Every day at the El Reto del Quetzal stage race across central Guatemala had a memorable theme to it. Guatemala is a special country and the event is a top tier race with its organization, challenging courses and amazing topography. Its pretty rad they can link together so many cool trails, dirt roads and random steps through villages to show us some hidden gems of this vibrating country.
Stage 1 “The Night Time Trial”, started with a short 12 km night time trial, it was a rude awakening to the 2017 race season with a 6 km climb straight out of the gate with the Latino mountains goats sprinting up there like immortals. 2015 BC Bike Race winner, Tristan Uhl and I hit the dusty single-track descent back to the finish line pretty much together and passed a pile of riders. This was abruptly stopped upon hitting the gnarly sections which were lined up with 15-20 riders walking there way down. “This is a bike race amigos!, not a walking race..” This ate up our only chance to close the gap on the leaders as we shook our heads to why 150 racers were started ahead of us on this short stage as it basically just neutralized the decent portion of the race. Nonetheless it was a good kick in the head to ignite the body for the racing week ahead as Tristan and I would roll in 4-5th overall.
Stage 2 “The Trails in the Jungles of Volcano Agua” started with a 1 hour bus ride to the slopes of Volcan Agua in which we’d climb 8 km up its spine before hitting a sweet 14 km enduro single track decent to the finish. It was a tough day as my body had a full meltdown climbing up through the steamy jungle, eventually leading to a puke session just 20 minutes into the race. Feeling a bit ill off the bus ride, things just got worse and pretty soon I was walking up anything partially steep and really on a survival mission.
Eventually hitting the single track decent a fair bit down from the leaders I tried to open it up to limit the losses. Pretty dizzy I rolled around one corner a bit hot and hit a rock ledge in the middle of the trail, stopping dead in my tracks, losing my balance and falling off the side of the trail 8-10 ft down into a pile of trees and bushes. It was shocking my Kona Hei Hei didn’t brake with the impact, although the seat, brake levers and stem were all twisted in all sorts of directions and needed some adjustments. The rest of the descent was rad, cruising through the thick green foliage on some great man made trails and across some sketchy bridges. Even having a tough day it was an awesome ride. On the way back to basecamp in Antigua we witnessed Volcano Fuego erupt huge steams of thick gas, it was amazing to see this first hand and made the bike race a distant memory.
The rest of the day was a struggle, only managing to down a small bowl of miso soup before laying in bed for the evening in a state of anguish with a rumbling stomach. I’m pretty sure the dodgy stomach came from drinking water from the rock filter in our 4 star hotel room. It claimed to remove 100% of the sketchy bacteria from the water. Seems a bit far fetched for a rock to be that smart and I payed for it. After a rough sleep it was up at 5am to tackle the Queen stage of the race, 86 km and 2500 M of climbing through the heart of the Guatemalan countryside across to Lago Atitlan. Heading to the start line I quickly had to pul a u-turn back to the hotel as the stomach was ready to explode and needed a Toilet ASAP! I got there just in time, destroyed it, then started thinking, “holy shit, i’m not in a good shape to ride today.”
Already missing the 7am start I questioned taking a bus to the finish line but opted to try and get there by bike as it’s always better to be pedaling then in any other sort of transit. The first 1.5 hours actually felt ok once moving but then all hell hit the fan as the stomach expanded to a pregnant state and energy levels went to zero. Riding with my buddy Simon got me within 20 km of the finishing before a top 5 meltdown of all time hit. Between naps in the ditch, stops at Tiendas and a couple bano breaks I’d eventually make it to the finish line, 3.5 hours after the leaders, but still in the game:) The support from the locals along the race course is great, although some of the dogs can be a little over zealous at times!
It was a bit of a bummer to miss out on racing this stage as it is a tough mother of a stage with its sawtooth profile and sections of rad single track. The highlight was dropping into the huge crater lake of Lago Atitlan on a technical descent down some rough trails and through tight alleyways of a local town. It’s the icing on the cake after a stellar day of riding across Guatemala. This night in Pana was a gongshow again with the majority of the night spent on the toilet but the views of the Lake and surrounding volcanos helped ease the ass eruptions.
Stage 4 “Climbing to the Heavens” started with a relaxing boat ride to the village of Santa Cruz along the northern shores of the lake. From here we climbed an insanely steep climb out of the crator then continued on a mixture of rolling terrain with patchs of singeltrack before descending down into a rad little valley in the middle of nowhere. From here a long gradual climb started up to 3100 M. The final portion of this climb was raw, winding up some high hiking trails in dense brush before topping out in a dry pine forest similar to Canada. From here we hit some rough singeltrack descending all the way down to Guatemalas 2nd biggest city of Quetzaltenango (XELA). After a couple slow days, the body miraculously turned around to battle into 3rd on the stage, probably a combination of the other riders being tired from racing the previous two days, and myself being somewhat rested from being forced to soft pedal them! The combination of big climbs, rowdy single-track and being in the non stop action of the Guatemalan countryside makes every mile at the El Reto de Quetzal a memorable one. Like every other night, us riders were treated to a nice hotel and large portions of local food which is a treat after these tough stages.
Stage 5 “Enduro to the Pacific Lowlands”. The final stage is a classic as it starts with a couple small climbs surrounding Xela with some dusty trails mixed in. Pretty soon it traverses under the shadows of Volcan Santa Maria and onto an enduro descent into to the tropics of the Pacific lowlands. Going into the 40 km descent the 2 leaders from Columbia and Spain had a few minutes on myself with Tristan Uhl just behind me. Having Tristan catch up, we teamed up to work together to try and reel in the 2 leaders with him leading the steep descents and myself the rough flat traverses. After nearly an hour of ripping through big boulder fields, rough cobblestones and patches of trails through the tropics we finally caught the two leaders just 10 km from the finish. Unfortunately an untimely stick in the chain caused a 45 seconds stop which took me out of contention for the stage win. The final few km flew by with Tristan attacking the single tracks, and the Columbian and Spanish/Honduran leaders attacking the few punchy climbs and then ripping through the chaotic mayhem of a small Latino village. The talent these these local Latinos have at dodging traffic, people and dogs in these congested areas is impressive as it requires a high degree of risk! Rolling in across the finish line in 4th capped a very entertaining adventure that only a few races around the World can offer.
El Reto del Quetzal is a solid event as it offers an adventurous race across a truly remarkable country. It was certainly worth the trip down here as theres no better way I can think of to see the landscapes of a developing country and meet some great locals. Back off to my training camp in the Guatemalan highlands as this place is a mountain bikers heaven with endless routes and it’s eternal spring climate!