This article was originally published on Sandra Walter's website.
After another few days up at Big Bear Lake, it was finally time to head south to Cota, Colombia for my first Pan American Championship. I’d been to South America before as a backpacker, but never in the capacity of athlete. It was definitely a different approach and I knew I wouldn’t really get to experience much of the country and its culture, as we only had five days on the ground and the focus was the competition.
We arrived at the Bogota airport at night and were met by our super-awesome translator Carlos. I quickly grabbed a meat and cheese sub from the airport Subway (adhering to the strict recommendation that we do not eat any fruits and vegetables without peels due to the chance of stomach-bug-inducing contamination). It was kind of weird saying “no vegetables”, but at least my hunger was curbed. We then had a dark police-escorted shuttle ride to our hotel in Cajica.
The next morning, we had breakfast (eggs, rice, white rolls), built our bikes, and took the afternoon shuttle to the venue to check out the course. My first impression was: “This is STEEP!” There seemed to be an unlimited number of short, incredibly steep climbs, probably made steeper by the lack of oxygen at 2,400m elevation! It was a short lap, only 3.5km, but it still fell within the normal 20ish-minute lap time that we’re used to. The course had lots of variety, from pavement to techy singletrack climbs, switchbacks, speedy traverses, steep rooty descents, and rock gardens. It was fun, but really hard.
The following day happened to be my birthday. At first, I tried not to tell anyone, because it’s kind of weird to say: “Hey guys, it’s my birthday!” But while we were out for a group road spin, I finally had to spill, because when nobody knows it’s your birthday, it doesn’t really feel like your birthday. Once I let on, I felt much better.
We had a police motorcycle escort (a young man named Edilson) and we took him along a paved bike path beside the highway. At the end of the path where we were originally going to turn around, there was this really nice looking climb that seemed pretty light on traffic. We managed to convince Coach Dan to let us climb it. Edilson did not seemed concerned about it, so we figured it was fine. It was more than fine. In fact, the ride made my day. It was a gorgeous winding ascent through hilly forests and farmland. There was a village at the top and then the road turned to gravel. At the peak, we had a view into the next valley, but we decided to turn around and head back (past the enthusiastic/possibly vicious dogs that chased us both times). As we passed through the village again, a little boy on a red kid’s bike started pedaling beside us, so I began egging him on in Spanish: “Venga! Rapido!” He took my encouragement to heart and proceeded to sprint ahead of us and then, while still pedaling at top speed, he took his hands off the bars. It was very impressive and we appropriately dubbed him “Mini-Quintana.” We were concerned when he continued to follow us as we headed towards the long descent. Who knows if his brakes even worked?! Luckily he stopped and we were able to enjoy the ripping-fast twisty downhill.
That evening after dinner, the team surprised me with a delicious chocolate coconut birthday cake and an accompanying serenade. It was a great finish to my Colombian birthday!
Saturday, the day before the race, we all headed to the course on the shuttle. The window for pre-riding was only an hour, so we were prepared to jump out and get on course as soon as we arrived. I wanted to do two laps – the first as a warm up/reminder and the second at race pace (or just shy of it) to get my body fired up. Everything was good as I started my first lap. I was getting pumped and primed, but suddenly, on a downhill, I felt and heard a “clunk!” coming from the front of my bike. At first I thought I had a flat tire, but quickly ruled that out. Then I thought perhaps my headset was loose, but it wasn’t that either. That’s when I noticed my fork had suddenly risen from 100mm of travel to 120mm and it felt loosey goosey, plus it just was not functioning properly. I could have panicked, but I quickly focused on staying calm and made my way carefully back down to our team area where the mechanics were stationed. A quick look at the fork and Adam assured me that he would be able to fix it without a problem, but he couldn’t do it at the race site. I resigned myself to the fact that I would not be doing anymore pre-riding, grabbed a bottle and some food, and sat down with the staff to wait for the rest of the team to finish their ride.
Back at the hotel, I asked Dan if it would be possible for me to do a ride, because I still hadn’t accomplished my pre-race prep. He offered to accompany me with the rental vehicle while I did my workout on the same road we did the previous day. I did some tempo openers on the climb and felt much more focused and prepared when we returned to the hotel.
On race morning, I went to Cindy’s penthouse suite (somehow she ended up with the nicest room in the hotel, complete with mini-fridge and king-size bed!) and we made coffee (she had brought her kettle and I had my French press) and oatmeal for breakfast. My bike was fixed and ready to go, as promised, thanks to Adam, who has saved my life (or at least my race) many a time. Thank you, Adam!!!
Justin picked us up from the hotel and drove us to the venue with plenty of time to spare. When the time came, Cindy and I rode out together to do our warm up on some of the local roads. We got some funny looks from the locals as we did efforts up the climb to their house.
I got a front-row call-up and enjoyed a strong start. Going into the first climb, I was in the top three – exactly where I wanted to be. Reigning champ, Daniela Cumpezano, set the pace. I felt solid and comfortable and even remember thinking: “I can handle this pace.” It didn’t feel super fast and I was excited to be in the medal hunt. Normally, I race very consistently, so I was pretty confident that I would be able to maintain my position. However, I had never really raced at altitude before, and I quickly learned that nothing is “normal” at 2,400 metres! Almost exactly after one lap, I suddenly exploded. I had to so slow down to a crawl, gasping for breath as riders cruised by me one-by-one. I though my race was over and went into emergency mode, doing everything I could to just continue moving forward. “Eighth place,” I heard someone say as I went by. That is not where I wanted to be, but there was absolutely nothing more I could do.
Magically, by the next lap, I started to feel better again, so I gradually pushed my body harder and it was able to go faster. Suddenly I was gaining on riders in front of me and passing them again. Things were looking up. I moved up into fifth position and felt like I was in no man’s land. I didn’t see anyone in front of me, but I did know I was being chased, so I kept pushing. Lap three was another difficult one for me as I felt the efforts and lack of oxygen catching up with me. I felt riders gaining on me and worked hard to fend them off, but I felt like I was moving in slow-motion. Suddenly, on lap four, Dan told me that Georgia (Gould) was only seven seconds ahead of me! I felt energized and strong. Then I saw her and knew I was within reach of fourth place. “Five seconds,” Dan called excitedly.
I was almost on her wheel! She was running up the steep climbs, while I was still able to ride them. I could do this!
It had started to rain, but I barely noticed it. Until, that is, I hit the deck HARD on a high-speed, hard-packed corner that I had taken the same way each lap without incident. Except this time, it had a layer of moisture on it, which made it like ice. I jumped up as quickly as I could, but Georgia was now out of sight and I was a bit rattled. I tried to refocus and get it together, but ended up going down again on what was probably the slickest section of the course in a small, rooty wooded chicane. I jumped up quickly again and was underway in no time, but it was enough to give Georgia the room she needed to defend her position.
Meanwhile, I had a local Colombian rider on my tail and she was really motivated to catch me. The crowd roared whenever she went by, and I could tell how far away she was by the volume of their cheering. She was climbing faster, but I managed to hold her off with my quick descending. I thought I was almost through the final lap, but every time I turned a corner, another steep climb loomed on the other side of it. I could have sworn that new short popper climbs were added to the course each lap. I had such a hard time memorizing the course, despite watching my GoPro video of it six times before the race. It just could not be over fast enough. Finally, I entered what I recognized as the last section of trail and I celebrated the cruise into the finish line. That was one of the hardest races of my life. I’m unused to the physiological rollercoaster I went through that I can only attribute to the altitude. The race was so painful, despite its relatively short duration and distance and the kicker was that I felt so incredibly slow. All in all, I’m satisfied with my hard-fought fifth place. I was disappointed to lose out on a medal, but I gave it my best shot and gave everything I had (and more!) out there. It was a good learning experience and I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to represent Canada at my first Pan Am’s!
Thanks so much to Cycling Canada and the Team Canada Staff, Dan, Tara, Adam, and Justin, as well as Carlos, for all your help in making the project go so smoothly. Congrats to Haley for her bronze medal in the U23 women’s race. Good job to everyone on the squad – we had a great vibe and everyone brought their A games.
Thanks also to my awesome sponsors for their continued support this season: Liv Cycling Canada, Shimano Canada, Catlike, Cycles Lambert, Giant Vancouver, Kicking Horse Coffee, Golden Ears Physio, Q Energy Drink, and Katana Sports.