Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Frontera a Frontera

Biking in El Salvador is surprisingly good.  I've been doing a lot more road biking than I did in the States, and probably less mountain biking.  Most of the mountain biking is double-track and I prefer single-track, so... The views from the road rides are spectacular, and there is a large group of people who ride regularly. I did a ride back in November with a group from the local bike shop and was able to hold my own on an 80km ride, so I figured - I can do anything, right?  That kind of arrogance can get you in trouble!  Haha.

I signed up to do the 'frontera a frontera' (border to border) ride with little training.  It was supposed to be a 300km ride from the border of Guatemala to La Unión along the litoral (coastal) highway.  I figured that since it was along the cost, it would be pretty flat and hence not be that bad.

First we had to get to the border.  I woke up at 4am and caught a ride with the bike shop to the border, leaving their shop at 4:45.  I was sitting shotgun in a large pickup truck with a heavy trailer as we barreled down the road to Sonsonate. We came across a bunch of busses which were parked on the side of the road. The driver of the truck turned on his high beams to make sure that we were more readily seen as he passed the busses at about 50mph.  One of the busses was apparently not paying attention and decided to pull out into our lane. Our driver slammed on the brakes and it was immediately obvious that we weren't going to be able to stop in time. As we screeched towards the bus, our driver made a split second decision to hit the concrete abutment on the left side of the road rather than hit the bus. Turned out he made a great decision - we hit the abutment with a loud pop, but, after pulling over, we found that we had only a few scratches to show for our near-bout-with-death.

Undeterred, we reached the border and started the ride.  The first 45 minutes were great - big group, easy ride in the peloton.  That is, until I got my first flat.  I was prepared for this, though, and quickly changed the tube and pumped it up with help from my riding buddy who also stopped.  After the flat was fixed, we darted off, hoping to catch the peloton while they rested at the first refueling stop.  However, I would never catch them again.  The next 4 hours were probably the hardest 4 hours of exercise I've done.  I'm not sure if any of you out there have ever ridden with real road bikers, but apparently they are crazy people.  They just ride flat out for hours.  I tried that, but eventually lost most of my steam and was relegated to climbing the hills along the rocky coast at the speed of what felt like a turtle.  Along the way, I got another 2 flats.  After the 3rd flat, I found a tiny piece of glass that was embedded in the outside of the tire, but couldn't be felt in the inside, so I'm going to assume that that piece of glass was my nemesis for the day.  Eventually, after hours of riding in the hot-ass sun with some gorgeous vistas of the El Salvador coastline, I reached the ending point for day 1, which I was happy to find out was not the airport, but was instead Kayu, in Playa Sunzal.  I was one of the last to finish for the day, although around 10 people gave up along the way, so I didn't feel too bad about my showing.  Tomorrow would be better.

After returning to San Salvador, I grabbed burgers at Rústico with two friends and started thinking about what the next day had in store for me.  Since I knew that Kayu was only ~115km or 125km, I started thinking about how long the next day would be, and knew that it would be around 1.5 times as long as the first day.  I also debated trying to buy new, kevlar-reinforced tires for my bike.  In the end, to prepare for the next day, I bought 3 snickers bars and went to bed at 8pm.

I was happy to discover that the next day began at the airport, thereby cutting out a good 30 miles of riding.  My main goal for the 2nd day was to stay with the peloton at all costs.  I was able to do this for the first 2 hours, although I knew that I couldn't keep it up.  I was basically pedaling as hard as I could in the hardest gear for the entire 2 hours.  Eventually, we reached a bridge where we all stopped to take a picture.  I reached down to feel my tire and discovered that I had another flat.  Not to fear though!  Since the group was stopped, I worked feverishly to get it changed and borrowed a floor pump from a chase car to get it changed in no time.  However, I still missed the peloton and even though I caught up to them at the next refueling station, the energy I expended to do so knocked me out for the rest of the day.  I was content to just ride my bike at a decent clip by myself.  This was going great until we reached a roundabout and another rider passed me and convinced me to follow him through the roundabout.  He then proceeded to take me on a bypass road that no one else was on.  It wouldn't have been that big of a deal except that the bypass road was considerably hillier than the normal road, I had no idea where I was going, and the guy was considerably faster than me.  So, as I watched him fade into the distance, I started thinking about what the hell I was going to do if I got lost out here.  He must have been thinking the same thing, because he slowed down and eventually decided that going back to the main road was a better course of action.  I'm pretty happy that we returned to the main road because I'm pretty sure that if we hadn't, we wouldn't have passed the refueling stop, which would have meant I would have been extremely low on water in the blistering sun.

I didn't know how long the last bit would be.  I thought that we were going to La Unión, and I was pretty sure that I had another 50 miles or so to ride, and I also knew that somewhere in there, I had a 6 mile climb.  I was elated, to say the least.  When we finally reached the climb, I was pretty low on water and already dead tired, but I trudged on up the road by myself.  After what felt like (and may have been) an hour climbing up the road, I started thinking "why haven't I seen anyone" and started to think that maybe we weren't supposed to go up this climb at all.  Around that time, I turned around and saw my riding buddy materialize out of nowhere.  He asked me how I was doing and then turned around and headed back down the road to go back to the guy who was apparently behind me.  When I finally reached the top of the mountain, I had no water, was thirsty, was starving, and was tired.  I stopped for a minute to wait for my friend and the other rider to arrive, and thought about how I was going to get water.  Around that time, a car with a bike drove by and stopped, asking if I was alright.  I asked them for water and, in true Salvadoran fashion, they offered me Pepsi.  I pounded the Pepsi and then they offered me an empanada.  I took one bite of the delicious empanada and then watched as my friend flew by me on his bike.  I stuffed the empanada in my back pocket and took off after him.  I'm happy I did, because, apparently, the finish line of the ride was in El Cuco, which meant that we had to turn off the main road.  I am unsure what I would have done if I had instead ridden to La Unión.  Pretty sure it would have sucked.

Anyway, on the final, long, grueling climb before the finish line, I turned to another rider and said "¿Qué tal?"  His reply summed up my weekend:

Estoy sufriendo.

Yes, I'm the gringo fixing his flat on the left :)


  1. Awesome experience and great post! I hope the picture on the bridge turned out fabulous so that you have a little memento of what you accomplished. WAY TO GO!

  2. I had trouble finding the pic, but finally found it. I added it to the post.

  3. Love the photo...and that you are fixing a flat in it is priceless! Congrats again on a great accomplishment and adventure!