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Racing the Panama Canal: Coast to Coast

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

The furiously paced hour closed as we careened through the broken streets. Free-roaming dogs became blurred obstacles as our focus remained only on the tire spinning inches ahead. Determined to stay in the front, to lead this race, 25 of the nearly 360 total racers, descended onto the dugout boats hoping to be one of the first across. As 25 became 35, and more on top of that, we begged the boat drivers to load ours first. Their reply, a garbled set of directions hollered in Spanish. Eli, Tinker, and I stood confused. Unable to make sense of the foreign directives we learned too late that while our bikes remained here, we needed to board a set of boats around the bend. Running to the life jackets we recognized that when racing internationally there are going to be some variables and as endurance racers, we’ve got to learn how to swerve.

Colon, Panama to Veracruz, Panama

120 km // 6,000’ Elevation Gain // 1 Lake Crossing

A week removed from race day I find myself sitting in my van, in the parking lot of Grand Junction’s Lunch Loops trails, and looking forward to a fun day on the squishy bike with friends. This time last week I was in a very different climate, in very different circumstances, and without the warm cup of coffee and crackling cedar & amber candle that keeps me company today. Thinking about the story I want to tell I am weighted down by a dream I had last night. This weekend my high school classmates got together for our 20-year reunion. While I never made any attempt to make this event, my internal clock must’ve timestamped the celebration for my dream sleep transported me to Phoenix. At the reunion, I saw how time had taken its toll on most of my peers. Most. Interestingly a few of them looked exactly how they did at Senior Prom. Those few, those perfect-teeth, refined-physique, styled-hair few happened to be the same group that both unintentionally and unaware were sources of great insecurity for me as a high schooler. Those few that I wanted to be a part of. Those few who held me back from being my true self for many years. Those few. Waking from this dream, feeling those long-ago-resolved insecurities anew, mashed perfectly how I felt last Saturday, pre-race day. Imitator. Fraud. Sham.

Andres Montoya (in Spanish): “And let’s welcome a legend to the race! Tinker Juarez, mountain bike hall of fame, Olympian, Master’s World Champion, will be racing with you all tomorrow!”

Audience: applause

Andres Montoya: “Also, we have Justin Holle, the US’s NUE Champion, joining you on his SINGLESPEED! That’s right! Just one gear tomorrow morning. Let’s give it up for these two!”

Audience: applause

Really? An introduction? Alongside this legend? Before I could distance myself from the man who really deserved the praise the growing group of Panamanian riders joining us today closed in for pictures with Tinker and ME! Group shots. Solo shots. Selfies and videos. While celebrity wouldn’t be the appropriate term for this notoriety in a notoriously small micro group of people (endurance MTB racers) it sure felt like it. Half entertained by the moment and half-embarrassed at what felt like undeserved praise those long-buried feelings of being an imposter crept up, fortunately for just a brief moment. Before I could wallow in my guilt, we pedaled off for a city tour spin, and I remembered why I love bikes. Pedaling: the act of alternatively bringing one leg up and down to create forward momentum. We all do it the same way. Some faster and some more powerful, but altogether the same. Universally the bike is ridden one way and from the time of penny-farthings and pantaloons to aero helmets and high pivot suspension, when pedaling, we are the same. No rankings. No celebrities. And so, I pedaled. Alongside strangers, new friends, and fellow competitors we pedaled through Panama City to the terminus of the Canal. We learned about Panama’s history and its current economic state as a key shipping lane in the world’s commerce. We got rained on and we drank Red Bulls. We rode through pedals and jumped down stairs. We pedaled.

Race Morning Alarm: 2:30 AM

Hotel Lobby Rendezvous: 3:30 AM

Buses to Start Line: 4 AM

Race Start: 6 AM

Pre-Race routines remain whether racing in Colorado or in Panama. The bike gets a once over, gear checklist gets mentally marked, muscles get activated, and I slot into the front of the start corral. Race. Ready. Eli Orth, fellow Singlespeeder and 2019 NUE Champion, and I know we are in a race without opponents. As the only 2 on Singlespeeds, our aim is to have a fun time, race together, and demonstrate the capabilities of 1-gear bikes. Donning our Cruce del Istmo jerseys, complete with our name and blood type printed on the underarm, we stuck in with the fast start. A pace vehicle housed a videographer and photographer who captured the first 15 miles of the race. With speeds of 19-26 mph, Eli and I spun our legs like hamsters and at times led the entire peloton. Some guys attacked and we would bridge. As the sun crawled through its arc, and the heat rose, I fought to stay relevant and as we neared the first timing break I had unknowingly lost Eli by a couple of minutes and stood confused at the boats on Lake Gatun.

Safely-ish into the second dugout boat, Eli and I enjoyed the 30 minute, 6 km ride across the freshwater lake with our bikes, stacked in a different boat, already across and waiting for our arrival. This break in the race field served us well in our transition from racers to adventurers. Once across, and pedaling, we would spend the day mostly away from other racers. Eli and I would navigate fantastic mud sections, steep jeep road ascents, and open field crossings. We exchanged positions leading one another, compelling one another, to the next turn on our GPS units. Aid stations provided bottled water refills and bananas which we happily ate with muddy fingers. We both walked away from spectacular crashes in the sloppy singletrack descents and took face shots from low-hung palms and jungle vines. But, as necessary for the Singlespeed weirdos, we kept moving forward without breaks. That commitment saw us passing many racers who had jumped into that first boat. 1 off to the side with a dropped chain. 1 taking a break. 1 barely moving up the 12% grade ahead.

3 tracks in the mud. That’s all we saw. Only 3?! “Are we on course?” Eli asked. Having learned my lesson on getting lost in La Ruta in 2018 and my paranoia of getting lost at Marji Gesick just last month, I was 100% confident that we were on course. “Sure are. Weird that there are only 3 tracks.” I replied.

Pedal. Grunt. Blink bits of mud away from our eyes. Repeat.

Having crossed the bulk of the countryside we swooped into a larger town feeling that the finish line was close. In a broken Spanglish conversation with a gentleman handing us another bottled water (NOTE: bottles drank - 8. Times peed - 0) we learned that 9 km remained and we were 4 minutes behind the 3 ciclistos ahead. The 3?! Or just 3? Who knows. Pedal.

There it was. The ocean. More beautiful a sight. More glorious than the calendar hanging on your landlocked kitchen wall. Warmer than the glow from your desktop background. The ocean! With only a mile left I broke the comfortable silence between Eli, my race competitor turned friend, and acknowledged the bond we’d created over the past two seasons racing one another. “You’ve been a huge catalyst to my training and racing, man. I appreciate the heck out of you. This adventure was made better by sharing it with you. Take the finish line. It’s yours.” I said. Eli shared back the same sentiment and we crossed the line wheel-to-wheel.

…and then became NASCAR drivers.

Red Bull handed us cans and took photos (we chugged them). Then Michelob Ultra (we didn’t crack them). Then some collagen water company. Then pancake mix? Weird. Then the race director himself asked us to raise our bikes over our heads (huge The Rules faux-pas). Celebrities! Abbe and Eli’s parents shared in the celebration and gave us our first hint of how we did: 4th and 5th. OF THE ENTIRE RACE. What?! There was the moment. That moment of acknowledging that I wasn’t a fraud in receiving the pre-race praise. I’m not that high school kid looking in, feeling out. No. I just crossed the damn country on a Singlespeed and did it faster than nearly everyone else. Eli and I just showed the power of American muscle! Braggadocios?! No! Accurately confident. Honestly confident.

Covered in mostly mud, and a bit of countryside cow shit, we walked directly into the Caribbean Sea and bathed au naturale. We laughed at ourselves and reveled in the accomplishment. Tinker came across the line 10 minutes later explaining how he got lost in that final city segment. A few others shared that fate which cleared up our confusion at the 3 tracks. After accounting for the time difference at the boat crossing we approached the ELITE MALE podium, Eli, in 2nd, and me taking the top box. I wish there were two top boxes as this race was accomplished together. All the same, we celebrated coming out on top. Representing a strong presence for the National Ultra Endurance Series, and pedaling ourselves into the warm embrace of the Panamanian mountain bike community.

We all pedal the same way. It’s a unifying, magical reason why when on bikes nothing else matters. My coffee cup has run dry. The sun is up and my friends just rolled into the parking lot. Time to go pedal for fun…for an adventure.


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