Thursday, December 04, 2008

Rebecca Rusch & Greg Martin - 3rd

Rebecca 3rd in Vuelta al Cotopaxi.

Hello All, if you have a little time, read the following story on Rebecca's race report from Ecuador. She and Greg Martin were competing in the "mixed" category and did well in spite of the altitude that really hit Greg.

Enjoy her first-hand account...

As I sit down to write this race report, I am already scheming about how I can get back here next year for this race. The Vuelta al Cotopaxi is the biggest and most popular mountain bike race in Ecuador. The race limit of 400 people sells out in less than a day and there was a 200 person waiting list this year. I now understand why. The race is a 2 day stage race of approximately 140 km. It circumnavigates the high volcano of Cotopaxi and offers some of the most intense, high altitude riding I have ever experienced. The entire race took place above 10,000 ft and topped out at around 14,000 ft. The air was extremely thin, the high mountain weather changed from intense sun to freezing rain in minutes and the course was some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. The best cyclists in Ecuador take part in this race, and the mixed division was extremely competitive. Greg and I were hosted in Quito by one of Ecuador’s best adventure racers and we spent the week before the race riding and sightseeing around Quito. The altitude in Quito is around 7000 ft and goes up to about 10,000 ft, so it was a little bit of acclimatization for us, but it proved to not be enough. The local Specialized distributor and dealer, Daniel took us on a new riding adventure each day and we met a bunch of the local cyclists. Everyone here seems to know each other and for a city of 2 million people, the cycling community feels like a very close knit family.

On Friday evening, we headed towards Cotopaxi, which is only an hour’s drive from the city of Quito. It is amazing to me that in such a short time, you can leave the city and be in the most pristine country environment. The Pan American highway that runs north/south in Ecuador is appropriately called the Avenue of the Volcanoes. It is lined either side by the most fantastic, snow capped volcanoes, many of which are non-technical and can be climbed by anyone who can deal with the thin air. Our caravan of approximately 12 racers all met at a hacienda near the race start. We were all hosted by a very friendly family and fed wonderful potato cheese soup and chicken. All of the food was grown on their farm and prepared fresh that day.

Day 1 racing past Cotopaxi...Reba in front, Greg following

The morning of the race dawned clear and crisp with Cotopaxi looming overhead. The weather in the mountains can be very unpredictable, so deciding what to wear for the race was a challenge. The race registration was held inside the Cotopaxi park and 400 people were lined up under the Red Bull tent signing waivers and getting race numbers. Since the race is a giant circle, we would be camping out between the two stages. Our giant bag of camping gear, race food and extra clothing was loaded onto a big truck that would meet us at the end of the first stage. The race started 45 minutes late, but that seems to be pretty normal for Ecuador. People here are relaxed and casual until the starting gun goes off.

The race began with a climb and we were in the leading group of mixed teams for about 45 minutes, until I had a flat tire. We made a quick change, but saw at least one other mixed team pass us. We got on our way again and the riding was rough double track with multiple steep river crossings. After 6 weeks away from racing, I was feeling the high of being in a race and was motivated to push hard. Unfortunately, Greg was feeling the crushing grip of the altitude after about an hour of racing. Normally, he’s a much faster rider than I am, so I was surprised to be waiting for him. He struggled through most of the day moving at about 25% of his normal speed and struggling to breathe. He was having trouble eating or speaking and was close to vomiting for much of the ride. My adventure racing experienced kicked in and I did my best to look after him, to motivate him and to pull him when I could. He suffered like a champ, which is a hard thing to do. He let his ego go and did not complain and did not quit. I was impressed with how hard he pushed despite how badly he was feeling. The stage was supposed to be 67 km and when my odometer rolled over 70km and we still weren’t at the finish, I was confused. I kept pushing Greg, but I had no idea how much further we had to go. When we crossed the finish line for day 1, I was surprised to hear a reporter ask us if we got lost. I found out later that many of the teams, including us, took a wrong turn early in the day and rode an extra 6 km! Luckily, our wrong turn joined back into the course, so we did not end up lost in Ecuador. However, the mistake easily cost us 20 or 30 minutes. Many other people in the race had made the same error. We finished 4th in the mixed division that day with two of the teams in front of us riding the correct course and 6 km shorter. Despite Greg’s “soroche” (altitude sickness) and our wrong turn, we were still just 15 minutes out of the lead position.

We spent the evening camped with 400 other racers in the Palermo, the high altitude grassland surrounding Cotopaxi. It was like camping on a sponge with deep puddles and mud everywhere, but the scenery was breath taking. The clouds were constantly swirling and creating new designs in the sky every few minutes. Cotopaxi was moving in and out of view all the time. The camp was situated by a farmhouse and the people of the house hosted food for all of the racers. Potato cheese soup was again on the menu and is quickly becoming my favorite race food. I spent most of the evening making sure Greg and I were re-hydrating, eating and recovering well for the next day. Despite Greg having his toughest day ever on a bike, I knew we might be able to make up time on the other teams and improve our placing. Day 2 was also about 65 km and I was determined to have an eagle eye looking for the race flags to be sure we did not make a wrong turn. Day 2 was also rumored to be more technical riding and included a 20km downhill, so I was confident we could pull back some time. Saturday evening, we did a bit of bike maintenance, traded stories with other racers and went to bed early. Unfortunately, one of the farm dogs was doing his best to protect his house. He barked non-stop from 10:30pm until 2:30pm. Despite earplugs, Greg was not sleeping and was scheming ways to kill the dog. He went out around midnight to approach the dog and perhaps negotiate a deal. However, as Greg approached the house, 5 other sets of eyes and growling teeth met him before he could get close. Greg aborted his plan and slumped back to the tent. The dog must have tired after 4 hours and finally stopped barking.

The overnight camp between Stage 1 and Stage 2...even after a night of barking, the dog is alert and keeping watch.

The morning of day 2 was cloudy and cool, but not raining. We had heard horror stories about the weather in this race, so I was thankful we had relatively clear skies. The start of this stage was 12 km of climbing through the grassy Palermo. There was no trail, so you were picking a line through the spongy grass and mud bogs looking for the easiest way. I loved this part because it was more technical required a lot of concentration. There was some hike-a-bike up to the high point of the race around 14,000 ft. Greg and I had decided to start this stage more slowly and just sit behind the lead team. We raced the first hour and a half with the lead mixed team. At the top of the climb, Greg and I bolted ahead for the long downhill section. The downhill was super high speed double track with lots of dangerous rain ruts and loose, gravel corners. Greg led the way on the downhill and I followed his line. We took a lot of chances because we knew this was the only place we could make up time. We made it down safely and began the last 20 km of gradual uphill to the finish. Greg was feeling better today, but was still not himself. We were in the lead for the stage and I was extremely motivated to go for the stage win. My odometer had stopped working, so we were unsure how many km were left until the finish. One person told me 10 km, then about 5 km later, we were told 12 km to go. The last hour of a race always seems the longest, but we pushed hard and were able to finish in first place for the stage. We were less than 1 minute ahead of the 2nd place team and about 4 minutes ahead of 3rd. We ended the race with an overall ranking of 3rd in the mixed division and only about 10 minutes behind of first place. We were 8th overall in the whole race. Considering a wrong turn, a flat tire and a bad case of soroche, I was really pleased with our result and how we worked together as a team. The course was one of the best I have ever experienced and I plan to back next year for another dose of Ecuadorian hospitality and riding around volcanoes.

On the podium...3rd place for mixed teams, 8th overall. Congratulations Rebecca & Greg!

The days after the race included a big dose of TV, radio and magazine media that Red Bull and Specialized had organized for us. Now, we are off for a little adventure traveling around Ecuador. Thanks to Specialized and Red Bull for making this trip happen. Thanks to Daniel at Cikla bike shop for being such a great host!

For complete race results and race information, click here:

Cheers, Rebecca

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