I didn't know. I didn't know what was over the next rise (often it was simply another rise), around the next corner (usually an excited stray dog), or beneath the brackish water (mud, okay, I figured that one). Without knowing I was left with a single strategy: GO! Without a strategy. Would it work? I was hellbent to find out.
2022 Guerrero Guane :: Bucaramanga, Colombia :: 3/19-21/2022
Paul Van Doren finished his life story just before his passing in 2021. Recanting his journey from factory worker to factory owner to legend he recalled a single strategy that kept him pursuing his dream: Shoot for the moon and trust your skill and agility to bring you back to Earth. That hits. Whether an athlete, an entrepreneur, or a backyard dreamer, this single strategy can help get the ball rolling.
Heading into the Guerrero Guane I knew I had skill and agility. Thus far I've had impressive results in the quick start to my 2022 race season. 1st place at the El Paso Puzzler, a 2nd place finish in the race-leading 4-Man Open Team division at 24 Hrs in the Old Pueblo, and 1st place at True Grit. 2022 started as an extension of 2021: race for the win. Was I cocky and blind? Absolutely not. I know better. When walking into another's backyard one can never assume dominance. I knew Colombia would toss curveballs I'd never swung at and I couldn't assume a win. However, thanks to Paul, I knew I could step up to the plate.
Race Format: 3 days. 50km routes with nearly 7,000' elevation gain daily. 6AM start gun.
3 types of racers toe a starting line: 1) here to win. 2) here to perform my personal best. 3) here to finish. A start gun initiates a different plan for each type. Being Racer Type 1 the start gun releases the adrenaline coursing through my veins and I go from resting heart rate to threshold in under a minute. A foreign race, in terra incognita, means nothing at that release. GO! I went.
A pro's confession: the start is never sustainable. Trust your strength.
Confident the frenetic pace would mellow I stayed in the lead pack. As the dirt road rose above the city start line my legs found their groove. Holding power well above threshold I tucked into my working position: shoulders slack, head stooped, and pelvis tilted. Within a few meters I'd pulled alongside the lead rider. A few meters more and he was behind me. Then further back. Then out of sight. As the initial climb turned further into the hillside I heard the chant, "Primero!" from spectators. They stole my heart. I pedaled harder. But as the climb grew steeper my lead position came in jeopardy.
Racers concern themselves with a single metric more than any others: weight. Weight of the rider and weight of the bike. Often the difference between good components and the best components on a bike are mere grams. Racers chase that edge, wallets be damned. Upon closer examination, however, weight only becomes a major factor above 10% grade. Below that mark and a heavier rider (me vs most Colombians) and a heavier bike (my 25 lb full suspension vs their 19 lb hardtails) can perform without penalty. Above that mark and the penalty increases, aggressively.
Shortly after my race-leading effort brought about cheers from the sidelines, the climb began rearing its vicious head. The grade grew from 8% to 12. Then from 12% to 20. Some time between pant #86 and pant #132 I looked down at my computer. It registered 32%. This hill, unlike any I'd met in Costa Rica or Panama, brought my strategy of no-strategy back to Earth. Sure, I had the skill and agility, but that is damn steep!
The 3-hour effort would continue this way. Steep climbs followed by power-pedaling more sustainable grades. As is the typical in South and Central America, we'd turn out of the trees into a small village. Speakers blasting American music, dogs barking and chasing our wheels, and locals carrying on about their chores unphased by the spandex-clad racers bisecting their home. I battled a handful of dropped chain incidents and stuck to my race plan: Go hard. Drink 3 bottles of CarboRocket. Don't ever look behind you. Scrolling through my Wahoo computer's screens told me I'd reached the top of the final climb and it was time to tuck behind my bars, ignore the brake levers, and get to the finish line.
Stage 1: 3rd Place Pro/Open Men :: 30 miles 6,800' elevation gain 3 hrs 9 min
Standard operating procedure, immediately following the finish of a stage, is to consume. Consume liquids, calories, and more liquids and calories. Unlike a multi-day cycling vacation, when racing avoiding a calorie deficit may be impossible but must be attempted. Is it the best part of a stage race format? Perhaps not but at the day's finish, as I was eating an ice cream sandwich, you would get a mouth-filled "Hell yeah," answer from me.
Added to the incredible service from the race director, Pato, and our event host William, with
Active Travel, the early morning starts and 3 hour races gave Abbe, Amir, and I full days to pair racing with vacationing. We took advantage with a first-day visit to the nearby village Giron for some typical Santander fare. Mute (pronounced moo-tay) is a soup containing yuca, pork tripe, beans, pasta, and vegetables. Game to try new things, I was about to learn if pig intestines are good as recovery fuel!
Over dinner, back at the race's hotel headquarters, I pulled a typical route change. My, annoying at times, need to get everyone involved found me asking Pato for a favor. "Could you help me track down a bike for Abbe to use tomorrow? Can she join the race for Day 2? Oh, I need to buy her a cycling kit, borrow shoes, helmet, and need a race number. Is that possible?" What happened? Gracious as ever, Pato acquiesced in my request. In less than 90 minutes Abbe donned brand new clothes, had an S-Works hardtail MTB, and the necessary gear to join our adventure! Untrained, unexpected, and torn between "hell yeah" and "no sir" Abbe prepped for the Day 2 challenge. A strategy of no strategy.
Off the front we go! Amir, in the Master's leader jersey, and me in my No Ride Around neon took off leaving Abbe somewhere in the back of the race pack to fend for herself. William prepped us for the day. He referred to the first climb as "The Wall". Having survived 30% grades the day before I was curious what level of climb would receive this designation. Curious George didn't have to wait too long! 2 minutes into the start and we hooked a sharp right turn onto a doubletrack of paver stones. I led the line on the left and charged to keep pace with the leader of the right side. I couldn't hold up the hundreds of racers behind 1 of the 2 total Americans in the race. Show no weakness you silly American!
I wouldn't say I was reaching cardiac arrest levels of exertion, but, I admit that when the pavers faded into a standard dirt road I was grateful to relinquish the lead-rider responsibility. A 1-day veteran of Colombia racing told me I'd have plenty of climb efforts to come. I plugged in to a lead pack of riders and blindly chased hilltops and course turns and the reward came tenfold. Day 2's jaw-dropping views provided relief from the granny-gear efforts. We seemed to climb higher and higher with each turn in the road giving a more inspiring view. The Santander Department of Colombia is rich in craggy mountains, lush valleys, and endless terrain. Mix in the tropical foliage and marshmallow clouds and any spot would've been the best spot for a break...if this wasn't a race.
Finding a groove on an unknown effort likens to finding a $20 bill in the washing machine. Spend it! So while I kept myself honest with my power meter my head swiveled side-to-side, enjoying the countryside, but never backwards. A rider pulled up on my rear wheel and settled into my draft. Enjoy the ride buddy! I assumed it was the rider battling a flat tire I had passed a half mile back. Only when he pulled into my peripheral, and then in front of me, did I recognize Amir. "You caught me!" I screeched. Chuckling he looked back, obviously proud of his ability to chase down his buddy 15 years his junior. Happy for his company I jumped into his draft and we made quick work of some road miles. As we passed riders who'd gotten away from me earlier in the stage I recognized that I couldn't let Amir beat me in a stage. So as the route climbed up, again, I lifted off the saddle and bid Amir a farewell. Passing two more riders I charged toward the lake that Pato had said would be our finish line. Crossing the line into a private club nestled in the mountains was a highlight of the race. Amir and I shared in our day's effort, slugged back a few bottles of water, and enjoyed what was described earlier that morning as "the best empanada you'll ever have". They were as advertised.
"When will Abbe finish?", Amir asked. I computed some funny-math and assumed another two hours. We kept our eyes across the lake for her blonde ponytail. Assumed by us, and confirmed later by Abbe, to be the only blonde ponytail in all the region. My funny-math failed. She outperformed my assumption and cruised across the finish, stopping, and sharing her breathless feedback: "What the Hell was that?!?"
Well said Abbe. What the Hell indeed? As Colorado-trained racers we assumed we know big climbs but these Colombians have redefined climbing.
Stage 2: 2nd Place Pro/Open Men :: 33.7 miles 6,600' elevation gain 3 hrs 5 min
Final day. Final effort. Finish line.
Amir, safely in 1st place for the Masters division. Abbe finished an unofficial 4th in her field for Day 2. I had ground to make up. Having taken 3rd on Stage 1, 2nd on Stage 2, I craved a stage win. So, in line with my strategy of no strategy, I started Day 3 the same way, on the front. The day's course aligned more closely with my preferred course profile. A 15 km, fast rollout into a single, giant climb, and a return 15km false-flat uphill to the finish line. My weight penalty only present on the single climb. GO!
Reaching the climb in the top 5 group set me up for an evolving strategy. If I could hold off the 1st and 3rd place Pro Men for the bulk of the 8 km climb I could regain the lead on the 12 km descent and power through the final 15 km to the finish line. If.
Wouldn't you know it?! It worked! Diego, first place Pro, passed me just before the top of the climb. With both breathing and the Spanish language a challenge, I panted an "adios Diego" as he smiled and glided past. Returning the smile, with my evolved strategy in mind, I crested the climb and before assuming my downhill position, took care to the view around me. Pineapple fields. Unbelievable. Beautiful. Vibrant pineapple fields. Unable to pull my eyes back to the race course I screamed to the sky, "I am racing in a freaking pineapple field!".
Like the chorus to a hip-hop song, most of us get real excited about the few words we DO know. Spanish, to a non-Spanish speaking gringo, is no different. I relish the opportunity to speak like a local so when I saw Diego ahead of me on the descent I prepped the words to roll off my tongue. "Adios Diego!" I repeated with gusto. Surging from my capture of first place I drove me heels lower, hunched my frame further behind my handlebars, and held on for dear life. The descent ended and the final stretch would be my victory push. Driving my pedals past 300 watts, 350 watts, 400 watts, and further. I attacked each rise in the road. I hollered like a lunatic unintelligible words at passerby. Destined for a storybook ascension on the podium I sought the finish line and with only 6 km to go...PSSSSSS!! Flat tire.
Yep. A flat. Injecting the first CO2 cartridge identified the hold in my tread. Orange Seal filled the wound but before I could remount Diego, with 3rd place Pro Men in tow, passed in a pack of 5 riders working together to make quick work of the final stretch. Remounted I made it another 1/2 mile before the tire flatted. Out of CO2s I begged the passing racers, coming up more frequently now, for a cartridge. I loaded a second blast of air and remounted. 1/2 mile later, flat. Amir pulls up alongside and launches his lone CO2 my way. I remount and chase him back down. And, flat. 4 km to go and I'm on the rim. Debating between a broken rim and a walk to the finish line I toss my budget out the window and ride the rough rim. Aware of my situation the motorcyle-mounted Colombia Nat'l Police ride alongside me as I drive the pedals at threshold. A race support mechanic pulls alongside with a floor pump. He adds air as the dismounted police remove my valve cap. Another 1/2 mile and I wave off any more support as I ride the rim to the finish line. An anticlimactic finish to my 1st place effort? Maybe. But that disappointment lastly only a couple of minutes as the finish line brought a celebration with Amir and William. Photos with my fellow finishers. Acknowledgment from Diego and the rest of the front-end of the race. Kinship at the finish line. Beyond the accolades, and the efforts, this community feel, this sense of belongingness trumps all other emotion.
3rd Place Overall Pro Field
Stage 3: 33 miles 4,000' elevation gain 2 hrs 30 min
How did my strategy of no strategy work out? I ended up on a podium. I got an award. I got a handful of cash prize stuffed in my back pocket. It worked out. Ultimately when a strategy involves less details and more feel, more confidence in one's self, and more trust things will probably work out okay. Could I have done things differently and seen a better result? Sure. But could I have known that going into the event blinded as I was? Of course not. Trust. Confidence. Feel. That strategy continues to work. Here, in Colombia, or wherever else this awesome sport takes me.