Where to begin when there is so much to tell?
The obvious and essential would be a good place to start. Ensenada, Mexico, home and finish line of the Rosarito to Ensenada bike ride, a stunning 50 mile romp down the Baja coastline with one bitch of a climb.
So let’s start there and the beautiful and comical occurrences that are Mexico will unfold in the telling including the Santa Claus, eating crickets and a convention of vegetation scientists. All true and a mere sampling of the odd things that spontaneously combust in Mexico, a place we love for all its mystery, sensual beauty, improvised architecture, young women in go-go boots and cheap fish tacos. I miss you already.
But we digress and that in itself is a Mexican attitude — manana. Mexico is the United States without a clock, a to-do list, the endless tyranny of self improvement and anxiety we live with. They don’t do self-help books in Mexico, they simply live. So if you wanted tight travelogue, you came to the wrong blog.
The Rosarito to Ensenada ride was voted the best adventure ride in the world back in 2005 by a Los Angeles publication. No argument from me or my three friends in 2010.
In truth, I’ve done the ride 4 or 5 times and it’s always been a joy. In good years when the murder rate in down, 15,000 riders will take part but in recent years, the drug cartel violence has scared off those people who don’t want to ride wearing a bullet proof vest. It’s their loss and we had 4,500 brave amigos on Saturday.
The route takes the old coast road south along the Baja peninsula. The coastline is spectacular, just at the edge of the cliffs that drop down to deserted beaches. For an hour you are in oceanside postcard-land before the road cuts hard left and inland.
Then you tackle the feared El Tigre climb that goes for two miles or what seems like ten depending on your fitness, with grades up to 7.5% before a wild switchback descent into Ensenada. It was the bitch I mentioned before and each year El Tigre teaches me certain indelible lessons. For example, this year The Tiger kindly let me know I was under-trained, overweight, aging and slow. But more on El Tigre later.
The Rosarito to Ensenada ride is a fun ride and amigos are a large part of the adventure. I had returning veteran Paul and two new converts, Buzz and Doug, good friends and former work buddies I rarely get to see because they’re East Coast. A lawyer and two advertising art directors — a decent combo for Mexico — I knew I’d have good photos and legal consul should things go south south of the border.
I think it’s time to break the travelog up with a fond memory of the taco cart lady. Two years ago in Ensenada on a street corner by our motel, we discovered the greatest fish taco chef in the entire universe. I don’t know her name but she is always there and has probably made a billion fish tacos in her life. Part of the experience is getting our “pescado” tacos from her cart. She is a taco goddess and we made a point of getting out pictures with her this year. Do the ride and I will give you her exact GPS location.
After we took the bus and bike shuttle up to Rosartio we had a fantastico breakfast burrito in a little shop right on the main drag. Like any travel in a foreign land, you’re never quite sure what’s good and what’s not, that’s the roll of the dice and part of the charm. We stepped into a small place with a counter and a middle aged couple working the kitchen. In minutes they had us lined up with delicious food for just about nothing. The gods were already smiling and we exited, literally walking out the front door with our bikes to line up for the start.
A tradition of the ride is that riders often bring candy to throw to the hundreds of kids who lines the route. This is creates a disaster scenario as sloppy candy tosses make it half way to the curb and the kids dart into the mass of riders to retrieve the sugar. Candy crashes are a common occurrence.
The mass start with thousands of riders at every skill and non-skill level makes for a crazy demolition derby. I don’t wish to over-dramatize that situation but every year a half dozen people go down hard thanks to boneheaded moves. Early in the ride before things spread out, there’s often the sound of an ambulance headed to rescue the victims.
This brings us to Santa Claus amongst other luminaries. Like many oddball events, Rosarito Ensenada has its share of whacky people on wheels. We saw Santa pulling a Burly trailer, a half dozen young women dressed as cave girls, Wonderwoman, riders in Mexican wrestling masks, one man who’d fashioned a donkey head and tail for his bike. This ride is always a rolling party. That is, until you hit El Tigre.
I hit the base of El Tigre already half whupped, my legs weary from the first hour of rollers and the overly ambitious pace set by Buzz, a Rosarito Ensenada newbie. Adrenaline and excitment will do that but to keep up, I had to go out too fast and paid the price in pain pesos.
I also made made three discoveries about my friend Doug. One, he pedals with the exact body language of Lance Armstrong. Two, at only 150 pounds, he’s a born climber and three, he’d sandbagged us about his training. He flew up the hill, with Paul and Buzz in his Merckx jersey right behind.
All three friends demonstrated the irrefutable mathematical beauty of the power-to-weight equation. They had power; I had weight and so we parted. I felt like a child with abandonment issues: “no, don’t leave me behind.”
I set my own pace and insisting on abusing myself. I’d done 6 weeks of prep work back home and was wondering where the benefits had disappeared to. I rode on anger, disgust, frustration, a few gels and the need to prove how hard I could push myself despite the lack of fitness. To borrow a phrase used to describe the work of a domestique giving everything to help the team’s star rider, I “buried myself.” I passed many people in that two miles but I never saw my friends again till they waited at the top.
I had a long conversation with myself as I rode, things like, I need to control my voracious appetite, stop drinking beer and wine every night, I need to get my life in order, set some priorities, and get rid of the bags under my eyes and my ten pound gut and man up in some before-I-die kinda way. It was a professional grade lashing which pushed me to ride at my absolute limit, hard, like a dog, a slow dog, up El Tigre.
Needless to say, I was also thinking about the massive amounts of tequila I was planning to reward myself with that night in Ensenada. Another huge plus of the ride is the mucho grande after-party in downtown Ensenada. It’s the usual fiesta craziness with a few perfect twists. Yes, the are cheap, awesome fish tacos and cheap, cold Mexican beer and cheap, loud, latino party music. But there are also scores of massage table set up, 15 dollars for a 45 minute full body massage. Nothing brings you back faster than a massage.
And there are the Tecate, Sol and PowerAde girls in their go-go boots. Part of the sad evolution of women in America is the near extinction of go-go boots, one of the sexiest inventions in erotic history along with the garter belt and bustier and dare I say, the ball gag. Mexico is go-go boot heaven and who doesn’t crave sexy latino babes in hot pants, tube tops and go-go boots? I would ride 50, 75, even a hundred miles for a glimpse of go-go.
And ride I did, knowing the rich bounty that awaited me in Ensenada. As anyone who’s done an endurance event knows, the mind and body go through many gyrations. One minute you’re dying and then suddenly you’re alive again, turning the cranks, energy appearing out of nowhere.
When I reached the rollers on the higher plateaus, I found new reserves and that in turn gave me a psychological boost. When you’re 6’4 and almost 210 pounds, you are not a skinny Spanish climber but give me some rollers where I can use weight as momentum and I can convert flab to speed. I set out to catch those lighter, fitter, younger, faster friends.
Well, it didn’t happen of course but I came with five minutes of pulling it off. I passed over a hundred riders and gradually built my ego back to an acceptable size and salvaged a measure of pride.
I came flying off the long corkscrew descent into town, zoomed along the harbor and crossed the finish line to the cheers of hundreds of townspeople watching the event. When I heard the applause I felt duty bound to put on a final burst, jumping out of the saddle. End time: just under 3 hours, not terrible for a heavyweight cycling blogger.
The ride was over and the party was on. First stop, my beloved fish taco lady — and then the crickets. but that’s in part II.