Mexican Surprise- Racing Enduro in the Sierra Madre
Words & photos by Matthew Slaven It was my second trip to Mascota and the rugged Sierra Madre in central Mexico. This made everything feel familiar and more inviting than my first trip to the region 2 years ago. The purpose of that first trip was to ride old burro trails that were centuries old with a good crew of locals to assess if they were good enough to host some guided trips or even an Enduro race in the area. Fast forward to this trip, and we were back to race the North American Enduro Tour Finals in and around Mascota on some of the trails that we previewed a few years back. Needless to say I couldn’t wait to put my tires back on the Mexican dirt. My travel partner and all around shred buddy, Adam Craig and I met up with the rest of the Gringo crew also affectionately known as the “Tight but Loose Crew”(Adam Craig, Marco Osborne, Ryan Gardner, Botsy Phillips, Mike West, Ariel Lindsley, Megan Rose and Nate Hills) at the Puerto Vallarta Airport. It being Mexico, and hot, we convened at the bar outside of the airport for a round of icy cold Coronas while we waited for Javier from Wild Mex Adventures to pick us and our traveling yard sale up. Once Javi showed up with a van and trailer it was a sigh of relief and high fives ensued as we loaded our bikes and gear. We piled in the van and headed into our first sunset of the trip, I think everyone was stoked on the adventure that we were about to embark on.
Thursday morning we awoke in Mascota early and headed down the street to our amazing breakfast spread. Café, huevos con jamon, tortillas, and chiliquilles were all available. We all fueled up for what was going to be an awesome afternoon of shuttling as many of the race stages we could. Our crew all agreed that we would commit to one day of practicing the race courses and whatever we didn’t get to, we would just race blind. Simple as that, it was a Gentlemen’s Agreement that would allow us to hit up another riding zone in near by San Sabastian on Friday. Sometimes a trip like this is not just about the racing, but about seeing, eating and trying new things. We all wanted to win the race, but not at the expense of missing some sweet new trails!
After breakfast, we quickly loaded up our bikes and gear and headed up into the mountains and out of Mascota. On the scenic drive up we passed through other small towns like Yerba Buena, Navidad and Juanacatlan. I was starting to get excited as I recognized these towns and the hillsides surrounding them from my last visit to the area. As we arrived at the top of the shuttle, it was beginning to look like a familiar race scene to back home. Truck loads of riders checking tire pressure and making adjustments and trying to figure out where to go first. It just goes to show you that even though we were in a different country, the culture of our sport still remains the same, even with a language barrier and better food. I noticed a few folks from the US and said a quick hello before heading off to the first trail of the day called” Tatema”(The Entrance). This trail started flat with some pedaling, then started to open up with some speed until you hit a long gradual climb. Immediately after the climb the trail sent you into a gnarly rock garden with a few big drops in it. After that it become very fast and open with good line of sight and flow. The trail finished with some very tight turns that dropped you into a small town plaza. What a rip! This trail set the tone for the rest of the day as we quickly loaded the shuttle rig and headed for the top again as fast as we could.
On the way back up, I asked AC what he thought of the trails so far and if he had run into any “Mexican Surprises” on the way down? He seemed a bit confused by the Mexican Surprise question but we both agreed that the trail had exceeded our expectations. The locals had been doing a lot of work on the trails since my last visit and I could tell right away, that you could ride faster and safer than my last trip down these mountains. The term “Mexican Surprise” was born from my trip to Mascota 2 years previous when our guides would tell us to take the lead on each trail, so they could watch us either take a wrong turn or crash immediately every time. Our guide Alvarro dubbed this the “Mexican Surprise”, which always kept you on your toes. Now, on our current trip the trails were much cleaner and defined, but still raw. I couldn’t believe how much more fun they were. By the end of the day, we had almost accomplished our mission and ridden all the stages but Stage 1. Which apparently was the longest and most challenging, so that seemed appropriate.
After an amazing shuttle day the previous day, we were all a bit tired but couldn’t wait to go explore some different trails and escape the race scene for a day. We started early again in the morning with a great breakfast in a Café down the street from our hotel. After we had our fill of coffee and chiliquilles, we loaded up the shuttle rigs in front of our hotel “Casa Rural la Esmeralda” and headed off into the mountains near San Sabastian. Our ride consisted of an hour-long shuttle, then a 2-hour dirt road climb to the top of La Bufa. From there you could see the ocean, and the small town of San Sabastian that we were about to descend down to. All the trails in this area are steep, technical and sometimes very tight. As we dropped in, you had to bring your A-Game at all times, so you didn’t get caught out by a “Mexican Surprise” lurking around every corner. Descending trails with names like “Mexican Elves”, “La Culebra” (The Snake) and “Las Minas”(The Mines), we smashed our way down to the quaint Pueblo San Sabastian. Where AC and Marco proceeded to head straight for the first Michelada sign they saw. I had never seen anything like it before. It was a meal of shrimp, cucumbers, spices, and things I didn’t even know about on top of a beer mixed with tomato juice. It seemed like the perfect Mexican ride snack ever! After a quick, refuel in town we did another short climb and descent to our shuttle rig for a well deserved lunch in a quaint roadside Taqueria. The riding around Mascota and San Sabastian is very challenging, which is why I think I keep coming back.
If you are tired of flow trails and like it rough and raw, then you will love these trails. Our guide Javier Chavez, owns Wild Mex Tours in Sayulita and did a great job showing our #tightbutloose crew the goods.
Race day. We had to get up early and catch a shuttle to the top of Stage 1 by 8am. This was the one stage we did not practice, so Marco, AC and I decided it would be more fun to just do that stage in a train. We all rode together for the first few minutes over short punchy climbs, but as soon as it got steep, tight and laden with switchbacks, Marco was gone. I didn’t like getting dropped by Marco, so I tried to distance myself from AC. I got a small gap, but then I made some mistakes and he was right back on. We hooted and hollered smashing over rocks and out of gullies until we skidded across the finish line. Not too shabby for our first stage of the day blind. Marco won that stage and we weren’t far behind. As we gathered everyone and high fived, I couldn’t help but think about our monster transfer ahead of us. It was time to pedal 3 hours back to the top for the start of Stage 2. Although, we weren’t too excited at the idea of a daunting 3 hour climb. We grabbed a few snacks and began heading back up into the mountains. The first 2 hours were steep cobbled roads. So steep that it was hard to walk your bike up. But eventually, the roads began to level, and then we saw an Aid station. The Aid stations are different in Mexico. They were stocked with electrolyte drinks in small bags, mini bananas, and boiled potatoes with salt and lime. It really hit the spot and we continued to grind up to the start of Stage 2.
Since we all were doing pretty well after stage 1, we decided it was time for some proper racing against the clock. I dropped in solo and was really enjoying the flow of the stage when I came into a rock garden too fast that had small drops in it. I was running heavy tires, so I thought it might be ok but I heard the dreaded hissing sound and a loud smash as I hit the first drop with a flat. I fixed it as fast as I could but soon I noticed it was losing air again because the rim was cracked. Boo…a race podium was over for me already and we still had another day of racing. I was bummed but I now could race with less stress and just enjoy the whole experience. At the bottom of the stage everyone was wondering what had happened and made sure I was ok. We fixed my flat and decided that I needed to baby my wheel down the last stage of the day, stage 3. Once again, I decided to do a train with my buddy from Colorado, Nate Hills. We had fun finding locals lines and pinning it until Nate got a small gap on me in some really tight trees (Nate is a little guy…ha!). As we crested the final climb to drop into one last sweet decent to the finish I tried a sketchy line to get him back and went down hard 30 seconds before the finish line. I limped across the line and was ready for some tacos and cold cerveza after a tough day at the office.
Sunday was another early start, but a much more chill day on the bike. We only had 3 stages and about half the mileage to transfer as the previous days racing. After a late night of getting my bike back in working order, I was ready for another day on the trails trying not to die. The trails on this day were by far my favorite in the area. Santito (little saint) was stage 4 and then on to the Crown Jewel of Mascota, La Intrepida stage 5 and 6 (the intrepid one). Because of the half mile hike-a-bike in the middle, La Interpida was split into two stages. The upper section reminded me of good Oregon riding, fast with sweeping turns and occasionally rocky and rough. Lower Intrepida was a different story. It is by far one of the more technical trails out there and I couldn’t imagine trying to go race pace down it. It has steep chutes and big rocks all the way down and goes on forever. All these awesome trails had me excited but since I had already flatted and there was no reason to push it and risk hurting myself in a foreign country, I told myself to just have fun and maybe do a stage or two with my friends if they were down.
We had a short transfer in the morning to Santito (The little Saint) that we all rode together. Once we arrived at the top, I quickly noticed Ariel, Botsy and Nate all lining up in a shred train. Perfect! I took a few quick gulps of water and jumped in with them as I heard the countdown….Tres, Dos, Uno….Venga! Racing like this with your buddies is the greatest. Especially if you aren’t the one leading and just heckling from the back like I was. We had a great stage and all high fived at the bottom to celebrate. After an aid station stop, we all headed back up for the final two stages of the weekend. The transfer went quick as we were still buzzing from the raucous descent down Santito. Our group spread out on the final few pitches of the climb up to La Intrepida, but we regrouped at the start of stage 5. We devised a plan to do another friendly shred train down Upper Intrepida, then do the mile long hike-a-bike that separated Lower Intrepida and lastly try to survive the final most technical stage on our own. I drew the short straw, or maybe it was the long straw? Either way it was my turn to lead our group down stage 5. As we dropped in I began to remember how much I liked this trail. It was by far the best dirt we had raced on and opened up to some of the fastest speeds we would hit all weekend. The “racer switch” got flipped to “ON” as I started to find my rhythm on the loamy track. What initially was a friendly trail ride with friends, soon turned into a full on life risk race run. Ariel and I drifted off the front of our train and then I couldn’t hear anyone behind me. As I was getting near to the finish line I smashed an embedded rock and managed a front flat. I kept pushing hard for about a minute on my flat when Ariel caught back up and was wondering why I had slowed down. I signaled for him to pass just as we came around the last corner and saw the finish line. “Wow, that was pinned!” said Ariel out of breath. I couldn’t agree more. It felt good to get my race mojo going but also it was a bummer to get caught out by a sneaky Mexican Surprise once again. I decided to just do the agonizing hike-a-bike with my front flat and fix it at the top before the final stage 6.
At the top the whole crew regrouped for the final time. Adam convinced me to try a tire plug on the sidewall of my front tire. Not usually a good place to use a plug but we were all tired and gave it go anyway. It seemed to work and I was back in business. As each of us dropped in to the final stage, we all had the same idea. Just get to the bottom safely and do our final transfer to Yerba Buena, where a pig roast and fiesta were awaiting us. I had decided once again that luck just wasn’t on my side this trip and I should take it easy on this run and that’s what I did. It was a bummer to see Ryan Gardner on the side of the trail walking his bike but cheering me on. Ryan was in 2nd place and had been riding fast all weekend, only to smash his foot and then break his rear wheel on the last stage of the day. Unfortunate, but soon forgotten as I had to focus on each steep rocky chute so the same didn’t happen to me. It was a challenge just to ride the chutes, let alone try to go fast. As I neared the bottom, more and more spectators lined the rocky trail yelling, “Venga, Venga, Venga!” as I pinballed my way down to the finish. La Intrepida was a perfect ending to a great race weekend. This track is definitely EWS (Enduro World Series) worthy as were quite a few others we raced on. Who know’s? Maybe we will see a Mascota, Mexico stop on the World Enduro Circuit in the future.
With air in my tires and my body intact I pedaled the last short transfer back to Yerba Buena, where a post race fiesta like no other was already in progress. As I passed the finish line into town, they announced my name and then splashed me with a big bucket of questionable water. At first I was upset, and then I noticed it was a right of passage as each rider crossed the line, saw the same greeting. Now wet, I began looking around everyone smiling and lining up to grab a plate of slow roasted pork, beans and tortillas. The Pig had been cooked in the ground for a whole day by Peter, one of the Mexican race promoters. Delicious food, cold cervezas and a full-on burro riding contest kept riders busy well into the evening.
The Tight but Loose Crew had a good showing with a handful in the top ten and AC making it on the podium. Our tired legs and bodies were ready for a few days relaxing on the beach in Sayulita. As I bounced around on the cobbled streets of Mascota on our way to the Playa I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of Mexican Surprises still lay ahead for us once we were let loose on the small surf town with a few pesos in our pockets.