Gritty In Mexico City
Urban MTB Adventure with Rob Warner
“Hans, I have cancelled my flight!” read the message I received from Rob Warner the morning of the day he was supposed to arrive in Mexico City. I almost lost the plot, after planning this trip for over a year, I had arrived in Mexico one day ahead of Rob to get everything ready. Upon arrival I realized that one ebike battery, that we shipped to Mexico ahead of us, was the wrong model. I thought I would ask Rob if there was a chance he could bring one, since he was still at his home in England. I also told him that we’d fine either way and that we likely should be able to borrow a battery locally from one of the 22 million inhabitants. He took it all wrong, thinking he wouldn’t have a battery for his eBike and without even calling me, cancelled his flight. Gosh, 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 Mexico, since they are considered hazardous goods, and can’t be transported on planes it was very complicated to ship them.
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 or at least it looked like I wouldn’t have the partner in crime I was counting on.
On Day 2 we were planning to ride a 15’000ft volcano, and it would have been a shame without Rob. 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 day. But more of this later, let me take you back to the beginning.
After travelling to some of the most remote corners on the globe in my early adventure trips in the 90ties and thereafter, I have recently found pleasure in exploring some of the biggest cities that are often ingulfed with incredible natural surroundings. Mexico City hit all the marks for a perfect destination for an ebike adventure; this high altitude metropolis with all its people, traffic, culture, history – but also volcanos, 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 5 day traverse that includes all the highlights, locations, landmarks and the best trails – think again. It takes usually at least one year of planning even with the help of the internet and with local guides and riders support.
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 was rounded up by my long time cameraman Cedric Tassan and my wife Carmen Rey as the photographer, both, of course, equipped with Ebikes as well.
There were so many questions that needed figuring out leading up to this. 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 everywhere wise or safe.
Ultimately we came up with a great mix of the best and coolest areas. Urban Stage 1 kicked off in a suburb named Santa Fe, starting in a very poor neighborhood we 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. 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 quite some miles on this day and often found some bits of sweet single-track between the different neighborhoods. We thought about our tummies twice before we had street tacos for lunch, but we couldn’t resist the smell from an improvised stand on a sidewalk run by a man and his wife. It looked clean enough for Mau’s approval and turned out to be delicious burritos. Our final destination was Templo Mayor – which used to be main temple of the Mexican people until the Spaniards replaced it by a Cathedral. Its hard to believe that Mexico City was once covered mostly by a lake, that was slowly drained to make space to expand the city’s footprint. Many of these archeological 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 my GT eForce Ebike, with a Shimano Steps EP8 pedal assisted drive unit, it was the perfect toy to explore such a city. I carried my charger cable in my backpack in case I needed to top up my battery, should we be lured into a longer ride than we had anticipated. We found some incredible urban riding challenges in parks and squares to test our skills. By the end of the day we definitely felt a bit gritty and where ready for some cervezas.
Rob Warner is a mountain biking legend, he is a former Downhill World Cup racer and has become the voice of mountain biking, commentating all the races on TV. He is a funny personality and is also a dam good 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 the next day to ride Nevado de Toluca volcano, a giant volcano 2 hours West of the city, with a huge crater and two crater lakes at over 15,000 ft 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 that awaited us. I was glad we were all riding tubeless tires through the sharp rock fields, saving us from punctures. Rob felt a bit dizzy, caused by the altitude, nor did his jet lag help; he wasn’t always sure if he could carry on. Mau was also on a ebike, he turned out to be a fantastic rider – it was good to have some local know-how and also somebody to help us communicate with the local people in the mountains who live very simple lives. Part of experiencing Mexico is experiencing Mexican food; the way it’s cooked, served and presented. We got to sample some very authentic dishes, like chile rellenos, carne asada, carnitas to name just a few.
Desierto de los Leones 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 them 500 years ago. It has become the most popular riding area in Mexico City with over 120 trails, according to Trailforks.
In an attempt to protect the land from developers, the local mountain bikers, incl. Mau, are 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 mountain side. We got to ride a black trail called ‘Extincion’ , that was pretty technical, with some steep chutes and rocky drops and with a pretty good size road gap jump.
We also got to test our climbing skills at 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 ebike, 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 then once. I was blown away by the amount of riders and how many of them owned high-end mountain bikes. It just shows how our sport has exploded over the last 10 years. They always say, ‘built trails and they will come’, it couldn’t be more true. There are about 6 proper bike shops in this neighborhood alone and there are constantly more and more riding areas with trails popping up everywhere around D.F.
At the base of the bike park in a tiny restaurant, where traditional Mexican folklore music was blasting from the speakers near one of the parking areas we discovered the taste of pulque. Pulque is a traditional Mexican alcoholic beverage produced from the fermentation of the fresh sap known as aguamiel extracted from several species of Agave plants that grow in the Central Mexico plateau.
It was time to give Rob a taste of the city, since he missed the first urban stage. His bike had arrived the day before, and everybody was excited to experience the city on Sunday, which brings a different vibe and is definitely less busy.
We set off from the infamous Blue House in Coyoacán, where Mexico’s most famous artist, Frida Kahlo lived with her husband Diego Riviera who was also a prominent Mexican painter. His large frescoes helped establish the mural movement worldwide and can be seen all over the city. I couldn’t resist getting a fresh coconut from a kid selling them and preparing them to eat, right there on the street. Love the coconut water and also the fresh white meat. While we were at it I also sampled some dried grasshoppers with some extra lime and chili – crunchy indeed. Rob couldn’t be convinced to try any of it, in contrary. I don’t get it, to me trying the local specialties when travelling to exotic places is always a highlight.
The Sunday morning atmosphere in this part of town was very pleasant, people sitting in café’s, local markets and parks were filled with residence, others would engage in football matches, running or even rock climbing right next to the Olympic Stadium in the University City area. The stadium was built for the 1968 Olympics; the countries 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.
Mau had promised a colorful surprise at the end of our tour. Xochimilco was exactly that.
Xochimilco is best known for its canals, which are left 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 170 km (110 mi) 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 romantic.
Teotihuacan has been on my bucket-list for a long time. I’ve been lucky to see many cool archeological sites around the world, but these mysterious ancient pyramids were something I always wanted to see. When the Aztec found the pyramids they had already been there about 1500 years, nobody knows who built them, why and how – just 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 forgotten civilizations had thousands of years ago. Underground tunnel systems have been discovered in recent years below the pyramids, many of them were filled with artifacts. We couldn’t resist stopping by this site on our last day and have look around, of course we couldn’t bring our bikes inside, but that was ok. It was amazing seeing these structures up close and afterwards we did get to do a cool ride on the outside of the premises.
We also wanted to explore some of the less glitzy neighborhoods, where poverty and crime rules the streets. Ecatepec is one these areas, with colorful houses and shady characters. We were warned and we knew we shouldn’t spend much time there with our foreign looks, fancy bikes and expensive cameras. This town has gondolas running above it, not to transport mountain bikers like we are used to in the ski resorts, but to serve as public transportation, instead of a subway or train system. It was a sobering experience to see this other side of the city. The injustice is very noticeable and we felt some sort of relieve after ‘surviving’ our descent through the streets, avoiding trouble.
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 any more 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’, 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 we set the ground stone for them while we were here. We were fortunate to donate the first bikes in person, some went 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, he lives in a very simple hut and we had seen him carry heavy water jugs to his place, a bike will not only help him with this daily task but it will also be used for many other errands and will help him potentially to find work.
It was a good feeling that we could do a little good, with the help of our local friend Mau, and we hope the sport of mountain biking can also continue to grow in Mexico, with quality riding destination like Desierto Leones and other spots on the outskirts of the city. Overall this was a heartwarming trip with my many contrasts and experiences. It is often the people, the culture and the nature that leave these unforgettable memories on my adventures. I’ve always been drawn to the warm Mexican culture, its history, food and vibrant colors – add a good group of friends and you got the perfect mix for an epic trip.
Viva la Mexico
De Avila Biking Co. – DABCO: Guiding, Coaching, Trail Building
Contact: email@example.com Instagram: @dabco__
Wheels 4 Life charity: www.wheels4life.org
Hans Rey: @hansnowayrey
Rob Warner: @robwarner970
Carmen Rey: @thecarmenrey
Cedric Tassan: @cedrictassan83
Mau de Avila: @maudeavila_