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By: Zdenko Kahlina
Biking with ex world champion Paul Wolfe in Mazatlán
On my recent trip to Mexico I was riding my bike almost every day enjoying the warm weather and good roads. At first I was riding alone, but then I met couple of local Canadians Paul and Brendan, and they showed me some of the best roads around Mazatlán on which they often ride.
Mazatlán, Sinaloa is a Mexican city in the California gulf, not quite historical as the other interior cities. The town seems to be busy and people living there seem to be hard workers, but Mazatlán has atmosphere of more western culture and less Mexican, which is quite relaxed. Biking in the city is not recommended because of intense traffic, but I did it anyway and didn’t have any problems!
There are many roads around the city that are perfect for cycling. Most often I was using roads north of touristy ‘Zona Dorada’ (Golden Zone) and El Cid Marina. I would ride bike along malecón all the way to RIU hotel and Cerritos beach at the end of the Mazatlán lagoon. From there I would take Avenue Ing. Mario A. Huerta Sanchez (Mex-503) leading towards libre highway 15 and San Antonio hills. From there I could either take a tool free (libre) highway Mex-15 to Culiacan (I went to El Quelite) or turn east at El Habal towards La Noria (Mex-503). This was also, very nice, smooth and quiet road. As a matter of fact I was riding on this road very often visiting small pueblos like Puerta de Canoas, Los Limones, El Salto and El Espinal. I have pictures to prove that I was there.
During the third and fourth week of my vacation, my new cycling friends took me on a couple of very interesting rides. First we climbed the amazing Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains from the town of Concordia. The second ride was even more interesting when they showed me a ‘ferry route’. I will try to describe these adventures here in the blog.
The Devil’s Backbone road
Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s good to get out on your bike for a blast up the nearest mountain, with a mad descent to bring you home again. Nothing wrong with that at all, especially when you’re on vacation in Mexico. Some people like lying down on the beach, some are cyclists! So, I decided to go up the mountains which I had close by… no less but big Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains and up the ‘Devil’s Backbone’ road. Once a dangerous road in a treacherous Mexican mountain range known for marijuana and opium poppies, the Devil’s Backbone has been transformed into a quiet local road that nobody is using anymore.
Climbing Sierra Madre Mountains again!
I climbed Sierra Madre Mountains already several times before and still remember how painful it was… each time. Remember my blog about crossing Sierra Madre del Sur in Oaxaca? Here is the story. What made me do it again? The simple answer is: the passion I have for cycling and adventure. But this time I was not alone. I was with two Canadian fellas from Mazatlán: Brendan and Paul.
The course for the day was: Start in Concordia – Copala (23 km) – La Guayanera – La Mesa del Carrizal – La Capilla del Taxte (1,260m above sea level, 39 km from Concordia) – return back to Concordia. Total distance: 78 km
After the usual ham and eggs breakfast in my suite I rolled out of the B&B and went to meet the guys at ‘The Fish Market’ restaurant, down by the Olas Altas beach. On this Tuesday, December 1st all three of us were there very early in the morning, while on the nearby malecón only joggers were passing by. We packed our bikes in the car and Brendan drove us in his car from Mazatlán to Concordia, distance of ~40km. In Concordia he parked the car at one safe spot and we changed into our cycling gear and were ready for the big adventure to conquer beautiful Sierra Madre Mountains, now so close to us…
Concordia offers a unique mountain village outing near Mazatlán for those seeking to experience authentic Mexico culture. In Concordia, delight in the talented hand crafted works of furniture makers and potters, many who still work in the ancient pre-Columbian style. But the three of us were not there to admire the furniture. We had different agenda planned for the day. Our goal was to reach into the mountains as far as we can pedal on the ‘Devil’s Backbone’ road. Just by looking at the other guys faces, I could see we were ready for the agony and the ecstasy of this ride.
Once known as San Sebastian, Concordia is set in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains just off the new Durango Highway (Mex-40D). With the completion of this new highway, more than 250 kilometers of old treacherous mountain road, also called ‘Devil’s Backbone’, crossing the heart of Mexico’s marijuana fields into the U.S. was recently transformed into a safe trade route. Most of the traffic, if not all, moved to a new highway. This is the road we decided to ride on.
On the ‘Devil’s Backbone’
We drag ourselves through the lower slopes of Sierra Madre Mountains and out of town of Concordia. The first several kilometers before we wormed up were almost flat and then the climbing started. We began the 40 kilometers long climbing into the Sierra Madre. The accent to Copala began only several kilometers after leaving Concordia, but it was gently at first and landscape was very interesting. The valleys around us were lively with life and great views. The breeze blow from rolling hills come with aroma smell of peppers, there were long stretches of pepper farming varying from red hot chili, green, red etc. The scenery of these mountains is definitely breathtaking! Lavender-blue peaks of the western Sierra Madre jute as far as the eye can see. The only hints of civilization: a tendril of smoke from burning corn residue, a squiggle of dirt road and occasional household by the road. The old road follows new highway on close proximity and we could see impressive bridges and tunnels they built to shorten the distance between Mazatlán and Durango.
It was pretty much uphill all the way to little town Copala (23 km) nestled in a valley halfway through the climb. Copala is a sleepy little Mexican village with cobble stone streets and old homes. I was already here with my wife, couple of weeks ago. That time we came by bus as regular tourists. We met one interesting American Kent who lives there and is now traveling through South America.
I highly recommend to all cyclists to take this old highway (Mex-40) Mazatlán – Durango. The traffic is much quieter these days. We saw several donkeys tethered by the road and those added to the historic flavor of the place. This old highway is finally doing its work of being a truly scenic route. As a cyclist, you’ll be glad to be on it because even though it’s not high-tech (as the new super carretera) it is actually more beautiful and enjoyable… to a cyclist! Just beware that it’s one of the most difficult climbs you will experience on your trip through Mexico. Very few areas of the road are actually really steep, but it’s a looong climb. From Concordia to the top, it’s ~2,750m above the sea level (9,000 feet) and more than 40 kilometers of climbing.
Real climbing begins…
From Copala the climb starts to intensify and soon after I find out that no matter how I’m prepared for this type of riding, there is always someone who is stronger and goes faster… today it was Paul. Our small group was able to pedal easily for a first few kilometers, but soon splintered as the climb began to turn the screw from 6-7 per cent to 10 per cent after Copala. Brendan was dropped, but Paul was climbing with lots of power and I had to ask him to slow down. I was pretty happy that I carried two water bottles with me, because the temperatures had risen above 30 Celsius already and there is nowhere to get any water on that climb.
Paul and I climbed together, pedal stroke for pedal stroke, shoulder to shoulder for a long time. Unlike many of the climbs in Europe (Alps come to mind) there are hardly any hairpin bends to provide any kind of relief on this climb, and instead we were confronted with a rather depressing view of the uphill road stretching out ahead of us. Thanks God I’ve had my SRAM compact chain rings so I could use 36×23 gear ratio. I could see on my cycle computer we covered already more than 35 km since we left Concordia, and still didn’t reach the top of Sierra Madre. I kept my speed up a bit and avoided having to resort to riding in the 25 sprocket at all. When the climb became steeper towards the summit I had to get out of the saddle anyway, because the gradient was well above 8 per cent and the 25t sprocket was dirtied for the first time as well.
Just as I was getting ready to turn around, Paul pointed that we already reached the pine forest and it was only a ‘couple’ more kilometers before we’ll reach summit and a small pueblo where we could buy drinks and turn around, back to Concordia. We catch our breath in time to glance right and see the road beneath us winding around the lower slopes like a cat around his doting owner’s ankles.
Another kink to the left brings us face to face with another 300m of spiral staircase.Then, suddenly behind one of many, many turns, the tarmac flattened and I saw several houses on each side of the road. The heart-rate drops, the cadence quickens, and we can suddenly feel quite pleased with ourselves. We were in pueblo La Capilla del Taxte! This was our summit destination! If we continued from here, the road was going downhill for a while and then continued to climb further up into the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains. But we were done (more precisely: I was done!). It was time to turn around and head back to the ocean.
There was a small store on the right side of the road, where we got our well-deserved refreshments. Lady working in the store didn’t speak English so she couldn’t understand what we wanted and Paul simply walked into the store behind the front desk, opened the cooler and took Coke and couple of other soda drinks. We quickly downed these cold drinks down our throats and after a few minutes of rest, still sweaty from our climbing efforts, we jumped on our bikes again and got ready for a long descend towards Copala and Concordia.
As the saying goes: what goes up must come down, from here it was ‘pure downhill to the ocean’. The impression of this col’s 1,260 m above the sea level diminished slightly due to the surrounding peaks, which reached hundreds of meters higher into the sky. But as we begin 40 km descent down the west side of the mountain, the view changes, and as the valley below opens up, you do indeed realize how high you are, and that you have a super-fast half an hour downhill ahead of you before you’ll reach town of Concordia again. One absolute certainty is that the view from this height will repay you for at least some of your suffering. It’s good idea to pause, stop somewhere on the side of the road and take in the vista over the Sierra Madre mountains.
Descending from a mountain like this requires good skills, because going down we reach speeds of over 100 km/hour. You have to know your limits and a lot of that has to do with fear. Between serious cyclists (like us!) it often comes down that whoever has the biggest balls goes the fastest! Ideally you just stay off the breaks, but who can do that when the speed is high?
The road was slippery, especially areas that were not exposed to the sun. Clouds and curved corners make it worse, also temperature this high in the mountains was still pretty low. On my way down I stopped to take pictures with camera which I always carry in my jersey’s back pockets… I saw beautiful vistas from this height. This was very peaceful road, unlike nearby new highway Mex-40D, which carries all the Durango-Mazatlán truck traffic. This was probable the best descent I did in a long time. It was fast, sweeping, and downright enjoyable – guaranteed to leave a smile on your face and making the difficulty of the climb all the more worth it.
After a long downhill, the road was rolling over some short but unexpected hill just before reaching Concordia again. This is where I finally faltered and Paul had to patiently wait for me. Shortly after we went through the military/agricultural checkpoint and we were in the town of Concordia again, where we left our car.
I think, today I discovered a new climb – perhaps the new Alpe d’Huez in Mexico, a match for Mont Ventoux! The kind of climb that makes you feel glad to be a bike rider. The climb that gives you a simple pleasure of you and your machine against the gradient and the forces of gravity, struggling under the glare of the sun, counting down kilometers, far away from thoughts of the sport’s drug scandals. This road took me from high elevations of woodlands to bush land again. It was simply beautiful!
Another day, another ride: The Ferry route
Two days after climbing Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains we were on the road again. This time my biking friends told me: ‘today we’ll take the ferry route’. I didn’t know what that means, but I was ready for another adventure, no matter what it is.
Again, we left Mazatlán early in the morning before the sun came out. City roads were already busy with people going to their work places. Traffic in Mazatlán is always hectic and getting onto busy highway 40 is no easy task. Every driver needs a degree of aggression to find his way thru the traffic in Mexico. We drove towards the airport and about two kilometers after the airport exit, we took first road on our left (Mex-510) towards small pueblo San Francisquito, also called La Tuna by locals.
The course for the day was: Start in San Francisquito (La Tuna) – Autpista Mazatlán – Durango (Hwy 40D – quota) – Take the exit for Mesillas (road 533) – Concordia (road 533) – Zavala (road 5-17) – Pueblo El Verde – La Conception (road 5-17) – La Barrigona – Tagarete – Tepuxta (road 5-17) – Cable ferry across Rio Presidio – El Recodo – Escamillas (road 510) – Lomas de Monterrey – San Francisquito (road 510) and back to Mazatlán by car.
San Francisquito or pueblo La Tuna
San Francisquito is a small village with a population of only several hundred people living there, located close to the Mazatlán airport and town of Villa Union. In this quiet village only kids were on the streets so early in the morning, waiting for their buses to take them to school. Mexican school children are dressed in uniforms and are very neat. The girls were dressed in pleated skirts, knee socks, pumps, white shirts and jackets. The boys wore gray slacks, white shirts, and ties. Nowhere did I see the droopy drawer, who can show the most butt style, which is so common in Canadian schools.
So, we left the car here and jumped on our bikes… again! The experienced riders with me (Paul) knew how to get onto the new Durango highway bypassing the tool boots, opening someone’s private gate and get across private property. Here anything goes, it’s Mexico! Soon after, we were cruising on the newly built tool highway (quota Mex-40D) that goes over Sierra Madre Mountains all the way to Durango. It’s perfectly legal to cycle on there, but for me its kind of boring as this is wide, straight and fast road made for cars.
The new highway (Mex-40D) cut the drive between Durango and Mazatlán down to 2.5 hours from the six hours of hairpin turns; few guard rails and the Devil’s Backbone, a stretch of road along the spine of a mountain with drops of hundreds of meters on either side. This is all history now. New road was straight and smooth as the real highways usually are. The only obstacle was a 3 km long climb on our route… not very steep but 3 km can be a very long uphill stretch…
We kept to the hard shoulder and stayed on the new highway until reaching the exit for Messilas, right after the tool boots. There was almost no traffic on this road so early in the morning. We could see the fog slowly disappearing from the horizons in front of us. It was another few kilometers on the road connecting Messilas and Concordia (Mex-533) before we arrived in Concordia. We crossed the old highway (libre Mex-40) and immediately made a right turn onto local road Mex-5-17. We stayed on this road until the very end at La Conception and Tepuxta villages.
This was a very nice road, rolling over the small hills and twisting between small villages with almost no traffic on it. We went up through the villages of Zavala, El Verde, La Conception and Tepuxta, which soon gave way to towering corn fields and pepper farming fields and then open moors with grazing cattle. At the end of this road was a small pueblo Tepuxta and the road didn’t go anywhere from there. It was a dead end.
If I was alone, I would think this is the end of the road and would turn around to return back to Concordia. But my friends Paul and Brendan had different ideas. They told me to follow them to the end of this village over some cobblestone covered road. At the end of this road we continued down some very narrow and muddy path, towards the El Precidio river. After about 300-400 meters we could see the river. At the river there was a small ferry… actually a very small boat tied to a cable stretched across the river and two men working on it. That’s the small river crossing which is used by locals during the dry seasons to get folks from Recodo to Tepuxta, El Verde, etc. and saves them some time by not having to go through Villa Union (and the police/military check point) and on to Concordia and then north.
One man was the ‘boss’ just collecting fares ($5 pesos per person), and the other was pulling the rope connected to the cable, so the boat would move to the other side of the river. We paid the ‘boss’ $50 pesos, tipping him well, as in our opinion the fare was very low. We jumped into the boat with our bikes and off we went. The man was pulling the rope and our boat started to move sideways against the stream of the river. In two minutes we were on the other side. Now as we were unloading the boat, we had to jump over some rocks and old car tires, placed there so we don’t have to step into the water and get wet.
Once on the other side and out of the boat, we had to walk in our cycling shoes over the wide but dry river bed until we reached trees and small incline into the village of ‘El Recodo’. As soon as we reached first houses, I found a water hose in front of one house and we all washed our shoes from the dirt collected on our way from the river.
There was also a small store, where we purchased cold drinks and had a short break. We didn’t hang around for too long, apart from taking a few pictures of course, and we were on our way back to Puebla La Tuna.
The road from El Recodo to San Francisquito (La Tuna) on road Mex-510 was very smooth and without much of a traffic. It was constantly going up and down over the rolling foothills of Sierra Madre Mountains. We passed thru villages of Escamillas and Lomas de Monterrey, before reaching pueblo San Francisquito, also called La Tuna, where we left our car 2.5 hours earlier. In the village of Escamillas we stopped at the small road side stand, where locals were selling very tasty Calabaza (pumpkin) empanadas doughs for only $8 pesos each. They were still warm… sign they were baked very recently. There is nothing like eating homemade pastries after long and hard bike ride.
These two rides definitely deserve to be classified as ‘my top bike rides’. Big thanks go to my friends Paul and Brendan for showing me all these roads and villages around Mazatlán! There are no tours organized for tourists in Mazatlán that will give you so much pleasure and view into the local life of Mexican people.
Only after these training rides in Mazatlán, I learnt a bit more about my new friends. While Brendan is more or less just a normal recreational cyclist like me, Paul Wolfe is an ex professional and veteran world champion. Here is his short biography picked up from internet:
About Paul Wolfe, my training pal in Mexico:
Paul Wolfe (1953) is a cyclist from Mazatlán, but he was born in northern Alberta, Canada, in a French speaking village. Paul has had many professions during his working life. Now retired, until recently he owned an ambulance company and a real estate business. In 1977, he started racing road bicycles and did not stop ever since. His cycling curriculum includes dozens of professional races, and on the master category he has won many Canadian National Championships. He also has one gold (2011) and one silver (2010) medal from the Masters World Championship on the road.
Paul usually trains 5 days a week, most of the time century rides (in Mexico during the winter and in Italy during the summer). After doing a bicycle tour in Thailand, he decided to try something tougher. He was browsing the internet and found out about the Tour d’Afrique. The world’s longest stage race was definitely something he should do, and the time was now. After lots of research, he chose every piece of equipment he would use on the tour, and then it was time to test all of it and to start doing some focused training. In Canada, he tested his winter clothes and rode on cold weather and on altitude. Then he flew to Mexico to ride in warmer weather and to test his all titanium cyclo-cross Moots bicycle on corrugated gravel roads. “None of that prepared me to those northern Kenya lava rock roads. You can’t find those anywhere else” he says.
A very strong cyclist for sure, Paul’s fitness is not his only weapon, especially against his younger opponents. With 35 years of racing experience, he is a man of strategies. According to him, the art of racing is very similar to the art of war. “I try to always do the unexpected and to read everyone’s strengths and weaknesses”. Winning the first mando day (the second day of the race) was one of his goals, and only for that stage he trained for a full month in Mexico. Around 10 hours ahead of the race’s second place, he points the “The truth stage”, the day when all the racers decided not to race and take it easy, stopping for cold cokes and pictures, as one of the best days on the Tour. But the best day was actually when I was really sick in northern Kenya, suffering a lot on the corrugation, and was still able to reach one of my main adversaries and to keep up with him until the end of the stage”.
Paul suggested the following courses around Mazatlan for all serious cyclists:
Highway 15D to Villa Union course
Have a good and healthy season.
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