GETTING GRITTY IN MEXICO CITY
Heading south of the border for another urban mountain bike adventure
The trip had been in the planning stages for over a year, but when the text message I received from my riding partner read, “Hans, I canceled my flight!,” I wanted to faint! That was the message I received from Rob Warner on the day he was supposed to arrive in Mexico City. I had arrived in Mexico one day ahead of Rob to get everything ready, and now this!
The problem started upon my arrival when I realized that one of the e-bike batteries that we had shipped to Mexico ahead of us was the wrong model. Since Rob was still at his home in England at the time, I asked him if there was a chance that he could bring one. I also told him that we’d be fine either way, and that we likely should be able to borrow a battery locally from one of the 22 million inhabitants. Unfortunately, he took it all wrong, thinking he wouldn’t have a battery for his e-bike and, without even calling me, canceled his flight.
Since e-bike batteries are considered hazardous goods and can’t be transported on planes, it was very complicated to ship them to Mexico, and it is difficult to explain how hard I had worked with Shimano and multiple other people for months to figure out a way to ship the batteries to our destination.
After convincing him to rebook his flight and come on the next available plane, figuring he would just miss the first stage of our adventure, he finally made it to Mexico, but unfortunately his bike didn’t. At this point I was ready to kill him. After all the planning and organizing and praying that things would fall into place, it was all about to fall apart. Luckily, after a few phone calls to his sponsors to make sure they wouldn’t mind him riding a loaner bike from a different brand, we managed to save the trip.
BACK ON TRACK
After traveling to some of the most remote corners on the globe in my early adventure trips in the ’90s and thereafter, I have recently found pleasure in exploring some of the biggest cities that are often engulfed with incredible natural surroundings. Mexico City hit all the marks for a perfect destination for an e-bike adventure. This high-altitude metropolis with all its people, traffic, culture and history, but also volcanoes, bike parks and mysterious pyramids. The contrasts couldn’t be bigger between nature and urban jungle, and between the rich and the poor, over 4 million people live here in slums.
If one thinks it is easy to plan a five-day traverse that includes all the highlights, locations, landmarks and the best trails, then think again. It takes usually at least one year of planning, even with the help of the internet and local guides.
Mau de Avila was our local guide, fixer and was part of our team. He helped with the planning, logistics and locations. He and his brothers have a company called Dabco. They offer coaching, trail building and guided rides, as they are heavily involved in the Mexican mountain bike scene and also with its most popular bike park, Desiertos de los Leones. Our team consisted of my long-time cameraman Cedric Tassan and my wife Carmen as the photographer, both, of course, equipped with e-bikes as well.
There were so many questions that needed figuring out leading up to the ride. For starters, where to ride and where not to ride? Mexico City can be a very dangerous place, and riding around with expensive bikes and cameras is not always either wise or safe.
Ultimately, we came up with a great mix of the best and coolest areas. Urban Stage 1 kicked off in a very poor neighborhood suburb named Santa Fe, where we were quickly submerged between glittering skyscrapers and fancy houses. The contrasts are visible everywhere, and often a brand-new building or mansion is located literally next door to a run-down shantytown.
TRAFFIC & BURROS
We also got a first taste of traffic as we hit the morning rush hour heading towards the center of Mexico City, with zones like Lomas, Chapultepec, Roma, Centro, Zocola or Polanco, which is the Beverly Hills of CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico). We covered many miles on this day and often found some bits of sweet singletrack between the different neighborhoods. Midway through the ride we couldn’t resist the smell coming from an improvised food stand on a sidewalk, which turned out to be the place for delicious burritos.
“This city is so big, the individual neighborhoods are like separate worlds.”
Our final destination was Templo Mayor, which used to be the main temple of the Mexican people until the Spaniards replaced it with a cathedral. It’s hard to believe that Mexico City was once covered mostly by water that was slowly drained to make space to expand the city’s footprint. Many of these archaeological sites, temples and pyramids existed long before the Aztec ruled the area between 1345 and 1521, or when consequently the Spanish invaded Mexico.
I had brought along my GT eForce e-bike, with a Shimano Steps EP8 pedal-assisted drive unit, which was the perfect toy to explore the expansive city. In case I was lured into a longer ride than we had anticipated, I carried my charger cable in my backpack in case I needed to top up my battery. We found some incredible urban riding challenges in parks and squares to test our skills. By the end of the day, we felt a bit gritty and were ready for a round of cervezas.
My friend Rob Warner is a mountain biking legend. A former downhill World Cup racer, he has become the “voice of mountain biking” by commentating on many European mountain bike races on TV. He is a funny personality and a very talented rider. We both have trials riding backgrounds, therefore we were always on the lookout for obstacles and challenges along the way. Thankfully, Rob was finally able to join us on day two of the ride to the giant Nevado de Toluca volcano located two hours west of the city at over 15,000 feet elevation. It was a highlight of our trip, and after circumnavigating the lakes we popped over the crater rim for a breathtaking descent towards the valley below. Breathtaking for several reasons, the views, the lack of air and the technical downhill all challenged us. I was glad we were all riding tubeless tires through the sharp rock fields, saving us from punctures. Due to the altitude, Rob felt a bit dizzy and wasn’t always sure if he could carry on. Mau was also on a e-bike and turned out to be a fantastic rider. It was good to have Mau’s local know-how and also somebody to help us communicate with the local people in the mountains who live very simple lives.
Desierto de los Leones National Park is a huge nature area at the edge of the city. It belongs to the native people who still hold the land deeds that the Spaniards issued to them 500 years ago. It has become the most popular riding area in Mexico City with over 120 trails, according to Trailforks.
BIKE PARKS AND GRASSHOPPERS
In an attempt to protect the land from developers, the local mountain bikers have been working with the indigenous people to turn it into an official bike park with improved services and infrastructure for the hundreds of riders who come there already, but also to create job opportunities and revenue for the locals. Some weekends have seen over 5000 riders enjoying the outdoors with views across the entire high valley of Mexico City. One can shuttle or ride all the way above 12,000 feet elevation. There is no shortage of options to work your way down the mountainside. We got to ride a black trail called Extincion that was pretty technical, with some steep chutes and rocky drops and a pretty good-size road gap jump.
We also got to test our climbing skills on Hipermuro trail. I really enjoy the technical rocky uphill trails that wouldn’t be ridable on a regular mountain bike, but with the help from Shimano Steps, we were able to climb some very challenging lines.
Don’t assume that it must be easy because it is an e-bike; it takes a lot of skills to keep the momentum going and to pick a clean line. Between the heat, the lack of oxygen and the long, relentless rocky stretches of trail, I felt like hyperventilating more than once. I was blown away by the number of riders and how many of them owned high-end mountain bikes. It just shows how much the sport has exploded over the last 10 years. They always say, “Build trails and they will come.” It couldn’t be more true.
At the base of the bike park, we found a tiny restaurant where traditional Mexican folklore music was blasting from the speakers and where we discovered the taste of a drink called
“pulque,” which is a traditional Mexican alcoholic beverage produced from the fermentation of the fresh sap known as
“aguamiel” that’s extracted from several species of agave plants that grow in the Central Mexico plateau. In addition to the pulque, I couldn’t resist getting a fresh coconut from a kid selling them on the street and also dried grasshoppers with some extra lime and chili—crunchy indeed!
Our day-three morning consisted of riding next to the Olympic Stadium in the University City area. The stadium was built for the 1968 Olympics. The country’s huge investment was quite controversial, leading to protests and riots at the time. There was lots of urban riding from artificial obstacles, like walls and staircases to the natural lava rock formations this area was built on. We definitely got our wheelies dialed.
OFF TO XOCHIMILCO
Mau had promised a colorful surprise at the end of our tour, and Xochimilco was exactly that. Xochimilco is best known for its canals, which are left over from what was an extensive lake and canal system that connected most of the settlements of the Valley of Mexico. These canals, along with artificial islands called “chinampas,” attract tourists and other city residents to ride on colorful gondola-like boats called “trajineras” around the 110 miles of canals. For an extra 100 Pesos we hired our own mariachi band for a few tunes of Mexican folklore to make our cruise even more memorable.
Teotihuacan has been on my bucket list for a long time. I’ve been lucky to see many cool archaeological sites around the world, and the mysterious ancient pyramids were something I always wanted to see. When the Aztecs discovered the pyramids, they had already been there for about 1500 years, and still nobody knows who built them or why. Like with so many other sites around the world, we can only speculate of their origins and marvel at the knowledge and skills these ancient civilizations had thousands of years ago.
We also wanted to explore some of the less glitzy neighborhoods, where poverty and crime rule the streets. Ecatepec is one these areas, and we were warned that we shouldn’t spend much time there with our foreign looks, fancy bikes and expensive cameras. Instead of a subway or train system, the town has gondolas running high above, but not to transport mountain bikers like we are used to in ski resorts, but to serve as public transportation. It was a sobering experience to see this other side of the city. The poverty is palpable, and we were relieved to avoid any trouble after our descent through the streets.
This city is so big, the individual neighborhoods are like separate worlds. An endless sea of houses as far as the eye can see, polluted air and streets, and highways clogged up with traffic. Certain cars are only allowed to be driven on certain days as measures to ease traffic congestion. People are everywhere busy minding their lives whilst being a tiny part of this gigantic metropolis. We for once cherished this urban adventure, but we preferred the nature and culture that can be found on the outside of this concrete jungle.
On the last day we didn’t have anymore riding planned, but we had a mission to distribute some bikes through the charity my wife and I had started 17 years ago. Wheels 4 Life is a non-profit that gives bicycles to people in need of transportation in developing countries. We are planning to support multiple projects in Mexico in the future and used our visit to set the groundwork for them while we were there. We donated the first bikes to the indigenous people who will run the Desierto Bike Park. These locals need bikes to get to the park from their homes to work on trails and make the bike park a legit enterprise. We also went back to see a man who we met on the first day. The man lived in a very simple hut, and we had seen him carry heavy water jugs to his place, so we knew a bike would not only help him with this daily task, but also for many other errands and potentially to find work.
Overall, this was a heartwarming trip with my many contrasts and experiences. As we departed, we were left with a good feeling that not only could we do a little bit of good with Wheels 4 Life, but also that the sport of mountain biking will continue to grow in Mexico. Thanks to the quality riding destinations like Desierto Leones and other spots on the outskirts of the city, there is definitely room to grow! It is often the people, culture and geography that leaves me with these unforgettable memories. I’ve always been drawn to the warm Mexican culture, its history, food and vibrant colors, and add in a group of friends and some e-bikes and you’ve got the perfect mix for an epic trip!
De Avila Biking Co./Dabco (guiding, coaching, trail building): [email protected]; @dabco_, Instagram
Desierto Bike Park:
Wheels 4 Life:
By Hans Rey
Photos by Carmen Rey