The next Rosarito-Ensenada bike ride will take place May 5th. (2012)
The 50-mile Rosarito-to-Ensenada bike ride started in 1979 and has achieved cult status among local connoisseurs. Although attendance and participation have declined in recent years, there's a dedicated cadre of fans who return to brave “El Tigre” year after year. The number of local Mexican riders seems also to have increased.
The dwindling southbound border crossing might be partly motivated by fears of random Mexican drug cartel or gang violence, but certainly also because the new reentry requirements for U.S. citizens mandate a passport or passport card. Yet this size reduction might actually make the ride safer and more manageable for first-timers. There’s less clutter at the start line and less wait times for everything – from a bike tune-up before the race to a last-minute registration in Rosarito.
I’m not a dedicated cyclist, but my interest was piqued by the ads promoting “the largest party on wheels.” I checked the rosaritoensenada.org website, retrieved the relevant information, registered and called a tour operator offering transportation for riders and their bicycles from San Diego to Rosarito with pick-up at Ensenada.
Many participants take advantage of an opportunity to spend the entire weekend in Baja, staying at one of Rosarito's beach hotels or enjoying the road trip aspect. The large number of people venturing south of the border and increased police presence over the weekend, and particularly on race day, practically ensure a safe drive. But driving would've taken most of the fun out of a bicycle ride for me, so I was grateful for the tour provider's existence.
Not being a morning person, I resented the sound of the alarm clock that morning, but was excited about the adventure. I’d been to both Rosarito and Ensenada before, but never by bike on what I knew to be a scenic route.
I arrived shortly after 7 a.m. at the designated meeting place and welcomed the hot coffee and snacks. The air was still cold, so I wrapped my hands tightly around the cup while I waited at the line containing my last name’s initial.
My red Bianchi Lynx was loaded in the bike rack trailer, and I quietly took my place in the bus, still sleepy. That’s when I started hearing bits of conversation like returnees’ time on their last ride (some deducting minutes spent at a taquería along the way). The ride south of the border was pleasant and comfortable, and after drinking two coffees in a futile attempt to get warmer, I was very grateful for the onboard restrooms.
Traffic was heavy near the starting line but there was indeed a festive atmosphere, with music, plenty of riders in outrageous costumes, and some riders forgoing the traditional energy drink and snack in favor of a cold beer and fish taco.
There was a friendly and complimentary bike tuning at the start line – which, as a nervous first-timer, I used to ensure my tires were properly aligned. The elite riders were comfortably awaiting their early departure at the helm, separated from the “commoners” and raucous partiers by a ribbon. They wore special identification and would later enjoy a 10-minute lead, ensuring they wouldn’t have to worry about the custom or unusual bikes (I even spotted someone riding a unicycle) or anyone riding under the influence.
I finally started to pedal about a couple of minutes after the official start time, as it took a little while for everyone in front of me to get going. The first half of the ride is very easy and practically flat. There were numerous spectators along the road cheering us on as we went by. Some of the riders skillfully threw bags of candy at the cheering children, who quickly cleaned the street of them.
Expatriates were also numerous, especially in front of the high-rise beach condos. They parked themselves by the road on beach chairs and with beverage coolers handy. And we were a spectacle to behold:
As picture galleries confirm, many riders take pride in dressing up or putting an act together. I saw mariachis in full garb; all kinds of superheroes; people in really imaginative, self-made costumes; sexy French maids; people with beer hats and boom box radios strapped to their bikes; and all sorts of riders showing off their Mexican pride.
There were even some who risked suffering from heat stroke, like last fall’s yellow chicken – who must have experienced 110-degree heat inside his fluffy, feathered costume.
The first main stop was at the aptly called Halfway House restaurant, almost halfway to Ensenada but right before the climbing begins. Besides the usual energy drinks and water, there were promotions and tastings offered by various ride sponsors as well as drinks and fish tacos, among other traditional Mexican fare. I tasted an agave soda and my first “TJ Beer” at this spot. Needless to say, I experienced a great deal of camaraderie from beginning to end.
I'd heard about “El Tigre” before, which starts at almost sea level and climbs to over 800 feet. This is the most challenging part of the entire bike race. However, many participants walk up this hill or switch to “grandma gear” without embarrassment.
But for non-cyclists, the feeling of accomplishment after conquering this part of the ride is worth trying to pedal it. This is also a good time for a snack.
After El Tigre, there are nice countryside views inland followed by a fun downhill ride before you reach the outskirts of Ensenada. Ensenada looks deceivingly near as you approach it, but there are still a few kilometers left and the nice coastal breeze is replaced by the stench of cars and traffic. Yet by this point the end is near, and you can already imagine the Mexican fare awaiting you after the finish line.
There are plenty of fish tacos and beer at the official finish line party, but you can also explore one of the town’s many eateries for anything ranging from a European coffee and pastry shop to more upscale Mexican cuisine and even vegetarian dishes. If you rode with Outback Adventures, there’s a smaller private party awaiting nearby, with the added benefit of loading your bike and showering before grabbing a well-deserved "chela."
For non-cyclists, completing the ride feels like a significant accomplishment. Every fall and spring countless first-time participants complete it – I saw families with children as young as five (riding on their own or tandem), athletes active in other sports, senior citizens (most of them in amazingly great shape), work and office colleagues, bachelor parties, people trying to win a bet with their neighbor, foreign exchange students from Asia and Europe, and even "superheroes."
I’m glad to have completed this legendary ride during my time in California, and urge you to conquer the road and try it at least once. The resulting adrenaline high can last a couple of days, but the smile on your face and feeling of accomplishment might be there for weeks.