Professional mountain biker and PR Lotion athlete Ryan Steers is never one to shy away from a cycling challenge. From the trails of Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100 to pushing the limits at Dirty Kanza 200, his weekends are kept full racing against some of the Nation’s best, yet this particular trip down to Mexico would be something so much more.
Somewhere around mile ten I knew we were in trouble. We’d been riding for over two hours and my Garmin read 5,200 feet in elevation gain, its screen barely visible through a layer of crusted salt. I squinted and wiped my face. Exhaled. Pumped the legs. My hands were a worn out pair of windshield wipers, smearing the perspiration across my face but doing nothing to clarify the situation. The glasses had been removed miles ago, too opaque to see through.
My legs felt great, that wasn’t the problem. Our gravel bikes struggled up the loose, rock-strewn, 18% incline that resembled a riverbed more than a fire road. Gearing and tire choices were called into question, life choices were debated.
Somewhere, miles behind us, the follow van with all of our gear was stuck. Wheels spinning, it slipped gears and careened backward, nearly plunging into a Tarahumara cornfield four-thousand feet below. We’d been promised a Mexican gravel adventure and twenty-four hours before had been descending a fast, chattery, seven thousand foot gravel descent into Urique. Now we were paying the price. What goes down must go up, and up, and up.
Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, lies in the northwest of Mexico, in the southwest corner of the state of Chihuahua, situated between the cities of Chihuahua and Sinaloa. It’s four times larger and over one thousand feet deeper than the Grand Canyon and is actually a system of six canyons resembling an open hand, the fingers comprising the mesas and space in-between representing the canyons themselves.
The location proved to be strategic enough to the cartel’s operation that only in the last few years have the canyons seen peace again. Open war and bloodshed kept it off limits to outsiders for close to a decade in the mid-2000s, but all that was over now we were told. And we believed it.
Sure, one of the two restaurants in Batopilas was off limits because of a surreptitious Narco meeting, men with AK-47s roamed the town streets and mountain trails in their pickup trucks and ATVs, and we abided by our guide’s pleas to be off the mountain by dark because the “hills have eyes and walkie-talkies.” Still, we felt safe. Biking off campus during my undergraduate years at USC posed more risk than cycling the canyons of Mexico.
Only recently have proper roads and electricity found their way into the towns in the canyon. Small terraced cornfields and self-sufficient Tarahumara huts dot the hillsides, thousands of feet above and a full day's walk from the village of Urique. No power, no water, only a wisp of smoke divulging their location. We were an anomaly in the canyons.
Children ran into the streets to watch the gringos in tight clothing speed by on bicycles. “Where are you going?” one would shout. “Batopilas,” we’d reply. Silence. Then laughter. It was an unimaginable trip, especially by bike. The “road” from Urique to Batopilas was hardly six years old and had been installed to allow the Tarahumara to travel between canyons in several days rather than weeks. We were told we’d be the only people ever to make the trip by bike and the only outsiders to see the top. They doubted our athleticism. I don’t blame them.
We were told the first part was the worst. After an initial 6,000 foot climb in under ten miles the road rolled along the mesas, picking up another 2,000 feet before plunging back down to Batopilas at mile thirty-five. I’d brought two bottles. The muggy air hovered around one hundred degrees. And so we climbed, finding ourselves hours into a day-long trek without water and questioning all the decisions that led to us up the mangled double-track.
Squinting and blind from the salt and unable to stand due to limited traction we pushed on, seated and unstable. The quads were the only body part that didn’t burn. When we reached seven-thousand feet the air cooled and the forest turned to dense pine. The effects of heat exhaustion and dehydration became muted in the cool dry air. Four more hours to go. We’d already unanimously ruled tomorrow a rest day.
Eventually, we made it to Batopilas. Seven hours after our departure we descended the loose and rocky 6,000-foot plunge in just six miles, crossed a river, and rolled into town with daylight to burn. The last riders in our party and the van showed up three hours later and in the dark. Ragged and bloody; almost everyone had crashed at some point. But we’d survived. The following day an easy ride south of town brought us to an old monastery from the mid-nineteenth century. It was even hotter than the day before and we struggled to turn the pedals. Siesta time.
Our final day was the longest of the trip but thankfully it was all paved. The pre-ride ritual started in the same way; a liter of water and electrolytes, chain lube, chamois cream, and a healthy application of PR Lotion. We rolled out of Batopilas bright and early and followed the river as it meandered up into the mountains. The canyon walls were already radiating heat. Smooth pedal strokes expedited our journey and I’d never been so excited to see asphalt, even if it was strewn with gravel and microwave sized rocks at every turn.
Dozens of switchbacks guided us up the canyon wall. The air cooled and once again we were in a pine forest. We pushed through herds of goat and cattle until we reached our pickup location in Samachique. Sweaty and hungry we piled into the van for the five-hour drive back to Chihuahua and return to civilization…and our flight back home where the planning for a return trip started.