Transierra Norte Enduro Race

Noviembre 21 — 2019 | Oaxaca City, MX

Juliana Bicycles Alex

Alex Pavon is a ski racer turned professional mountain bike racer for the Juliana | SRAM Pro Team. When she isn't competing in enduro and multi-day stage races, Alex gets her adrenaline rush as an ER medic in Flagstaff, AZ.  
 
Alex is an enigma in the world of competitors, she is out there to win, but she is also out there as a steward of women mountain bikers. 
 

 

“Alvaro, where are we?”

“We are… on another planet.”

 

Another planet indeed. When most people think of Mexico, they think of the beautiful beaches of Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, or maybe they think of vast, dry, barren deserts. Much less often do people think of enormous mountains and dense oak and pine forests. If you were shown a picture of the Sierra Norte mountains outside of Oaxaca, I bet Mexico would not be your first guess for location (unless there was a giant Agave in the photo).

The Sierra Norte is part of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, a vast mountain range that stretches across the state of Oaxaca and beyond. Located to the east/northeast of Oaxaca de Juarez, the base of these mountains sits right around 5,200 feet and climbs well above 10,000 feet in places. This story begins and ends in Oaxaca City, but the real adventure unfolds in the mountains. Deep in the woods, far from anything modern, Transierra Norte took us back in time—to small Zapotec villages, dirt and hand-laid cobblestone roads, and ancient hiking and donkey trails.

As a racer, I seek out these kinds of events—the events that leave you with not just memories of awesome riding (of which there was plenty), but memories and experiences and relationships that go far beyond the bike.

Transierra Norte is a 4-day blind enduro race that coincides with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)—a cultural celebration of life and death, exhibited by colorful decorations and flowers, singing, dancing, parades, shrines, costumes, and makeup. The event is organized by a small handful of individuals with a passion for mountain biking and sharing the awesomeness of the culture, riding, and hospitality Mexico has to offer with the international community. As a racer, I seek out these kinds of events—the events that leave you with not just memories of awesome riding (of which there was plenty), but memories and experiences and relationships that go far beyond the bike.

I had been wanting to do this race since its first edition in 2017. Due to numerous circumstances, it hadn’t worked out. Fast forward to October 27, 2019, and myself, Emily Slaco, Emily Sabelhaus, and Jaime Hill were all headed down to Oaxaca for this legendary bike party. Three flights later, our tiny Q400 turboprop plane was descending into Oaxaca, my face plastered to the window.

We arrived in Oaxaca a few days early to give ourselves ample time to explore. The streets were packed with vendors, people making flower arrangements and decorating buildings, and kids on rollerblades and skateboards. We roamed the mercados, mezcalarias, pastelerias, churches, coffee shops, and food carts until our feet hurt. We also got out on a little shakedown ride, just to give ourselves an idea of what we were in for in the coming days.

October 30th came, and it was time to head into the mountains for the race. All the racers met at the Hotel Mision de Oaxaca, where we got our number plates, timing chips, and stored our bike bags until our return on November 2nd. From there it was on to the buses and into the mountains (I almost missed the bus because I decided it was absolutely necessary to get 18 street tacos and make a pit stop at the corner store for bananas and Chokis). After a short two- and half-hour shuttle, we stepped off the bus and into the cold—yes, cold—misty mountain air. Dark skies spat rain, giving off an ominous impression that would last the entirety of the race.

We ended day one wet and covered in mud. The final stage dropped us at our camp for the next three nights. “La Cumbre de Ixtepeji” is an autonomous ecotourism camp run by the community, with numerous cabins, dorms, and a common area/cafeteria. After washing the muck off our bikes, getting our cabin assignments and finding our bags, we made our way to cabin #1 which was equipped with enough beds for 6 people, a brick fireplace and a bathroom. We picked our beds, started a fire, and took hot showers. It was 40 degrees and raining, and it continued to rain. All. Night. Long. And the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. In fact, when asked about the weather, Don Memo, who was managing La Cumbre, said the last time he remembered having such rainy weather he was a kid (he’s in his fifties).

The next morning, we woke up early and stumbled over to the cafeteria donning rain jackets. Breakfast each morning was some version of oatmeal, eggs, and beans. Oh, and Mexican coffee, which is brewed with cinnamon, vanilla, and brown sugar—delicious. After breakfast we got ourselves and our gear ready for a big day on the bike: backpack, rain cover, rain jacket, spare gloves, snacks, etc. Each day we left from La Cumbre (elevation ~9,000’) and pedaled up a dirt road to begin our day. The first stage of each day started around 10,500’ and descended down towards the valley floor, with a handful of shuttle bumps and pedal transfers in between stages.

I didn’t use a computer to actually track our distance or elevation gain, but I’d estimate that aside from day 1 (our short day) we were riding somewhere around 25 miles with 3,000-4,000’ of climbing, and at least two times that much descending. Each stage brought something new and unique: rocks, roots, mud, dry, high-speed, slow-speed, technical, steep, long, short… you name it, we rode it. Regardless, every trail had something special. Maybe that something special was the cow you almost hit mid-run, or the man and his burro carrying wood cheering on the side of trail.

…we would load up on to the buses and shuttle back to camp passing around Gatorade bottles full of mezcal.

At some point during each day we would come into a small village that was guaranteed to have a tiendita where you could buy more Chokis, spicy nuts, Jumex, Coronitas, and home-made mezcal. Wherever the village was, that’s also usually where we had our lunch: ham with beans, cheese, and avocado on white bread, fruit, brownies, and/or banana bread. Our days frequently ended in these villages as well, where we would load up on to the buses and shuttle back to camp passing around Gatorade bottles full of mezcal.

The last day of the race was November 2nd, AKA Dia de los Muertos. Our race day was relatively short, ending around 2:30pm. As racers rolled into the venue after the last stage, they were greeted by a band, an ample supply of beer, and a buffet of delicious tacos. Awards were handed out, piñatas demolished, and a paper mache bull with some kind of spinning contraption that shot off fireworks was passed through the crowd. Afterwards, we headed back to our hotel in Oaxaca, showered, and headed for the Dia de los Muertos celebrations.

We finally took a taxi home around 3am, and the party was nowhere near over.

The city center was packed, and I was astonished our taxi could squeeze its way through the crowds. The streets were covered with thousands of marigolds, telephone wires decorated, shrines to the dead everywhere, people in costume and face paint, food vendors selling elote on a stick, hamburguesas, and churros lined the sidewalks, artists and jewelers and ceramicists, people dancing and playing music. Everywhere I looked I couldn’t help but smile; it was almost sensory overload. We finally took a taxi home around 3am, and the party was nowhere near over.

It’s hard to put an experience like Transierra Norte into words. I don’t think a story can really do it justice, but I hope that this tiny glimpse into this incredible event and place inspires you to go check it out for yourself. And when you do, do so with respect. Mountain biking is in no way new to Mexico, but much of this particular area is inhabited by people who have been in the area of hundreds of years, who used these trails as a way to communicate and trade with each other and are not accustomed to seeing tons of mountain bikers. And that is part of what makes this place so damn extraordinary—it is about so much more than the mountain biking.

Yes, these trails are some of the coolest I have had the pleasure of riding, but the people are some of the kindest people I have ever met, the food some of the best I’ve had, and the place one of the most beautiful. Muchas gracias, Transierra Norte.

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