres of the event were those who were able to switch between the two states of mind to put down those amazingly fast times. With an average stage time for me being about 15 mins it’s physically very demanding on your descending fitness. Go to the gym and get massive if your planning on racing in 2020! It’s a pretty big job to take on. Go do something that your not sure you can do. Reach for the stars, you might not get there but you won’t get a face full of mud either.
A wee note on the small tools. I rode my Orange Stage 5 at the event. It’s a 140/135mm travel trail bike. I was always a little concerned It would get out it’s depth in the big rocks of the Andes. Actually it did OK, there were times when a bigger burlier bike would have been handy, very handy but we made it through. If I was planning on really racing I think a more aggressive steed would be the order of the day. Paul has a Stage 6 and he was more than impressed with how it handled the week. Of the 120 riders we were the only two on Oranges. We both got through the week almost mechanical free too. One flat for Paul but thanks to tyre inserts he finished the stage anyway. If I were to do it again and budget was not a problem I’d step up to a more Enduro focussed bike, it would make the week a bit more comfortable! I ran EXO+ Maxxis tyres and they did a great job for me but I’m lightweight and not that aggressive. Bigger, faster guys were flatting on similar tyres. Paul had full DH casing tyres on and had just the one flat so I’d definitely over rather than under estimate what to run tyre wise. Over the whole week we spent maybe 1 to 1.5 hours actually pedalling on the bikes up hill, there were climbs in the stages at points but I would be more concerned about protecting your wheels and gear than I would be about weight at the AP. The trucks do the large majority of the work for you in that regard.
I’m a photographer by profession, mainly in the studio now, so the choice of camera for me was tricky. I love to shoot on film for my own photos so I needed something small and light. I choose an Olympus XA2, a handy clamshell to cover the fixed 35mm lens and a really simple point and shoot approach. I didn’t want to lose myself in taking pictures! I used a film called Cinestill 50D. It’s Kodak motion picture film repurposed for still photography. The list of classic movies filmed on it is too long to mention. I hope it gives the photos the fell of an old Western movie and I think that fixed 35mm lens gives the right sense of scale to the whole thing. Pauls movie was filmed on an Insta 360 camera. A pretty cool piece of kit that gives a more interesting view that a standard GoPro. First time he’s ever done anything like that, a great job on his part!
Tweed Bike Boxes would like to thank Cat and Paul for sharing this amazing adventure! See Cat's work at http://www.cattopham.com/
It has been an absolute privilege being able to help in a small way make this adventure happen. And there is more! Paul's video will be available soon for Newsletter subscribers. It is amazing, you do not want to miss it. Subscribe now https://www.tweedbikeboxes.co.uk/contact