By Jay Hudson – All six thousand, plus, of us, had bicycles. That’s where the similarity ended. We were jammed together in the center of Tecate, Mexico just down the street from the sponsoring Tecate brewery in May, 1986. We were waiting for the gun to sound sending us pedaling seventy five miles on our way south to Ensenada. They issued us a map and “suggestions” to take two water bottles for drinking and for “sprinkling on head.” I carried fruit, a tire pump, patches, tire irons, wrench, a spare spoke, helmet and sun screen. It was May and the weather promised to be over 90 F and a road with many long climbs. Some of us were in shape and some not. We were sartorially correct and most of us were no more than a 7 on a scale of 1-10 in our riding experience. We were almost all white, tanned, tall and short, gloved and bare handed. Some of us were excited, others restrained. Some were out to break records. I was out to survive to the finish. Relatives waited in Ensenada for me and I was convinced that while I was sweltering on the upgrades, they were sitting in the shade sipping cool ones.
We were told that there would be plenty of water at the top of the first and substantial small mountain. Our map showed an additional ten watering stations along the route. We were told that there would be first-aid vehicles patrolling the road and trucks to scoop up those who gave out, for whatever reason. We felt strong, confident and convinced that with all the support, we should complete the route in about five hours. Gonzo riders would be much faster. We were not told that by the end of the day, first-aid personnel would be overwhelmed by riders who went down and suffered road rash, heat exhaustion, broken bones, torn muscles, dislocations. We were not told that more than half the starters would be piled into trucks because of equipment failures, fatigue, defeatism, and injury.
The gun sounded in a morning getting hotter by the minute. My buddy Mike Woolman, and I were in the second half of the pack and as we picked up speed to hit the hill, the crowd was so close together that even here, bikes got tangled and riders went down. The first hill was long and as the pack unwound, the line was shoulder to shoulder with the more powerful riders working their way to the left to pass the slow but steady masses. We fell into a rhythm using every gear we had. When Mike and I reached the first water station, all 5,000 gallons of support water was gone. It was obvious that riders guzzled and poured water over their hot heads without regard to the masses still working their way up the mountain. Five thousand gallons simply disappeared. Thousands of us were forced to continue with little reserves in our bottles hoping that a resupply was available at the next station.
We left the summit hot and a bit angry but knowing it would be rolling hills for a couple of hours and then a long downhill into a valley for the next water station. The downhill would be a chance to relax, let the wind cool us and enjoy the scenery. What we found on the downhill was scattered broken bike parts and water bottles strewn on the road making fast riding all the more hazardous. Riders were sitting and lying beside the road next to broken bikes nursing wounds and waiting to be scooped up by the trucks. Mike and I stopped to assist one fellow who was covered with road rash and in pain. Mike, being a physician, diagnosed the fellow with a broken collar bone but he could provide no medical assistance. We resumed our downhill plunge dodging debris and broken bodies most of who got themselves in trouble simply by letting it all hang out on the downhill.
At the top of the next hill, I broke a spoke and Mike was forced to say goodbye. I spent some time replacing the spoke and resumed the ride not looking forward to at least fifty miles of hot effort without a buddy and knowing I was probably now accident prone. At the next station I found no water and the only shade thrown by the one tree taken by stretched out riders. I crawled under an old rusted truck and stared up at the worn out radiator. At least it was shade and a couple of minutes rest would do me well. When I crawled out, I found I had a flat tire and the tire rim so hot I burned my hands fixing the tube. I pulled up my socks and hit the road a very discouraged rider. I passed another truck full of defeated bikers heading back to Tecate and this energized me. Mile after mile I was getting closer to Guadalupe where many years before, Barbara and I used to visit the Russians who moved there to escape the revolution in 1917. It was there that we joined in Sunday services in the flat roofed rectangular building they used as their Russian Orthodox Church. It was there that I was asked to talk to the congregation not knowing Russian or Spanish and the audience not knowing English. It was there that we ate borscht in a private home and enjoyed Sunday with resting farmers. It was there that I hoped I would find water and it was there that I should be able to smell the ocean and enjoy its cooling breeze so many miles from its Pacific shore.
It was getting late when I went through Guadalupe where I filled my water bottles and wondered what my sister was thinking as so many riders had already passed the finish line. Would she think that I was one of the defeated that had been scooped up with the thousands and returned to Tecate? After another half hour, I could feel the breeze from the ocean and smell the salt. It both lifted my sprit and put some spunk in my legs. I was going to make it. I came up on another rider and we talked which lifted my spirits even further. I picked up the pace the closer I got to the ocean and when the road met the ocean highway to Ensenada I felt like I could roar into town; almost. I crossed the finish line in a bit over 7 hours which was slow but I felt I could justifiably chalk it up to some problems. I had finished, avoiding the sweeper, the lumbering truck that returned so many to Tecate in ignominious defeat. My sister Deena was still waiting at the finish line and she hugged me as though I had just ridden around the world. I found Mike and his wife Marsha in a restaurant and we all ordered Mexican with a race sponsored Tecate beer chaser while reliving the race with stories and laughter.
There was a hiatus in the race shortly after my experience, but it is back and as adventurous as ever. I do wish that hydration packs and evaporative cooling bandanas were available in 1986. They would have made a significant difference.
I still have the map with all the water stops listed. All the water stops without the promised water.
For more information on the ride, now called the Baja Bike Race, visit: bajabikerace.com