Monday, October 15, 2007

el Reto del Quetzal

Our Trek Family in Guatemala invited LambChop and me down for the 15th anniversary of their shop that also coincided with the first annual El Reto Del Quetzal. Quetzals are the local form of money. It is named after a Quetzalcoati which is a mythical feathered serpant and the country's national bird.

Walter Lopez and Jorge picked us up at the airport in their styling van that had loudspeakers on top and huge Trek decals on it. It looked like the ultimate party/support vechicle. Walter took us to our hotel to rest for several hours since the flight from the U.S. left at 3 in the morning. We had a beautiful breakfast with fresh juices without sugar and the freshest avocados ever. Then Walter picked up us and we visited all the his bike shops. The first one was in a mall that looked a lot like the U.S. The shop had lots of Lance picutures and mostly all mountain bikes. The second shop was small, but had a super friendly vibe. There was a huge poster of me on the wall of this one. I guess I'm more popular than Lance.

The third shop was the biggest. It was also in a mall and at the back of a sporting goods store. There we met our benefactor Johanna Poujol. She was a shining star. She spoke perfect english and told us about her history with the shop and how much she loves selling Treks and other sporting items. She had a big night planned. The local TV station was coming. As well as about 100 folks that wanted to meet Lambchop and me. I would say it was by far the biggest shop visit we have ever had. We signed so many autographs and took a picture with each person. Johanna gave us beautiful bags with our names on them and Guatemala jerseys. We signed champion jersery for her shop.

Day two had us waking up early again to meet Walter, Jorge and Nennie for a ride into Anitgua. On the way we met up with the CocaCola professional mens team whom were preparing for the big Vuelta a Guatemala. On this ride we got a little taste of mtbing in Guate. There is some singletrack through corn fields, hardpack climbs, rough roads. We got to do a huge downhill that was fast with moster ruts and changing soil types. The guate ice is trecherous! Its the classic clay that will take you down in a flash. We had lunch at the most beautiful restaurant that I have ever seen. It had orchids, hummingbirds and very old stone walls.

Later that day we traveled to the race site. The first night of the race we all stayed in the barracks of a military school. It was cold, damp and depressing. The girls were in one side, all ten of us. While all the guys stayed in the other side. As Lambie and I were packing up our stuff in the required race bags, we both were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. The vibe was really not very friendly so far. Lambie gave the promoters some maple syrup as a gift and they were like what's maple syrup? The lodging was terrible, the food nasty. Plus, the language barrier was a bit much at the racers meeting. The promoters gave Tim a hard time, accusing him of wanting to ride with us and provide assistance. He has an old race bike of mine with my name still on it and they thought that it was going to be our spare bike should we have a problem. Tim just said fine, I won't ride the first day. He was thinking, I wish I could keep up with Lea and Sue! The sleeping was terrible with beds that were basically all spring and no mattress. Plus, the boys side had these guys up all night laughing and carrying on. They sounded like wild quetzal birds. We woke to the school boys doing their military exercises.

Some expats translated to us the most important things to know. So did the promoters Oscar and Netzer. We had a small clue as to what was going on. LC and I were confident that hey, its just riding a bike right? We can do that! The first stage went from San Juan Sactepequez to Salama. It was 63 miles. The start was chaotic and rather dirty with the mud puddles along the unimproved roads. We had to be constantly on the lookout for the race markings(orange arrows spraypainted on the side of the road) plus there was the constant danger of chickens, dogs, children, motorcycles, minibuses, chicken buses and kamikaze racers to negotiate. We rode with our friends from the bike shop Charlie, Carlos and Moi and then later with Andreas and Charlie. They all spoke english. We passed out of villages and into more remote parts. It got hotter and drier. The views got better. Then we got to El Chol. This is a monster climb. It took us about one hour 15. It was pretty steep and the surface required some concentration. It was a pretty remote climb, but every once and a while we would see a kid flying down it on his bike or some women walking it with their goods on their heads. My back was killing me as well as my hamstrings. I hadn't climbed that long for a while and it was showing. The downhill after that was brutal. It was such a rough road that it felt like a jackhammer. Every part of my body hurt and then the constant vigiliance of the brain to avoid chickens, dogs, children, buses and look for arrows. There was another hard climb about an hour later that was pavement, but it was tough. The downhill after that is on my top five list for paved downhills. Lea was like a ski racer going down it and it revitalized her so much that she pulled me all the way to the finish. Yeah! 5:38 and we were rocked the first day. Accomadations were better that night. And people started to crack some smiles and say hello. Dinner was better. Lambie won the best mom award. We found out that we were racing the the men's masters class. There weren't enough women to have a women't class so they put us in with the old guys who beat us by 20 minutes that day. Now I don't mind racing against the guys. I mean LC and me are really fast, but I had to warn the promoters about doing this. My philosophy is to praise, recognize, celebrate and award women riders. There aren't that many and no promoter, nor company can afford to discount women't participation in their event. Not doing that discourages women's particpation. Less and less women will seek to form women's teams and will end up in the mixed category or chosing not to the race at all.

Day two Tim was allowed to joyride the course. He wore his Guatemala jersey and got a few cheers for it. Today we went form Salama to Santa Cruz Verapaz. It was 58 miles and we would travel more in the cloud forest and central highlands. The day started out with a beautiful california type climb that was over 45 minutes. I felt good and stopped to take a couple pics. I got lambasted for doing that by some of the other racers and spectators. "why you take a picture...this is a could be faster!" There was actually some singletrack and then a series of stream crossings. Each one Lambie sprinted into, hit as fast as she could and made a tidal wave behind her. The other riders were shocked. Each time she had a Vermont smile on her face which means it was as wide as a mooses ass. The awesome day continued with some tough climbs. The hardest being through some remote indigineous mayan villages. These people live off the land much like generations before them. They dress traditonally and speak one of the 23 different languages of guatemala. It tooks us a little while to figure that out after we said Hola a million times and never got a response. It was an incredible experience that no normal tourist would ever get. There was still more climbing to go, but not before Lea would be chased by a dog on a downhill sprint while I watched following behind her. The dog was close but never made contact and then pulled off exhausted and didn't have any juice left to chase me. That was enough of a traumatic experience for Lea that she basically spent her adrenal glands and had to eat a Mr. big just to limp to the finish. Accomadations were very nice that night at the Park Hotel. This was a lush resort with a zoo and a great restaurant. LC and I were getting incredible massages everyday after the race. The other mechanics were still giving Tim the stink eye. I think they were jealous because they could see what an incredible job he was doing everyday on the bikes. They were so clean and pro. Plus, he was making fast friends with everyone because he was fixing peoples bikes left and right.

The last day finially brought some rain at the start line. It was cool, but warmed up quickly. We got totally muddy then the sun came out and dried it to adobe. Today's stage was a bit annoying for me. It was all rough, rocky roads that I was wishing I had my Fuel for. I really wanted some singletrack, but it was very elusive in El Reto. I was loving the climbs and there were plenty of them for sure. LC and I couldn't really decide if we were racing or just joyriding. We would go good on the climbs then peter out on the rolling stuff. LC wasn't as motivated asme since this is her last race of an incredibly successful year, while I was thinking about the toughest race in the world next month in Costa Rica. It caused a bit of frustration on my part, but that is the amazing thing about these team races, they teach you so much about yourself and your partner. They also require you to use your communication skills very effectively. I also think they are great publicity for a mountainbike team beacause a its the only time you acutally race as a team.

It was elation crossing the finish line. We had survived the dogs, chickens, motorcycles, chicken buses and potholes. Walter and Jorge were waiting for us with big smiles as usual. We were the ms. masters of the race. We finished second in the men's masters and 7th overall. The costa ricans won the overall. They were riding Trek 8900s. Everyone was hugging us at the banquet, getting autographs and inviting us back. The cold shoulders had all melted under our beaming smiles.

Walter, the angel, drove us 4 hours back to Antigua. And Jorge, the joker saint, took our bikes washed and packed them for us. Lea left the next day and Tim and I headed up to Tikal to visit the mayan ruins and celebrate our birthdays.

El Reto del Quetzal was the perfect adventure that I hope we can get back to next year.

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