The music blared from loudspeakers positioned on Rosarito Beach's main drag. A giant inflatable Tecate beer can towered above the street, which was swarming with bicyclists. The smell of barbecued carnitas and bean burritos wafted through the air.
A half-mile phalanx of 3,500 eager bicyclists waited behind the starting line, sitting atop their finely crafted Cannondales, Treks and Peugeots. They wore the latest in biking fashions--from fluorescent green helmets to hot-pink one-piece biking outfits.
This was the beginning of the Rosarito-Ensenada 50 Mile Fun Bicycle Ride, now held twice annually, in April and September. As the starting gun sounded, the bicyclists began a trek that would include laughs, tragedy and endless huffing and puffing over monstrous hills along the old Baja Highway, also known as the Libre (free) Road. For seven hours, the cyclists triumphed over the motorists, thanks to the Federales who held up lines of irate drivers along the way.
The first Rosarito-Ensenada race was held in September, 1980, and attracted 1,350 riders. Last September, the event had grown to about 5,800 riders, and in April there were about 7,800. I entered the race with five of my friends last October, the first and only year the event was held three times. The race has become so popular now that many people make their hotel reservations two months in advance; choice rooms at Rosarito Beach and Ensenada get scarce around ride time.
The ride begins at 10 a.m., but because there are so many riders lined up on the street, it takes a long time for everyone to start pedaling. Unless you're Greg Lemond, there's really no reason to push to the front of the starting line.
During the event, most of the cars heading south from Rosarito Beach to Ensenada travel along the nearby four-lane toll road.
The Federales regulated traffic flow on the old highway by holding cars and trucks back to allow cyclists to ride fairly unimpeded most of the time. However, they urged some of the straggling cyclists such as myself to speed up as the gridlocked vehicles--sending up a concentrated spew of carbon monoxide--honked their horns in anguish. It probably took the motorists three hours to drive the 50-mile stretch.
Still, most locals--traffic inconveniences aside--weren't complaining. Many of them toil long hours for $15 to $18 a day in the maquiladoras (small, mostly U.S.-owned assembly plants and factories on the Mexican side of the border). During the race, they took comparatively easier and higher-paying jobs handing out water to bicyclists. Small children lined up along the route to slap high-fives with the riders. Most were well-behaved, though one man claimed that a kid tried to pull him off his bicycle. Then again, he could have been hallucinating under the hot Baja sun.
Many of the American expatriates living in the Ensenada area came out to view the race. Most seemed to have that leathery-skin look, probably from too much sun. They left their beachside condos, retirement villages and local watering holes--many with beverage in hand--to cheer us on.
For most of the entrants, this was truly a "fun" bike ride, not a race. The primary objective was just to finish. Many came to be seen. There was the man who started the race with an inflatable woman sitting on the back of his bicycle, holding a pennant in hand. I saw another man whose girlfriend was trailing behind him on her bike, holding onto a connecting rope. There was one participant who started the race with his dog on a leash, another who had a cocker spaniel in a handlebar basket.
One man was towing his two sons in a bike trailer. It seemed incredible to me that anyone could pull his family for 50 miles over rugged terrain. Although the roads were better than one might expect, they were indeed rough. And some of the curves and shoulders were downright dangerous. " Peligroso , Precaucion" the signs warned as some of us went barreling down the hills like Mr. Magoo--temporarily out of control.
At times the scenery was soothing: ocean vistas to the west, mesas to the east and south. Much of the course had a brownish hue, lined with scrawny scrubs and prickly pear cactuses. There were some fertile stretches through cattle-grazing lands, vineyards and olive groves. There were also ugly sections that reflected the realities of an economically depressed country: litter-strewn patches and crumbling buildings, the rusted hulks of abandon cars and smells of raw sewage so strong that breathing was difficult.
About 10 miles into the ride, disaster struck. One bicyclist had a blowout on a rough downhill section. At least 10 riders collided, and three were seriously injured. An airborne ambulance was called to the scene, and race officials stood in the middle of the road, stopping the bike traffic. The helicopter landed 50 yards away, ready to evacuate American riders back to the United States, if necessary. Fortunately, it wasn't.
We got off our bicycles and walked past a man getting his broken arm wrapped, a woman with her leg in a splint. The sight caused most of us take a bit more time on the ride. From then on, I noticed the constant sounds of helicopters whirring above, just in case.
About 15 miles into the ride, we came to the first rest stop. It was in a gravelly parking lot about 50 yards from the beach, next to the Half-Way House cafe and just past the tiny town of El Descanso. Some riders grabbed their cups of water and continued on, as if this was a big-time race. But most of us stopped, waited for friends and enjoyed the ocean. A "You Are Here" map made it clear that we still had a long way to go. Up to this point, the ride had been relatively flat. But the map showed that within 10 miles we would hit The Hill, at the halfway point of the ride. We shuddered as we saw the topographic lines on the map go straight up, almost like a rocket.
I decided it was time to break into my foil-wrapped Power Bar. It tasted like something from one of the Apollo space missions: a compressed piece of candy with a taffy-like consistency. But I figured I could use the carbohydrates for The Hill.
"When you get to The Hill, you'll know it," one rider warned me.
He was right. There it was before me, the rugged, twisted road angling upward. I shifted to my lowest gear and began the slow climb. This part of the race separated the riders from the walkers. Racers hummed up the hill. Mountain bikers took it methodically, spinning down to their lowest gear. One guy positively irked me: He was doing "wheelies" and cackling as he passed us by.
There were three-speed bikes, 10-speeds, 18-speeds and touring bikes with panniers. Fast pedalers, powerful ones, slow ones. Some people just walked. Mexican taxi drivers waited along the roadside, selling cold drinks or offering to drive dropouts the final 25 miles to Ensenada.
The Hill entails about an 850-foot climb over two miles. We celebrated when, after about half an hour, we reached the top. There, race organizers had set up loudspeakers that blared the Talking Heads rock song, "Burning Down the House."
I thought the rest would be all downhill. But the next stretch had even tougher grades. The sun broiled my skin. How close was I to the Equator, I wondered. The hills seemed to get even more rugged after the 25-mile point. I pedaled inland, where it was noticeably hotter, past dry gulches and bleak villages. The contrast with the coast was striking. People were living in rundown shacks and metallic-gray mobile homes. The children slapping hands didn't look healthy.
Finally, I reached the top of the last big hill. It was downhill, finally, after that. There's a wonderful eight-mile stretch to the ocean.
At that point, I knew I could finish the race, even if I had to coast most of the way. But as I picked up speed, I grew more frightened. The road was rocky. I had visions of the earlier accident in my head. I expended energy riding my brakes, trying to slow down.
I stopped at the bottom of one hill and a Federale started blaring something at me from his loudspeaker. I thought he might be telling me to move on, since I was waiting near a government installation to take a photo of a friend. So I moved on.
The blue water of the Pacific beckoned. But then I smelled the odors of the coast: the fish-processing plants, the raw sewage, the methane. My friends and I had the impression that the Baja coast would look like California before it was developed. Not so.
After finally reaching the finish line, we slowly made our way to the fiesta, which is held in conjunction with the race from noon to 5 p.m. in downtown Ensenada, behind a procession of 10 police cars that had maintained order during the day. The fiesta was across the street from the Riviera del Pacifico, Ensenada's convention center. Two inflatable Dos Equis bottles marked the entrance to the building--kind of like a Baja Macy's Parade, I thought.
We went to get our free beer (or soft drink) and the T-shirt that would prove that we had indeed finished the 50-mile ride. Entrepreneurs offered massages for $10. The Restaurant Assn. of Ensenada also served plates of food. The local merchants (some of them just kids) were selling peanuts, enchiladas, dolls, marionettes and assorted knickknacks. A heavy drumbeat blared from the loudspeakers.
An old retiree in a cowboy hat warned people to watch their bicycles and belongings--some wallets and bikes had disappeared during the day. It was about 5:30 when we lined up to take the last van back to Rosarito Beach. The old man--a volunteer who works for beers and T-shirts--walked up to us. As our driver loaded our bicycles like cattle into a rickety cart, and we climbed into the van, the old man gave us some advice: "Save a little time for play."
No advice I had ever received seemed so unnecessary.
Bicycling in Baja
Signing up: The next Rosarito-to-Ensenada 50 Mile Fun Bicycle Ride, sponsored by Bicycling West, a San Diego-based bike event promotions company, will be held Saturday, Sept. 28. Next spring, the event will take place April 4. Registration forms are available by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Bicycling West, P.O. Box 15128, San Diego 92175-0128. Or call (619) 583-3001. In addition, some Los Angeles-area cycle shops should carry the forms.
September's entry fee is $17, plus $5 for a souvenir T-shirt. (Both riders on a tandem must pay the full registration fees.) The organizers charge a late fee of $3 for riders who register less than two weeks before the ride, or on the same day.
Getting there: I went with a group of five other riders. The night before the ride, we stayed overnight at the Coronado Motor Inn (266 Orange Ave., Coronado, 619-435-4121; $53 per room, double occupancy). On Saturday morning, we drove to Rosarito Beach, found parking and meandered to the starting line. The ride begins at 10 a.m.
The ride organizers offer transportation back to Rosarito Beach from Ensenada on buses and trailers (cost: $10, advance registration).
There are private companies that will transport you and your bicycle to the starting line in Rosarito Beach, then pick you up in Ensenada. Al Johnson provides single-day, round-trip transportation for participants. The cost is $40, with a $5 cancellation fee. Write Johnson at 2827 Keats St., No. 7, San Diego 92106, or call (619) 223-9401 between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Baja California Tours (6986 La Jolla Blvd., No. 204, La Jolla 92037, 619-454-7166) offers an overnight package tour to the event. The company picks you up Friday afternoon from the Mission Valley Inn in San Diego and brings you to Ensenada's Villa Marina Hotel. On Saturday morning, the company takes you and your bicycle to Rosarito Beach to start the ride. After you finish, you overnight again at the Villa Marina Hotel. On Sunday at noon, the company brings you back to San Diego. Cost: $139 per person, based on double occupancy.