We set out from the Mayan village of El Hato at 10 in the morning, with the equatorial Guatemalan sun already high in the sky. The usual smattering of village dogs and curious children see us off as we began the climb to the top of the Cielo Grande ride, one of the best rides in all of Central America. As we begin the steep climb – I mean steep, as in 20 degrees plus– the children run alongside us until they run out of breath, laughing and yelling in a curious mixture of Spanish and local Mayan dialect.
Stunning views of the valley keep us company up the ascent; Antigua sits in a bowl surrounded by volcanoes, including the decidedly volcano-esque Volcan Agua, complete with a plume of smoke from its still active peak. Sitting at the bottom of a bowl, there’s only one direction from Antigua – up. This is good news for climbophiles, but there are few ascents for the meek – almost all involve a sustained granny gear grunt. This one is no exception; in fact, it’s the steepest climb I’ve ever tackled on a mountain bike. Despite the angle, or perhaps because of it, I’m loving every grueling minute.
My tour mates – 2 couples, a banker from Toronto, and the racing brothers from Uxbridge, Ontario – are experiencing mixed reactions to the climb. The brothers are, as usual, at the front, adding more vertical to their GPSs by cycling back to the main pack and then ahead again, like dogs. Lisa is occupying her usual spot at the back, slow but steady and unfazed. I’m somewhere in the middle, content to soak it all in and experience every twitching muscle as it screams out in protest.
This pain’s beginning to get comical. This climb is laughing at me, taunting me, goading me on… Every time I turn a corner expecting to see a flat spot, or at least a lessening of the pain – just a small respite from the anguish – the road gets steeper. At one point, I can no longer climb in the saddle for fear of falling backward and have to stand up on legs that are just a few watts shy of total shutdown.
I look down toward the valley, at the city of Antigua 2,500 vertical feet below. In the restaurants and coffeeshops tourists languish in the midday heat with their iced teas and piña coladas, blissfully unaware of the torment being endured above them. Surely we must be close to the top, I think. Surely no one can endure much more of this. Yet there are our guides, happily pedaling and conversing amongst themselves.
After another round of mental debate (“get off!” “No way, keep going” “get the hell off!” “No way you are going to quit”) threatens to shut my fragile mind-body connection down, I dig down to what feel like the depths of my soul and find a tiny reservoir of hope, a few last calories, a storehouse of courage. I think I can spy the two brothers in the distant horizon, relaxing beside their bikes.
I lower my head, desperate to avoid what I’m sure is a mirage. Just keep pedaling, one stroke at a time. Ignore the pain. Keep moving. Eventually it will end… won’t it?
After about 5 minutes in this curious zone, where all time slows down and nothing exists but me, my pain, and my increasingly laboured breathing, I begin to hear voices. At first, the voices sound like taunting. But then the voices become clearer – it’s the brothers, goading me on, up the last forlorn stretch of lonely Guatemalan asphalt. I look up and there, decidedly un-mirage-like and laughing, are Sean and Adam, fists held aloft encouraging me up the hill.
I collapse in a crumpled heap at their feet, still clipped in to one pedal. The agony is over, replaced with the ecstacy of the summit. Over 3,000 vertical feet of steep climbing, in the hot morning sun are behind me. Ahead lie 15 miles of the sweetest singletrack Central America had to offer.
When I get back, I promise myself, I’ll pull up to the nearest restaurant, order myself an iced tea, and languish in the afternoon with the rest of the tourist-bus hordes. I might even have a piña colada or ten.
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