At the end of a nearly four-month-long West Coast bicycle extravaganza last summer, my girlfriend Z and I were anxious to keep moving. We considered turning east, but the thought of renegade camping in shoot-first Texas felt lackluster next to the promise of endless beachfront along Baja Highway 1. Of course, just about every American friend thought the idea was crazy, and contacts in Mexicali and Tijuana were just as doubtful.
“Don’t be a fool,” most of them said in one way or another. “There are places you don’t even want to drive through, especially after dark.”
As much as I didn’t want to believe it, I knew a trans-Mexican bicycle bonanza probably wasn’t the best idea, so we settled for the well-traveled route from Rosarito to Ensenada. Twice a year for over three decades, the 50-mile group ride draws thousands of cyclists out for expansive sea-bluff vistas and a raucous finish-line fiesta.
The route is rated “moderately difficult” by the Bike Ride Directors Association of America, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the festive throng of riders who packed about six blocks in front of the Rosarito Beach Hotel. While plenty showed up in spandex and jerseys, more than a few milled around in costumes of everything from Beetlejuice to the Mario Brothers to whole clans of Mickey and Minnie mice. Kids rode alongside parents and at least two brave souls took to the course in rollerblades. At go time, we let the avid racers pass while we chatted with Pennyfarthing’s Bicycles mechanic Felipe, who was offering last-minute tune-ups and supplies at the starting line. A regular at the event, Felipe estimated the attendance to be over 10,000 cyclists, though Mexican newspapers would later call it no more than 6500.
Whatever the case, the spectacle drew hundreds to watch from the roadside. Locals and the occasional ex-pat whooped from lawn chairs. Ecstatic abuelas waved both hands over their heads. A gaggle of middle-aged vacationers pointed to their hand-drawn sign, entreating “Show us your tits!” Kids with jack-o-lantern buckets chanted “Candy! Candy! Candy!” as riders tossed Smarties and Chicle from their steeds.
The traffic-controlled “free road” wound out of Rosarito, past Fox Studios Baja, beneath the giant Jesus statue, along the abandoned shells of half-built high-rises, and down to the first checkpoint at a cliff-side bar, the Half Way House. While we loaded up on fish tacos and beer, a tall gringo collapsed next to us, exclaiming, “I’ve been doing this since 8:30 in the morning!” “What, biking?” Z asked. “No, drinking!” he said as he leaned back into the dirt and passed out. One of his companions went into the bar and ordered 20 beers and 10 shots of tequila, explaining that this is how they’ve done the ride for years: swallowing heroic amounts of liquor and then crashing at a rental down in La Fonda, before the highway cuts under the toll road to head east for the mountains.
We understood the rightness of our inebriate statesmen’s approach when we hit El Tigre, an 800-foot climb to an inland mesa where stragglers stopped for tamales and cold Pacificos at a countryside roadhouse. Then it was down — eight miles down! — through wine country, out to the ocean, along the highway to Ensenada. We rolled across the finish behind the final sweep wagon into a whirlwind of cumbia, tacos, massage booths, and glistening cans of Tecate. Clocking in at just under seven hours, we were among the last riders to complete the course, but we felt like champs anyways. Now, where are my rollerblades? ■
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