It’s billed as “The World’s Toughest Track Bike Race” and for some stupid reason, when there’s a superlative involved, you can sign me up.
Last year was the first one, taking place in Mexico City and the surrounding mountains.
You see, Cielos Infernales is a self-navigated, self-supported, climbing race on open roads. It’s nearly the length of a Tour de France stage and it’s done entirely with one gear. Some would argue that it’s nuts. But if you grew up riding track bikes most of your life, it doesn’t seem so crazy. In fact, the first time I met race organizer Safa Brian, we were with a group of messengers riding track bikes from London to Dublin. I bumped into him again a few years later riding a very hilly route from Kyoto to Tokyo (again, on track bikes). So to us, racing fixed in the mountains is just another way to compete with our peers using the skills we’ve learned over the years.
Personally, I love climbing with a fixed gear. The reason? I can’t back down. No shifting into my rescue gear. I’m forced to get up and mash or else. (I think that’s why I became a spin instructor, because it forces me to be fit. I’m naturally a lazy human underneath it all.) So that’s how I won the first year: by mashing my way to the top. It hurt. It hurt a lot. But my other option was to walk?? Hell no.
Fast forward to 2016. Despite swearing up and down that he wasn’t going to make it an annual race, Safa announced Cielos Infernales 2 would be taking place in Bogota. It would be bigger, longer, higher, harder -- honestly whyyyyyyy??? Oh right, the superlative thing. So I packed the new Aventon Cordoba for the job and left NY.
I arrived in Bogota on Thursday before the race. After riding a few bits of the course, my legs were unusually sore. I wondered if my 47/19 ratio was going to be light enough. I considered adding a brake. The course was 91 miles long with 12,000 ft of climbing. No matter what it was bound to hurt, but I wanted to win. Climbing on a fixie is my thing after all and this was one of the only races that tested this skill.
Race day. I woke at 6:30am dressed and set out for the start line. I was too nervous/It was too early to eat much, so I packed a bunch of snacks in my hip pouch along with nuun tablets mixed in my water. I’d done this last year and it worked well so why mess with a good thing?
The race started with great energy. We flooded the street with woops and hollers. Colombian riders all around me were shouting “Go Kym Nonstop!” It was a blast.
...Until the first climb. What the f… this climb was awful! I could barely breathe, but I managed to say: “how… far…?” The guy riding next to me laughed. He didn’t seem out of breath, just taking his time. “This is the worst one” he assured me. THANK GOD. With that, I pushed harder, giving over to the pain, imagining this would be the worst of it.
I reached the top of Guadalupe first in the women’s field and somewhere in the top 20 overall. There’s a video of it of CI’s instagram. I look terrible. I remember feeling like I was going to puke. I didn’t. I turn around and begin my descent.
The next section of the race took us off-road. I was forced to negotiate my way through a herd of cattle, over giant rocks and deep rifts where the road had been washed out in the rain. I was thankful for the relaxed geometry of the Cordoba, which allowed me to run 30mm tires. That made skidding in the dirt a whole lot more fun.
The fun didn’t last very long though. After the dirt was a long stretch of road leading to the second climb, Cuchilla. The nauseating feeling hadn’t gone away. I noticed I hadn’t been drinking. I put my head down and kept pedaling.
“Kym!” “Kym!” “Come here!” Somewhere amidst the misty road I heard them shouting. Three Colombian racers motioned for me to stop. “This climb is very high” they warned. “Eat this.” They handed me abocadillo, basically like a giant fruit square made of guava fruit and sugar. The temperature had dropped nearly 20 degrees and it began to drizzle. I put the bocadillo to my lips, but stopped there. I was too nauseous to eat.
Five miles (straight uphill) later, I stopped once more. This time to throw up what little water I had managed to drink. My head throbbed. I felt awful. I’d lost my lead to the next woman- local Colombian Maria Fernanda Naranjo. I began to shiver. “HEY!” I lifted my head to see Kazzle Spencer of Oakland CA pulling a 180 to check on me. I shooed him away. “Keep going” I said. “No, I need a moment,” he said. And within another 60 seconds we were barfing buddies.
I hate giving up. It feels worse than suffering up Guadalupe. But December 10th 2016 was not to be a victorious day for me. Upon researching Altitude Sickness, I realized I did everything wrong. Not giving myself enough time to acclimate or recover. Not eating. Not supplementing with iron. All the things that could have helped me but I somehow missed.
So The World’s Toughest Track Bike Race will be a thorn in my mind until I can redeem myself. And next time I’ll be ready.