Well, the race we’ve been training for finally arrived. The Vuelta al Cotopaxi is a two day stage race that loops around the base of Volcano Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. The race starts at about 10,500′ and never dips below that altitude, with the vast majority of the course being 12,500ft or higher. It tops out at nearly 14,000ft in both stages. Needless to say, altitude is the crux of this race. And we knew we would be at a disadvantage coming from Ithaca, as it takes about 3 years of living at altitude to compete at 100%….
Since we arrived in Ecuador nearly 2 months ago, we’ve been doing long training rides to higher and higher altitudes to prepare for the race. Most of our weekend rides start from either 7500′ in Cumbaya or 9000′ in Quito and top out between 12,000′ to 14,000ft. Huge 30km or longer climbs are the norm here, and they are so steep that both Abbey and I have geared our bikes much easier than we had them set up in NY. We thought these rides would prepare us for racing at such high altitudes, but there is a difference between starting low, reaching high altitude, then descending and racing above 12,000 for two days straight.
We drove to the start line near the North Entrance of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi with two of our racing friends Mario and Paty. The day started our beautifully sunny and a bit chilly, but otherwise perfect. Because of the remote nature of the race, there is a mandatory equipment check before going to the start line. After passing through this, we lined up at the front of the mixed male-female team division. We knew going into the race that the competition would be particularly fierce this year. The top teams included two-time USA 24 hour champion and World Championship level Adventure Racer Jari Kirkland, several Ecuadorian Adventure Race Champions that also compete at the World Champ level, and two teams composed of World Cup XC racers that we’ve become friends with since moving here. A win was pretty much out of the question, but I had hoped we could fight for a podium or top 5 spot.
This was the biggest race in which either of us had competed, with over 600 racers. The mass start was absolutely crazy, since the first 15km were the flattest of the course, though twisty and sandy with the occasional quick steep hill. There was carnage all over the place as Abbey and I weaved through the masses and tried to get ahead of the slower all male teams. After about 10km we hit a quick hike a bike section then a ferociously steep uphill, after which the crowd thinned a bit and we could start to settle into a groove. It was on this hill that we saw the winners of the mixed division in last year’s race. The guy, Gonzalo is an absolute beast and one of the best Adventure Racers and Ultra Runners in South America. He was off his bike running up the hill while pushing both his bike and his partner up the hill at a faster clip than a bike could hope to charge up this steep section. We quickly learned that to be competitive, I would have to assist Abbey in the harder sections. We both wished we had prepared and practiced for this. After the first 15km, we began 30km brutal climb, punctuated by only one small downhill section. The climb gets progressively steeper and nastier as you gain elevation. First we entered deep sandy sections in the blazing, high altitude tropical sun. This is where Abbey really started to struggle. Luckily, the TNGA was so miserably hot that this didnt phase me in the least. On the less steep sections I began to “pull” Abbey. To accomplish this, she grabbed onto my Camelbak and I would try to hammer. We passed tons of all male groups using this method, but since we hadn’t practiced it, Abbey couldnt relax and wasn’t getting a rest, it was just a way to increase our speed. On the impossibly steep sections where we had to walk I would push both of our bikes, which was really brutal. We don’t train for walking/running/pushing our bikes much, and I’ve never pushed two bikes at once, so these parts were a killer. Some parts were even nastier and I had to carry both our bikes, which was even harder!
Despite my efforts to make it easier on Abbey, I was still pushing a pace that was probably too fast for her and wore her out a bit. We hadn’t really practiced team riding, so this was all new for us. Throughout the entire first stage, we never really found a good rhythm. Over the 30km climb wore on, we slipped from 4th, to 5th, to 6th, getting as far back as 10th place as far as we knew. When we hit the high andean plain or páramo at around 13,000ft, the weather moved in with a vengeance. It started with 30-40 cross and/or headwinds, then came rain, then finally hail the size of marbles. Though we had rain jackets, they weren’t really sufficient for those conditions and we were really cold and miserable. As you reach the high point of day 1, the track gets more technical until it becomes a long hike a bike section to top out over a pass. Even in the best of conditions this part would have been rough, but with the rain and hail, it was a real slop pit. It was really hard to walk, especially carrying two bikes. Still, we persevered and topped out at around 4200m. At this point, we only had 10km and almost 2000′ downhill left to get to camp and the end of stage 1, so we thought it would be smooth, if cold, sailing.
We were freezing going up a brutal uphill, so you can imagine how cold it felt to race downhill. Neither of us could feel our fingers, making it really hard to brake! This actually helped Abbey, since she couldnt really brake, she just hammered down off the pass through some really technical, muddy, bumpy stuff. This is where our bike skills really paid off. Several of the teams that had passed us on the uphill were super fit, but couldn’t ride most of this section, so we inched our way back to 7th place and also passed several all male teams on the downhill.
We had thought the downhill would roll us into camp, but it turned out that we lost all the elevation to camp in 5km, and it would be another 5km through a muddy bog punctuated by nasty stream and gully crossings to get to camp. Abbey was demoralized by this section and teams began to pass us again. I tend to thrive and do best when the suffering is at its utmost, so I was feeling really energized through this section. This made our team dynamics really break down as I was getting impatient as Abbey was wearing down. Due to the terrain, there was no way for me to pull Abbey or push our bikes, so we just had to keep pushing along until we finally crested a small rise and saw the much welcomed site of the camp and stage 1 finish line off in the distance.
When we finally rolled through the line, we were in 7th place. Not bad, but I think we were further back than we should have been. It had been a really rough day for Abbey physically, and I was in a bad way mentally as I had been impatient with the pace all day. Still, we learned a lot about racing as a team, and Abbey had completed her longest (at least timewise) and hardest race ever. I figured that tomorrow would go much better. At least we were the first place all-American team by hours!
The camp was in a boggy area that quickly turned into a mudpit of Woodstock proportions. Still, the organizers did an amazing job with setting a huge banquet style tent. Luckily we were ahead of the majority of teams, so there were no lines and we had our choice of locations to set up our tents. Lunch was huge and awesome. We joined a big group of our friends and stuffed our faces while reminiscing about the days adventures. Dinner was a few hours later and we retired to our tent fairly early. Unfortunately, sleep was made impossible by a few loud groups that had set up their tents near ours. Some teams are non-competitve and just trying to finish, so they stayed up late carousing. I was fuming mad as I really needed some sleep, but didn’t say anything since I didn’t want to be an “ugly gringo!”
Breakfast was also great, though I think I ate too early as I was already really hungry again as we lined up at the start at 830am. One problem with being near the front was that you get called up to the startline early, so we had to wait in the freezing cold, windswept páramo while all 600racers were called up. Stage 2 start was even crazier than the previous day, but at least it was fairly technical and we were starting further up, so we were able to break free of the pack a bit quicker. After 6 quick kilometers of relatively flat riding, we begain a 24km climb to the highest point of the race. But fortunately it was graded much better than the previous days climb and had very few hike a bike sections. Abbey was also doing much better during day 2, and before we knew it, we had pulled into 4th place!
After the big climb, the riding became really fun. It was somewhat flat, but trended downhill and included a lot of single track and technical rocky sections. We felt right at home on this terrain and the altitude didn’t bother us much since we weren’t climbing. We absolutely killed it during this section, passing tons of teams and eventually catching up with and passing the 3rd place team-two World Cup XC racers! Unfortunately, this seemed to wake them up, and they quickly regained their lead! We began another well graded climb which slowed us down again, and the 3rd place team built a huge gap on us again. After this climb, we hit the first section of gravel road in the entire race. Unfortunately we had a gnarly headwind so it was as easy it could have been. I began pulling Abbey through this section and we made great time until hitting some really bad washboards making it impossible to pull. Still Abbey drafted off me, and quickly made it to a pave downhill section. This was pure bliss, as it was the first time in the entire race that didn’t require a ton of effort.
Unfortunately it didnt last long, and we were routed into a recently cut double-track through forest. This was the first really forested section of the race and it felt good to be off of the páramo. The going was really tough through this section as it was all uphill and required some bushwhacking. We climbed and climbed until we came to the edge of a precipice. After searching for a way down, we found a nasty, steep muddy section that required some scrambling to descend. This was super tough and sketchy while carrying a bike, but we made it down without incident and were rewarded with an awesome bit of singletrack! After that we climbed again for what felt like forever, but eventually we crested another ridge and from there it was all sandy, rocky, muddy, FUN singletrack/double track to the finish line. With my bad luck (or more likely due to my overly worn tires) I flatted with about 7km to go. Since it was all downhill, and my Stan’s fluid had partially stopped the leak, I was able to manage with stopping to put in a tube. It definitely slowed us down a bit as my rear tire was washing out as we raced toward the finish. This loss of time would turn out to make a big difference.
We rolled through the finish line in a strong 4ht place position, nearly 14 minutes ahead of the 5th place team, and 30 minutes of 6th place. We found out later that those two teams still beat us overall, since we had had such a rough day during the 1st stage, but we only lost 5th place by about 10 seconds! Still, we were happy with our Stage 2 finish, which put us much closer to the pace of the top teams. Not bad for our first Stage Race, first team Race, and first Race over at 4000m! I hope to get a chance to do it again and get a podium!!