High Gear: Race Through Rio|
Thursday, May 05, 2005
|Photo Courtesy of Jay Henry
|Jay Henry on Giants of Rio Course
The heat was oppressive. The thermometer only read 91 degrees, but a thermometer could not accurately convey how hot it was. It was December 5, the middle of a cold winter for those of us from the northern hemisphere. It was 106 degrees warmer than when I got on the plane in Colorado. Needless to say, my internal thermostat was not quite adjusted. Ten kilometers into the mountain bike leg the course began to pitch upward and I began to see stars. As the familiar sensation of overwhelming physical discomfort set in, I glanced up at the winding 300 year-old cobble stone streets and smiled. As much as it hurt, I was racing through the historical streets of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and it was for moments like this, I thought to myself, that I race bikes.
I was competing in the Red Bull Giants of Rio adventure relay race. A truly unique event, the Giants of Rio included 90 teams from 40 countries competing in the sports of open ocean swimming, hang-gliding, beach running and mountain biking. All four legs of the relay took place within the city of Rio and the lush tropical mountains that surround it, making for an unbelievably spectacular course. With the city cradled between white sand beaches and towering mountains, every point on the course provided views worthy of a postcard.
I was riding the mountain bike leg for one of the two American teams sent to compete. Each member of my team had earned his spot by winning a qualifier race in his respective discipline. I had qualified in August by finishing first in the Beaver Creek Ultra 100 near my hometown of Vail, Colorado. Getting to know my teammates I was impressed with the caliber of athletes I was racing with. Alex Kostich was a former collegiate swimmer at Stanford, and had since become one of the nations best in open ocean competitions. Dustin Martin had just finished third at the US National Hang Gliding Championships. And Jon Clark was one of the nation’s top sand runners and duathletes.
Although we had a strong team we were certainly not overconfident. Talking with everyone, it seemed the world’s very best were in Rio. This was no more apparent than in the mountain biking discipline. There were close to 10 Olympians and numerous World Cup veterans including Julien Absalon, the gold medal winner from Athens and reigning World Champion, and Jose Hermida, the runner-up to Absalon in Athens. The very best of North America was represented by Olympian and US National Champion Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, as well as perennial NORBA favorites Andreas Hestler and Mathieu Toulouse from Canada. If the other disciplines were as stacked as the mountain bike field, and it seemed like they were, we had our work cut out for us.
Alex had the unenviable first leg starting with the 89 other swimmers in a mad dash from the beach through the pounding surf to a 1.5 kilometer open ocean swim. He then had to run back on the beach to the first transition where we tagged hands and I began my 45 kilometer journey around the city of Rio.
The first 10 kilometers wound rather rapidly around some of the most scenic beachfront around. The normally traffic-choked road had been completely shut down to vehicles. It seemed this closure was for our event, but this actually happened every Sunday on many of the city’s thoroughfares. The busy streets were simply closed to cars and became bike paths. As a cyclist, I thought this was the most brilliant idea I had ever heard of and hoped maybe someday it would catch on in the US.
The traffic-free street even afforded the racers a small opportunity to look away from their front tires and enjoy the amazing scenery that lined the course. Most notably was the Pao de Acucar, or Sugarloaf, an enormous mound of black granite that rose dramatically from the blue water. (This landmark, as I would later find out, was also the site of the impressive Giants of Rio after-party, where I learned the important cultural lesson that Brazilians do not think much of sleep.)
The leisurely sight-seeing was short lived as we entered the historical district of Santa Teresa and began the agonizing climb to Rio’s most famous landmark. Towering 2,400 feet above the city, the statue of Cristo Redentor do Corcovado dominates the skyline from almost anywhere in Rio de Janeiro. Although we were there only briefly during the race, all the mountain bike competitors had been driven up to the statue the day before to inspect the race route and to fully appreciate the view. Here we saw the statue sitting atop an impressive peak that was almost entirely surrounded by cliffs plunging thousands of feet to the city below. The only way up the mountain was by a series of steep switchbacks culminating in some 600 stairs up to the foot of the statue (all of which we were required to run up and ride back down during the race).
In an area where beautiful scenery abounds the views from the Cristo literally top them all. Peering out over the edge I could feel the thermal air currents rising straight up the cliff, giving the exhilarating sensation of flying. This provided just a tiny glimpse of how the hang-glider pilots must have felt soaring above the city.
The best part of being on top of a mountain during a race is there is no other way to go but down. I climbed the last set of stairs, rode around the base of the statue, and began the jarring descent. The next transition was located at the top of a short but remarkably steep hill. It required the very smallest gear on my 27-speed mountain bike and spectators were passing me as they walked up the hill faster than I could ride. At the top I tagged Dustin and my part of the Giants of Rio was over. I could now take refuge from the heat and watch with amazement the hang-gliders one by one run off the launch ramp, drop from view, and then soar off toward the beach 2,000 feet below.
Jon, our runner, was left with the final and most grueling leg of the race. Of the 20 kilometer course, almost half was on the soft beach sand that was difficult enough to walk on let alone run. And the heat that was nearly my demise had only become worse as temperatures around the city approached 100 degrees.
When Jon crossed the finish line we were twenty-fifth out of the 90 teams. Although we had all hoped to do a little better (we were shooting for the top ten), any disappointment was quickly overshadowed by the experience of the event. We had traveled to one of the most amazing cities in the western hemisphere to compete in a superbly organized race with hundreds of athletes from around the world. We could have finished dead last and still had the time of our lives. As we all gathered on the beach after the race and savored the perfect tropical evening, each team member agreed that this had been one of the most enjoyable competitions any of us had ever been a part of.